I should have thought to post this days ago, as many of us did the honors this Sunday, but some of you may yet have Blessing of the Animals services later in the month (or later in the year).
Theologically, I think animal blessings are important for several reasons: first, they remind us that human needs and human lives are not the only concerns worth attending to on the planet, and are a great opportunity to lift up the stewardship model of creation. Second, animals are more and more considered to be, treated as, and mourned in the same manner as family members. This is not to be scorned or dismissed as some sort of neurosis by any pastor. I’ve seen that done, and it’s a big mistake. There are people who find it very difficult to have human relationships. There are families that have a very hard time expressing love to each other. And yet in many cases, individuals or families find that they are able to give and receive love from animal companions. In my not-at-all-humble opinion, pastors should consider animals part of the community within which we minister. I remember a fellow seminarian scoffing that a family at the congregation at which he was an intern phoned him at midnight to tell them that their dog died. He thought that was ridiculous and that they had violated his boundaries. Please. I thought it was wonderful that they would reach out for spiritual care at such a sad time. I would have gotten dressed and gone over to help them say goodbye to their pooch. I am not the only minister I know who has been present for spiritual support during euthanizations, been asked to bless sick dogs, or has arrived with a gift in hand for a newly adopted kitten. You don’t have to be an “animal person” if you’re a pastor, but we should all respect how important these relationships can be for our people.
A few ideas or tips for the blessing of animals:
1. Include a ritual of remembrance for animals who have died. Speak their names aloud. We invite people to come forward and light a candle. I ask the person, “Who is this for” and while they are lighting the candle and telling me the name of the pet or pets, I say that into the mic so the congregation can hear.
2. You may want to include a litany of compassion for the suffering of animals.
3. Get out from behind the pulpit. There will be a lot of unscripted chaos, and you want to be able to be energetically present in a way that looks and feels comfortable and welcoming of the unpredictable atmosphere. This morning — I swear on a stack of Bibles — I was giving the welcome (reading it off my Kindle while standing in the center of our contemporary sanctuary) and I said, “If you bark at the wrong times, you are welcome here.” RIGHT on cue, a dog let out a big, “woof!” That’s so magical. Be extra super duper prepared with all elements of the service so you can roll with it when a gerbil gets loose or someone starts howling from a carrier. We had so much going on in our service today, including two slide shows, I was very nervous. But I went over and over and over everything many times and even though I was sweaty and wrung out by the end of the worship service, there was never a moment that was a huge nightmare surprise. Things do go wrong in animal blessings, because… animals! You make sure to be all set with your responsibilities and transitions. You make sure to be theologically clear in what you’re doing and why.
4. Think through very carefully how you will touch the animals and where you want them to be when you bless them. It sounds simple until it happens. People will come up to you with their animal, but you’re going to have to get down to child level and to dog level. Don’t expect a four year old to get an iguana all the way up to you: you get down on your knees and interact with the child.
5. Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for a lot of movement. Some dogs may come obediently to you and stand nicely while you pray over them. Most won’t. Be ready to get down with Fido and spend a moment with him if he’s jittery. Keep snacks in your pocket but always ask the owner’s permission before feeding an animal anything.
6. I have found over the years that I like to hold an animal and kiss it as a blessing. This came about originally because I couldn’t get hold of some squirmy dogs for a traditional hand blessing on their head, so I knelt and petted their ears and kissed them. It felt natural to me because I’m a dog kisser. The dogs seemed to like it a lot, too. I don’t really care how weird or eccentric this might seem to an observer. My gratitude for these critters is real, and I feel that the they deserve the church’s thanks and love for their beautiful presence in the life of the community. They have a ministry of their own, and I am personally very grateful to them for it.
I’m a crazy dog and cat lady, but I realize that not every minister or priest wants to get so up close and personal. If you don’t want to touch the animals, I do think at the very least we should learn the animal’s name and give it a verbal blessing by name, and preferably with at least a brief touch somewhere safe (it’s not a good idea to just grab a strange dog by the head and kiss it — I crouch down as the dog approaches, I bow my head slightly to it, and I look away while asking its name. I bring my hands to its head from under its eyes in a kind of scooping motion so that it can follow my hands. All of this is pretty swift and subtle, so the people may not even realize I’m doing it). For really squirmy critters, I just press my hands on its torso to give it a little bless-hug.
7. Get your hair out of your face and spray it. You’re going to be bending down and getting back up and all that jazz, so make sure you’re not pronouncing the benediction with a big shock of hair in your face.
8. Obviously don’t wear your most precious vestments that have to be specially hand-washed by the Sisters of St. Clare. You’re going to get fur and drool and stuff on them.
9. Take your Claritin or whatever you need in plenty of time to get through the day without turning into a huge wheeze factory.
10. Have fun and roll with it.