The following post in the series What Is A Spiritual Practice was written by Jamie Arpin-Ricci Jamie is an urban missionary, church planter and writer living in Winnipeg’s inner city West End neighbourhood. He is founding co-director of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Urban Ministries Winnipeg with his Australian wife Kim. He is also planting/pastoring Little Flowers Community. Jamie and Kim are in the midst of adopting their first child from Ethiopia.
Every year on October 4th a strange phenomenon occurs. Many people bring their pets to church for a blessing, often including some livestock in rural areas. The Blessing of Pets is a tradition practice on that date as it is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. Known for his love of all animals, Francis was know to both preach to birds and tame murderous wolves. And so, to honour this, people bring in their furry and feathered friends for a special blessings. While this practice is a tad much for me, I am not at all surprised that it exists. The bond that forms between people and animals, especially pets, is remarkable. We may criticize the over pampering folly of a culture that has produced a ‘pet obesity “crisis”- and rightfully so- but we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the genuine connection between people and their pets.
My wife and I are the proud caregivers to a feisty Jack Russell Terrier named Dino, a dog rescued from an abusive home. It took a great deal of time, patience and compassion to nurture this wounded pup into the over-confident “cannon ball with a tongue” that he is today. We originally got Dino for security purposes, advised that a small dog with a big bark reduces break ins (and it has worked very well). However, the unexpected benefits of having this pet are many. I have discovered that having a pet can truly be a spiritual practice. Now you will notice that I said “can be”. This isn’t the default result of owning a pet. Like any spiritual practice, it takes intentionality and discipline to experience this, but it is very possible. Every pet is unique and, therefore, so will the nature of the experience you might have. The following are examples from our life.
Rescuing Dino from a bad home meant we were committing to caring for a dog who would need a lot of grace and patience. He would pee everywhere, hid under the bed for hours and flinch at any fast movement. Further, despite every sacrifice we made on his behalf, he had no way to really expressing his gratitude. It was in his vulnerability and dependency on us that we began to see our own heart- our impatience, greed, anger and much more. He helped expose in our hearts those weaknesses of character that may stay hidden in the company of others.
The first day we walked Dino through our neighbourhood we met more of neighbours than we had in months prior- and not for lack of trying! People would come out of their houses and yards to pet him, ask questions about him, speculate on his breeding and chat about their own pets, both past and present. Animal, again being the vulnerable and dependent creatures that they are, seem to provide a key into the hearts of people. Age, race, gender and religion were momentarily forgotten as we all lowered ourselves to pet this dog. In fact, while petting, I realized that this was one of the only places I saw strangers unintentionally touch hands without any sense of awkwardness. We were all innocent children in that brief moment.
As a kid it was not uncommon to hear one of my friends ask in Sunday School: “What happens to our pets when they die? Will they go to heaven?”. Generally, the answers were either the frank, “Only living things with souls go to heaven and only people have souls” or the unsophisticated comfort of “Of course they will go to heaven! You will see them someday!”. As I reflect back on that now I see how the very question was born out of a shallow, almost gnostic paradigm of the afterlife: disembodied, individual souls saved from hell. Now, as I consider a view of God’s redemptive plan for all Creation, I see pets (and all animals) as beautiful aspects of God’s hands who are (and always were) meant to share in the story of God forever.
St. Francis was known for calling things around him brother and sister, be it a bird, a rock or even the sun and moon. While often caricatured as nothing more than a hippy idiosyncrasy, it in fact reflected a very sophisticated understanding and appreciate for God’s creation. While he would never have equated the value of a bird with that of a person, Francis saw the hand of a Creative and Loving God on every part of Creation, created by the same Father that formed us. And so he embraced all of Creation as brothers and sisters under God.
While pet blessings might go a bit far, and while I am not advocating the veneration of Creation, I would encourage you to consider your pets in light of God’s sacred intention for all Creation. Take the time to foster the spiritual practice of caring for the animals in your world.
“If a man loses his reverence for any part of life, he will lose his reverence for all of life.” -Albert Schweitzer