Blessing the Animals (as they bless us)

I saw that long line those many years ago in the Centrum of Warsaw Poland.  On a gray Sunday, it curled out onto the cobblestones leading to one of the cathedrals downtown.  Always on foot, a moving target of sorts, I was alone on a Fulbright teaching grant for seven months, seeking to immerse myself in local culture.  Moving, seeking, always observing.  Weekends, when there was no class I sometimes went whole days without speaking.  My communication was to watch others, a secret sharer.

It’s Sunday, I thought, as I had just come from the interdenominational church meeting at the Korean Church building down the street.  Nice there’s a line to get in.  But the line wasn’t just grandmothers and children and families; each person held, tugged, or corralled an. . .animal!  Goats, dogs of all sizes and colors, cats, sheep, rabbits.  Did I see a pet rat?

Animal-less, I nevertheless worked my way into line.  And that’s when I could see, over the heads of the goats and grandmas, a priest.  It was the day of the blessing of the animals.

I like this tradition because, after all, for those of us who love our pets and our fellow beasts, aren’t they family?  Our communion, theirs?

This last month I saw something striking in the local Las Cruces newspaper.  The headline read: “Faith leaders inspired by Saint Francis in SWEC Wolf Blessing Ceremony.” (SWEC is the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces; one of its projects is the protection of the Mexican Gray Wolf.) And there next to the headline was a photo where Father Rob Yaksich of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe posed with Mexican Gray Wolves, Spirit and Ghost, at the blessing of the wolves ceremony.

Wolves are very controversial in New Mexico.  With the “blessing” of a Federal program, the endangered Mexican Gray Wolf is being reintroduced back into the wild on New Mexico lands, but not without considerable challenges and resistance.  Fewer than 100 Mexican Gray Wolves live in the wild, short of the 750 biologists say is essential to maintaining a genetically diverse population.  Fewer than 300 Gray Wolves live in zoos and sanctuaries.  Their role as a top predator, like that of other disappeared predators, is needed for general ecological balance, let alone the sheer preservation of the species.

Pope Francis, who took his name from the environmental saint, has written: “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plants and animal species. . .the great majority for reasons related to human activity.  Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.  We have no such right.”

Their message to us.

This moral rather than strictly political argument brings me to another set of images surprising and unforgettable like those of that Warsaw morning.  In his film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” documentarian Werner Herzog takes us on a journey through Chauvet Cave in France where the cave walls are covered in 30,000 year old paintings.  Herzog believes these are perhaps the oldest recorded dreams of mankind–and they are of animals.  As we walk with the film maker along the dimly lit walls, we are indeed blessed in an amazement of the ritual of eternal kinship.

For when we happen to look down along the subterranean trail, as dodgingly revealed by the camera eye–surely reminiscent of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”–we, the viewers, observers, spy sets of prints surviving all those long ago years in the stone floor.

There before us has passed a boy–and walking beside him. . .a wolf.

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