St Francis

St. Francis
by Nicola Hoggard Creegan
7th October 2013

AS the sun climbs into the sky

As the mists lift in the valley

As the tui and the bellbird call

And the rain washes the dry soil

So dawn in our spirits, God, Creator of life.

It is wonderful that we have a day commemorating St Francis! Because on the whole we don’t think about animals a great deal in church.

We don’t know very much about this early twelfth century man, but there are lots of amazing stories. He was a monk, the founder of a new order. He had been born rich, but gave up his riches to follow a vision. The most famous story is the one about how he calmed a particularly aggressive and vicious wolf. This wolf by all accounts was terrorizing a village. Francis went to find the wolf, venturing up a mountain by himself, and he found it. He chastised him and the wolf submitted and lay at his feet. Francis told the wolf not to kill any more but by the same token he told the villagers they had to leave food out because the wolf was hungry.

The gospel today tells us the story of the mustard seed, the tiny seed that grows into a huge tree that then takes on a life of its own, with birds that flock to it. And it all came from a little seed. This is meant to show us what the Kingdom of God is like. Just the smallest seed of faith can grow into something as big as a tree.

And even very small actions, like facing an angry wolf long ago in Italy has become something that is inspiring for us all. It is a window into the ways things could be if there was perfect harmony between the species.

Of course we hear a little snippet of something similar in the gospels when Jesus is said to have communed with the wild animals in the dessert, and in the story of Adam and Eve at peace  with all the animals. Today we have all heard of animal whisperers, people who have a St Francis like ability to calm an animal and make it do their bidding. Perhaps all dog owners must have a little of this ability to make a dog do your bidding. Though of course just by breeding a dog is more willing

And animals can sometimes show enormous compassion. They can be healers. This a story told by an animal scientist Marc Bekoff about his dog  Jethro

Mark and Jethro had a long and close relationship. As a younger dog Jethro came into the house holding an injured bunny in his jaws, dropped the bunny at Marc’s feet and then was transfixed and ever watchful through the long process of healing.

Jethro became the bunny’s closest companion and minder until it was strong enough to leap away. Jethro must have been a kind dog, but this kindness can only have grown through the special attention and mutual love with Marc, his owner, for whom animals are special. The special relationship between Marc and Jethro seemed to have an overflow effect into even the realm of little animals that might naturally have been attacked by a dog.

Christians believe that grace can reform human consciousness, healing sin and inbuilt tendencies toward selfishness and aggression. This story shows that humans can also be mediators of kindness, constructing spaces in which natural animal tendencies toward predation are also cured and redirected.

Perhaps this is a  Francis like glimpses of God’s reality, God’s intended kingdom where all species will be at peace, something we don’t often imagine in our very human centred existence.

There are other disturbing stories however. A few days ago in the America state of Connecticut a judge declared horses to be a vicious species after a small boy was bitten at a fair ground. This would make it almost impossible to insure stables and other places where humans and horses interact. I think this puzzling ruling shows enormous theological confusion apart from anything else. But I think theological confusion is easy when it comes to animals.

There are a few that we all find adorable, others that we detest and try to kill, like rats, some that we admire like Keas even if we don’t want to get too close, some are cute at a distance like monkeys. It is all very confusing. Should we eat animals? Should we farm them? Are animals part of the moral world? What is the difference between the animals we love and have as pets and the ones we try to get rid of like rats and stoats?  I have been trying to live with these questions for some years.

I have just published a book, Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil which ends with a chapter looking at the connections between animals and humans.

And I have to tell you I feel a bit of a fraud coming here to preach today, because unlike most of you  I don’t just love animals! Well I do have a cat, but my journey to animal communion has been slow.

I was naturally afraid of dogs as a child. And when I was a young child my parents told me that when an animal dies its spirit goes to the ground and when a person dies their spirit goes to God. As far as I was concerned all animals were vicious!

More than a decade ago everything changed. I taught a course in biology and religion in a small liberal arts college in the US. One of the religion students could not believe she was a mammal. Now we all know what mammals are don’t we. Mammals have hair, three middle ear bones, they give birth to live young instead of eggs, and they suckle their young with milk.  The biology majors went to great lengths to put her right. And the class became a  meditation on being an animal, being human and being an animal. All of a sudden my orientation to animals changed and it has been changing ever since. I didn’t immediately say no to pets when my children pleaded.

And when we moved to NZ shortly afterwards we did get a cat, a dog being still too much for me!

During the last decade or so my research work has also been oriented around evolution and God. So I have found myself indwelling the evolutionary process, those long aeons in which life started as small as a mustard seed and grew to be the astonishing tree of life we know today.  Life took on new and subtle and changing forms until it finally culminated in primates and finally in a number of hominids, intelligent walking creatures of which we are the only surviving member.

This deep indwelling made me look at animals even more differently. Every species holds within itself the potential to become sentient or intelligent. Every species has its own evolved being in the world, so similar to us and yet so different. I began to realize that heaven wherever and when ever that is must be full of animals as CS Lewis always supposed. They are in us and we are in them.

Science has also shown us recently that many animals, especially mammals, and especially the animals we love most, have mirror neurons. These are neurons that allow us to feel the same things as the people or animals we are watching. Animals are wired for empathy just as we are. They perform at times not only astounding feats of intelligence but also feats of connection and emotion and empathy. This explains the connections between Marc and his dog and his dog and the bunny.

This research also meant I began to read the Scriptures differently. I discovered animals where I had never really noticed them before. If we read Genesis, animals were made on the 6th day –figuratively of course –along with humans. They didn’t get a different day. Animals were saved in the flood. After the flood all life was protected by the Noahic covenant. The first born of animals and humans was killed by the angel of death before the exodus from Egypt. Animals were suddenly all over the sacred text. Animals kept Jesus company at his birth, a donkey bore his mother on her long pregnant journey to Bethlehem and bore Jesus to his fateful rendezvous in Jerusalem.

Jesus encountered and interacted with wild animals in the desert. He is named the lamb of God. He came to save the whole of creation, and especially all of life. We bear this close connection, this close holding in the hand of God.

So how on earth could a court declare that horses were vicious? Probably because they don’t understand animals at all. They think of animals are just here to serve us and to do our bidding. All animals have their own wild side, even horses. They are here on earth to be horses, and not just for our benefit. If we enter into their territory we have to do it with caution and care and respect for an animal that may share a great deal with us, but is also very different. Horses live on that boundary between the domesticated and the wild. But Francis would never have declared an animal vicious. He might have rebuked it but he would also have loved it.

So as we bring all these animals here today to be blessed we should be grateful for all the blessings these animals bring to us. But we must also consider also the countless other species that are outside our protection, or the animals whose habitats are being squeezed out by our activity, the ones that are too small for us to notice, and the ones that are wild but not vicious.  Francis would tell us that all these animals are a part of God’s kingdom.  Caring for them and getting to know them is also a way of knowing ourselves and caring for ourselves and future generations as well. For all we form one enormous web of life. Caring for animals becomes a window into the future Kingdom of God, a glimpse of the tree of life when it is at peace.

AS the sun climbs into the sky

As the mists lift in the valley

As the tui and the bellbird call

And the rain washes the dry soil

So dawn in our spirits, God, Creator of life.

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