For the Love of Saint Francis!

Making my peace with the blessing of the animals

If you’ve ever seen dog owners walking to church with their pooches in ridiculous outfits, sprayed with doggie perfume and a bow in their fur you’ve stumbled upon the annual “blessing of the animals” on the Feast Day of St Francis, October 4. In years past I witnessed one woman’s dog in a top hat and tails. Another dressed in a doggy business suit. A third looked like a clown (both dog and master).

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself when I overheard conversations in the pews about how smart their silly mutt was and how much love they received coming home to the wagging tail that greeted them at the door. Owners shared recipes about what they cook for their pets, talked about what they’ll dress them up for on Halloween and even celebrated their animal friends’ birthdays complete with party hats and a big bash.

Reveling in all of this canine eccentricity seemed odd to me until I visited a Franciscan friend of mine in upstate New York the day before last year’s blessing of the animals.

“Mike, just wait until tomorrow. You’ll see sheep, and cats, and snakes, and ferrets besides the dozens of dogs that will make their way here. I swear the second coming of Christ could be happening and if someone else did a prayer service across the street with animals, more people would show up for that!”

St. Dolittle?

St. Francis is always associated with animals. Legend has it that he was so gentle that the birds would come to rest on his shoulders. I’ve never really cared that much for that saccharine image of Francis—the one that adorns many gardens with the birds and chipmunks. After all, this was the same man who renounced his family’s wealth to live a life of radical poverty, famously standing naked in the street, after throwing his cloak at his father who didn’t want Francis to become a religious.

But what I love most about Francis is his commitment to peace. In 1219 Francis visited Egypt and the sultan, Malik al-Kamil. He expressed a desire for peace at a time much like our own—when brutal violence was being carried out in the name of religion. He was listened to with goodwill by the sultan who nearly converted to Catholicism had he not been fearful of his people’s reaction. Francis sought peace not only in the world but also within himself.

Man’s Best Friend

We all could use a little of this peace. Perhaps this is why our pets are so beloved. Recently, my wife and I adopted a cute little Chihuahua from a local shelter. As I held him in my arms for the first time a sense of calm came over me.

“Does he have a name?” I asked.

“Um, yeah, Haze!” the shelter worker said.

“No-no…that’s my name…I mean the dog’s name.”

“No sir. That is the dog’s name.”

“So if I adopt him his name will be Haze Hayes? I’ll take him!”

“That’s not a bad image for the way God loves us: quickly forgiving and wiping (licking?) the slate clean.”

He licked my face that first day and got me to love him. More recently he’s taken to licking my bald head while I sit on the couch and watch TV.

Besides the unconditional love Haze offers at the door each time I arrive home (and the soggy skull), I’m often struck by how much Haze is turning me into the sort of pet owner I used to mock.

One day while putting on his harness I caught a piece of his skin in the clip. He yelped loudly and wouldn’t let me try to open the clip to ease his pain. After some struggle I finally got it open—much to Haze’s relief.

A Lick in Time

I felt so horrible for hurting my defenseless little friend that I sat on the couch and cried. Almost immediately on seeing my tears Haze leapt into my lap, looked me in the eyes and licked my face, head and ears like he never had before. Some would say that it was because my tears taste good but I think Haze was letting me know that I was forgiven. Weeks later I accidentally stepped on his back paw and he did the same thing.

That’s not a bad image for the way God loves us: quickly forgiving and wiping (licking?) the slate clean. Nearly 2 years old, perfectly housebroken (well, almost perfect) Haze reflects a bit of God’s mercy to me—his schlub of an owner, in all of his imperfectness—and only longs to get a belly rub from his best pal.

Today, we celebrate Francis—a man known for peace. His words remind us that we all need to forgive easily and without hesitation. In a world gone mad with violence his words are worth repeating here today.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

As far as I’m concerned Haze Hayes is a Chihuahua-sized instrument of peace. And if that’s not worth blessing today—then I don’t know what is.

This story was originally published on October 4, 2007.