October 4 was the feast of St. Francis in the Church calendar, and many churches gather at some point in October for a Blessing of the Animals. It’s a strange tradition, from one perspective: folks who aren’t normally inclined to bless things (houses, water, golf clubs!) will show up in droves to bless their pets. And why not? We love our pets.
St. Francis is famous for preaching to the animals (see, for example, Chapter XVI of the Fioretti), but that is, to put it bluntly, probably the least significant thing about him. His great gift was his absolute commitment to meeting Christ in the poor, and for Francis this was always connected with his desire to share in the suffering of Christ — to be poor himself.
The hagiographical note in Lesser Feasts and Fasts brings this dissonance to a point: “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated; few have attained to his total identification with the poverty and suffering of Christ.” And I don’t think we should be surprised. It is much easier (and more fun) to spend time with friendly animals than it is to suffer with the poor, much less to receive, as Francis did, the stigmata — the physical marks of Jesus’ crucifixion on the hands, the feet, and the side. (Side question: Does St. Francis’s popularity in the gardens of nominal Christians parallel Pope Francis’s popularity in the hearts of nominal Catholics? Discuss.)
And yet Francis ties all these things together. How? I was struck this year by a line from one of the prayers we used at the animal blessing. It says that the animals “serve [God] better in their place than we in ours.”
I think this gives us a hint as to what it is that ties together these disparate elements of Francis’s life. What is wonderful about the animals is that they are what they are without pretense. Our cat, Moxie, does not have to wake up every morning and decide whether she will continue behaving like a cat. She just does what’s in her nature, which in her case is nibbling on my feet as I exit the shower, sneaking up on the dog, and hunting pigeons. Our dog, Tallis, naturally filters all things through the twin calculus of friendship and food. She is totally incapable of worrying about things that are beyond her control: she doesn’t lose sleep about whether there will be a good breakfast in the morning, whether the neighboring dogs like her, or whether she totally embarrassed herself on the field earlier that day.
Acting like a human being is an achievement. For Francis, it required sacrificing riches and status and getting down to the core of human identity and nature. Francis wanted to understand what the animals know: that everything is a gift; that our only true happiness is being what God made us to be.
I don’t think that we all have to imitate Francis in his poverty or in his quirky interactions with animals. But in Francis God teaches us that true humanity is not about controlling our fate or planning for every possible contingency, but about being open to the gifts that God gives us here and now, from one moment to the next, in nature, in our friends and neighbors, in the life that surrounds us wherever we look.
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant unto your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of Blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.