My cousin Heather loves animals. In fact, I don’t think I have ever met anyone who loves animals more than her. I had no idea how deep this love went when we were kids since we only saw each other during holidays. Of course, now that we’re Facebook friends, I have been a first-hand witness to her love of all of God’s creatures.
Most recently, her Facebook feed featured Dave, the opossum and Marvin, the racoon. Not only does she have her own beloved pets and operate a pet services business, but she rehabs and rehomes animals. Marvin and Dave get to live inside while they heal, and Heather (and her family) treat them like family. A modern-day St. Francis story.
St. Francis of Assisi, you may know, was the inspiration for the current pope’s papal name. St. Francis lived a humble life and was known for his love of all God’s creatures and creation. We believe he even preached to the birds and encouraged human beings to care for all of creation. He is known today as the patron saint of animals and ecology.
In some liturgical traditions, a “Blessing of the Animals” is held on or near his feast day each Oct. 4. Our blessing was held outside the student center at Oxford College and included 10 dogs, one cat, and a lot of pictures (students aren’t allowed to have pets inside residence halls unless it’s a service animal). After each person introduced their pets, the rest of us held up our pictures and named our pets, all at the same time. The cacophony of pet names in the air was like the Holy Spirit blowing through our crowd, blessing the gathering.
I grew up with cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds in my house, and as an only child they were like siblings to me. No one, especially the church, ever helped me know their place in the created order, though. Animals weren’t talked about in church, and we never had a blessing for them. It wasn’t until I was in my first year as an associate chaplain that the chaplain held a Blessing of the Animals service in the Wofford College chapel. When I became the chaplain at Oxford, I instituted an annual blessing and haven’t looked back.
In all the years I’ve been doing this, I have only had dogs and cats show up to our blessings. I know other clergy, however, who blessed horses and guinea pigs and snakes. Yes, snakes! I think one of my greatest fears is that someone will bring a snake for me to lay hands on.
This is where my cousin, Heather, comes into the picture again. Over the last couple of years, especially during the pandemic, I have tuned in to her feed more than ever. I was especially intrigued each spring, as temperatures began to rise, of her teachings about snakes. She has taught me how to identify them and respect them, and, most importantly, that I don’t need to fear or kill them.
She credits her love of animals to being an only child and having parents with an openness to lots of pets, even the “weird” ones.
“No matter what’s going on in the world, animals are always kind,” she says. “Even the ‘bad’ animals like alligators and snakes never do anything to intentionally harm someone or something. They’re only defensive when they feel their lives or their young’s lives are in danger. Otherwise, they’re happy to coexist with everyone. I wish people were more like that.” Me too, Heather.
We have much to learn from the earth and the creatures that inhabit it. Our earth is in peril, and we would do well to listen to the groaning of creation as well as the experts encouraging us to change our behavior.
I’m beginning by paying attention to the Heather’s among us and remembering the example of St. Francis. Maybe I’ll even be ready for that snake when it shows up to a future blessing!
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford with his spouse and 8-year-old.