All Souls (of Animals)
*Preached at Grace North Church November 3, 2002.*
One of the holiest texts in the Hindu canon is the sprawling epic the Mahabharata. In its entirety it is thirty times longer than the Bible, and composed of way too many subplots to ever keep track of. Near the end of the work, the patriarch of the family of good guys, Yudhishthira climbs his final mountain, accompanied by his faithful dog. A voice booms from the sky, saying, "You have proved yourself to be the best of kings, your place is amongst us. Leave this dog and enter."
But Yudhishthira said, "I can't leave this dog."
"Why," the voice boomed.
Yudhishthira told him that the dog has followed him ever since he left the last city in his long journey. "That doesn't matter," the voice answered. "Dogs don't enter here. Leave him."
"No," Yudhishthira said with resolve. "He's come all this way with me; we go in together."
"Paradise has no place for dogs!" The voice protested. "Leave him behind, it's no cruelty. All your beloved family is waiting for you. Come on in and join them. Leave this dog."
But Yudhishthira would not relent. "Abandon a creature who loves me," he said, "who is defenseless and alone up here? I can't do it."
"But you have given up everything. Give up this dog, too. Otherwise you shall never pass this door."
"Then I will make my home in the icy wind with my dog."
The voice was silent for a time. Then when Yudhishthira turned to go, the voice boomed out again. "The dog is a god, wearing a different form. He has followed you and observed you, and you have passed your final test. Enter with your dog into rest."
Yudhishthira did not abandon his faithful companion, and his fidelity to his canine friend was taken as equal to his devotion to God, and just as efficacious for his salvation.
This is a very moving story, and one with few parallels in the literature of the world's religions. Most humans throughout the ages have been possessed of an inexplicable arrogance in regards to our fellow creatures. It is only in the past 150 years that we have been willing to consider that perhaps animals might be afforded legal protection from cruelty or abuse. That is a very short time given the literally thousands of years that we have coexisted with animals with absolutely no regard for their well-being, or our God-given responsibility to protect them and to be good and responsible stewards of God's creation.
It seems incredible that even within the twentieth century scientists were asserting that animals do not feel real pain, or real emotions. The scientific dogma has been animals are biological machines which do not merit our consideration or protection. This is surely an example of being so smart you're stupid, as any three year old with a dog can tell you differently, and with much greater authority. Anyone who has ever loved an animal knows that that yelp of pain when a tail is accidentally stepped on is real, and that the howl of loneliness coming from the dog shut up alone next door is a true and heart-breaking cry.
Even the writings of the saints and mystics are strangely silent when it comes to challenging the nearly universal dismissal of animals' importance. One great exception to this is St. Francis of Assisi, who preached to birds, and declared the lowest of creatures to be his brother. Francis saw himself as a creature of earth, and equal in the sight of God with all other creatures. His was not a kinship born of pantheism, but of eschatology. Francis firmly believed in the church's teaching that at the end of the age the "lion would lie down with the lamb," and all beings would live together in peace. Furthermore, he believed in Jesus' assertion that the coming age of fulfillment was already present for those who had the eyes to perceive it. Francis strove to live "as if" the eschaton was here, and treated all beings accordingly. According to the legends, they responded to his respect in kind, and even vicious predators became like tabbies at his feet.
For from feeling that his animal brothers and sisters were insignificant, Francis believed and lived Jesus' teaching about how not a single sparrow falls to the earth without God's knowledge, without God's caring. I think that it is long past time for the rest off us who presume to follow the way of Jesus to do the same. Usually, we spend the Feast of All Souls focusing on those loved ones who have passed on this year. But perhaps, just for one year, it would be appropriate for us to remember our other loved ones who have also passed. The ones society says we ought not to grieve for too much, against a better wisdom that seems all too obvious, even to children. Today let us not remember only our dearly departed humans, but our dearly departed companion animals as well.
We have a pretty good record as far as animals go in this parish. Every feast of St. Francis we bring our animals to church for a blessing. We welcome dogs and bunnies in our worship services, and have even enjoyed having Leslie's dog Toby serve as our assistant acolyte. And, mindful that animals share in the same bounty of creation as the rest of us, we give communion to them as readily as we do to humans. Perhaps it is appropriate then, that we take this All Soul's celebration to honor them.
It is traditional on All Souls to speak of the Communion of Saints, that vast body of friends and loved ones, strangers and saints, who have gone to their rest before us. Our Christian heritage teaches us that this great cloud of witnesses is alive and aware of what we are doing on earth; that they love us and pray for us and are intimately involved in our daily lives, as we strive to build the Community of God, even as they enjoy it. But does that great cloud consist of our animal kin as well?
I have come to understand the Communion of Saints in less mythological terms, as a beautiful metaphor for the infinitely complex and interconnected web of life that is this fragile organism of the earth, and that connects the worlds. Like Francis, I choose to see the Communion of Saints as both a transcendent hope and an imminent reality. All the earth is one being; if we can only forsake the arrogance which insists that we are somehow separate from the earth, better than the earth, different from the earth. What nonsense. We are, in fact, living clumps of dirt, every bit as much a part of this earth as a rock, we are born of earth, made of earth, and to the earth we shall return to live again as yet another sort of being. The only difference between us and a rock is that while a rock may know it is here possessed of whatever degree of consciousness a rock possesses, we KNOW that we know. This makes us just smart enough to act in an utterly idiotic fashion, putting on airs, and proclaiming to one another than the earth is not good enough for us, that we are above it, and that our true home is elsewhere.
How bizarre. The truth is, we are not better than a rock, let alone better than a dog or a cat. All beings are equal in the eyes of heaven, and the sooner we accept and internalize this truth, the better off this planet--and all the creatures that call it home--will be, including humans.
Animals, especially companion animals, have an important role to play in our spiritual evolution, for it is they that call us back to earth, who remind us that they are here, too, and that they matter. That all life matters. This ministry to us is never more acute than when one of our companions passes on, and goes to their rest. We long to know whether our friend is still alive somewhere, if we will ever see them again.
It is a fair question, and a common one: Do animals have a consciousness that survives death? Heck, I don't know if WE have a consciousness that survives death. But I do know this: if we do, they do.
Pope John Paul II shocked the world a little over ten years ago when he pronounced that animals in fact, do have souls and that they enjoy the reward of heaven, even as we do. Well, who am I to contradict the Pope? Okay, okay, I contradict the Pope all the time, but on this topic, I like what he has to say. Most of the world thought the old man had gone completely off his rocker, but I don't know a single animal lover who thought so. His words resonated with something deep down that we know to be true.
And yet, we are still embarrassed to admit it, aren't we? Many of us are closer to our dogs and cats than we are to members of our families, and yet, when a pet dies, for some reason we think it is inappropriate or silly to make a public memorial, to acknowledge our grief to the world, or to ask for guidance or even comfort. I have heard many people just this year speaking about beloved pets who have passed on, and yet not a single person has called me or, to my knowledge, Fr. Richard, to ask us to come and anoint and pray over a sick animal. Nobody has asked me to lead a memorial service for their pet, no one has come to talk to me about their grief or loss. No one has requested a Requiem service for their dog or cat or bunny.
Folks, why? Why not? Why haven't you called? It is precisely what Richard and I are here for. Your pets are your family. When a family member dies, the grief is terrible, no matter how many legs your family member possesses. Graveside rituals, memorial services, even Requiem masses are entirely appropriate. Public grieving is a deep human need, and it is not diminished simply because the being we are grieving for is not human. Such services should be a normal part of life in a Community of Grace, I certainly understand it to be part of my own job description.
And if you think it's silly to stage such a spectacle, or you are embarrassed to let on that you have such feelings for an animal, or you have shamed a family member for their own need to grieve, I have three words for you: get over it. Whatever hubris possesses you that tells you that you are in any way superior to your companion animals. You are not more loyal than your dog, more peaceful than your bunny, nor are you more enlightened than your cat. In fact, in many ways, spiritually at least, animals leave us in the dust. So I'll say it again: get over it.
These matter are very close to my heart, as I am an animal lover myself, and a great admirer of dogs. I have always had a dog, in fact, from as early as I can remember, I have even slept with my dog in the bed, under the covers, in fact. When Kate and I were first married, this arrangement was the bone of some contention, until I informed her that if she didn't want to sleep in the same bed as my dog, she was certainly free to sleep elsewhere. We can speculate on the contribution of this arrangement to the longevity of my marriage at another time.
The point is, I am very close to my dog. A dog smells to me of comfort, and I am not someone who minds the relentless ubiquity of dog hair in my home or on my clothes. My dog Claire is a yellow whippet/lab mix, who is precisely the wrong color dog for my profession, as yellow fur stands out on black like neon. Still, she is a beautiful girl, and it is difficult for me to watch her get older. She is ten years old, now, definitely a senior citizen. Her gait is starting to stiffen, and she is content to sleep away more of the day than she used to. But she is still spry enough to chase after a squirrel when she gets the chance, and will still on occasion perform the bone dance, in which she will throw a chew toy into the air and then spin 380s around where it lands. And I cannot bear to watch, as day after day, her time ticks away. I know that I only have a very few years left with her, and it breaks my heart to think of it. And when her time comes, I promise you all that I will be utterly inconsolable. I will need to cry, I will need to be held, and I will need to grieve and remember. And I will look to you, and to my other close friends and family, to do that with me. Until that time, I cherish each and every day Clare and I have together.
This morning, as we celebrate the memorial feast for the dead that we reenact every Sunday at this table, we will pause at the breaking of bread for two minutes of silence. Afterwards we will read the names of the departed you have written in the Book of Remembrance. But this year, I invite you to also list the names of those dearly departed that go out with a little more hair than the rest of us. If you did not list your pets in the right hand column on the way in, please get up during the Offertory, go to the back, and inscribe the names of those whom you hold in your hearts this morning. After all that they have given to us, they deserve no less. Let us pray
God of all creatures, hope and end of every being, we bring before thee this morning the memories of all those whom we love that have gone to their reward, human and animal. Help make us mindful of our rightful place in this creation, that we are the kindred of every creature, and lords over none. May we be encouraged by the great cloud of witnesses which have gone before us, may they remember us and pray for us even as we remember them, and keep them in our own prayers. Make us one with thee and with thy whole creation, that we may exercise our responsibility to care for one another, and to build the Community of God in our midst. For we ask this in the name of him whose body contains every manner of man and beast, even Jesus Christ, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.