The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
I’ve been thinking all week about St. Francis and animals. According to legend, they were as much a part of his community as the monks who joined him in his devotion to God. In one story, he’s walking with his fellow monks through a stand of trees filled with singing birds, and he says, “wait a minute, I need to share the good news to these birds.” He starts talking to them, and they are so captivated by him that they hush to hear him. Some flit down to rest on his shoulders.
It wasn’t just animals, he loved nature, that which could have only been made by God. We hear this in Canticle of the Sun, which I’ve slightly adapted.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, through Sibling Sun, who brings the day; and through whom you give light, who is beautiful and radiant in splendor!
Be praised, my Lord, through Sibling Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sibling Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sibling Water who is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sibling Fire, through whom you brighten the night, who is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sibling Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
I think it’s sometimes easy to take for granted the gorgeous doug firs all around us, the way a few days of rain turns dry straw into green grass, and yes, how our dogs greet us so joyfully whenever we return and how our cats knead at our chests when they’re feeling loved. We can forget how impossibly miraculous this natural world is.
But not Francis. He had such deep gratitude for God’s creation. He took time to stop and admire it, to talk to the birds, to feel the sun on his skin.
He paused. He took time. And in doing so, he praised God for all of this creation.
Can you believe that praising God can be so simple? So simple as to stop and look up at the clouds. So simple as to stop and notice the ants creeping in a line across the sidewalk. So simple as to stop and breathe in the crisp autumn scent of fallen leaves and wet soil.
Well, in fact, our gospel today confirms that, yes, it can be so simple:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Mary Oliver says it slightly differently:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Most of you know that I am extraordinarily allergic to furry animals. I describe it as the greatest tragedy of my life, because I LOVE animals. And I don’t mean to brag but usually they also love me. I feel a kinship with them. I will pet every dog that comes my way. If I see a cat, I’ll get on my knees and wait, silently inviting them to come get a few snuggles. I even love the squirrels outside the church and have tried to get them to let me pet them. And I’ve come close.
So yeah, it’s heartbreaking that I can’t have a pet. (And before you say anything about hypoallergenic breeds, please know I’ve tried, and they are no match for my allergies.)
But God has intervened. We recently moved into a townhouse complex that shares a really lovely, huge courtyard full of trees. There are birds and squirrels, and there’s a whole community of cats who meander across our patio all day. But there’s one that doesn’t just meander. He stops and plants himself on our stoop and gazes in through the glass of our door. He is bright white with haunting green eyes. When he looks in, it’s like he’s accusing us of something. Then he meows like we owe him something. And then if we don’t give him something, he claws at the glass.
At first, I was like, you’re not our cat. But then I discovered, he kind of is. His name is Ghost. He’s a community cat who’s been wandering our courtyard for years. Some neighbors feed him. One takes him to the vet. Everyone seems to pitch in, so Rachel and I got him some cat treats.
And guess what. Now when he comes to the door and claws at the window, I stop whatever I’m doing and go to him. I bring a few treats and sit with him while he eats. And then he lets me pet him for a bit. He really likes when I rub under his jaw. And then sometimes he lays down and starts grooming, and I just sit out there with him. I ask him how his day is going. He kind of glares at me, but in a loving way. Eventually, he meanders away and I go inside to thoroughly wash my hands before I touch my eyes.
Ghost is the pet I can have, and I love him. I love how he beckons me even when I’m busy or in the middle of something, and I’ll stop to notice him, to love him. And to let him love me in the way he knows how.
To stop and to notice. To love and to be loved. That’s the gift of our beloved pets. It’s the gift of God’s creation all around us.
These are acts of worship, acts of worshiping our Creator God. Stopping. Noticing. Loving. And allowing ourselves to be loved. That’s what Francis was all about. And I think he loved animals, loved nature, because that’s where he saw it happen most easily, most, well, naturally.
Mary Oliver wasn’t a Franciscan. She was an Episcopalian, actually. But I think she and St. Francis were kindred spirits. They both seemed intuitively aware of God’s presence all around us in the wild, untamable natural world.
So I close with the rest of that much beloved Mary Oliver poem:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.