Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Blessing of the Animals
7 October 2018
Let’s begin with a story …
The date is 1220 CE, about six years before the death of Francis of Assisi.
The place is Gubbio, a medieval town in Umbria. It is about halfway up the Italian peninsula.
The problem: a large wolf has been attacking animals and people, and everyone is afraid even to leave the walls of the town.
Francis was living in the town at that time, and he decided to solve the problem posed by the ferocious wolf. The townspeople said he was crazy to do that, but he determined to do it in any case.
Brother Francis goes outside the walls to meet Brother Wolf.
With no weapons.
When the wolf charged at Francis, the saint made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf Francis made the sign of the Cross and commanded the wolf to cease its attacks in the name of God, at which point the wolf trotted up to him docilely and lay at his feet, putting its head in his hands.
The ancient legend tells the story this way:
“Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more.”
The wolf bowed its head and submitted to Francis, completely at his mercy.
“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”
In agreement, the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio. At this sight, the men who had followed him through the walls were utterly astonished and they spread the news; soon the whole city knew of the miracle. The townsfolk gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace, he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. … With the sermon ended, Francis renewed his pact with the wolf publicly, assuring it that the people of Gubbio would feed it from their very doors if it ceased its depredations. Once more the wolf placed its paw in Francis’ hand.
Such stories are common among the legends of the saints.
Irrespective of their historicity, they point to a way of seeing the world that we seem to have lost.
The people who told these stories lived in an enchanted world.
We live in a world where nature, animals and birds have little intrinsic value.
We appreciate them for the profit we can make by exploiting them, and not for their own sake as living creatures in the larger web of life.
Today we pause and reconsider.
In the past few centuries, we have become myopic, short-sighted, as we look around us.
We look at the world and think it is all about us.
We have reduced the meaning of “us” in two ways: first of all, “us” seems to mean “me” and maybe people like me; and secondly, “us” seems to mean “humans”, rather than all forms of life on this beautiful Earth.
If we give other life forms any thought at all, we tend to think of them as existing for our sake and without any inherent rights.
We fool ourselves into thinking that God only cares about humans.
And we consistently act as if God does not care what we do to her creation.
But that is not the case, even if our theology encourages us to think it is all about us.
It is essential to rethink the meaning of “we” so that it embraces all life forms on this planet—and not simply humans.
We especially need to rethink our attitude towards the wild things and the places where the wild things are.
Domesticated animals and production animals are not the only ones that deserve our best efforts on their behalf. We need to value even those places and those creatures which seem not to offer us any benefit at all.
Changing how we think about other creatures will also change the way we think about ourselves.
Rather than imagine ourselves as the apex of creation, we see ourselves as part of the diverse web of life.
We are distinct and different, but so is every other kind of creature, and all of us are expressions of God’s joie de vivre, God’s delight in abundance and diversity and variation.
The neat lists of our limited outlook give way to the abundant messiness of God’s world.
The messiness of our own lives reflects God’s delight in diversity.
We erase the thick lines that place us in strict categories: humans/animals, men/women, insiders/outsiders, straight/gay, priests/people, rulers/governed.
Today we pause to reflect with wonder and awe on the diversity of creation, and we give thanks for all that we share with other animals within the diversity of God’s good creation.
We acknowledge our place with and among all God’s creatures.
As we invoke God’s blessing on them, just as we seek it for ourselves, we pledge to think differently about them and about ourselves in the year ahead.