Your justice is like the unending mountains,
your judgments like the great deep;
human and beast the Lord preserves!
Today is the annual Blessing of the Animals. This holiday has taken on many forms and is incorporated throughout many traditions, but it was started by St. Francis of Assisi, who had a deep connection with the wild and with non-human animals. For those unfamiliar, St. Francis was the son of a wealthy Catholic family in Assisi. He was sent to war, yet quit and returned home early with a drastically different outlook on life. He refused to kill and began questioning everything. He spent time living in the wild with the animals and swore that they taught him things. He publicly renounced all material possessions. The rest of his life would be dominated by feral, simplistic solidarity with the peasants and animals- the human and non-human ‘beasts’ of Assisi.
There is not a lot of space for ritual within our culture, and since most religious traditions are products of our culture, there doesn’t seem to be lot of room for ritual within our churches either. Catholics and Episcopals still celebrate the Blessing of the Animals, yet the Protestant denial of the material has led most Christian churches to stay away from valuing the ‘things of this world.’ Most Protestant churches, especially evangelical ones, tend to be stripped of statues, art, candles, incense, or anything else material. ‘Scripture only’ and ‘faith alone’ doctrines have led to a rejection of anything that might aid the process of spiritual development for fear that it would do the opposite and become an idol or a replacement for that which only God can be. Yet this radicalism has led to a spiritual philosophy void of meaning, where the advice of pastors become, “Just leave it to God,” or “Just read your bible.” Ritual was central to the Jewish tradition. Jesus did not challenge ritual, but the attempt of the religious authorities to strip ritual of it’s proper meaning. When he turned the water into wine, he was doing something very profound. The water at a Jewish wedding was most likely used to wash, which was not primarily a sanitary concern, but a purity ritual. It’s my belief that Jesus intentionally took the water away and turned it into wine to challenge the religious leader’s idea of purity. He turned it instead into a wine, which is a drink commonly shared with friends and families during celebrations, bringing life and spirit to the occasion.
Why are we so afraid of ritual? Much of the Christian movement was forwarded by Paul, who was very obviously influenced by the Platonic philosophy of his day. The denial of the material in favor of the existential can be traced back to Plato. According to his philosophy, the material was only an abstraction of the Real. This was also the birth of the myth of progress. The present is simply a step in the process of reaching a higher goal. The real and the present is denied, and eventually feared. Ideas of heaven and hell stem from this Platonic view in which the future is valued above the present, the goal is what matters, the prize lies ahead. Yet this type of thinking has devastating effects on both the human psyche and the earth. It leaves room for the popular evangelical notion that soul-saving is more important that physical well-being. We are afraid to focus on the present and to value the material because we are taught to believe that such things are less important than what they theoretically ‘represent’. Being told to not say the rosary and being told to ‘invest in your future’ both stem from the same destructive philosophies.
We have to look critically at how this philosophy unconsciously effects our worldview. It is my hope that we can move from a place of fear to one of freedom in regards to the material world. By ‘material world’ I don’t mean the accumulation of ‘stuff’ that plagues capitalist society, but a valuing of the real, tangible things around us that inspire us to live and to love. The sunset, the smell of lavender, the tranquility if trees, the flow of rivers, the wild animals that teach us lessons just as they did St. Francis- these are very spiritual things, very real things that are our brothers and sisters and our allies in connecting with the divine.
But now ask the animals and let them teach you;
the birds of the air, and let them tell you.
Or speak to the earth and let it teach you.