by Julie Kanarr—
It’s 2 p.m. on the first Sunday in October. There are 11 dogs, three cats and a dozen people in the church parking lot. Some people are holding leashes attached to dogs who range in size from toy poodle to St. Bernard. One cat is content to be held in his owner’s arms; another sits in a carrier at her owner’s feet. A third cat stays in the car so she can pretend that dogs don’t exist.
A few people have brought pictures of pets—mostly of cats who dislike both cars and crowds. One person holds up her smart phone to show a picture of a goldfish. Another holds a piece of paper with a hastily drawn picture of a parakeet. I hold a stuffed toy Labrador retriever which is so life-like that an elderly dachshund starts growling at it.
Many congregations hold a “Blessing of the Animals” service on or around October 4, the commemoration of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). St. Francis was known for his care for the poor, his simplicity of life and his love of nature. Francis exemplified a spirit of honor, love and respect for all living things, regardless of status, and is remembered for preaching to a flock of birds.
At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his listeners, “Look at the birds of the air,” using them as an example of trusting in God’s providence to provide for our daily needs without worry (Matthew 6:26). Francis preached to the birds about God’s loving care for them. At the end of his sermon to the sparrows, he offered them a blessing. Numerous Christian communities follow the example of Francis by offering prayers of blessing for our non-human kin.
Some congregations invite worshippers to bring their pets with them to church, incorporating the blessing of animals into a regularly scheduled worship service. Others, like mine, hold a special service, either indoors or outdoors, often inviting people from the wider community to bring their pets and join in. Some also collect offerings of pet food and kitty litter to give to a local food pantry or animal shelter.
ALL GOD’S CREATURES
As our blessing service begins, we form a loose circle of people and pets. Reading from Genesis 1, we savor the poetry of the creation story, about how God has filled the earth, sea and sky with a vast array of creatures. God blessed them and repeatedly proclaimed that they were good. We offer intercessions for all of God’s creatures: for pets, livestock and wild animals; for service animals and working dogs; for companion animals and for those who grieve the loss of pets.
We pray for animals whose habitats are threatened, for endangered species and for those who suffer neglect or abuse. We pray for veterinarians, ranchers, shelter workers, rescue groups, animal control officers, zookeepers, bird watchers, game wardens, fisheries experts and wildlife biologists. Then I move among the participants, blessing animals as well as their human companions. I even climb into the car to bless the notoriously shy cat, stretching my body across the back seat and contorting my arm to reach. We extend the blessing outward, encompassing not only pets but also wildlife, especially those who inhabit our local environment. Some of those, like the crows carrying on a lively conversation about the eagle flying overhead, are readily observable. Others, like the owl that I often hear but seldom see, are well-camouflaged or try to keep their distance from humans.
The Rev. Julie A. Kanarr serves as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Belfair, Washington. An avid sea kayaker, she frequently finds herself hanging out with harbor seals. She often puppy-sits Riley, her sister’s Australian labradoodle.
This article is excerpted from the October 2017 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story and others like it, subscribe to Gather.