Fall is an exciting season in the church because almost every week there is a special observance. The whimsical display before our altar is left from last week when we celebrated St Michael and All Angels, and today, some of our animal companions are here to be blessed in anticipation of St Francis’ day. This pairing – animals side by side with angels – reminds me that we humans are not the only creatures called to live in a relationship with God, the divine Creator, and that other beings, visible and invisible, are here to teach us a few things about the meaning of life.
One thing that our animal companions do teach us pretty quickly is patience. I personally love nature and all of its creatures: my parents and I are avid equestrians, I’ve had some kind of a pet for most of my life, I paint animals, and cultivate what my husband calls an indoor jungle. The first word that my youngest child said was “da” for dog! But, I also know that not everyone is equally moved by all living things, or perhaps, just doesn’t desire to have them in such close proximity. So today, I thank you for practicing the gift of patience with the few animals and their owners here with us. That’s partly the beauty of the church, isn’t it - a unique place where we put up with each other’s attempts to offer to God all sorts of imperfect sacrifices: the musical notes, words, and prayers that might come out with less grace and precision that we hope for, jobs performed with less skill than we think people ought to have, noisy presence of babies and yes, pets. With regards to the latter, we are definitely not unique in welcoming our four legged friends inside the worship space. The Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York is an episcopalian parish that sets a famous example by welcoming, one a year, into its massive Gothic building an impressive array of animals that includes camels, kangaroos, foxes, and etc.
St. Francis is the one in whose honor such spectacles as the one in Manhattan and here are being held. An influential monastic leader of the 13th century, a poet whose work is the earliest written sample of literature available in Italian, an evangelist who traveled as far as reaching the Sultan of Egypt, a founder of hospices and restorer of dilapidated churches… But that’s not, typically, what we remember first about him, of course, but rather his command and harmony with nature. Many of us feel that such was at some point God’s design for us, and so we cling to it intuitively and perhaps idealistically. Most cultures have a prototypical holy person similar to St Francis (e.g., the Russian St Seraphim of Sarov and Armenian St Blaise) to represent this desire. But in our admiration of them, may I suggest that we do not lose sight of one important point: that their respect for animals was neither sentimental nor for their own sake, but only because they are God’s creatures that “came from dust” just as we did, and are thus our partners in worship on earth, as the angels are in heaven. And most importantly, while these people preached and lived compassion for and good stewardship of nature, they did so, first, for people. Which is why they are equally famous for their emphasis on peace.
Their message of peace began with the call to cultivate it first within ourselves. St. Seraphim said: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” How? Remember, earlier I spoke of patience. Peace and patience are closely related because when we are more patient, we may not only react less strongly to each other’s faults in the moment, but might make better decisions for the future of our relationships because we are not as blinded by our emotions. Of course, this takes practice; and the lives of St Francis and Seraphim showed us that they, too, weren’t “born holy”. For example, St. Francis, who built numerous hospices in Assisi, initially had a great fear of lepers (perhaps understandably so).
There’s a famous story that Rossellini made into a movie of how one day, God inspired St Francis to overcome it. But in another, less well known episode from his later life, he met a person whose terminal illness made him terribly angry, so he terrorized the monks trying to do their best caring for him. The man not only lashed out at them, but also blasphemed against God for disfiguring him and making his life lose all meaning, which the monks found more difficult to put up with than the insults (I encounter people in this state on every visit that I make in my long-term care chaplaincy). St Francis came along, and what he did differently was ask what the man truly wanted. To which the patient said that he simply wanted to be bathed because his illness made him seem repugnant even to himself. St Francis did so, and his touch paired with the cleansing of the water healed the man physically as well as spiritually, and so he asked forgiveness of his impatient and angry behavior. You might say it was easy for him to behave well once he was made well.
And it’s true, in our world, physical and even mental healing doesn’t often come by miraculously. However, I still believe that what this story teaches us, along with many of Jesus’ own miracles, is that the first step in alleviating the suffering in another, is simply to ask (and make an effort to hear!) “what is it that you truly need?” Not want, or deserve - need. That’s probably what Jesus does by his typical opening line, “do you wish to be healed?”. If peace is rooted in patience, then patience itself is enabled by understanding; and hampered by fear. When we understand something about the true essence of another, and what needs they might have based on who they are, then we are able to be more patient. This works with annoying people, kids, pets, ecumenical dialogues – you name it. But when we allow our lack of knowledge to cause us to be afraid, then we might begin to treat others as less than human, and feel free to inflict all manner of evil.
In what seems to have been a fairly close imitation of Jesus, St Francis did cultivate such a gift of understanding that enabled him to foster all kinds of peace for which he became famous – with animals, angry patients, and even the Muslim ruler who could have easily executed him, but instead spent time conversing with him on matters of spiritual life. May we be inspired, in a similar manner, to become the instruments of God’s peace. Peace in all spheres of our lives, but always starting with ourselves, and practicing patience grounded in mutual understanding.