Prodigal cat

by Linda Ryan

One of my boys went walkabout for a bit this morning. I had held the door open for just a few seconds too long and out he went, tail straight up with enthusiasm and racing away as if celebrating a release from jail. He hadn't done this for a couple of years and I thought I had made his life pleasant enough that he wouldn't do it again but I was wrong. He exemplified carpé diem to the max.

Ok, I'm talking about one of my three boy cats (my little girl doesn't mind being lumped with them as long as she gets her share of attention and treats), the four of whom constitute my main reason for getting up in the morning. To them I am staff -- not mistress, not always mom, but always staff to wait on them, clean up after them, provide their meals and facilities, and give out frequent pats, scritches and occasional treats.

Back to Sama, the walkabout cat. He was out of sight before I could say "Boo" or even, "Here, Sama!" I got him within sight but he bounded off behind the neighbor's trailer. I went to the far side of her lot but no Sama. Calling gently so as not to upset the neighbors I walked around but still no Sama. I went back in the house for a few minutes and went out again. He was over by the rosebush by one of the sheds, eating grass. I called him again and was roundly ignored. I went back in the house. I came back out a few more minutes later to find no Sama so I walked back to the back and then over to the other side of my neighbor's house. No Sama -- until I looked at the rosemary bush next to the step up to the patio. There I saw big yellow eyes, a black face and a red collar. Unfortunately, he wasn't ready to be reasonable and come back in the house but instead he disappeared again. I went back in the house. A few more minutes and when I looked outside, there he was near the front stoop. Here's my chance, I thought. This time I wasn't going barehanded. I had a plan.

Treats for the boys are truly that -- very occasional special stuff that they have to take turns getting. I think of it as a feline form of communion. If a cat sits there and waits his/her turn, s/he gets a treat from the package. And they know the sound of that package being removed from the drawer next to my desk. Oh, yes. One little rustle of the package and I usually have four furry friends in the immediate vicinity. This morning I only had three when I opened the package but I still had a plan. Sama was out on the patio, near the door and so I opened it and rustled the package while saying softly, "Sama, treat!" There was a flicker of interest but not much. I put a couple in my hand so he could see they would be there and opened the door a bit wider. FAIL. Off he went back to the rosebush again.

Back in the house for a few more minutes. Look outside, no Sama. Wait a few more -- and there he was by the stoop again. This time I went out with the package and rustled it. Hmmm. A flicker of interest, it appeared. He seemed to be in the mood for petting so I stroked the end of his tail, the only part of him I could reach. Ok, we were back on more familiar ground. He presented his ears and then his back and then his ears again. This time I managed to get off the stoop, scoop him up and, with him purring mightily, back into the house. Needless to say, everybody got another round of treats, but this time in small piles here and there so that everybody got some, including Sama. Within a couple of minutes he was stretched out on my desk, no doubt contemplating the greater world outside vs. the comfort (and treats) inside. Now he's on the top cradle of the cat-tree, looking out the front window and no doubt planning his next foray which, I'm afraid, will be the next time I open the door to go in or out.

During this whole thing I thought about the story of the prodigal son and thought that perhaps it would do to pay a little attention to the story of the anxious father. We get most of the story from the POV of the prodigal, what he did while he was gone, his thought processes and his reflective journey back to what would probably be a sort of jail without bars. If he were lucky, he would be able to count on at least a job tending animals but he knew too that his father wouldn't let any of his workers go hungry or homeless. Meanwhile, though, what of the father? The story tells of the older brother who has been working hard, doing what he was supposed to do and not being very happy about having his inheritance diminished and one less hand around the place to help with the work. But the father? What of him?

I thought about my Sama outside in a world he really doesn't know anything about except that it is big and it has a lot of alluring things in it: grass to chew, other cats to chase, lots of different smells to sniff, places to rub, and things to investigate that never show up inside the house. The prodigal had a great time on his walkabout but I was a wreck. What if he got hit by a car? Even with a posted speed of 5 mph, cars zip by this house like it was a speedway or something sometimes. What if another cat attacked him for being an interloper? What if he got lost and couldn't find his way home? What if, what if, what if? I imagine the prodigal's father had those same kinds of thoughts and, I imagine, he probably went to the door a dozen times a day, hoping to see a familiar figure coming down the road. I know the frustration and fear he would have felt, hoping against hope but not seeing the one thing he most wanted to see.

Luckily, both stories have happy endings with the prodigals returning home and a celebration following. What I am left with is a contemplation of what it means to love and lose, even if briefly and even if the prodigal is only out of sight for a few minutes. While I realize the story of the prodigal son was a parable Jesus told to illustrate how much God loves me (and all the other prodigals in the world), it took Sama to make me look at it through a different set of lenses, that of the father who gave his son the freedom he desired and who never stopped looking for him to return home safely.
It makes me also realize that all the characters in the story are me at some time or other in my life. Today, though, I'm the rejoicing parent. My prodigal is once again home, a celebration has been held and things are (more or less) back to normal.

Thanks be to God.


Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Slugs and suffering

By Richard Helmer

It's uncanny how the most casual of parenting errors can lead to the most profound lessons of life.

On the eve of Pentecost in gorgeous Northern Californian spring weather, we were in the midst of dinner when my wife noticed a small slug munching silently on a potted succulent outside on our apartment deck. Before we had thought things through, we were encouraging our six-year-old son in the age-old biology experiment involving slugs and salt.

In a much-beloved scene of the Harry Potter stories, Ron suffers the consequences of a broken wand when his spell back-fires. He ends up spending the better part of a chapter throwing up slugs. The half-giant Hagrid offers him a bucket, remarking the only way forward is to bring up every last slimy beast. We are captivated by the comic value, never wondering what becomes of the slugs. Slugs are icky, spineless, and alien to us. They are among the simplest and most dispensable of life forms on the planet, surely.

But following the deed involving salt and the little unwelcome garden pest, we were surprised when our son burst into tears. Daniel had not shed a single tear for his ant farm when the ants quite naturally died after several weeks. Nor did he cry over Ginger, our aged Chihuahua, when she at last passed on. But somehow the deliberate extermination of this slug, amongst the least of God's creatures, was qualitatively different.

As I tried to comfort our six-year-old, I remembered Jesus' words about salt and the awful distortion of that teaching we had just inadvertently shown our son by using the stuff of earthy goodness to inflict suffering on an unsuspecting mollusk. I recalled the cruel acts other children and I committed against spiders and pill bugs growing up in The Midwest. I remembered my long unlearned squeamishness about threading fishing hooks with wriggling earthworms. I recounted the shock I felt in the accidental drowning of my box turtle, Sid (I thought he could swim).

We briefly attempted the rather lame "adult" explanations about death being part of life. Yet no words but "I'm sorry" and a long, tearful hug would do over the pained death of this slug. Ladling irony upon irony was our reverently washing the remains of the creature away with a little green watering can - it bore the logo of the 2006 General Convention: Come and Grow.

Each day we exterminate millions of pests so millions of people can make a living and millions more may eat. But truly there was no harm in this single tiny slug doing what it was meant to: chewing unobtrusively on a single leaf of a healthy plant a hundred times its size. How easily we teach our children to be desensitized to suffering and cruelty.

True to resilient form, our six-year-old bounced back after about half an hour, though he shared with me just before his bedtime that he still felt sorry for the slug. That blessed, most holy of slugs! Long may it rest in the merciful hands of our loving Creator.

My wife and I spent the rest of the evening quite sobered by the experience. After all, if even half of us had the heart of our six-year-old, God knows the world would be a far more peaceful place.

Now we know, too.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Freaks for Christ: Mourning Brother Squirrel

By Christopher Evans

Imagine someone holding a funeral for a squirrel on the roadside as you drive to work. Crazy, no? Probably.

Some time back as I drove to work, I noticed a dead squirrel in the middle of the opposite lane. Two other squirrels were trying to rouse him, shaking his body to and fro without success. A third was chattering from the bank on the side of the road, clearly agitated. They were all running back and across the road. Should I stop? Keep going? I continued driving on. I had nearly made it into the parking lot at work when my fellow-feeling hit. In their attempts to help their fellow squirrel, now presumably dead, one of the other squirrels might get killed as well.

So, I turned around and drove back. I parked. I got out and searched through the trunk, coming up with some cardboard and a plastic lid with which to move his body. As I moved toward his body, one squirrel was trying to move his body, little legs widespread, pushing the body toward the curb with great difficulty. I paused as a truck approached, put my hand up to indicate slow down, and waived the driver around. I turned back to the body. He, for he was clearly male, was dead. I was relieved for that much for his own sake and for mine, as I do not know what I would have done if he were still alive and suffering ever so slowly to death from crushed innards. His right-hand eye was popped clear out of its socket. His teeth were pushed clear forward nearly out of his mouth, blood beginning to dry on his lips. I stooped down and scooped his furry tan-and-black body onto the hard plastic lid using the piece of cardboard. I moved his body to the side of the road beneath a three evergreen trees.

I placed his body on the ground, resting his paws in his breast, and having no spade with which to dig, I did my best to cover his body with earth using the plastic lid which I’d used to move his body. And with one squirrel on the ground to my left observing, another nearby in a tree chattering, and the third to my right up another tree, I made the Sign of the Cross, paused with them for a moment of silence, and then raising my hands in the orans position, I chanted aloud a version of my “Roadkill Prayer”:

Blessed are you, O God of all creation, we give you thanks for the life of this squirrel, your creature. Now receive him into your eternal care where he might enjoy you forever according to his estate; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I closed with the Sign of the Cross. Yes, it all felt a little silly at near 8:00 AM on a workday morn. A man was mowing his law across the street. What must he have thought as I stood there praying with three very twitchy squirrels momentarily still? Another Bay Area freak?

But the gesture was profoundly right. I was changed. It is as if scales began to fall from my eyes just a bit. Who pauses to mourn a squirrel? To think anew about how we drive without care of our surrounds and those who inhabit them with us? There are countless millions of these pesky rodents. Yet, this squirrel was a fellow creature, a unique creation of flesh and blood whom God declared “good, indeed, very good.” He too is a subject of God’s care and concern in his own right irrespective of how he stands in relation to us human beings. God hears his “Holy, holy, holy” with our own, as the Psalmist reminds: “All thy works shall give thanks to thee, O Lord, and all thy saints shall bless thee!”

In our anthropocentrism, we are only now discovering the vast and varied intelligence of our fellow creatures and the relationship of ours to theirs. And as our own existence and survival is pressed, we are just beginning to understand the ecological and cosmological dimensions of our faith in Christ and calling as Christians. We need not go far to readjust our vision. We need only put on our Prayer Book lens to recover a sense of reverence.

This line of oblation from Prayer D in our Prayer Book exemplifies and sums our role in Christ and our proper orientation to all of creation: “and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you.” In the Orthodox tradition from which Prayer D heavily borrows, in Jesus Christ we are priests of creation, called to glorify, bless, and praise God without ceasing and to pray for and serve all of God’s creatures as bearers of blessing.

To give thanks, eucharist, is our rightful place at Holy Communion as well as in the Daily Office. These properly mark our daily life and work as thanksgiving in their own right. Thanksgiving and blessing and service are our “dominion” and “rule,” “right” and “image.” Our Prayer Book stands in complete contrast to those who justify the “rape of the earth” for the sake of production, consumption, and progress.

Tongues wagged as my own bishop, Bishop Steven Charleston, addressed the close of General Convention 2009 with a prophetic challenge: This earth, “our island home” is in grave peril. Species are dying. Biomes are changing too rapidly for adaptation. Toxins are killing everything. We cannot keep living like this.

While most paid all of their attention to matters of human sexuality, I rejoiced at the passage of resolutions addressing animal welfare. I am sure some eyes rolled at the passage of Resolution C078: Liturgy for Loss of a Companion Animal.

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That this 76th General Convention reaffirm that all animals are a part of All Creation, for which we are called to be stewards of God's gifts; and be it further

Resolved, That the Episcopal Church embrace the opportunity for pastoral care for people who grieve the loss of a companion animal; and be it further

Resolved, That this General Convention direct the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to develop liturgical resources to observe the loss of a companion animal and that it reoprt its work to the 77th General Convention.

EXPLANATION
Various groups within the Church have shown an interest in developing inclusive liturgies for events that touch people's lives, for which there currently exists no authorized rite. The bond between humans and their animal companions can be strong, causing a deep sense of loss, grief (or even guilt) over the animal's death, especially when dealing with the loss alone, without the presence of their community of faith, or having the preconception that such an event falls outside the interest of their church. Our animal companions provide a unique connection to creation and expand our sense of God's diverse gifts in creation. In many cases they also join us as partners in ministry, in such capacities as assistance animals, i.e., seeing eye dogs, etc. as well as therapy dogs and cats used in health care facilities and for pastoral care. An authorized rite in the Book of Occasional Services would give clergy and others a resource for offering pastoral care at the death of a companion animal.

How far-gone must the Episcopal Church be that they are passing legislation directing the development of rites for animals? Too few in the Episcopal Church know of the jabs the Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey has taken for developing precisely these sorts of liturgies and a theology of animals heavily rooted in the Incarnation upon which his thought and concern are based. We are witnessing the expansion of our lex orandi through revisiting and reappreciating our lex credendi: Christ’s Incarnation is for the sake of all flesh. No less than SS Benedict, David, Francis, and Seraphim could have told us as much, if we would but pay attention to our ancestors in faith. Again, the seeds are already planted in our Prayer Book and resources.

To bless God in Christ by the Spirit is the foundational act for our living, our serving, our dying. This is the embrace to which our Lord Christ calls us as images of His own “great High Priesthood,” in the words to the close of Prayer C. Reverence begins with what is in front of us by giving thanks for God’s goodness. A bow for He who comes in the Name of the Lord matters at the Thrice-Holy. A thanksgiving before eating daily bread acknowledges gift. A desire to see each person blessed by tangible graces and up-building words greets Christ. An unwillingness to pause in appreciation at the felling of a thousand-year old tree teaches blasphemy. The put-down of another makes flesh our curses. Or in F.D. Maurice’s words, “the Incarnation may be set aside in acts as well as words.” The recovery of this sense of wonder and awe at a God’s creation is a first step to finding our proper place again, that is, to learning humility. To recover reverence of God’s gifts is to profess the Incarnation.

Certainly, to offer words of thanksgiving for the loss of a domesticated animal companion will not save the planet. Nonetheless, to bless God for the life of just one animal, who has been a friend and companion, begins to have us think anew about our fellow creatures, about creation, about ourselves, about God. Such a gesture may be small, but it is significant step toward recognizing our coexistence with, our reliance upon, and our shared flesh as fellow creatures. And so we find these words from another resolution passed, D015:

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 76th General Convention support the humane and merciful treatment of all of God's Creatures; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention urge Diocesan Environmental Commissions or Committees to provide information to educate our congregations about decisions that would affect the lives and health of endangered species, farmed food animals and domesticated animals; and be it further

Resolved, That each congregation be encouraged to refer this resolution to their outreach committee or other such venue in order to ensure the education and dissemination of information to their members about endangered species, farmed food animals and domesticated animals.

EXPLANATION
The Christian Tradition holds that God has created the earth and all that lives herein. It teaches that all God created is “good”, and further, that we are held accountable for the right stewardship of God's creation. A number of endangered species are rapidly becoming extinct; a notable example is the Red Knot bird that traverses between Argentina and the Arctic with a key food stop in New Jersey where one specific local species is under siege threatening the elimination of the Red Knot's critical food, the eggs of the horseshoe crab, by the crabs' over-capture as fishing bait. And overdevelopment of United States' virgin lands has put a large variety of indigenous species' existence in imminent jeopardy. Food animals continue to be cruelly and mercilessly treated: pregnant sows are totally confined in gestation crates, veal calves are penned in veal crates and are barely able to move around or even stand up; chickens are crammed together for life into battery cages in a space no larger than this page; geese are brutally force fed to make foie gras; grazing animals are fed antibiotics to increase size, that are then contained within their meat, passing these antibiotics on to consuming humans who become more and more vulnerable to resistant bacterial strains. Huge factory farms house animals in deplorable and unsanitary conditions resulting in foul run off, polluted ground water, and contamination linked to human diseases. Stressed food animals produce stress hormones. This can compromise their immune systems. Antibiotics are in turn routinely given to ensure that the animals are not overwhelmed by ambient microorganisms. Small doses of these antibiotics, showing up in the meat eaten by humans, actually increase human vulnerability to resistant strains of microorganisms. By education we can make a real difference in the level of awareness of these problems and practices. Congregations can become aware of the most vulnerable of God's creation and respect the dignity of “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all” (Cecil Frances Alexander, Hymn 405 in Hymnal 1982).

In all truth, to do so is to begin to recognize the height and depth and breadth of the Incarnation. In the words of our newer prayers, Prayer 3 of Enriching Our Worship: “through Jesus Christ, your eternal Word, the Wisdom from on high by whom you created all things.”

It is precisely these lines borrowing from the Prologue of John and the hymns of Colossians and Ephesians that inspired a revolution in theology—Creation is in Christ. As St Maximos the Confessor, F.D. Maurice, and Charles Gore and the Lux Mundi school discovered, Jesus Christ is a social Person. We are not autonomous, but embraced. In Christ is the whole of creation. In Christ we live and move and have our being. By Christ we have hope for all of God’s creatures. We are most ourselves in Christ. And we humans are charged to “live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he [who] sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” May we be freaks for Christ. Amen.

(For footnotes, click Read more.)

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Mourning Diamond

By Deirdre Good

We put Diamond to sleep yesterday. She was with us for thirteen years. How do you let go a part of your life for that long?

At the vet, we brought our other dog Reuben into the airless room to say goodbye. We lay with her on the floor and we told her all the things we loved about her and would remember for ever: the way her fur smelled like jasmine, her fierce independent spirit and leadership, the way she loved and brought up Reuben. We told her she would be free of pain and spoke of our hope that she would soon be with Angus, our shepherd who had known and welcomed her into our family.

And when she was gone and lay lifeless on the floor, we agonized over whether we had made the right treatment choices: to amputate her leg after the diagnosis of OS six months ago or to put her to sleep right then and there; to gauge almost on a daily basis how much pain she was in, and how much medication to give her; to assess when to live and when to die. Is not the power of life and death even over family pets an awful responsibility?

Death itself is the first rift. Who can say that it is not agony to look at the lifeless body of a loved one and know that they will never rise again in this life? To know that only memories now spin out threads of connection and to feel her absence as a physical ache echoing in the silences of the house to which we returned.

But separation takes many forms. Here's another chasm over which we try to jump daily. Since mutual communication between dogs and humans is non-verbal, how can we ever tell what she is thinking and feeling? And this is all the more acute when trying to treat a dog in pain. After all, isn't communication with animals a projection of our own imaginations?

The only thing we can do is pay attention so as to perceive what is going on in the animal's reality. She did feel better with that course of pain medication. But heavy panting shows that she's in pain. When I encounter an animal's reality that is utterly different from my own, maybe, just maybe, I begin to understand. I am not projecting. I am trying to bridge that divide. Temple Grandin describes this in her book, Animals in Translation.

Diamond, like most dogs, lived in the present. She accepted each day for what it was. And each day meant another day in the life of her pack-the one that she was in charge of. Unlike most dogs, however, Diamond could and did weigh up options, for example, in responding to commands. Obedience was something to be considered. It took longer and must be deliberated. We ended up in something more like a negotiation. Probably the British owner who beat her before we adopted her had something to do with this. She had reasons for this behavior, and we attributed many of her more difficult personality traits to the abandonments and abuses she experienced in her first eight months, or to her dominant temperament, invaluable to the wild dog pack but a little out of place in a New York apartment.

We got into the habit of thinking of her as "difficult," and perhaps because of this we didn't pay the proper kind of attention to her frequent unwillingness to go for walks. When she finally started to limp heavily and we discovered the bone cancer, as soon as she was on good strong pain medication she was eager to go for long walks. Then we remembered how she chewed on and licked that leg, for no apparent reason, for two years, and then stopped for just as opaque a reason a few months before the limping began. She was telling us something was wrong, both with the reluctance to walk and with the persistent licking - and we saw it and knew it and still didn't get it. We were biased towards our own beliefs about her behavior to pay attention to the evidence.

Early one morning we took a walk around the block where we live in New York City. As we walked towards 10th Avenue, we could see a squirrel at the end of the street. Its erratic behavior consisted of attempting to climb a lamppost or running up a wall and falling off. This behavior became more frenzied as we drew closer. Diamond was very interested. Rather than running in the opposite direction, the squirrel suddenly, and to our astonishment, flew into Diamond's mouth. "Drop it!" I yelled futilely. "Are you kidding?" I imagined her reply, although she did eventually. And thereafter, I could sense her optimism that other squirrels on city streets might also practice the same anomalous behavior.

After we left the vet yesterday morning, we drove to Diamond's favorite state park where we walked in a pine forest at the water's edge. She only managed a few yards on her last visit, but she seemed content to be there. Now, the resonance of her absence was tangible. That'll be true of every place we shared from now on.

We decided to plant a rhododendron for her in our garden. At the nursery, the assistant pointed out that deer like rhododendron buds. We indicated our deterrent Reuben in the car. She told us that local deer herds had had a hard winter and many died of starvation. There was simply not enough food. That morning, coyotes had attacked a pregnant female while giving birth.

This year, ten million children will die in low- and middle-income countries. Death is in fact all around us every day. We'd know this if we lived in a war zone or a place of diminishing food supplies. We just filter death out of our minds because we cannot bear too much reality. And reality might lead to care for others, which is the only thing that matters in this life, as Elie Wiesel tells us. Who can bear the thought of so many unlived children's lives? We distance ourselves by using statistics rather than names and stories. But we don't just avoid reality: we encourage its avoidance. Much of our culture gives us the illusion that we can reverse ageing and prolong life in various ways. In truth, to be alive every day and to awaken every morning is to receive the gift of precious life. Diamond's gift to us is just that: the daily presence of her wild and precious life and the caring for each other that might make a difference. And if there's a heaven without Diamond, count me out.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. She blogs at On Not Being a Sausage.

When a pet dies

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Spotted with tumors, hobbling around the kitchen with his hips out of whack, sixteen-year-old Toto was too tuckered out to even bark anymore, but he still nuzzled up to us, still refused to touch his dog food until we grated fresh Parmesan over it. He was a small dog but with tons of spirit, everyone said; too much to be put down. Palliative care was what he needed, we told the vet, and when she put him on steroids we started calling him "Arnold." Finally, the day before our parish's St. Francis Day pet blessing -- where Toto, a low-slung mop of shaggy cairn terrier fur, made a spectacle of himself every year, doing his best to hump every yellow lab and golden in sight -- he lay down beside his water dish and couldn't get up. My husband and I carried him on his final visit to the vet, who injected him twice, then pressed a stethoscope to his belly. "His heart's stopped," she said, wrapping him in his blanket. "He's running around in doggie heaven."

Sweet of her to say, I thought, as we hugged her and said goodbye, but the words sounded sentimental, like a story about the tooth fairy. To be honest, whether we're talking about humans or animals, my spiritual inclination is to turn not to promises of heaven, but to the divine presence in the here and now. Still, although I'd petted Toto's lifeless body, I was struggling to grasp how so much sheer terrier exuberance could just vanish. On the drive home I remembered how a clergy friend once told me that at funerals he preached the law of conservation of energy: that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed from one form to another. Maybe that applies to Toto, I thought for a split-second, then pushed away the thought. Even in grief, I told myself, no need to turn into a flake.

That night in yoga class, one pose after another -- Down Dog, Up Dog, Old Dog -- was a sad reminder. I was beginning to wish I'd stayed home. But as we began our meditation, the teacher said, "Your breath and heart are the portal to boundless joy." Boundless joy: I couldn't think of a better description of Toto racing across the lawn, yipping at passers-by. Breathing deeply as I sat cross-legged on my mat, I had a sense -- a holy sense -- that somehow he and I were still connected in the love of God. It wasn't the first time I'd been surprised by the awareness that grace is far more abundant than I, with all my self-conscious fears of sentimentality and flakiness, can begin to imagine. After class as I put on my shoes, I wondered why in church, St. Francis and the cows in the manger aside, we don't talk about that deep bond between ourselves and God's other creatures. Time to do a little research, I decided. I wanted my head to catch up with my heart.

I started with All God's Creatures: The Blessing of Animal Companions (Paraclete Press), by Debra Farrington, a spirituality writer, retreat leader, and member of the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare. If God created all, Farrington reasons, "I'm just as likely to encounter God's presence in a cat, dog, or other animal as a human being." She quotes St. Basil, who called animals "our brothers," and St. Bonaventure, who wrote, "For every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom."

How, I wondered, could that sacramental view translate into pastoring a family like ours? I contacted Rev. Margaret R. Hodgkins, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, New Providence, New Jersey, which maintains a pet cemetery rumored to be the final resting-place of the famous MGM lion. "We can't know if there is a special pet heaven," the Rev. Hodgkins told me. "But we do know that our pets are God's creatures, and that God loves them. He made them and he called his creation good. And just as we believe that God's love continues to unite us to those departed persons whom we have loved and no longer see, I believe it is the same with animals who are members of our families. We entrust these creatures into God's hands when they pass away, and that helps us let go." Although at St. Andrew's a simple graveside blessing -- the Prayer of St. Francis or the Lord's Prayer -- is offered in thanksgiving for a pet and for the comfort of the mourning pet owner, she says, they have "no special rites or liturgies for pet burials. No such rites have been authorized by the Episcopal Church."

Happily, I discovered, that doesn't stop people from writing them. After presiding over hundreds of services at the Hartsdale (NY) Canine Cemetery, the Rev. Rayner "Rusty" Hesse of St. John's in New Rochelle, New York, and his partner, Anthony F. Chiffolo, wrote We Thank You, God, for These: Blessings and Prayers for Family Pets (Paulist Press). The book is a collection of lovely prayers for all kinds of pets -- cats, dogs, ferrets, mice, snakes -- at various life stages. "O God, Creator of all things bright and beautiful," reads one blessing, "Bless all living things around us, especially the animals that you have given into our care, that our interaction may be one of peace and harmony in living; help us learn from them, and they from us, about your purpose for this world; and may we remember that we are created from the same primal dust, to which we all return. In a life replete with challenges, a life of joy and sadness, of great gatherings and lonely places, surround us with the Spirit of mutual respect, one for the other and make us companions along the way."

Inter-species blessings you could call these, it occurred to me; why wouldn't the church authorize them? For a theological perspective I wrote to the Rev. Andrew Linzey, a member of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford, who holds the world’s first academic post in Ethics, Theology and Animal Welfare and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by the Archbishop of Canterbury in recognition of his "unique and massive pioneering work in the area of the theology of creation with particular reference to the rights and welfare of God's sentient creatures." Strange that a tradition that has countenanced the blessing of cars, houses and foxhunts has no liturgies for the death of a companion animal, the Rev. Linzey observed. "Our very worship bolsters an exclusive view that only humans matter," he wrote in an email. "I wince when I hear the UK Eucharistic line that humans are the "kings" of creation -- in fact the biblical view is almost entirely the reverse. In Genesis 2, the garden is created and humans are put in the Garden to till it and serve it (Gen. 2:15)." Linzey referred back to early Eucharist prayers in the Apostolic Constitutions (4th century) that "genuinely celebrate and give thanks for the whole of creation -- indeed it is the purpose of humankind to offer the Eucharist for 'all things' and to articulate and represent the voices of creation before God. The truth is that our God is too small. We think that God is only interested in one species that she has made. The result has been a narrowing of our spirituality. We foolishly think that spirituality is about cultivating of our souls rather than caring for the creation that God loves. We have become spiritually impoverished without recognising it."

Nothing flaky about it: an awareness of God's love for all creatures is a long-standing part of our tradition. It was an Anglican clergyman, Arthur Broome, who called the first meeting in 1824 that led to the founding of the then SPCA, the world's first animal protection society, Linzey noted in his book Animal Theology (University of Illinois Press). "Broome was the Society's first secretary, resigning his London living to work full-time for the cause, employing inspectors out of his own pocket and ending up in prison trying to pay for the debts of the Society." He also cited the conclusion expressed without dissent at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 that "the redemptive purpose of God in Jesus Christ extends to the whole of creation." As if that weren't clear enough, Linzey said, "I can be sure – as sure as I am of anything – that the merciful God disclosed in Jesus Christ will not let any loved creature perish into oblivion. To deny this gospel of hope to all other species except our own strikes me as an arrogantly mean doctrine of God."

Given that God's compassion is far greater than our own, how can God not love Toto as much as we did?

The Rev. Linzey offered a prayer from his book Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care (The Pilgrim Press), written after the death of his own dog Barney. We'll be saying it when we scatter Toto's ashes.

Pilgrim God
who journeys with us
through the joys and shadows
of this world

be with us
in our sorrow
and feel our pain;

help us to accept
the mystery of death
without bitterness
but with hope.

Among the shadows
of this world,
amid the turmoil of life
and the fear of death

you stand alongside us,
always blessing, always giving
arms always outstretched.

For this we know:
every living thing is yours
and returns to you.

As we ponder this mystery
we give you thanks
for the life of (Name)
and we now commit him/her
into your loving hands.

Gentle God:
fragile is your world,
delicate are your creatures,
and costly is your love
which bears and redeems us all.
Amen.


[(c) Andrew Linzey, Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care published in the U.S. by The Pilgrim Press. Used with permission.]

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

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