Offering blessings to animals — even the slithering ones
Written by Susan Steinberg
October - November 2008
All god's creations
Lightning, thunder and rain cracked the skies open 30 minutes before this year's Blessing of the Animals was set to begin. It looked like a hurricane out there — wind blowing the torrential rain sideways, water running in rivers across the parking lot and over the curbs. We'd told our congregants that in the event of rain we would move the service from the lawn into fellowship hall, but we hadn't imagined this kind of rain.
While the youth director, musicians and I waited to see if anyone would venture out, the youth director's cell phone rang. "Oscar's coming," he said after he hung up. "Who is Oscar?" I asked. The answer: "Megan's corn snake." Megan is one of those kids every youth leader dreams of — mature beyond her years, organized, a draw for other kids — and there would be no denying her pet a blessing, despite the role of this particular reptile within Christian tradition and my own ambivalent feelings about touching his scaly head.
In our three previous services I had asked God's blessing on a rabbit, a duckling and a guinea pig, so I thought I was prepared for the rare animal amidst all the dogs and cats. But my imagination wasn't great enough to conjure up a serpent.
"Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made," the Bible says in Genesis. The serpent led Eve to temptation, and a sullied reputation has followed its slithery path ever since. Women, myself included, have never gotten along too well with these long, slick, devious-looking beings. Was there a redemptive story about serpents in the Bible? I did a quick mental scan — nothing. I had ten minutes to find one.
We had never invited animals into fellowship hall before, and we were a bit apprehensive. So we set up our makeshift seating arrangement, green plastic lawn chairs interspersed with small red buckets of drinking water, along the walls of a wide entryway with double doors to the outside — just in case. Ten chairs would be plenty, we thought; with the weather, we'd be lucky if that many people turned out.
But to our surprise families started rambling in at the appointed time. Drenched, yet intent on having their pets blessed, they made their way to our worship area: a father, pulled along by his two young sons and two Labradoodles; a grandfather, his energetic four-year-old granddaughter and little white dog; another father, his two red-headed children and their snowy white cat, who lay regally on a soft padded cat bed, just a foot from the dogs on either side, the picture of indifference in the face of imminent danger. Then Megan and Oscar arrived as promised. And more people. In the end we had to pull out fifteen extra chairs.
The gathering music began and a remarkable quiet descended on the half-human, half-beast crowd. A fifth-grade girl came forward to read from Genesis, Chapter 1: "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind, creeping things and wild animals of every kind … And God saw that it was good." This was the theological lens I'd been so anxiously searching for, the lens I needed to see Oscar through. If, at the beginning of time, God thought his ancestors were all right, he must be too. I could relax.
After the scripture reading I began working my way around the oblong worship space, asking each family to introduce their pet to the group and to tell us one special thing about him or her. "This is Sam and he loves popcorn," said a nine-year-old girl about her golden retriever. "This is Mazy and she's trained to help children learn how to read," the Labrador's owner proudly announced. "This is Hildegard. We just got her from the Animal Protection Society," the young couple reported about their new mixed breed.
I put my hand on the cage that housed Megan's younger brother's pet, Carson the cockatiel, blessed the bird, and the time arrived — it was Oscar's turn.
What did Megan want to tell us about him? "He's probably hungry, since he only eats every other week and it's been a week and a half." The interior calm that had mercifully replaced my initial anxiety vanished. Lapsing into a mode of visceral fear, I blurted out, "Do I need to be worried about Oscar's hunger?"
"He's not going to take a bite out of you," Megan assured me. He was stretched out along her arm very peacefully; he seemed content. I slowly put my fingertips on his spoon-shaped black head, which was remarkably delicate to the touch. "God bless all living creatures," I said, my hand just below his eyes. Thirty congregants responded, "And God bless Oscar." I was unscathed and there was nothing more I needed to say, so I moved on to the next pet, humbled by my trepidation about coming in contact with a harmless snake.
What Oscar experienced during his blessing will remain forever a mystery, but as the service concluded I realized he had given me a gift — a reminder that one of the church's most urgent callings in this violence-ridden world is to affirm the goodness of creation, creeping things and all, whenever we get the chance. And that encouragement, to offer a word of grace when I might choose otherwise, was Oscar's blessing to me.
The Rev. Susan Steinberg is associate pastor for children's ministries at United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina.