In Dog We Trust: The Blessing of the Animals in San Francisco

In the stunning Grace Cathedral covering the event, I contemplate the role of dogs in my life.

Liz Acosta  |  Oct 8th 2014


I have a hangover in church.

The day before my friends and I spent the afternoon bumping around my apartment, watching the sky outside turn as the plans we had made evaporated like champagne bubbles. I joke about confessing my headache-inducing sins and my friend — who works at Grace Cathedral and invited me to join her for the Blessing of the Animals — quickly corrects me.

“We don’t do that here,” she says.

At my feet, a King Charles Cavalier with bubble eyes peers up from beneath the pew ahead of me. I train my camera lens.

“Ssshhh, not during the service,” my friend corrects me again. I pout, but then I realize she’s just doing her job, and I am stubborn and don’t like being told what to do. In this case, I do as I’m told, and pause for reverence.

Which is justified because this is Grace Cathedral in the middle of San Francisco. One of the priests I meet is gay and my friend says I should check out the Tuesday evening yoga sessions in the church, and today it is the Blessing of the Animals and the celebration of St. Francis, after which the city is named.

You’d think narrow pews of beloved pet friends in a quiet place during a quiet time would be ripe for chaos, but the handful of dogs and couple of cats are well-behaved. I pretend that it is because they, too, feel the spirit moving in them. Incense fills the air with sweet smoke, drifting in slants of kaleidoscope-colored light; from the high ceiling, lengths of bright ribbon drop in starbursts; at the altar the organ heaves a full breath in a minor key, and the voices of the choir boys rise on their delicate notes — as perfect and as pure as a silver bell chiming. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and maybe it’s just because my eyes are bleary, but I almost cry.

My friend whispers, “Will you take Communion? It’s real bread on Sundays.”

I’m hungry but I shake my head. I am intimidated. The body of Christ or just some good sourdough — either way, myself and the dog next to me are transfixed, and under the weight of those stained glass windows and the fragrant smoke in my lungs and that chorus of sweet ascending voices, I confess to myself that I know as much as the mutt does. That I live in a world where doors open and doors close, and sure, science built an atom bomb, but I still can’t explain why my soul is so restless or how — exactly — I ended up here.

The blessings happen in the courtyard, where priests in colorful robes bend down on their knees and stroke the animals on the heads, and wish them long lives filled with health and happiness. There are, as expected, mostly dogs. One cat clings to his owner’s arms, beautiful but severe, hissing at the dogs and never swiping at anyone. The other two cats are surprisingly docile. A couple of the dogs bark nervously, but for the most part, they amble in the courtyard, receiving attention, and refraining from begging for the cookies set out with the after-service coffee.

“Can I take a picture?” I ask of a couple and their dog. My friend explains, “This is Liz. She works for Dogster.”

That’s how I got here — to this particular moment, at least. My friend extended the invitation for today because I work for an online dog magazine in a city named after the patron saint of animals.

I don’t know if you remember, but I am still dead set on moving from San Francisco. I’m sick of it. Some days I even hate it. The weather, the people, the latest boom in San Francisco’s get-rich-quickly-or-get-kicked-out history — I can’t stay. But even my move to the desert is the result of a confluence of omens.

I do not believe in God. Nor do I believe that there is no God. I believe I am human and part of that is the struggle to synthesize order out of chaos, and so I devised a belief structure that I know means nothing beyond trying to soothe the anxiety of existence. I believe there are two parallel worlds — one that is magic and one that is a reflection of the magic world, and that sometimes, the magic world seeps in through the cracks and the seams, delivering things like omens that let us know we are following the right paths to our own personal nirvanas. For me, my mystical omen is the dog.

My first encounter with omens was when my childhood dog ran away, granting me my first brush with grief and loss, and what profound pain can feel like for a child who had already experienced too many adult emotions. But out of that pain, I found the thing that would become my sophisticated coping mechanism — my writing.

Many years later, I’d find myself dog-sitting and house-sitting in Malibu. The house was out in the Santa Monica Mountains, luxurious and secluded, and I was free to make what I wanted of my time. I’d wake up early, walk my three dog pack through the trails, sit out on the beach with a book, and then come home and write. When the couple who owned the dogs and house returned, the wife — who’d been a dog walker in Toronto — suggested I try my hand at the profession in San Francisco. (You see, at that time, I was dead set on leaving Los Angeles because some days I hated it.)

Which is how Ambrose the black Labrador came into my life exactly when I needed him the most. I moved to San Francisco with a boyfriend who turned out to be a cheater — and worse, just terribly not self-aware. We broke up and my heart hurt so much it sometimes felt like I couldn’t breathe, and if it weren’t for my walks with Ambrose, I may have never gotten out of bed. Which is good, because it was one fateful day, after struggling to leave my house, that I would hand deliver the paper resume that got my foot in the door at Dogster.

San Francisco is not my home, but I needed to come here. It is in San Francisco that I have been reborn as one incarnation closer to my personal enlightenment. Before moving here I was lost, placing all my bets on codependent relationships in order to heal a childhood-trauma-sized hole in my heart. I was uncertain, insecure, and not at all ready to receive my destiny. Some days I really hate this city, but most days I am grateful, and while my move to the desert may take longer than anticipated, I am certain it is the right thing to do because a dog, essentially, told me to do it.

At the Blessing of the Animals, do the dogs know what consecration surrounds and anoints them? Maybe. Probably not. They know that they have human families with human hands that can open and close doors, feed them, hold them, hurt them. They have a sense that they are at our mercy. Annie, my childhood dog who ran away, remains an ominous figure I will worship in a tragic, chaotic creation myth, but I don’t think there is a Rainbow Bridge at which I will be reunited with her.

One girl has a rabbit in a kennel she has brought to be blessed. The priest obliges. I snap a photo. I still have a hangover and it is a particularly warm day in San Francisco. I am not exactly sure how I ended up here, but I do know — like all man and beast alike — where I will end up. So in the meantime, my friend and I decide, after the last of the animals have been blessed, that we should find someplace to eat where we can get a hair of the dog that bit me.

“Maybe that one place with the Bloody Marys,” she says. It sounds good to me.

Many thanks to the folks at Grace Cathedral for allowing me to be a part of this.

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About Liz Acosta: Dogster’s former Cuteness Correspondent, Liz still manages the site’s daily “Awws,” only now she also wrangles Dogster’s social media. That’s why she wants you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and — her personal favorite — Instagram. See ya there!