St. Francis Celebration of Animals

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland, New Zealand
Readings: 2 Kings 4:1-37, Acts 16:1- 15

Picture if you will, a 12 year-old girl, sitting at the dinner table on a summer’s evening. It is the night before her thirteenth birthday, and she is concentrating hard on not getting too excited. The front door opens, and in walks an older sister. Nothing unusual about that, she has three of them, after all. Except that there is something unusual. Because instead of walking to the kitchen, or to her bedroom as would be normal, the older sister stops by her younger sister’s chair and waits in silence. “Well now,” thinks the younger sister, “that’s just plain annoying. Two can play at this game. Let the ignoring begin.”

It’s hard to know how long the standoff might have continued. Hours perhaps, given the stubbornness of the two parties involved. But we’ll never know, because suddenly the silence is broken by the most unexpected of sounds: “Eeeeeuuuuuu.” (For those reading this, imagine the high-pitched meow that only a young kitten can make.)

Whipping her head around, she sees a kitten — a tabby — perched uncomfortably in her older sister’s pocket, just waiting for a birthday girl to notice. It is love at first sight, and the beginning of a long and precious friendship.

The 12 year-old girl was me, and the six-week-old, furry girl was Tuesday — my long time companion.

Because animals and humans age at a different rate, a strange thing happened over the many years Tuesday owned me. I started out as her “mother” and she ended up being the grand old lady of the house. Over time our roles changed. But one thing stayed constant: for more than 18 years she was my faithful friend.

St. Francis of Assisi, whose imprint on our world we celebrate today, was a friend of furry ones. Francis was a lover of life. He knew about God and animals. He knew that God permeates all life. Francis saw God in children, poor and rich, kings and serfs, birds and wolves.

Francis knew that animals had much to teach humans. He watched the way they interacted with their world, and learned from them. Take for instance — faithfulness.

Faithfulness has a lot to do with being true to yourself, the self created and loved by God. It is an expression of our spirituality. When we humans allow them to, animals know how to be faithful to their spirituality of play, generosity, loyalty and goodwill.

So to the four-legged and two-winged animals amongst us I urge you to continue to be faithful. Continue to have fun, let go and let be, celebrate life without feeling embarrassed or feeling guilty for “wasting time.” You teach us humans that the intensity of living is more important than its duration. You teach us that play is an adult thing to do and needs no justification.

Those of you who are furry have much to teach those of us without fur about listening, openness, touch, and sensitivity. Indeed many of us humans are drawn to your world by our desire to touch, to stroke, to hug and to hold. You enable us to show love without being ashamed or embarrassed. When in your company we are often freer with our feelings than when in the company of those of our own species. Thank you for inviting us to be honest. Thanks too for your sensitivity to our feelings. I have met both canine and feline friends who can enter a room and know, instinctively, if someone is depressed, sad or unwell.

Continue also, my furry, feathered and scaly friends, to retain that ability to be at home with silence and with solitude. You know the importance of time alone with your thoughts, of time to daydream and snooze and explore. You are aware that in all of life we worship God, and that worship doesn’t necessarily require frenetic activity.

To the two-legged animals of my own species, let us learn from our brothers and sisters — about play, and sensitivity, and silence. Let us trust and delight in our senses drinking in and enjoying life, creation, and ourselves — guiltlessly and passionately. Genesis 1 records the original blessing — we were created good. Let us believe in ourselves. Let us love ourselves. Without self-love it is very hard to love your neighbor, or your neighbor’s dog for that matter.

Those of us who put the food in the dish for others are also entrusted with the power to preserve and sustain the whole animal world. This is both a privilege and a responsibility. It is tempting to think that it makes us more important that our many-legged friends. Sometimes we project our human values onto them, and to do so can be dangerous. One such value is that of usefulness. Of what use is an animal? To comfort, protect, enjoy? Of what use then is a sick or differently-abled animal? Are they to be thrown away like an old pair of socks when they are no longer of use?

Francis once wrote, “Blessed be that friar who loves his brother as much when he is sick and can be of no use to him, as when he is well and can be of use to him.” Francis presumed that encouragement, love and respect are the right of everyone, regardless of how many legs they had. How different this is from the values of today, which suggest that love and respect have to be earned, that all living things must be useful or profitable. Our modern values can so easily lead us to justify exploitation and cruelty. St. Francis would urge us to never be guilty of such sins against our brothers and sisters.

Animals and humans can both respond to the invitation to be faithful. To be faithful to the divine Spirit that flows through us. To be open to the possibilities of a better world where animals receive the love and respect that is rightly theirs, and where those with hands enjoy the affection and trust of those with paws and claws. [The Ven. Glynn Cardy, Paw and Hand, preached at St Andrew’s, Epsom, 6 October 2002 (amended)]

Animals have much to teach us — about God, about our world, about ourselves.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the Venerable Glynn Cardy for allowing me to plagiarise his sermon!