November, 2013 – Blessing of the Animals

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Blessing of the Animals Service at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church

Is there a spiritual connection between God and animals?

By Barbara Phillippi

October 4th is the traditional day for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi worldwide, which celebrates the life of the Catholic Church’s patron saint of animals and the environment. October 6th, a Sunday near the date of the official feast, was a special day for one church in Wellington, as St. Michael’s Lutheran Church and its pastor, Reverend Marjorie Weiss, invited all animal owners to bring their pets to a special service for the traditional “blessing of the animals.”

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Speaking to youngsters during the “children’s moments,” Reverend Weiss noted that their pets love them, and can make them feel better when they’re sad or sick.  Later, she related a personal experience.

“My life was in turmoil. I prayed and prayed for direction and guidance, but God never showed up. I was angry, so upset. Then I began to believe that my dog understood. He stayed close, comforted me, and showed me his faithfulness. And I knew that God’s love was still there, and I realized that He really did come to me, after all, in Wyatt.”

“Animals have been showing us what’s happening for eons. They connect us with their maker. The gentle eyes of a cow . . . the amazing dolphin connection. St Francis saw a holy affinity between nature and God. Pets keep us near to him by showing us loyalty.”

 Slideshow from the Blessing of the Animals at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Wellington (below) by photographer Carol Porter.

The sanctuary was filled with worshippers and pets – from very large dogs to a tiny hamster. Most were quiet and well behaved, with the exception of my Jack Russell Terrier, Gracie, who began barking at a large dog that was being taken out, and passed through her comfort zone. Several others joined the protest, but the cacophony was short lived.

During Holy Communion, worshippers with animals joined others, and moved toward the altar, where Reverend Weiss blessed each one.

Who was St. Francis of Assisi?

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St. Francis was born in 1181, to a well-to-do Italian merchant and his French wife. He was a dreamer, and enjoyed poetry, music, and the same entertainments as those of his age at the time. He served in military battle and was once imprisoned. At some point, his health became fragile, and he became more and more detached from the rituals of everyday life. Francis experienced a religious vision, and began his love of all brotherhood, nature and the environment. He humbly honored all of God’s creation, from small flowers and birds to beasts of burden and wild animals.

It is said that for Francis, his love for birds was equivalent to his love for the Pope. In one famous fable related to him, it is reported that he preached to a flock of almost one hundred sparrows, which only flew when he said that they could leave. Another story recounts that while on his death bed, the saint thanked his donkey, for carrying him and helping him. Francis always recognized the humble beings around him, writing and preaching about God’s gift of nature to his children. He preached that it was the people’s duty to protect and enjoy God’s creation.

In 1220, St Francis set up the first known three-dimensional “crèche,” or Nativity scene, in a small town near Assisi, to help the worshipper contemplate the real scene during the time of the Lord’s birth. He used real animals, as we sometimes still do today.

Disavowing wealth and worldly pleasures, St. Francis founded the Order of St. Francis (Franciscans) and the “Poor Dames,” a sisterhood order. His writings and poems are still researched and quoted today, and there are many legends woven into the history of this popular saint. St Francis of Assisi died in 1226, and remains one of the world’s most respected and loved religious figures.

I spoke with several folks and admired their pets as we left the sanctuary. Some were regular attendees at St. Michael’s, some just came for the blessing service. All agreed that they understood the message that Reverend Weiss had shared, and believed in a holy connection between God and nature.

I remember Gracie relaxing in my arms as she, and my family, and the home she lives in, were blessed. And I realized that my little friend was more than a companion, more than a pet. Yes, she was a gift to me by a dear friend, but also by a caring God who wants us to have loving comforters among us.

“In a perfect world, every home would have a dog, and every dog would have a home.”

Over a lifetime, Barbara Phillippi has had mostly “normal” dogs – a few German Shepherds and a bunch of wonderful “mutts,” each with its own wonderful, quirky, qualities. For many years, she taught 4-H dog obedience courses, under the authorization of Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension Services. That terrific program teaches the basics of dog behavior, of every breed, to young dog owners. Today she lives in Wellington with three Jack Russell Terriers – Woody, Gracie, and Buck. “These guys showed me a learning curve that I never knew existed!”