We held our annual Blessing of the Animals in early October on the Oxford College campus.
Like many churches and other Christian-related organizations, we do this as near Oct. 4 as possible to honor the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. Among many other attributes, Francis was a lover of the entirety of God’s creation. He saw the beauty in all of it — the earth, humanity, plants and animals. Some sources tell us he even preached to the birds!
Our event at the college is limited in some ways because our students aren’t able to have pets in the residence halls. They leave their pets behind at home and instead bring pictures of them on their phone.
This year, I asked them to hold up their phones with the picture of their beloved pet, offered a blessing and then invited them to say the name of their pet or pets aloud. The cacophony of voices and the excitement behind the voices was a moving moment for others and me.
Thankfully, the many faculty and staff who attend the Blessing of the Animals bring their pets with them. This year, we had eight to 10 dogs and nothing makes the crowd happier than these furry friends. Though this gathering starts out with a religious or spiritual premise, what is beautiful is the way in which it becomes a life-giving stress reliever. The anxiety of tests, papers, work and all the other messiness of life melts away as the freedom to play takes hold.
That’s true for all of us, not just students.
Clearly, this event is a blessing to those who come, which got me thinking about my own attachment to animals over the years of my life. I can’t remember many moments – beyond college and graduate school – without the gift of animals or pets in my life and home. I grew up with dogs, cats, birds, and hamsters. They became cherished friends and members of my family.
When I met Ami and we married almost 12 years ago now, I brought a cat and she brought a dog to the relationship. Abby (the dog) and Callie (the cat) were quite young when we married and since then have lived through the beginning of our married life, the deaths of a parent and grandparents, a move to a new place, the birth of a child and much more. Though I have to admit there were times of frustration with one or both of them (and vice versa, I’m sure), they certainly became deep companions for me over the years. They are a blessing.
After 14 1/2 years, we had to say goodbye to Abby at the end of October. It had been a long time since I had to face the death of a beloved pet, and it was the first time I accompanied an animal in the dying process at the veterinarian’s office. I’m glad I got to be there.
As we approach another Thanksgiving holiday, I’m mindful of both my gratitude and my grief. I’m thankful for Abby, especially the way she loved our family unconditionally. I’m also grieving Abby and other losses in my life. But, I’m trying to be gentle with myself too, especially as I spend more time discerning how the “Blessing of the Animals” should really be known as “The Animals who Bless Us.”
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. He writes a monthly column for The Covington News.