For Francis of Assisi, all of Creation bore the image of G-d and merits our love and respect. Indeed, it is that very Franciscan desire to demonstrate our respect for the non-human animal companions with whom we share our lives that brings people together every year for the Blessing of the Animals.
The reading from the Gospel of Matthew appointed for the Feast Day of St. Francis references a common theme in Franciscan thought, the wisdom of the little ones. In a rather odd statement, Jesus thanks G-d for having hidden the knowledge of the true nature of the world from those conventional society sees as wise and well educated. According to Jesus, we academics and public scholars, who sometimes think we know it all, have missed the big picture.
So, who does get it? To whom has G-d revealed the wisdom of the kingdom of G_d that Jesus came to proclaim?
The translation commonly used reads like this: “[Y]ou have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The term “infants” lends itself to two understandings.
The first is the notion that because children are not yet educated, they are rarely seen to be wise. Some scholars translate this term as “untutored,” people who have not been to school and thus have nothing of value to offer others. The second understanding of this use of infants is a reference to a common theme in Jesus’ teachings – the value of the anawim, the little ones that G-d loves. While the little ones included children, the anawim also included ordinary men and women going about their lives, seeking to survive in a brutal Roman Empire with its vassal state in Judea.
Francis of Assisi was very taken by the little ones of his own time. He believed they were dear to G-d’s heart and their wisdom was worth hearing and considering. Franciscans have always focused their attention on the poor, the sick, the homeless, the outcasts, those whom our society says have little wisdom to share with anyone. But Francis also believed that it was the non-human animals all around him all the time who were trying their best to communicate wisdom to him, wisdom that G-d, their Creator had imparted to them, wisdom that we human animals badly needed to hear.
In Memory of Miss Daisy (2006-2016)
Essential Life Lessons
For many of us, non-human animals are a daily part of our households. Why do we share our lives with these furry, feathered and scaly creatures of G-d? Are they simply possessions we own and eventually discard, one more aspect of shallow consumerist lives, or are they more than that?
Moreover, why are we so fascinated by the animals we observe in their natural habitats, both live and those we encounter on film and online? Why do we seek them out? What wisdom do they offer us? Perhaps more importantly, can we listen patiently long enough to actually hear what they have to tell us?
I’d like to offer a couple of insights that I have gained from a life shared with animal companions. Since I graduated from high school there has rarely been a time when I did not have at least one dog and one cat living in my household. Currently that number stands at four, one dachshund and three cats. Over the years I have learned to pay attention to their barks and their growls, their urgent meows and their purring, to notice the difference in tone from time to time which reveals the different concerns they are trying to communicate to me.
One of the essential lessons they reveal is the importance of interdependence. Contrary to the American myth of the rugged individual, evolutionary scientists today are telling us that our species, homo sapiens, became the fittest and thus survived when other species died out for one single reason: we learned to cooperate with one another. In recognizing our mutual dependency, human animals learned to insure a constant food supply, protect themselves against the elements and ultimately to live together and build civilizations. Our willingness to honor our interdependence made us the species most fit to survive.
Our household animals reveal that truth to us daily. They depend upon us to feed them, bathe them and care for their medical needs. They rely upon us to remember to take them out regularly so they don’t make messes in our houses. They are dependent upon us to live into our part of the deal under which they came to be part of our households.
But they also teach us vital lessons in what it means to be a fellow creature of G-d. Truth is, we have to cut a Devil’s Bargain to bring them into our lives in the first place. We know they will die before we do and that we will have to give them up before we are ready to do so. We know that our time with them is limited to about one fifth of the time we are on average privileged to spend on this earth.
For our animal companions, time is indeed fleeting. The moment is all we have with them.
And so we have to learn how to be present in the moment with them. To love them and laugh with them here and now. We must learn to appreciate their presence and their desire for affection even when we are tired and want to be left alone. We have to learn patience in giving them our undivided attention for the moment they demand it even as they stand in front of our computer screens between us and the document we have been slaving over for the last hour. We have to recognize that it’s precisely that exasperated moment when we least want to be bothered that we probably most need to stop and take a break.
Practicing love and engaging in laughter. Appreciating the presence of the other. Demonstrating a regular display of affection for those with whom we share our lives. Taking breaks from our driven lives. These are valuable lessons for us, indeed. There is no small amount of wisdom in this.
Our animals are also master teachers of the vital lesson of how to be compassionate. One of the great agonies of being the human companion of household animals is watching them suffer, decline and die. It is a terrible feeling of being helpless, unable to do anything to save them, a reminder of how much we rely on G-d’s presence to simply live our daily lives.
Their struggles evoke our compassion, a word which literally means the willingness to suffer with another living being. In a world in which suffering is a regular part of our daily lives, learning to be compassionate is a valuable lesson, indeed. There is no small amount of wisdom in this.
Our animal companions also provide us a reminder of G-d’s constant presence. The unconditional love they display for us, the willingness to forgive us for our impatience with them, our outbursts of temper over small indiscretions, the devotedness they display for us, wanting to be by our sides. These are reminders of the presence in our lives of a G-d who loves us unconditionally, forgives us without reservation and remains devoted to us even when we wander away and lose sight of that devotion.
What valuable lessons these reminders provide us. What wisdom they embody!
Important Messages from the Web of Life
Even the animals who do not live in our homes are constantly seeking to provide us with the wisdom we need for lives in what scientists are now calling the Anthropocene Age, the era in which the behavior of we human animals will play the deciding role in how our world evolves and changes. Many of us can readily visualize the polar bears in the Arctic struggling to survive on ever shrinking ice caps. But they are, in many ways, the mere tip of the iceberg of a planet in the midst of a major shift. We see that shift in the die-offs of species ranging from the coral reefs that line the coasts of our beloved state to the honey bees that are necessary for the pollination of the food that provides our daily bread.
These animals have an important message for us about our behaviors as one but only one of many species of an interdependent biosphere: The unrestricted consumption of natural resources, the destructive pollution of the environment fouling our own nest, the thoughtless use of potentially harmful chemicals and the introduction of genetically altered species cannot continue unabated. Bear in mind that the species of animals currently dying at the rate of 100 species per million species a year - a rate which is 10,000 times the natural extinction rate - are simply the most vulnerable species at the edges of the web of life. When that web goes away, so will the other species which depend upon it.
That includes a species called homo sapiens.
Ultimately we are all interdependent with the rest of the living beings with whom we share this fragile earth, our island home. The native Americans put it simply: They are our relatives. We are all related. So can we hear the wisdom that our fellow animals, our closest relations, have to impart to us? Can we countenance their suffering and respond appropriately?
Time will tell.
So I ask you to take a moment. Consider the little ones who have been your teachers. Remember the human and non-human animals whose gifts you have received. Think of the unlikely sources of wisdom from little ones you never knew possessed it. Be grateful for those gifts and take the time to express your gratitude this day whether it’s a word of thanks to the young man who bags your groceries, a pat on the head of that dog whose affection tells you that you are the center of her world, or the stroke of the coat of your cat who reminds you that, in fact, he is the center of your world.
Most of all, say a word of thanks this day to the gracious and generous G-d from whom all these blessings flow and whose very good creation we should celebrate this day and every day.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8