This past Sunday I realized that the wonderfully rich Season of Creation we’ve been observing for the last few weeks was missing something, something vital and crucial. As we celebrated St. Francis’ Day, I realized how much I have been missing all the other animals with whom we share this precious Earth.
Feeling the absence of animals in this season can help us name a bit more directly their absence in our lives more generally. As modern Western people, we don’t interact with other animals very much, unless we live on a farm or have to remove raccoons from our attic.
There are some good reasons for our distance from some animals, which the domesticated variety often obscure: the wider world of God’s creation is actually quite wild and feral, and even dangerous. Much to our chagrin, we don’t have full control of this planet, and a great deal of it remains far beyond our understanding. The passage assigned from the biblical book of Job for the Feast of St. Francis is meant to convey precisely that sense of an untamable world (Job 39:1-8).
Mountain goats at birthing time “burst forth” with their babes (v. 3). That verb in Hebrew means quite literally “split open” in the act of birth—a rather violent description. And do you really suppose that you are harnessing the full strength of an ox with a yoke? Oxen serve us at their pleasure, not ours (v. 9-12). And while the original Hebrew about the ostrich is mostly untranslatable (v. 13-17), the point seems to be how miraculous it is that they even survive given how thoroughly they neglect their own young.
The world remains untamable and far beyond the reach of our understanding—not unlike God, actually. And that’s what Job wants to say rather emphatically.
Earlier in this book, Job runs out of patience with his terribly pious and self-righteous friends, who are trying to explain Job’s suffering to him. They want it to make sense (mostly, we should note, by blaming Job himself for it).
So Job urges his friends to “ask the beasts” (12:7), and they will teach you. Talk to the birds of the air and the fish of the sea; they will tell you. Speak to the earth and it will enlighten you, Job says. The God who made all of us, the beasts will say, is the same God who cannot be squeezed into your neat and tidy systems.
I truly love the custom of “blessing” animals during worship on St. Francis’ Day. The weather was perfect for this here in Saugatuck on Sunday, and we welcomed some of those “beasts” into our outdoor sanctuary to worship with us, the ones we embrace as our companions. That we enjoyed their company with us while we gathered at the Eucharistic Table on Sunday was also a moving reminder that the word “companion” means “the one with whom we break bread.” This alone is a remarkable and beautiful thing: in a wild and feral world where so many other animals remain entirely beyond our grasp, we live with some of them as our companions.
I am constantly astonished by how much we do not know about this planet on which we live. We have, to date, identified and named at best only 25% of the species on Earth; more likely only around 10%! Many of these—we can’t know for sure how many—are now extinct because of climate change and we will never know what they were. That should be cause for our deep lament.
In a world of mass extinction and human violence, it matters that we treat these beloved creatures gently and kindly. We humans have not always done so. In fact, and to our shame, we continue to use dogs in laboratory experiments (usually beagles), and we still test beauty products and cosmetics on rabbits; from petrochemical companies to military installations, fish, monkeys, cats, owls, and pigs are all pressed into laboratory service against their wills and under tortuous conditions. (Faunalytics is a good source for learning more about animal testing and how to advocate for ending it.)
Beyond mere sentimentality, treating other-than-human animals with kindness is actually an act of repentance, and also a gesture of hopefulness for a better world. Yet one more added benefit: it might encourage us to treat other humans with the same kindness.
“Come to me,” Jesus said, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
That Gospel passage is also assigned for St. Francis’ Day (Matthew 11:25-30). While most of us hear Jesus addressing humans in that verse, let’s notice that he uses the image of a “yoke”—in case you haven’t seen one recently, a yoke is a wooden frame or collar that joins two oxen together at their necks as they plow or haul a load.
It turns out that yokes have also been used, in ancient and modern societies, on human slaves during transport, to keep them from running away—a chilling reminder that how we treat other animals often gives us permission to treat other humans just as badly.
Come to me, Jesus says, all you heavily-burdened humans, all you tortured creatures, every weary species and I will give you rest.
If you find yourself moved when you see an act of kindness, you are touching the very heart of God. As theologian Robert Neville says, this is the God who treats us with kindness in Christ.
That’s not usually how most people hear the Gospel described. But let’s recall that the root of that word kind is kin. When we treat someone with kindness, we are treating them as kin, with kinship, as if they are members of our own family. That is the good news of the Gospel—by treating us kindly in Christ, God is treating us members of God’s own family; we are loved as God’s own kin, and we are called to love all others in the same way.
Indigenous communities made these vital connections a very long time ago, including the practice of referring to all other beings on this planet as our “relatives.” Surely our engagement with climate change and the need for ecological renewal and healing would deepen significantly if we thought of ourselves and all other creatures of the same God as members of a single family.
How we speak about these things matters, because the way we speak shapes our behavior. I learned just recently, for example, that in the traditional Hawaiian language you don’t refer to yourself as the “owner” of a pet. The word instead is “kahu,” and it has multiple meanings: “guardian, protector, steward, and beloved attendant.”
A kahu is someone entrusted with the safekeeping of something precious, something cherished. What a kahu protects is not their property; what they protect is part of their soul.
Many centuries ago, St. Francis urged us to think and pray in exactly this way, and even more expansively still: not only did he refer to other animals as his siblings, but also the many other features of God’s creation—like “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”
Perhaps just a single day devoted to Francis is not enough, not in this age of climate chaos and ecological disaster. Perhaps we need to be remembering him every single day as we seek to live ever more gratefully for all of our relatives, and as we seek to live ever more gently on this precious Earth.
This ecological commitment begins, perhaps, not with “random” acts of kindness, as the old aphorism would have it, but with deliberate ones.
Every single day.