Before I start criticising the practice of blessing animals, let me confess that I have blessed animals, and would do so again. In fact for a couple of years, Tom Sutton of Subiaco Parish in Perth invited me, along with other Franciscans and other priests to a great outdoor animal blessing. There is a picture of me blessing a great St Bernard, and it was a delight to make friends with this gentle creature.
This jamboree was stopped only because a certain dog food manufacturer was a sponsor and took advantage of this event. It took it over by emblazoning its name on every object and dog parade and snail race in sight.
Tom rightly believed that such rampant capitalism was at odds with the spirit of animal blessing.
But as a Franciscan I do feel ambivalent about blessing animals. Not that I have any theological problem with asking for God’s blessing on either pets or wild animals. Our blessing simply confirms the reality that God has already blessed creation. See Genesis 1.
Nor do I mind the chaos that can be caused by creatures great and small in a little church with God’s people trying to celebrate the Eucharist with devotion.
My problem, I think, is twofold. Firstly, blessing animals can become a sentimental act. “Isn’t it nice? Isn’t it lovely?” If an animal blessing is organised only to evoke superficial sentiments, then it is a dangerous waste of time. If an animal blessing is organised only to delight children, then it is a diversion from reality.
Secondly, blessing animals can easily turn companion animals into possessions rather than being seen as God’s gifts to us. The attitude that our pets are simply a convenience can easily lead to neglect and abuse , but even before it gets to that stage, this attitude diminishes us, making us consumers of animals’ services, rather than their grateful friends.
What Franciscans can do is to encourage people to think carefully about our relationship with animals. Saint Francis believed that each creature is a Word of God. In our encounter with an animal, St Francis encourages us to allow that animal to disclose its story to us. The animal is not there simply for our unfettered use, but is a fellow-creature put on this earth to share existence with us and to join our praise of the Most High Creator.
Our pets are our companions, not our slaves.
And do we bless the animals that give food, are food for us? Much has been written about the distance between us urban dwellers and the milk and meat that we enjoy. If we bless our pets, then we should equally bless the animals that nurture us. We should be prepared to ask whether the cost of being a meat-eater is too high. Dr Rajendra Pachauri Chair of the IPCC spoke of the positive environmental impact of eating one less meat meal each week.
Wild animals are a blessing, too, although I suspect it’s impossible to catch a blue wren or an Oenpelli python to lay hands on and pronounce a blessing over it!
So my plea as a Franciscan is, if we are to bless animals, then let’s do it with thorough thought and prayer, and not just as a liturgical stunt. But no one would do that, would they?
I wake on Easter morning with my wife’s kiss. “Christ is Risen!” she smiles. I hesitate before responding, “He is risen indeed.” it is a great day, but I feel just pain behind and in front. The Psalmist’s words were louder in my mind than Easter’s liturgical cry: ” Fat bulls of Bashan surround me on every side.” Back pain behind and gastritis before fill my consciousness. in the same breath, I pray, “You are behind me and before: such knowledge is too wonderful for me,”, and I feel the truth of Psalm 139 deep within.
But it is not enough to get me to celebrate the Great Feast in the company of fellow-Christians. I deal with disappointment by turning to the gospel account of the first Easter morning.
I have been reading Brendan Byrne’s “theological reading of Mark’s Gospel” – A Costly Freedom, and it being in the Year of Mark, I turn to Mark 16. It is exciting to re-read the Greek: so much new is there!
Three women leave for the tomb “very early in the morning” (verse 2), between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. This, according to my hospice nurse wife, is the low time, the time when death often creeps through the house of the dying and claims those who are ready. It is a time of intense dark, and for most, the deepest sleep. Yet in Mark’s Easter story, they arrive “just as the sun was rising.” Easter is a dawn that arrives before expected, the good news that tears away the deepest darkness! The first Easter, and all those that follow, are extraordinary dawns.
The story moves on. I smile at the colloquial translation of verse 4(c) that springs to mind. The women are amazed that the stone is rolled away: it was a “bloody great boondie”! This whole business with the stone is amazing. The women discover that it has been moved by “lifting up their eyes and gazing” – the word theoriein calls to mind both wonder and the deep seeing of meditation.” its removal is literally “apocalyptic”, a heavenly revelation.
And then verse 5: “they enter into, into” – the preposition is repeated – the tomb, the realm of death. This detail sets Mark’s resurrection narrative apart from Matthew’s and Luke’s. The three women here enter deeply into the experience of death (“baptised into his death ” (Rom.3.6 perhaps?)) This is more than grief, although the grief is profound, like Jacob’s at the supposed death of Joseph.
This is a mythical experience of the profundity of death; Orpheus going into the place of the dead to retrieve Eurydice, and the lost possibility of new life with her. This is the place where many of Mark’s original readers may have been – in the hell of persecution or martyrdom. This is the place where true disciples must take shelter before they can shout the joy of Easter.
In my pain and disappointment this morning, I can identify some way with the women going into, right into, the place of death.
This also means I can identify with the hope put into the angel’s mouth: I too am looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, the Risen One. Any emptiness I experience is because “he is not here” (verse 6). I too can experience the thrill of being called again to discipleship and mission, “go and tell the disciples that they will see him again.”
Best of all Mark’s “shorter ending” with its abruptness restores to me the sense of being included in this ongoing mission of God. The other Gospels describe many Appearances of the Risen Jesus. Mark doesn’t crowd me out with the experiences of others. Mark trusts that my experience will be authentic on its own terms.
Even though I struggle with pain that takes my breath away, I can feel his breath filling me with new life. He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
“Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.”
Yesterday I discussed with my doctor changing the frequency of one of my medications. This involved charting my reactions to the drug, a discussion with the doctor, who telephoned the specialist after appointment. Later in the day, the doctor rang me back with the conclusions of his discussion with the specialist. I had to explain all this to my wife when she came home from work. Today, I must collect a new prescription from the doctor’s surgery and take it to the pharmacist and discuss it with him.
Chronic illness is like that. It is so easy for the illness to become that the main preoccupation of my thinking, and relations with others.
The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel writes, “Thus there is a risk that illness will make of me that deformed creature, a catalogued and professionalised invalid, who thinks of himself as such and contracts in all respects, the habitus of illness. … In so far as I hope, I detach myself from this inner determinism.”
Living well with chronic illness requires making a fundamental choice about who I am. I can choose to be a person with chronic pain, a sick person, a “catalogued and professionalised invalid.” Alternatively, I can choose to be a full human being, not defined by my illness, or any other single characteristic, but seeking a balanced and rich life.
This choice must be made every day. I learn how to live well with my illness from my experience as a Christian disciple. The framework of my life includes the habit of Morning Prayer. Every morning I need to be reminded that “new every morning is the love” whose energy permeates my life. Every morning, I need to be reminded to choose God, to choose life rather than death, to choose to walk a creative path rather than to crawl in sin.
Every morning, I make the choice anew to live in the moment. How destructive it is to dwell in the past, or to worry in the future. “Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.” (Marcel again.)
This way of life is both practical and profoundly spiritual because it is both a more enjoyable and more integrated way for the mind/body/spirit to live.
The second century theologian Irenaeus saw the vision of the glory of God as people really alive (Gloria Dei vivens homo). Living with chronic pain need not reflect a disappointment with the Creator, making a mess of his creation. Living with chronic pain, when the creative path of living fully in the present moment is chosen, can truly glorify God.