Blessings on You, Animals Definitely Included
On January 16th, we held our annual pet blessing at St Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission. To our surprise we were overwhelmed. We estimate about seventy dogs showed up bringing their owners in tow. What’s the deal?
Christians have been blessing things forever. We maintained the practice in line with Judaism. Other religions bless material things as well, along with animals. In Orthodox prayer books there are blessings for flocks, for herds, for bees. We pray that animals do not experience drought or disease even as we pray for ourselves. Pet owners, regardless of their religion or without any, want the best for their animals and pet blessings have become a way to express that. At least that’s what we heard on the day of the blessing.
Among reasons, we first want to give thanks for Creation and for its manifold gifts to us, not least of which are animals for livestock and animals for friends, most notably cats and dogs and birds. We came together to give glory to God for the magnificence of creation. As the old British hymn goes, “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, and all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all,” which served as title for that lovely series of books by the veterinarian whose pen name was James Herriott.
Jews and Christians take seriously the biblical mandate to master creation. We regard ourselves as husbandmen or stewards – a word, incidentally, from old English that originally meant “the keeper of a sty.” We are tenders and managers of the creation at our best, menaces and destroyers at our worst. The call to be good stewards is for everyone and we have learned late in our history that it is and must be everyone’s concern.
A second reason we bless our animals is to remind ourselves that they deserve mercy and love from us and not miserable or abusive treatment. This does not mean that we value them above other people, but that we value them in their own right as animate creatures that share sensibility with us. The Buddhist vows to “save all sentient beings.” We echo that in our community of faith. The rise in consultation with veterinarians about our pets, let alone our livestock, should indicate that the majority of people are willing to put into practice their goodwill to animals.
Third, we pray for animals as we would pray for members of our family or friends, or even for that matter our enemies. We want them to enjoy good health and long life within the constraints of their animal natures. One of our great Orthodox thinkers, St. Maximos the Confessor, put it this way: “Man is not a being isolated from the rest of creation; by nature man is bound up with the whole of the universe…On his way to union with God, man does not leave creatures behind, but gathers in his love the whole cosmos disordered by sin, that it may be transfigured by grace.” Ah yes.
Animals are not rocks or rivers. They are “animated beings,” which means they have a soul. Their soul is not a human soul, it’s an animal soul, but we Orthodox Christians at least affirm that they have souls. They share in the glory of God. They are more than companions; they are a sign of the power and beauty of the created order. They connect us to wildness since, even when domesticated, they remain a “breed apart” with feral instincts and habits. Lastly, may our blessing of animals remind us to bless our human families and friends.
Published 05 FEBRUARY 2010