Fur and Feather
Looking back at the church I grew up in, I admire the things it was known for. I admire that it was known as one of the most fiercely humanist congregations in our denomination, I admire that it treated its pastors well, and I admire the reverence for nature that was present in all that we did.
Every potluck and event was at least vegetarian, if not vegan, every garden on the grounds was meticulously maintained, and while it was such a strongly humanist congregation in its reputation, there was room for the vibrancy of earth-centered traditions to speak to us. We always honored the wheel of the year and the rhythm of living and our place in the web of all existence was something that moved and transformed all who attended.
And every now and then we had an animal blessing. I look back and I try to imagine my three dogs, two scrappy westies and a big bounding labrador/newfoundland mix and I am glad we never tried to navigate such an event. But underneath all of that, there were continual reminders about our place in nature and our humility toward it.
Today is a day that celebrates and reminds us of our reverence for one piece of the web of life – our pets, our companion animals. For many traditions, Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, and some other protestants, this is the day where St. Francis of Assisi is honored.
While Animal Blessings typically happen on the first or second Sunday of October, and many Unitarian Universalist churches hold it on Earth Day, there is no set time for us to stop and rejoice in our feathered, furry, or slithery friends, big or small, present or not. Any image of St. Francis is often accompanied with animals, usually birds.
It was well known at his time that he was a lover of animals and saw it as his duty to not only preach the teachings of the Catholic church to people but to animals as well. I don’t know if Francis would be as popular today if we saw him doing this. But one of the most popular stories about Francis is rooted in what may seem to be a peculiar practice.
It is said that once, when he was traveling down the road with his fellow friars, they came upon two trees filled with birds. Francis turned to his fellow friars and said, “Wait for me while I go preach to my sisters, the birds.” The birds flocked around him, they did not fly away, and he began to speak to them. There are many legends like this that underline just why such a day exists and why Francis is invoked.
We know for Unitarian Universalists, that this is a part of our tradition as well. I personally love the Saints. I love how they appear to be archetypes for greater truths but also can be frightfully human and flawed. The Saints are almost their own pantheon of demi-gods and goddesses. But this day, for UUs, is rooted in the very foundation of our tradition.
Our seventh principle which celebrates the interdependent web of all existence speaks most clearly to this in our tradition. It is not just about a love for animals but also a recognition that we are connected to each and every part of the world before us.
To every companion animal that comes into our lives, to every plant and insect, to all things, living and otherwise. There is a web that encompasses all of us and proclaims that while, yes, we human beings are unique, so too are other living things. They are unique in their own wonderful and wild ways and there is a worth and dignity that is owed to them as well.
In addition to our principles, we cannot ignore the wisdom and influence of earth-centered paths on our tradition. From Margot Adler to Starhawk and so many other pioneers, Unitarian Universalism has embraced a richness that underlined our principles and gave us a reverence for the mystery and wonder of the elements, the religions of old, and the natural world.
My own childhood was shaped by the calling of directions, the casting of circles, and a fundamental loveliness that reminded me that yes, we are connected to all things, but it is down to our very marrow. And that is magical in and of itself.
Beyond these things, our faith tradition has engaged issues around ethical eating — which encourages us to make compassionate and discerning choices around what we eat when it is realistic and affordable. And the things we do as a tradition go on. We do so much to recognize the beauty, fragility, and joy of the natural world, it begs the question — why do we gather to bless it?
Why do we gather to bless trees when they are planted, why do we gather to bless children when they join our community, why do we gather to bless our companion animals? What exactly is a Unitarian Universalist blessing anyway?
I believe when Unitarian Universalists gather to bless things — in this case, animals — we do not imbue them with special powers or a divine seal of approval. We do not change what they are and a new way of being is not achieved. When we bless our animals we instead proclaim that they are a blessing because they exist in the first place.
Their existence, in our lives, the joy they bring, and simply being here is the blessing. Not to draw too strong a comparison between children and pets, but the same principle exists in our naming and dedication ceremonies. We do not anoint children with water because we are cleansing them but we do so as a symbol of their inherent goodness and purity. That is a blessing, too.
And so, that is why we gather here today. In some way I hope part of what we also do with a service such as this is deepen our awareness that we are a part of the same web of existence as our animals. We might need to care for them but they grant us joy, wonder, companionship, and care.
So, in a few moments we will invite you to come forward, either with your companion or with a photo or even a stuffed animal that reminds you of your pet or some other animal you admire — and we will recognize the joy of our interdependent web as one community.