In the 13th century, what you did with animals was either avoid them, cook them, or work them to death. You certainly didn’t preach to them, pray with them, or receive spiritual gifts from them. Unless you were Francis of Assisi. He called animals his brothers and sisters. He saw them as our teachers. Such countercultural regard for the non-human was seen by his biographers as a restoration of a fallen creation, a renewal of the lost paradise where all creatures, great and small, might live in peace. As Bonaventure wrote,
So it was, that by God’s divine power the brute beasts felt drawn towards him and inanimate creation obeyed his will. It seemed as if he had returned to the state of primeval innocence, he was so good, so holy.
But Francis wasn’t just a dreamer. He was an environmental activist. He lobbied the officials, the governors, and even the Emperor for laws against the abuse of animals. He urged farmers to treat cattle humanely, and convinced towns to scatter seeds on the roads in winter so the birds wouldn’t starve (this is still done in Assisi today). He called for hostels for homeless strays, and raged against the caging of larks.
His love and respect for creation continues to nurture and challenge our own evolving sensibilities about the interdependence of all beings. He wasn’t quite calling for a democracy of creation – one beast, one vote. He remained distinctly medieval in his chivalrous notions of honor, deference and courtesy among the various levels of creation.
Nevertheless, Francis expanded the perimeter of love’s circle far beyond the human tribe, and his example pushes us to do the same.
On the Feast of St. Francis (Oct. 4) in 2012, a group of Episcopal clergy and laity blessed the animals at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. In writing the blessings, I tried to honor and bless the qualities of each species, and name the ways in which those qualities in turn might inform and bless their human kin.
I documented the blessings on video, which you may view here.