At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living.
Is it time for alternative animal blessings?
by Rev. Sarah Bowen
Rev. Sarah Bowen and friend at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary
(Image credit: Sean Bowen
As October rolls around, my social feed fills with announcements of animal blessings. The most well-known event is the Blessing of the Animals that evolved from the traditional feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. Each year, in October, Christian liturgies highlight Creation, and priests, pastors, and ministers bless pets. Likewise, many synagogues read the story of Noah the same weekend. Other folks celebrate the anniversary of Gandhi’s birthday (October 2) or observe World Animal Day (October 4). Many Buddhist authors and teachers provide guidance for using animal-focused mantras and blessings to help liberate sentient beings. And one of my Muslim colleagues answers plentiful questions this time of year about “beloved cats vs. despicable dogs” for people digging into animal welfare through the words of the Quran.
Even my friends who craftily evade the critical animal issues I’m fond of exploring on my social feeds seem to get excited this time of year, as if to announce, “Hey look, Sarah! Someone is doing something nice for animals! It’s not as bad as you say it is out there.” My posts that point out animal suffering and urge people to take action on their behalf get very few likes or comments. Posts about animal blessings get copious hearts and animal-related sentiments.
I suppose this is unsurprising and I should not be too hard on my friends. And yet, at the same time, I worry about the specifics of some of these blessing services and what it means to take creatures from their comfortable homes into a crowded church of strange smells and sights and species.
In her book, Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition, Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster describes my concern precisely, with this reflection from her visit to one of the annual ceremonies at St. John the Divine:
"First, although the procession of animals is impressive and speaks to the centrality of animals through such actions as the opening of the bronze doors, there remains something overly idealistic and removed from reality. So, for instance, a beautiful, small cow processes into the sanctuary, yet the realities of factory farming in the United States go without mention. Many purebred dogs enter the cathedral, some of whom certainly came from rescue groups, but numerous ones also must have come from breeders; yet the city kills over twenty-eight thousand homeless dogs each year. These issues are indicative of the blessing ritual as an unachieved ideal in the midst of a less-than-utopian real. One might also question whether keeping animals in a large room full of the smells of incense, shouts of human voices, and presence of thousands of other creatures for over two hours is a good experience for the animals. Then again, how would a human being ever really make that determination?" (Hobgood-Oster 2008, p. 117)
In many ways, Zoom has helped alleviate some of those issues, but I still wonder about the hierarchy of humans bestowing blessings on animals. So, this year, I got really curious about the aspects of blessing the beloved creatures of Creation
A History of Animal Blessings
While the stories of St. Francis hail from the 15th century, animal blessings in the Christian tradition can be found well before that. For example, in the 3rd/4th century, St. Anthony of Abad was said to have spent long stretches of time in prayer and fasting and his only companions during his practice were other-than-human animals. Blessing services based on the tradition of St. Anthony take place in January and tend to include not only pets but also “livestock,” illuminating the inconsistency with which we humans treat other species. It’s important to remember that the tradition of prayer “over animals” ultimately traces back to those who were “sacrificed” (aka killed) for human purposes (such as food and clothing) and because of the beliefs humans held about how to appease divine gods or God. This remembrance can be a foundation from which modern animal advocates can enlighten people about the dark side of animal blessings—and how acknowledging the bias with which we treat one species versus another can lead us into inquiry about whether we ought to treat beings of all species much better than we currently do.
Beyond St. Francis: Interfaith Anecdotes
Although St. Francis—and perhaps St. Anthony—appear in people’s minds when it comes to animal blessings, we find a long history of sacred folks blessing animals beyond something to eat or appease gods with.
As an unapologetic squirrel lover, my favorite blessing tale (tail?) depicts the building of Lord Rama’s bridge over the Indian Ocean. It’s said that while millions of monkeys helped gather massive stones and even mountains for the construction, a devoted squirrel joined in by carrying pebbles in her mouth. The powerful primates mocked her. One even tossed her out of the worksite. Auspiciously, the little squirrel landed into the hand of Lord Rama, who after hearing her story bestowed a blessing. “Blessed be the little squirrel. She is doing her work to the best of her ability. Therefore, she is quite as great as the greatest of you. Never despise those that are not as strong as you. What truly matters is not the strength one has, but the love and devotion with which one works.”
In the Islamic tradition, a story is told of Muhammad’s beloved cat, Muezza, who had fallen asleep on the prophet’s shirt. Needing to dress for prayer time, yet reluctant to disturb the cat, Muhammad cut off the shirt’s sleeve. (This brings to mind a tradition in my own home, referred to as I can’t. There’s a cat on my lap.) It is also said that one day, when the cat bowed down in thanks to the prophet, Muhammad stroked the cat three times on the back, gracing Muezza, and felines in general, with the talent of always being able to land on their feet.
While human-animal relationships are filled with much more complexity than these tidbits can convey, these stories suggest a different relationship we might have with offering blessings. Although they remain hierarchical in the way that humans (or divine beings) “bestow” blessings on other species, they are a step in the right direction as these blessings seem to acknowledge the inherent value of—and reverence for—all lives.
Ideas for Alternative Blessings
So, what might non-hierarchical alternative blessings look like? First, I suggest reframing blessing as an exchange of energy rather than a bestowal. Just as we might spread love to others, we can spread blessing to others by radiating care and concern to them.
Second, care must be taken when including animals within spiritual events to ensure that the animals are not merely being “used” by humans in these settings. For example, it is unlikely that donkeys used in advent pageants participate of their own free will. And the cats I live with certainly do not want to experience a stressful car ride to a church in order to be blessed by humans.
On the other hand, taking animal needs into account when planning church gardens or meditation landscapes―to make them habitable and supportive of birds, animals, and other living creatures―can be a way to encourage interspecies communities where all beings have the freedom to choose if they will participate. So can making cemeteries “whole family” rather than human only. (Read more about this in my new book Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice For Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Healing The Planet)
Communities can also choose to sponsor an animal from a sanctuary and display their portrait within the church building. Spiritual communities can also use technology to “Zoom in” live animals on-screen during a worship service or other event. Many animal sanctuaries now offer this service, which also helps with fundraising efforts. An offering can be taken on behalf of the chickens, goats, or cows that attend the service via Zoom. What’s more, this provides a great opportunity to include a potluck that is cruelty-free and inclusive, such as one that adheres to the Universal Meals recommended by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. This free program offers simple guidelines and recipes that are free of animal products (vegan), gluten-containing grains, nuts, alcohol, and other allergens. Keeping our food cruelty-free and avoiding alcohol and allergens helps us extend compassion to a wide circle of beings. (Learn more about Universal Meals.)
A Practice for All Year Long
While we may care most for the animal companions in our home, there are other beings who may need blessing even more…. Those who are the casualties of our indifference and discomfort.
To wit: I’ve had a long history of doing blessings for roadkill. It started in elementary school, as I dragged home dead chipmunks I found on the side of the road… in my lunch box. It made little sense to my mother but made complete sense to me. Raised as a preacher’s kid, I frequently visited funeral homes with my father. So, I deduced that these animals needed burial in the bushes in our front yard. Unfortunately, at that age, I lacked the language to explain these actions convincingly, so I earned frequent lectures on germs. Unhindered, my connection with these animals remained, and I buried the animals gently with a small service ending with “May the Force be with you, chipmunk.”
Of course, lurking neighbors would inform me: “Those are just animals. These things happen. They should learn to stay out of the road.” And as I got older and questioned the ways in which I saw animals being mistreated, I was offered rationalizations such as: “God made us dominion over the animals. They are here for our use.” Yikes. Folding my arms across my chest, I created a force field around myself. Increasingly feeling unconnected to those around me, I tried to hide what I felt. I became embarrassed by both burials and blessings.
Then I met the man who would become my husband. As we were driving one day, he smacked his right hand over his heart. Now, he’s a bit older than I am, so I thought, “My God, he’s having a heart attack. This relationship is never going to work.” Nervously, I asked him, “Are you okay?” To which he replied, “I’m sending gratitude to Spirit for the life of that animal.” I looked out the window, realizing excitedly, he means that dead animal! That roadkill! And I knew I had found my soul mate.
Of course, I promptly adopted this practice. And we became a couple of driving heart-smackers. Then on one drive, after I smacked my right hand over my heart, my husband grinned, looked at me, and said, “Um, Sarah? That was a tire.” I blushed a bit in embarrassment, and then implored, “Um, Sean? Yeah, I know. That was a blessing for the Earth, and the trash that covers her.” And we both kinda giggled.
But when I look at this in hindsight, there is a profound lesson about blessing here. It affirms that our words of compassion do not have to be limited to clergy, religious institutions, or any specific tradition.
Blessing does not require a particular ritual, nor does it have to occur only for a planned event. It can be done anywhere, by anyone.
And, certainly, not just in October on a single Sunday.
Was Jesus Vegetarian? by William Melton