Is there a connection between the blessing of animals on St. Francis Day and raging debates about Islam? Francis’ wisdom from the thirteenth century is urgently relevant today.
In churches around the United States people will bring their pets and animals to be blessed in honor of the October 4th celebration of his life. In decades of providing such blessings I discovered beyond the sweetness of a child bringing a rabbit for a blessing that something more profound was at play.
In his writings Francis celebrated the fraternity between human beings and all of Creation. It was a radical departure from the prevailing theologies of his time about human subjugation of the earth and its creatures.
Sentimentality about Francis shrouds his disruptive belief that love is the sole grounding of our lives. He lived in an era celebrating the omnipotence of God. Imperial images of Christ were shattered by a simple act of his. In 1223 he created the very first crèche scene depicting an earthy, ordinary and vulnerable infant. It was a seismic shift in rethinking the relationships between Christians and the Holy.
This vulnerability connected with the experience of ordinary people. Francis believed that vulnerable love was the grounding of his religious tradition. The religious authorities of his day generally despised him. The Francis statues adorning gardens and car dashboards would be an affront to their understanding of religion and power. How we love the world – including all of its creatures and people – is the ultimate question that Francis believed we faced.
Almost eight centuries later Francis would find a distressing, sad sense of déjà vu in the raging battles being fought over Islam and the building of Mosques.
Francis lived during the time of the Crusades waged by Christians against Muslims. His understanding of loving the world and the interconnection of all things led him to denounce the war of his time against Islam. He thought it was sacrilege.
Francis’ visit to Egypt met with strong resistance from one of the most powerful cardinals who pursued military victory and glory from the Crusades. Francis persisted, believing that love of the Holy was lived out in peacemaking as much as it is experienced among all people and creatures.
Returning from his visit with Muslim leaders Francis introduced a new greeting into the services of his monks – “May the Lord give you peace.” It is thought that he adapted the traditional greeting with which Islam expects Muslims will greet all people – “Peace be upon you.” We know that Francis was moved and impressed by the devotion of Muslims in their five daily calls to prayer. Learning form this, he introduced the Angelus into Europe to be prayed three times a day.
The wisdom and ethic of Francis of Assisi speak as freshly today as they did centuries ago. Like the Buddha who invites us to seek happiness for all people, Francis was driven by a passion for the oneness of all people. Not a bland undifferentiated sameness, but the Holy revealed in his own tradition, Islam and Judaism as much as in Creation.
The blessing of animals will be celebrated with joy in countless places across the United States invoking and celebrating Francis.
Invoking Francis’ core message of our interconnection, of peacemaking and honoring the holy in all is an even more poignant celebration of this man from Assisi.
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