Saint Francis of Assisi was the patron saint of animals, and to celebrate St. Francis Day (Oct. 4) churches all over the country have been offering animal blessing services at various times all month. At 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Brooklyn will have a Blessing of the Animals and Service of Remembrance for “all creatures great and small and their caregivers, as well as beloved animals no longer with us.” (To have the name of your departed animal read during the service, please send an e-mail to email@example.com.)
The simple service will last about 15 minutes, and all are encouraged to “stay around out in front of the church or in the garden to strengthen the bonds of our animal loving community.” The animal blessing has been a tradition at this divine destination for dogs since 2010. Ascension’s address is 127 Kent St., between Manhattan Avenue and Franklin St., in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section (visit it online here).
The church will welcome “all creatures great and small” — including dogs, cats, birds, and other species – inside the chapel for the service. Dogs must be leashed; cats, rodents, and other animals must be in carriers. What’s more, this is as serious a church service as any other, promises The Rev. John Merz of the Church of the Ascension.
“This is not cute; this is real,” he says. “Animal blessings are not throwaway services or add-ons. The sacramental role of the priest in the church is not to createthe blessing, but to recognize and acknowledge the gift, the given-ness of what is there: What is beautiful, what is good, what is filled with rich depth. That’s what blessing is about. We recognize the beauty of a child, of new creation, of the love of the family. The priest engages something that’s already true and makes it more fully realized through the ritual act of blessing in community. That’s where the mystery of what we haltingly call God is revealed.”
In fact, Merz adds, “The sacrament of presence is often expressed most clearly in the service of the animal blessing because animals are an expression of a kind of pure presence. They’re absolutely in the moment – not living in the past or projecting into the future. They’re right there.”
By Merz’s side will be his “K9 Pastoral Advisor”Lola, the priest’s own beloved Bernese Mountain Dog. “Lola will hang out with me through the blessing,” hesays. Lola has attended church many times. “When I was the Episcopal Chaplain at New York University,”Rev. Merz recalls, “I had services for college students and Lola came to every service; she lay down in the center aisle. One person said that’s why he came to the service.”
“Lola’s presence at a service immediately has an effect on the contemplative state of the people there,” says her devoted human. “People would walk in andmthis enormous, 100-pound dog would be lying there on her side, breathing heavily; she has a calming effect. There are candles and it’s quiet, and there really is a sense of the totality of God’s creation. The interior of the church has often been expressed imaginatively as a kind of cosmos, and the presence of a heavy breathing animal at peace adds fullness and gives body to that experience.”
Can a dog’s presence in church bring the congregation closer to God? Merz believes that it can. “The presence of a dog brings us to the mysterious source from which we all come,” he says. “All of us are sentient beings; all of us are animals, you know. Some of us have language and symbolic expression, but all of us breathe, all of us think, all of us dream. I’ve seen my dog dream, I’ve seen her legs twitching at night, I’ve heard her bark in dead sleep. What is she dreaming about?”
“One of the most memorable moments I had in church was a blessing of the animals that I did in Manhattan,” Merz recalls. “To look out and see people sitting in pews, shoulder to shoulder with German Shepherds and Labradors and birds and snakes and kids with stuffed animals … the whole thing felt to me like the world I wish I lived in every day. Well, I do live there, you know, we all do – but I saw it more clearly that day.”
That sounds like a blessed world indeed. See you in church!