Column: Paws to Reflect on the Blessing of Animals

For the Valley News
Tuesday, October 09, 2018

All God’s creatures got a place in the choir

Some sing low and some sing higher,

Some sing out loud on a telephone wire,

Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they’ve got now.

After a week of unremitting Sturm und Drang related to the political drama in our nation’s capital, I was delighted to be reminded that the first Sunday in October — the day following the Senate’s vote — our church would be celebrating the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

In tune with other Episcopal churches in the area, its service that day, in honor of the good friar, would include a “blessing of the animals.”

Members of the parish would be bringing their pets to be blessed at the altar rail. The place would be full of dogs (and probably no cats, for obvious reasons). Potential chaos. One of my favorite church occasions.

Kiki goes to church with me most Sundays anyway, but she wasn’t ready for the unusual number of potential four-footed friends this Sunday. Right behind us was a tiny terrier puppy, smaller than a cigar box, who didn’t seem to mind Kiki leaning over the back of our pew trying to touch noses; right across the aisle, a large, elderly terrier spent most of his time in his owner’s lap, but also received Kiki’s up-on-two-legs-pulling-on-her-leash approaches.

She had a wonderful time, and even got blessed — a far cry from what she hears from me when she chases away the deer enjoying meals in our yard.

Listen to the top where the little bird sings

On the melodies with the high notes ringing.

And the hoot owl cries over everything,

And the blackbird disagrees.

Bill Staines, probably the most underappreciated genius in the folk music genre, wrote A Place in the Choir some years ago. My favorite rendition is by a playful bunch of Irishmen called Celtic Thunder. Urged by a post on the internet to sing at least 15 minutes a day for my health, I play it whenever I think of it.

It’s especially appropriate on the Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, animal welfare societies and birds. He’s usually depicted with squirrels, bunnies and other small critters clustering around his feet. Legend has him negotiating with a rapacious wolf who was decimating townspeople’s sheep, suggesting a successful, peaceful solution.

He also founded the Franciscan Friars.

We had a friar stay with us once a few years ago, and remember him explaining to our kids the three knots in his rope girdle: “Got no wife, got no money, got to do what I’m told.”

And of course there’s the great scene in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in which young Frank, perishing of guilt, beseeches St. Francis’ statue for forgiveness — unsuccessfully, till a brother, who’s sat down next to him, interprets Francis’ answer and makes things right.

A former priest of ours, a dog-lover, once posited that, just as we spend years trying to make our puppies acceptable in polite society, so God works with our fractious human natures to make us acceptable to him. An attractive idea; but if God’s in the mix, I think he also brought the dogs in from the cold to the warmth of our campfires to help us become human.

I’ve seen Arctic wolves watching us from a distance and could read their minds — boy, that food smells good! — so it’s easy to see how it happened. But the obverse of that is, in assuming an additional responsibility and forging a mutually beneficial relationship, we humans reached out beyond ourselves to another species.

Following a financial disaster some 33 years ago, I had become a pretty bitter, cantankerous man on the verge of old age, when our daughter Martha brought home Tucker, a Sheltie-mix mutt who became a member of our household and my fast friend, and reclaimed my optimism and humanity. She’s buried at the foot of the yard now, with a porch chair beside her, for me to sit in when we have our usual one-way talk.

Meanwhile, Kiki, her successor after a long interval, has helped bridge the gap after the loss of my wife.

Irrepressible and extroverted, yet respectful of my necessarily long quiet times at the computer — she’s snoozing just now by my left elbow as I write — she’s been another lively character in a house that might otherwise feel like a mausoleum. Just watching her breathe and hearing her occasional sigh does wonders for many of the symptoms of old age and loneliness.

I can only hope she feels secure here, and promise her that I will do whatever I can to keep my part of the unwritten contract between us, because ...

All God’s creatures got a place in the choir.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.