a homily by the Rev. Jill Cowie for our animal Blessing service
An Animal Blessing Service, Reverend Jill Cowie and Daniel Payne, Director of Religious Education. In honor of St. Francis Day, please bring your animal friend(s) to church for a blessing of love and long life. Bring a picture of beloved animal friends of memory and bring your favorite stuffed animal too for an engaging service for all ages.
I facilitated a retreat for our UU clergy of northern New England this week and in our closing ceremony each member of the group made one particular promise on behalf of our greater covenant to live our values. One minister from Vermont promised to invite all his colleagues when dining in public together to honor our principles by collectively eating only vegetarian meals. I am a pescetarian, and sometimes even a flexitarian, so I was intrigued by this relatively simple act of solidarity with animals. But from others I heard gasps and guffaws. I leaned in to listen and at first I thought he was talking about our collective promise to honor the interdependent web of which we are a part, our 7th principle, but I realized he was talking more about honoring the dignity and worth of all beings, an expansion of our first principle, which as of now still limits this promise to just persons. I’ve been reading the works of ethicist Peter Singer and he argues some animals are equitable to persons. Chimpanzees and other mammals and birds have the same if not more capacity than some humans to reflect upon themselves as existing in time and plan for the future no matter how little advance in the future they are planning. A self- consciousness, says Singer, that makes them a person.
Stories of this consciousness abound. I think of the goose witnessed by a farmer outside of Buenos Aires who changed his migration plans and stayed loyal to his lifelong partner who could no longer fly because of a broken wing. The farmer watched the healthy goose urge the other goose to walk south with him. And I think of the rescue of another goose whose feet were frozen in a river. Charlotte Edwards, a birder, watched as four swans swooped down and began attacking the ice with their powerful bills for hours until the goose was free. The swans started to fly away but the goose still didn’t get airborne. The swans landed again and began to scrape the frozen bird’s wings, chipping and chiseling until the goose was able to extend his winds, and at last they all flew away together.
What is striking for me in these stories are the innate expressions of loyalty and compassion for another, known and unknown to them. Zoologist Konrad Lorenz says that emotionally animals and humans are kin, linked by the commonality of our limbic brains, and for this I am grateful. I am grateful for the kinship with the animals of my life who have taught me loyalty, compassion and how to embody unconditional love, grateful for teaching me how to be a better person. Who in your life comes to mind? Greta was my teacher.
She was a German shorthaired pointer who came to us from a shelter. She was so anxious she had to pee every two hours and with six of us coming and going in our house at the time our schedules did not always mesh and over time a beautiful expensive wool carpet was ruined. I had to let that carpet go and when I did, I made room for all her compassion, joy, and love. For the way she melded her body into mine at any given moment which filled me with warmth. For the way she chased the swallow, or even the shadow of swallow, that filled me with delight, For the way she would sit in her favorite spot in the yard, her tail going a million wags a moment, watching with absorbed delight, each dart of a dragon fly, for hours, which always filled me with joy. She was the spirit embodied. A spirit that St. Francis, known for his relationship with animals, spoke of often, one that helped him to see everything as sacred, every being as sister, brother and cousin. A spirit that stretches our 7th principle beyond our respect for the interdependent web, to awe for, and love of the abiding and enduring act of creation upon which we depend. An awe and love made visible in our first principle of seeing and honoring the dignity, worth and personhood of animals. An awe and love that inspires humility, gratitude, and the understanding so powerfully said by Alice Walker that “the animals of the world exist for their own reasons, they are not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women where made for men.” A notion that invites us to consider the ethical difficulty of rejecting some forms of prejudice and oppression, like racism and sexism, while we practice unchallenged what Pete Singer calls specieism, the preferential treatment of some species over another. Will you join me today in a promise to challenge speciesism? For me, I am expanding my circle of concern and promise to no longer each fish. How about you, what promise can you make? For those of you who each meat, can you omit chicken, or maybe just beef from your diet? Maybe eat vegetarian when you go out to dinner? As for those already vegetarian, what is your promise. What step can we all take to end the culture of violence against animals?
As we bless our animals this morning I invite you to name for yourself the qualities of personhood your animal friends have enhanced. To name with gratitude how your life has been lifted by this relationship. And I invite you to tap into that deep well of abiding love that with your intention can expand your circle of concern to the personhood of all animals, and let the truth inform your life, let it become, like it did for St. Francis, the rock of your reality, the place from which to sing your love song to creation.