Sunday, October 24, 2010
Blessing of the Animals - The Lasting Legacy of St. Francis of Assisi
The man we know as Saint Francis was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1182 in Assisi, Umbria. Surrounded by the trappings of privilege, he renounced it all and became an enduring symbol of the value of spirit over the flesh. But he may be best loved for his respect and honor of all creatures at a time when the world around him seemed steeped in cruelty.
Francesco gave one of his most famous sermons to a flock of birds. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, describes the birds listening to Francesco’s words, stretching their necks and wings as he touched and blessed them. According to Thomas, "He began to blame himself for negligence in not having preached to the birds before…from that day on, he solicitously admonished the birds, all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator."
Francesco wrote the Canticle of the Creatures, dedicated to all of the God’s creation. On one occasion he allowed a donkey who needed shelter to displace him and his small band of brothers from the hovel where they were living. He saved the townspeople of Gubbio as well as the wolf who had been attacking them by brokering peace. He sought out the wolf and admonished him to repent for the pain he caused. The wolf would never harm the townspeople again and the people agreed to feed the wolf for the rest of his life.
The feast of St. Francis is October 4. In 1931 in Florence, Italy, a convention of ecologists instituted World Animal Day. This day of appreciation and blessing for all animals is commemorated on the Sunday closest to October 4, in recognition of Francesco’s deep love of animals. This celebration takes place all over the world and is known as The Blessing of the Animals.
I had the good fortune to attend the Blessing at St. John the Divine in NYC this year. The celebration included the full church choir along with dancers, singers and musicians from many countries. Beautiful dancers waved colorful banners in the aisle to music complete with whale songs and the baying of wolves. The performers included, among others, Alessandra Belloni and I Giulari di Piazza, the Omega Dance Company, Forces of Nature Dance Company.
At the end of the service, volunteers dressed in long, white robes walked slowly up the center aisle, holding or accompanying an array of animals. They surrounded the altar for the blessing and then slowly filed out of the church. Many attendees brought their dogs to the service, and periodically the sounds of barking filled the Cathedral. But it seemed to be just as St. Francesco would have wanted it.
I Giulari di Piazza entertains on the side lawn of the Cathedral.