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.
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.
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.)
1. Wesley, John, “The General Deliverance,” Sermons on Several Occasions, vol. 2 (Charles H. Kelley, 1909), 176.
2. Genesis 1:31
3. F.D. Maurice, “Three Letters to the Revd. William Palmer,” in To Build Christ’s Kingdom: F.D. Maurice and His Writings, ed. Jeremy Morris (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007), 91.