On a windy October day in observance of the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, a collection of dogs with their owners gathered under the side portico of the Pleasant Hill Community Church, United Church of Christ. No cats chose to attend, probably because of the preponderance of dogs.
Pastor Glenna Shepherd welcomed all to the annual St. Francis Blessing of the Animals. The opening hymn was “All Creatures to our God we Bring.” St. Francis of Assisi wrote this hymn shortly before his death, but it was not published for almost 400 years. The hymn was translated into English for a children’s festival in Leeds, England. It first appeared in a public school hymnbook in 1919.
A litany of “Prayers for Suffering Animals” was spoken by the humans gathered. The “Alleluia” was sung in response with a few dogs chiming in. Pastor Glenna named each animal in a prayer blessing and administered a doggie treat “communion.” Her own dog, Piper, squirmed jealously as his master warmly treated each dog with gentle caresses. But he also received a blessing and hug. The dogs loved the doggy treat offering. Chico, the Gittings’ Mammoth Jack observed from behind a tree a little way off, until he also received a blessing and a donkey treat.
The final blessing was from St. Clare, a companion to St. Francis of Assisi: “Live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road and may God’s blessing be with you always.”
The blessing of pets and animals occurs around Oct. 4, the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. This is also set to coincide as the culminating conclusion for the Season of Creation. The blessing of each animal, by name, means that health, healing and life are being mediated from God for the benefit of the animal in its relationship with its human partners.
This blessing reinforces our common kinship by blessing ALL animals — human and otherwise. In our increasingly environmentally-aware age, reference to St. Francis’s love of the natural world seems more quaint and agreeable than it would have been to 13th century ears according to popular historian John M. Sweeney’s recent book, “When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages.”
Sweeney notes, “No one in the 13th century paid any regard or showed concern for animals, other than as a source of labor, transportation, clothing or food.”
This is almost certainly an exaggeration, though it is possible that those in the Medieval world with a low view of the physical world would have found St. Francis’s unique attention to animals and creation a bit strange. He released doves that had been offered for sale; he sent recently-caught fish back into the water, and probably most enduringly crafted “Canticle of the Creatures,” that thanked God for the sun, moon, wind, water, fire, earth, as well as all of the created order.
As Sweeney notes, “He seemed to look into the eyes of creatures and see himself in them and even walked reverently over rocks in order to show honor to the One who is the Rock.”
Few churches honor the patron saint of ecology with more earnestness and verve — and with more animals in the pews and aisles — than the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. For the last 34 years, on the Sunday nearest Oct. 4, this immense cathedral, over 600 feet in length, was transformed into the lost Garden of Paradise.
However this year, due to a fire in the crypt on Palm Sunday, the cathedral was not able to host the 2,000-plus people and pets who usually attend this beloved service. Instead, a St. Francis Day Fair with Pet Blessings and the Great Animal Costume Parade was held in the afternoon of Oct. 6. All people and pets were encouraged to dress as their favorite animal in honor of Saint Francis. The day featured activities for kids of all ages, appearances by the Mettawee River Dance Theatre, food trucks and pet adoption agencies. Priests blessed the pets for the duration of the fair.
At 2 p.m., the Great Animal Costume Parade commenced and all in costume circled the cathedral grounds showcasing their fantastic animal costumes to the community, culminating in a ceremony awarding prizes in one of seven categories and celebrating Best in Show. The award categories were Most Incredible Insect, Best Mythical Creature, Most Magnificent Mammal, Best Ancient Animal, Most Precious Peacock, Most Super Ocean Dweller and Most Fantastic Beast.
The Blessing of the Beasts was more prosaic in Pleasant Hill with domestic pets and Chico. However, the love of the participating humans for their furry companions was just as immense.
This week in Pleasant Hill:
Wednesday, Oct. 30, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. is the last day Pioneer Hall Museum is open for visits until May. If you wish to visit, feel free to call Sharon at 277-5226 or Chris at 277-3742. They will try to arrange a special tour. Visit www.pioneerhallmuseum.net.
Wednesdays, 6 p.m. — Bible study and prayer at the Pleasant Hill Baptist Mission at 39 Browntown Rd. near Main St.
Thursdays, 2-4 p.m. — Fair Trade Room open in PH Community Church. Coffee, tea, chocolate and SERRV crafts from around the world. Supports co-ops and crafters with a “fair” price for their goods.
Thursday, Oct 31, 1:15 p.m. — PH Elementary School Halloween Parade. Students will be marching down Main St. with stops at Wharton Homes and Fletcher House. Main St. will be closed.
Thursday, Oct. 31, 5-7 p.m. — Trunk or treat sponsored by the Town of Pleasant Hill and held in the parking lot of the Pleasant Hill Community Church across from the PH Elementary School. Open to children of all ages.
Thursday, Oct 31, 6-8 p.m. — Fall Festival at Pleasant Hill Baptist Mission, corner of Browntown and Main Streets with trunk or treat, door prizes, food and family fun.
Saturday, Nov. 2, noon-6 p.m.— Chili Cook-Off and Silent Auction at PH Community House, 48 Church Dr. Wharton, Memory Care and Wellness Center staffs will vie for the best chili. Proceeds to update the Wharton access system.