|Reverend Brent Woodard blesses Oliver, held by Lars|
C. Davis photo
On Sunday, September 30 United Church Reverend Brent Woodard presided over a special St. Francis service, the Blessing of the Animals. People were welcomed to attend the service with their pets.
I admit I felt a little snoopy bringing a camera to church.
"St. Francis is the patron saint of the environment and of animals, so it is a special focus for us once a year," Pastor Woodard told the congregation.
"Francis was not a priest, or an official cleric, he was just a layperson who found joy in following what he thought was the literal way of Jesus. He died at the age of 44, and was only religious for about 23 years."
"Francis was a mystic who saw God in everyone, and in all creatures. Francis saw people as equal. He saw the poor and lepers as brothers and sisters. he saw animals as God's handiwork, and said animals talked with God."
"There are stories of Francis taming wild animals, and of birds resting on his shoulders and arms."
"A prayer that is attributed to St. Francis is Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace."
Reverend Woodard explained it was the song that Francis was believed to be singing when he died.
A relatively modern English translation:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
-St. Francis of Assisi (source: Wikipedia)
"He did not believe that any person was higher that another person, that any was higher than the poor, or higher than lepers, even the Pope in some ways wasn't higher for Francis," Reverend Woodard explained. "Animals weren't below, they were a part, and equal part somehow of God's manifestation on this Earth."
Reverend Woodard invited the children in attendance to sit with him at the front of the church for "story time". "Sally (Woodard, his wife) were talking about how we don't always haven't call him St. Francis," he said, "because, yeah, Francis was maybe just kind of Francis. One of the things I wanted to share with you is that 800 years ago people didn't think as critically as we do today, and so, as soon as Francis died, there were stories told about him that you kind of go 'Was that true? Or did you make it up, or did you embellish it?'. People back then seemed to have a lot of freedom to exaggerate stories, so it makes it harder for us today to know, 'Did that really happen?' Another thing I want you to think about, sometimes it's hard to tell if a person is a Saint or if they're just crazy. In Francis' time, some people thought he was crazy and some people thought he was a Saint."
"When he died at the age of 44 thousands of people followed him and people all over Europe knew of him, so he had a real impact in his own lifetime."
Woodard talked with the children about Francis' work with lepers, relating it to diseases that people are afraid of today, and touching on the houses for lepers he and his followers built. He also talked about stories of Francis pausing in his travels to preach to birds. "Whether Francis spoke to the birds, we don't know, but that's part of the legend." He recounted the story of 'Brother Wolf' as one of those legends.
"Probably, Francis was a Mystic," Reverend Woodard told the children. "There's a difference between knowing something first-hand and second-hand." He gave a couple of examples outlining the difference between the two types of experience. "A lot of us only know the sacred reality we call God second-hand... some people know God first-hand, and that's like a mystic."
"I like to say all of us are mystics sometimes. Sometimes we know God, a lot of times, second-hand, with God as an idea, but every once in a while might feel the presence of that holy reality first-hand, and that's the mystic in us."
Hymns followed story time, with the Junior Choir singing beautifully together before the congregation joined together to sing 'God of the Sparrow'.
crow began to call fairly insistently from just outside the open window nearest the pulpit, literally out of the blue. "Wait your turn," Pastor Woodard said.
It was interesting to see how well behaved all of the pets were, despite what for them must have been an unusual experience.
One of the highlights of the day was the introduction of Rowan Sidney Hancock to the congregation, attending for the first time with mom Sahra Hancock.
After the service many of us retired to the church basement for refreshments, snacks, and good conversation.
- Our own aged cat wasn't able to attend the service, but was most grateful for the blessing of catnip that Sahra gave me afterward. Thank you Sahra! Our kitty has refused every other kind (except for freshly grown) as beneath her, or ineffective, it's hard to tell with cats, and the bag I purchased at Sahra's Bridges Natural Foods store (now closed) was running dry.
- Confession: I stole the title of this article from Brent Woodard.