A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Blessings Galore at St. John the Divine

Celebrating Saint Francis Day at the renowned cathedral

(St. Francis Day – a.k.a. World Animal Day – is celebrated tomorrow, October 4th. Many churches hold a blessing of the animals around this time. The biggest is at St John the Divine in New York City.)

By Barbara J. King

Inside Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the pews fill quickly, and the air thickens with anticipation. As people await the Blessing of the Animals service, the hush is broken by music, whispered conversations and the occasional bark. Here and there, someone leans over to murmur a few words to the dog by his side, or to the cat or rabbit in a carrier at her feet. Soon, the clergy begin to offer communion to the faithful. Songs and prayers follow. Finally, the cathedral’s massive front doors swing open.

As light streams in, 1,200 people turn toward the entrance. In strides a magnificent camel, her single hump garlanded with flowers, led gently by a white-robed caregiver. The camel, named Sally, leads a procession of animals up the cathedral’s central aisle. Behind her come sheep, goats, chickens, a tortoise, a baby yak, a falcon, a reindeer, a wallaby, a small ape and assorted other animals.

Last to walk through the doors is a man pushing a wheelbarrow and hoisting a shovel. There’s humor in realizing that even in this holy space, the animals require a cleanup squad. But there’s also a palpable sense of peace and dignity to the procession.

On this first Sunday in October 2008, I joined the throngs at St. John’s to take part in the annual Blessing of the Animals held in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.

As the animals reach the altar, the bishop leads a prayer of thanks and praise, a prayer uttered directly to God in gratitude for “the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers, and for the wonder of your animal kingdom. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity.”

In those words we may find the true heart of the blessing ceremony: to express communally the joy we take in being with and caring for other animals, and to pledge anew our commitment to safeguard all creatures: those living wild and those living in our communities.

This relationship is grounded in a kind of mutual transformation: Even as we work to make the lives of non-human animals better, so our own lives are changed by the animals we know best. The Very Rev. James Kowalski, dean of the cathedral, has led blessing ceremonies at St. John’s since 2002. He notices again and again an emotional blossoming that people experience when they come to the cathedral with their animals.

“People are able in some way to allow themselves to become more vulnerable around things having to do with their pets,” he says. This letting-down-of-the-guard opens up new ways to feel part of a community in a city that, at times, can feel impersonal. As a result, we may all be moved to express greater compassion toward each other as well as toward other creatures.

As the service continues, the bishop blesses a jumble of species, arrayed as a small peaceable kingdom around the altar. The blessing offered to Sally the camel and all her fellow creatures begins with these words: “Live without fear; your creator loves you.” Hearing them, I cried, and I cry again now as I write them out. To live without fear: Isn’t that what all of us want for the animals in our world?

An overwhelming sense of goodness

Now the animals turn and, accompanied by music of rejoicing, make their way back up the aisle toward the cathedral doors. In the afternoon sun, the animals and their caregivers group together on the cathedral steps, as photographers capture the day’s memories.
For believers and non-believers alike who care about animals and animal welfare, the blessing ceremony renews the spirit.I mingle closely with the animals, but I was lucky to meet many of them earlier in the day. Hours before the service, people lined up to await entry into the cathedral. There I spent time with Michelle Auletta and her two rabbits, Rudyand Pumpkin.

“I go to church myself every week,” says Michelle Auletta, who has brought her two rabbits, Rudy and Pumpkin. “It’s a nice idea to appreciate God’s creation of all creatures on Earth.” No casual animal lover, Michelle prosecutes animal cruelty cases for New York’s Suffolk County. “Every time I get a bad case,” she says, “I go home and hug my own pets … and this event becomes more important.”

Maureen Skelton and Nancy Guliano have brought their dogs: Bailey and Mara are the golden retrievers with Maureen, and Lady is Nancy’s Border collie. Maureen attended her first animal blessing some time before, when another dog in her life had been ill with cancer. All three canines are therapy dogs who go into nursing homes, a school and a hospice to interact with people who could use a dose of love.

A large vehicle has pulled into a side parking lot. Two llamas stare out of its side slats. Green Chimneys Farm is one of several organizations that provide animals for the blessing ceremony, and as I watch, ponies, goats, sheep, chickens and llamas are off-loaded and set up with provisions to keep them comfortable. One worker turns toward the chicken pen and shouts, “Are any of the chickens having issues right now?”

In another parking lot I find more animals, including Sally the camel. Sally is no wide-eyed novice at the blessing ceremony; she has been here before, brought in from a 250-acre sanctuary in New York State where she roams freely with about 30 other camels.

Here in the parking lots, far from the public eye, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of goodness. Each and every animal is valued here. The experience inside and outside the cathedral is a seamless one: Just as the animals are honored with blessings and prayers in the cathedral, they are honored by love and care in their everyday moments here, out of the spotlight.

A personal blessing

Though the procession has ended, a key part to this special day remains. The clergy gather in the still-green autumn gardens of the cathedral. Everyone who has brought an animal from home is invited to receive a personal blessing.

The yard fills with people, and I see the clergy raising their hands to bless a dog here, a bird there. Even with a mix of species and breeds milling around, there’s an aura of calm in the yard. Not every animal is devoted to harmonic convergence, however. Once in a while, says Dean Kowalski, an agitated animal is better off confined to his carrier. “I can make the theological assertion that the blessing can penetrate the cage,” he jokes.

For believers and non-believers alike who care about animals and animal welfare, the blessing ceremony renews the spirit. With heightened awe for the untiring work of St. Francis, we all leave St. John’s rededicated to the work that matters: the work that aims to let all animals live their lives without fear and surrounded by love.

Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William & Mary, writes frequently about the relationship between humans and other animals.