Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Feat of St. Francis

Today is the Feast Day of St. Francis, and I wish you all inspiration by his example and knowledge of the joy that a pet can give.

This evening at my church, Mount Olive, we will observe the annual "blessing of the animals" in the spirit of Francis' assertion that all of creation shares in fraternity and sorority in God. If that sounds a little snide, I meant it to sound ironic.

It seems that all we really value about the witness of Francis is his love for our four-legged (and more!) friends. The link above, for example, calls him patron of animals and the environment. That seems to miss the meaning of the man and the saint. Certainly, it is certaininly legitimate to see in Francis the model of one who sees the interrelationship of all aspects of creation. After all, the rule he devised for his "Order of Friars Minor" forbade riding horses for transportation. To treat an animal such was as wrong, he asserted, as riding on the back of one's brother for transport.

But we need to remember more about Francis than that. His was a witness to and call for complete surrender to the love and authority of God. Give up all trappings of other attachments: That was Francis' way. And I can't help wondering whether the whole institution of blessing animals wrongheadedly trivializes his life and witness. For he was about more than animals (and, by some counts, stars and moons). His devotion to self-less service of God -- including service to all of God's -- gets lost, I fear, in the cacophany of barks, meows, neighs, and (if one is unlucky enough to know people with snakes) hisses. Do those who bring their beasts to church think of bringing a person from off the streets for that kind of blessing? Or of taking a blessing to their political representative -- a blessing that might call for reformation or repentance? Do the pet owners (for only pets get brought, in most places: What about strays or unpleasant beasts -- e.g., rats or chinchillas?) see beyond their pets to the grace of God or do they see in them another symbol of their concern for their own comfort?

Of course, I do not object to thanking God -- indeed, blessing him -- for the gift of the animal kingdom. I'd get astronomers and geographers in on the schtick, too. And we should tie it all together with the Benedicite omnia opera.

But what is with the blessing? I guess it's my lack of clarity on this that got me going on this post.

At Mount Olive, we are exploring the possibility of authorizing the pastor to preside at the blessing of same-sex unions. (I'll forego the joy of unmasking the actual agenda of the discussion -- which is to establish a rationale for a decision already informally made.) I thought it ironic in the extreme that we were talking on Sunday about that topic and debating whether it is appropriate (guess which side I took). And that happened directly after announcing the service for the blessing of the animals. So: We can bless animals but not human relationships?

In our discussion, we have been singularly unclear about what a "blessing" is. On the one hand, the pastor wants clearly to distinguish blessing a same-sex union from a wedding or marriage. And yet in his review of a rite of blessing, he opined that if we go this route "nothing would change at Mount Olive" because we would simply do for two men or two women what we do in other "marriages." And that has gotten me going on the whole question of what a blessing is.

Does anyone have a good resource for helping me sort that out? God blesses; we bless God; we "bless" others; we are 'just truly blessed.' What's with that?

In the rites for animal blessings that I have seen, "blessing" means little more than thanking God for the joys of pets and asking Him to keep them safe. Is there more?

I wonder what St. Francis would say about the extravagance of keeping pets and if he would grant his blessing to our rites of blessing animals.


Chip Frontz said...

The "feat" of St. Francis, I thought, was the stigmata. :)

But on a more serious note, a "blessing" or a "benediction" is an authoritative statement by the Church about God's favor. It is not a pious individual's wish.

Biblically, the story that leaps to mind is the blessing that Jacob asked for after wrestling with "the angel." The blessing carried the authority of God - indeed, many if not most biblical interpreters suggest that Jacob was wrestling with God himself.

The idea that an individual pastor or congregation can "bless" anything on their own, therefore, is quite a leap. When I give the benediction on Sunday, it is not me that is blessing, it is "Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." It comes directly from the conferring of the power of the keys to the Church.

A pastor friend once said to me, "Do you really want to know the kinds of things I bless in my church?" Isn't that an awfully proprietoral view of ministry and a magical view of blessing?

Blessing the animals, to get back to St. Francis, seems possible as an authoritative statement from God, especially exemplified in the life of Francis, about the goodness of the creation. It too quickly can become saccharine-sweet. As anyone who has had to refuse the participation of a pet in a "marriage blessing" ceremony can attest, people get weird about their pets. (Full disclosure: we are pet-less, but we have three kids. I frankly don't think there's enough room.)

Dwight P. said...

I caught "feat" only after I published, but I decided to leave it -- with all its irony and ambiguity. (Freudian slips, anyone?)

I share your understanding of blessing, which is why I am so frustrated by the ELCA's folderol about same-sex blessings: It doesn't get at the key question of whether or why or why not Scripture and Tradition allow us to go forth.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Some day I'll get to the "Feat of St. Chip."

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