Soon after the pandemic started in the US in March, there was a curious correlation in a sudden surge of demand in pet adoptions.  Washington Post reported in August: Shelters, nonprofit rescues, private breeders, pet stores — all reported more consumer demand than there were animals to fill it. Some rescues were reporting dozens of applications for individual dogs. Some breeders were reporting waiting lists well into 2021. Americans kept trying to fill voids with animal companions, either because they were now working from home, or had no work and lots of free time, or felt lonely with no way to socialize.

Angie & I were not necessarily planning on being part of the statistic of adopting an animal during the pandemic. But the timing was such that we needed to bless and release our beloved 15-year old husky Denali at the end of April. I was thinking that 6 months between adopting our next pet would be good, but the timing was more like 6 weeks. After the first couple weeks without Denali, our home was too empty. So Ivy came into our lives in the middle of June. Some people say they can’t bear to get another pet because it hurts too much to love and lose them. Others can’t imagine life without an animal companion. 

When God breathed life into creation, and started creating animals, God said in Gen. 1

Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that have life. God created great whales, and every living creature that moves. The living creatures, cattle and creeping things. Every beast…every foul…everything that creeps, wherein there is life. 

Every time the word life or living thing appears, it is the Hebrew word nephesh – meaning soul. It appears again in Gen. 2:7: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” When God breathed into humanity and the animal kingdom it was the breath of life – nephesh – soul. The word animal comes from the Latin anima meaning “breath” or “soul,.” Animalis, as an adjective means “having breath or soul.” 

While there is some theological debate about whether animals have souls, Pope John Paul II declared that animals have souls in 1990. Pope Francis comforted a boy whose dog had just died, saying, “One day, we will see our animals again in eternity. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” Theologians, philosophers, preachers as diverse as Calvin, St John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, and Billy Graham, who believed with Pope Francis & Pope John Paul II that animals will find a place in heaven.

We didn’t have our annual blessing of the animals in the Curran Apple Orchard in August because of the pandemic. Instead we chose  to hold a virtual Blessing of the Animals close to Oct. 4th, the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals & nature. He was the original Earth Day poster child. St. Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1182 to a wealthy merchant. After a wild youth where he enjoyed the finer things of life and a brief career as a soldier, Francis devoted his life to God. It was after he experienced war and sickness, that he went to pray at San Damiano. He heard the voice of Christ say, ”Francis, repair my falling house.” Francis took the words literally and sold a bale of silk from his father’s warehouse to pay for repairs of the church at San Damiano. His outraged father disinherited and disowned him. Francis responded by renouncing his father’s wealth. One account says that he took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father’s feet, and walked away naked. He understood the words of Christ, “Francis, go and rebuild my church, which you see is falling down” to go beyond the literal church of San Damiano, to the Catholic church, and the church universal. He renounced all material possessions, and became one with creation to serve the poor. His deep love of God overflowed into love for all God’s creatures – expressed not only in his tender care of lepers and an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate peace between Muslims & Christians during the Crusades, but also in his prayers of thanksgiving for creation, his sermons preached to animals, and his insistence that all creatures are brothers and sisters under God.

There is story that is told about an Italian village in the hills called Gubbio – A ferocious wolf was terrorizing the village, killing livestock and people. St. Francis heard what was happening and had compassion for both the people AND the wolf.  Because he had a peculiar way with animals, he decided to talk to the wolf, against the admonitions of the village people saying, “He’ll destroy you!” 

Francis went anyway. Soon, an enormous wolf charged out of the bushes – growling and snapping his teeth. Francis made the sign of the cross over the wolf and said,

Come to me brother Wolf.I wish you no harm.

And of course, miraculously the wolf knelt at his feet.

Francis spoke to the wolf: 

Brother Wolf, you’ve been hurting people and scaring them. You shouldn’t be killing people. So stop it. I want you to make peace with the people of Gubbio. They’re not going to hurt you. And you can’t hurt them either. Do you understand?” 

The wolf looked up at him with sorrowful eyes and nodded his head with understanding and remorse. And then the wolf lifted up his paw and put it in Francis’ hands.

Good. All your past sins are forgiven. Now! Come with me. We’ve got some work to do.

And of course the wolf followed Francis into the town. The people were amazed at the repentant wolf. Francis asked, 

Will you forgive him? And will you promise to feed him?

Of course the whole town made peace with this wolf who had previously terrorized their village and agreed to feed him.  To show the wolf understood, he lifted his paw and placed it in Francis’ hand as a sign of his pledge. From then on, the wolf lived in the village and walked from house to house and the people gave him food. Not even the dogs barked at him. He was just another member of the village of Gubbio. And he lived amongst them for another two years, until he died in peace.

Did it really happen just this way? Did the wolf really understand Francis and make a pact with the whole village?  It sounds implausible. But according to tradition, the village of Gubbio gave the wolf an honorable burial and later built the “Church of Saint Francis of the Peace” at the site. During renovations in 1872, six centuries later, workers found the skeleton of a large wolf, several centuries old, under a slab near the church wall.

St Francis wrote the lyrics to one of the our most beloved hymn in 1225, a year before he died, while suffering illness and temporary blindness. It is called “Canticle of Brother Sun & Sister Moon. These words were put to the tune of Last Uns Erfreuen and has become one of our beloved hymns. I asked Jeff to record playing this hymn on the organ for our worship today. When I listened to the recording, my eyes filled with tears as as the music and the words of this beautiful hymn washed over me. And I realized how much I miss hearing Jeff play the organ,.

All creatures of our God and King. Lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam.
Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heav’n along,
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of evening, find a voice!
Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear
Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest us both warmth and light.
And all ye of tender heart, Forgiving others, take your part,
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear, Praise God and on God cast your care!
Let all things their Creator bless, And worship God in humbleness,
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three in One!

Saint Francis of Assis is remembered as the founder of the Franciscan order. His hymns were among the earliest metrical songs in common Italian, and he was responsible for preserving the troubadour style of music in the church. Saint Francis was a great lover of nature and animals and a humble man.

For Francis, people and animals were like living symbols of God. He believed all creation was made to live in the love and adoration of the God who made them. And so today, we remember Francis.

 There is only one source of soul. That source was there at creation itself. Soul is the breath of God. God touches us with holy breath this morning, with soul! That breath is the Holy Spirit of passion and compassion. Take in that breath, take in that soul, and then let it sing out this morning. Lift up your voice and with us sing, Let the walls of your homes sing out. Let the animals cry out, too. Let every thing that has breath—Let everything that has breath, that has soul!—Praise the Lord.