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St. Francis and the amazing grace of life with pets

RICH MAYFIELD

This past Monday was the Feast Day of Saint Francis, which may not hold a lot of significance for you, but it’s a pretty big deal where I work. Actually the big deal comes Sunday when all the children in our congregation are invited to bring their pets to Sunday morning worship for a special blessing.Last year, that meant we had dogs, cats, turtles, several horses and two goats hanging outside the church doors waiting to be consecrated.This year, rumor has it there may be a couple of feisty llamas added to the mix along with a Vietnamese pig. I only hope whoever comes has been trained under the ancient proverb: “Waste not, want not.” If not, the rest of us will have to take our instruction from Proverbs 14:15: “Smart people watch their step.”St. Francis is a universally admired character long associated with a deep respect for creation and a joyous love of animals. Such a legacy calls to mind incidents in my own life where St. Francis may have been far more adept at handling the situation than semi-saint Rich.

For instance, there was the time I was with a family somberly awaiting the death of the clan’s patriarch, slowly expiring in the next room.Long periods of silence interrupted by occasional bursts of crying pervaded the parlor where we sat. After a lengthy and somewhat pleasant period of quiet, one of the grieving women, who happened to be holding a very small poodle, said to her pooch, “Smile for the pastor.” Whereupon the dog looked me right in the eyes and did exactly that. Maybe it was the circumstances, maybe it was my current state of mind, but that dog really freaked me out. It was a little too suggestive of Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein’s monster. I still have nightmares over that one. Animals often take on a special significance for their owners, sometimes maybe a little too special. I’ve certainly watched as people have had lengthy and one-sided conversations with their dogs in the most public of places – amusing perhaps to most of us but deadly serious to some. I remember the “Far Side” cartoon that had a man offering directions to his pooch in comprehensive and complete commands. The title of the comic was “How a dog hears what we are saying.” A bubble coming out from the dog’s ear read, “Woof, woof, woof, woof.”Of course, I’ve had requests for funerals for favorite pooches which seems reasonable enough to me although, and I know this will make my conservative friends happy, I draw the line at performing any pet weddings.

I know of a very well respected theologian who is adamant that the best spiritual guide he ever had was his dog. Think about it. Every dog I’ve ever encountered seemed quite content with being a dog. Indeed, I dare to suggest that I’ve yet to meet any canid that aspired to be feline or anything else, for that matter. And dogs are so forgiving! I sometimes wonder why Jesus didn’t point to the mutts that must have wandered around Galilee as vivid examples of the holy life. Can any of you think of a dog you’ve had that didn’t accept you unconditionally? No matter how many times you discipline it, no matter how many times you forget to feed him, no matter how many times you leave her home alone at night, they always welcome you back with open paws. Talk about amazing grace!Living in the mountains, we are all warned frequently about the danger of encountering one of God’s wilder beasts. I’m always confusing what exactly I am supposed to do.I think the rules are to rear up to my greatest height if it’s a bear and slowly back away. I’m not sure if that holds true for a mountain lion. I’ve been told moose can be very mean and a bull elk isn’t far behind.

Still, I wonder if I would be composed enough to follow whatever instructions I’ve been taught. More likely my darker self would emerge and I would follow the old adage of not having to be faster than the beast, just a little faster than my hiking partner. St. Francis, by the way, is often replicated in garden statuary with a bird or two resting upon his shoulders. Tradition has it that old Francis spent not a little time preaching to his avian friends. Based on my own experience, I suspect it was probably more rewarding than preaching to people.Another famous monk, Thomas Merton, also gave a sermon to some birds. It is found in his book, “Day of a Stranger” and it captures, at least for me, why animals can be such a wonderful conduit for the divine.”Esteemed friends,” preached Merton, “birds of noble lineage, I have no message to you except this: be what you are: be birds. Thus you will be your own sermon to yourselves!” Replied the birds: “Even this is one sermon too many!” Rich Mayfield writes a Saturday column. He can be reached at richmayfield@earthlink.net.


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