“The Blessing of the Animals”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
The First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
May 25, 2014
I want to begin with what has to one of the most obvious statement of faith anyone has ever made: I believe in dog.
It’s easy to believe in dog, especially when they’re near you. It’s easy to believe in the feel of a dog’s wet tongue against your cheek, to believe in their heft as they jump on top of your chest excitedly (or, for littler dogs, your knees excitedly). It’s easy to believe in their fur, their panting, their stink, that can fill a room for hours. Dogs are very, very real. Perhaps nothing is quite so real as a dog standing next to you.
I don’t actually have a dog. This state of affairs is in spite of the best efforts of Stella, our two-year-old daughter, and Rev. Sue Henshaw, our Community Minister Emerita, both of whom are conspiring to make sure we get a dog as soon as possible. And I am fine with that – as soon as Stella is old enough, or Sue near enough to walk said dog, I say, bring it on.
This belief in dog may not sound like much. But, I have found, as I get older, sometimes it’s the simple things you can rely on the most. You can’t rely on success. You can’t rely on fame. You can’t rely on knowledge – because sometimes you forget things, right? You can’t rely on power, even our own power, our ability to do things. Because we fail all the times. But dogs – you can rely on dogs to always be dogs. You can cast your lot with dogs always being dogs. And there’s a certain comfort in that.
And, simple as it is, how many millions and millions of people have gotten through tough times through a simple belief in dog. And dog’s simple belief in them.
My belief in dogs, though simple, has some important ramifications. First and foremost, my belief in dog entails a belief that we’re all in this together. We all share the same world. That’s true for all the animals, all life forms. We share the same space, the same houses, including the grander house of our global environment. We share the same air, the same resources. We share this thing called life – we all have a beginning and an end. And, if you’re a believer in evolution, as I am, than we share the same process, this unfolding of possibilities from generation to generation.
I think it is woth reflecting on how much we have in common with the animals. Not just rationally, but emotionally and spiritually. What does it mean, that a bug and a dog and the coral reef all live lives kinda like we do? Our first principle, in Unitarian Universalim proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. It doesn’t actually say the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, though a lot of people interpret it that way. But I like to think there is a basic worthiness to every thing that can be classified as an individual, whether an ant, or a mosquito, or even a falling leaf from a tree. There is nothing on God’s green earth that doesn’t have its own dignity.
There’s been a lot of curiosity through the years in how much animals can think rationally, feel emotions, form memories, or do other mental functions that part of our everyday lives. Now, it’s undeniably true that human beings are special – and that as human beings, we have a tendency to inflate our own specialness. I’m not sure whether frogs ruminate on their place in the universe, but if they did I’m sure they would reflect on the inferior jumping capability of so many other species, and other species inability to grow from tadpoles, the fact that other species, even if they have eyes, see so much less of a panorama as frogs can see, and conclude from all this that clearly, the innate superiority of frogs is hard to argue with. No question we human beings are special too. Our minds, our consciousness, our something really pretty unique (and our opposable thumbs don’t hurt, either).
The blessing of the animals service, which takes place in several Christian traditions, often draws from the heritage of Francis of Assissi. Francis had quite an interesting life. He started life as a soldier, and saw all the terrors of war. And then he decided, one day, to give away everything he owned and just live simply, in the mountains. He got a group of other people around him, a spiritual community. And he tried to live the life that Jesus taught – simple, humble, in right relationship with the earth. Way back in the twelfth century, he said how important it was to be aware that we share this world with the animals and the sun and the moon. He is said to have asked a wolf not to prey on humans, and promised that he would tell human beings to be nice to the wolf if the wolf left them alone. He preached sermons to the birds – and I’m sure he listened to the birds, too. He used to tell his fellow monks, “preach the gospel – use as few words as possible.”
Though he lived before there was an official Unitarian Universalist faith, and is a saint in the Catholic church, Francis of Assissi clearly lived our seventh principle. The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism proclaims that we all part of an interdependent web. We’re all connected. In his canticle to the creatures, he referred to brother sun and sister moon, sister wind, sister earth, brother fire. He even referred to sister bodily death, for he recognized death as part of nature – something that connects us together in this life. In our living and our dying, we are connected.
It’s love which connects us, more than anything else. And this profound love can nurture us in profound ways. Ways we never expect. During the Crusades, Francis was met again with the terribleness of war, and this time he decide to attack the problem in a different way. He marched all the way to see the Sultan Egypt. He figured, if he could convert the Sultan to Christianity, than the Sultan in turn would convert his men, and the fighting would cease. He was able to cross enemy lines and meet with the Sultan. They talked, it is said, with great reverence. Neither man converted the other to his faith. But, it’s quite possible they came to greater understanding. Many scholars note that Francis’ poetry after this meeting has interesting similarity to Rumi and the Muslim mystic poetry. Could this resemblance be a mark of respect?
We don’t know.iWhat we do know is that Francis came away from this, not preaching division and seperateness and dogma and war, but preaching peace and simplicity. Which was his message throughout his life. He said, “preach the Gospel. Use as few words as necessary.” In other words (if I may use more words than necessary), live your life in a way that proclaims the good news of God and the human spirit.
This love, which some call God, is what connects us most profoundly and lastingly. My uncle tells a story of his dog, that is far from unique – I’ve heard it other places too. This dog was in an accident, on the street with a car, and my uncle saw it and ran out. The dog turned to him, looked into his eyes, and with his last breath, stuck his tongue out and licked his face.
That’s the kind of love that’s present in the world. We can rely on that love. It doesn’t mean that the people or animals manifested that love will always be with us. But the love will be with us, always. May we be refreshed from it, and blessed by it.
iThat’s such a terrible pun, I hope you didn’t catch it.
iI have not yet read Paul Moses’ The Saint and The Swami, which covers this extraordinary meeting. http://www.amazon.com/The-Saint-Sultan-Crusades-Francis/dp/038552370X