Blessing Of the Animals

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.

PeaceBang blessing a new parishioner. He’s a scrambly guy and we really wanted to lay a blessing on him, so he had to be wrangled and smooched.

5 Replies to “Blessing Of the Animals”

  1. My husband and I serve different churches, so I plan our annual Blessing of the Animals service when my best friend is visiting from out of town. That way she can tend to my dog and I get to have my dear Jazz present for this special service without feeling too distracted. I have noticed that the families this service seems to mean the most to is older couples who had no human children of their own, but who love their pets in a fierce way. The rest of the year they watch and nod and celebrate others’ children and grandchildren, but on this one Sunday, they march in proudly with their pooch(es) freshly bathed, sporting a new collar and tags. It is beyond precious, and I say a special prayer for these families… I realize they resemble my own. 😉 This year I also found myself blessing 3 various stuffed animals that made an appearance….as well as holding various smart phones and blessing photos of animals that were too big (a horse) or too ill (an old, sick, sick, sick dog who had seen his owner through the death of his mother 6 months ago) to attend. The congregation, human, canine and feline, was patient and understanding of the need.

  2. Oh Peacebang thank you for posting this! This should be shared and if they don’t train for animal day in seminary then they should start with this. (off the cuff remark from someone who has obviously never been to seminary)

    Also I am so glad you described in detail how you approach new dogs! Reading this post, I was getting anxious for you (not in a stalky codependent way, just, you know, concerned) until I got to your detailed explanation. Yes, exactly. I have to teach the “don’t touch the top of his head” approach to strangers on walks with my dogs.

    Also, this post made me tear up, thinking of creatures I have loved. So, I guess you hit every angle!
    Have a blessed week,

  3. We brought our son’s betta fish in his “to go” container (the plastic cup he came home from the pet store in) to be blessed yesterday. There were also many doggies (including a pair of the most beautiful English golden retrievers with cream-colored fur), a good number of stuffed friends, a couple cell phone photos, and a ferret.

  4. Aww… what a lovely post! I wouldn’t necessarily bring an animal to church to be blessed but I do pray for them when needed and certainly would welcome pastoral support in times of grief. I’ve certainly found love for and grief for animals to be equal that of love and grief for humans and why not? Animals can be loving, supportive, friendly, charming, comforting, companionable and more.

  5. I led my first “Blessing of the Animals” this past Sunday. It was something I had wanted to do since seminary, so it was incredibly meaningful for me, and I think for many members (of all species!) of my congregation. It was chaotic – I held onto a lot of my own anxiety throughout the worship (will any dogs get into a fight? Are my people OK with having all these dogs in here? etc.). One thing I hadn’t thought about was all the extra sound in the sanctuary – not just the occasional bark, but the movements in creaky pews and paws on hardwood floors.

    It was an amazing day – I’m so pleased to have this added to our liturgical calendar. and seeing all those sweet dogs lying in the center aisle, sitting up in the pews – my heart sang that whole hour (in spite of my anxiety!).

    Thank you so much for posting this. Rev. Gary Kowalski and Rev. Lora Kim Joyner (both Unitarian Universalists) have a helpful “how to” slideshow online, to find just google “UU Animal Blessing.”

    The one thing I will do differently next year – wear pants instead of a skirt.

    My administrator created cute little doggie treat bags for our four-legged parishioners (would have been cat-friendly, too).

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