Some years ago on a trip to New York, I found myself inside the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. I used to live down the street from this massive granite and limestone Gothic structure, supposedly the largest unfinished cathedral in the world. Every day as I left my apartment I’d glance down the block at the imposing arches that loomed over Amsterdam Avenue.
I’d been inside a couple of times, once for a story. But not until a few years ago would I experience something I will always remember when I think of St. John.
It was the first weekend in October. The event, the Blessing of the Animals. Each year at this time the custom plays out at churches around the world in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi, who had a great love for all creatures. I’ve read that at Franciscan churches, a friar with a brown robe and white cord typically welcomes each animal with a special prayer.
I couldn’t see the actual blessings as I’d joined a group of friends who had some coveted seats inside, toward the back of the cathedral, though it was arguable that standing outside offered the better view.
We sat snugly together for what felt like a typical church service with a few exceptions. All around us were people with their pets.
One couple brought a pair of cats that I spied to my right in the side aisle. There the plump felines sat, each in separate strollers, positioned as cats rarely are, facing forward with their spines curved against the seat back, just like toddlers. They were strapped in and appeared rather content as far as I could tell. We laughed at the silliness.
Then the processional began. First came little creatures. One by one, people dressed in white robes carried some form of life up the aisle to the altar where they were blessed.
A glass tank with an ant farm in it. A fish bowl. A cage with turtles. Frogs. Hamsters. A rabbit. A Macaw on someone’s shoulder. The animals got bigger as the ceremony went along.
Cats, dogs, a goat. Sheep. A donkey. Llamas. A cow. A camel. Many were festooned with floral garlands.
I can never remember: was there a giraffe, a zebra, an elephant, as I like to remember? Did I imagine that? I’m honestly not sure. It was all so magical, like something out of a storybook, watching these innocent creatures so out of their element in this concrete jungle.
Any silliness quickly gave way to a lump in my throat.
I also realized these animals surely didn’t want to be here in this church. But they obediently marched along. I later learned many were from petting farms, not sub-Saharan Africa or South America. Of course not.
That made me a little sad. Maybe even a little tricked feeling. But they were, I hoped, loved and cared for. I hoped this had not become an event to appease and entertain the masses.
I thought this again the next time I went, this time watching from outside. Some native New Yorkers happened by and asked me what was going on. They seemed intrigued before moving on. I was surprised more people weren’t crowding around. Or that more didn’t stay.
I found it hard to leave. I reveled in watching these animals as they came and went, looking dubious as they maneuvered the slippery stone steps that led to the massive wooden Cathedral doors.
I watched as I quietly prayed for them to keep their footing, quietly wanting to help them down, and all the while quietly blessing them on my own.
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If you have animals, or just love them, this weekend you might offer the traditional blessing yourself.
The Blessing goes something like this:
“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”