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November 1994
Letter from the Editor

By Martin Rowe


Those who attended the service for the blessing of the animals at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the feast day of St. Francis (October 2nd this year) will have been struck by a number of things. First, the sheer volume of people attending the service — not only the congregation but the choir, dancers, musicians, and assorted clergy numbered in the thousands. Secondly, the variety of companion animals brought along to the service: cats, dogs, parrots, rabbits, ferrets, snakes, pot-bellied pigs, turtles, and others. Thirdly, the extraordinary sight of an elephant, a llama, and other animals through plants and algae and rocks being led slowly down the aisle to the altar.

This parade takes place at the very end of a long, energetic, and highly theatrical service. The music — an extended mass called the Missa Gaia , composed and played by Paul Winter and his Earth Band — is both mournful and ecstatic, conventional instruments mingling with the calls of wolves, seals, and whales. The addresses, in this particular service as in all others at the Cathedral, were self-consciously ecumenical and called for a kind of embracing eco-spirituality, with the Earth as an honored participant in our daily lives and the animals respected companions on our journey. It was undoubtedly a powerful experience, and yet for the animal advocate there remain puzzling and troubling questions.

No one would deny, least of all theologians, that in the strictest sense animals do not need our blessing. The point could be made that, because human beings are the vicegerents of God, we are entitled to bestow blessing on God’s creatures in God’s stead; and that when we bless them, we confer on them a higher status than already allotted. But this is to deny God’s gift of animal-hood on animals; and it is also to skirt the appalling, almost unremittingly evil, treatment we have meted out to animals throughout the ages. We should be asking forgiveness of them rather than conferring blessing. Animals are blessed in themselves; as Walt Whitman — quoted in the service — noted, animals are not full of cant like humans when it comes to experiencing the divine. They simply are.

So the service of the blessing of the animals is really not for the animals at all. But what is it for? Certainly, the service brings together human animal and animal animal in a very intimate way. Within the house of God — perhaps itself a recollection of an ancient archetype of a holy spot beneath the forest canopy — the greatest land animal in existence walks among the smallest. It is a compelling idea, but one hidebound in this case by the imprisonment of the elephant (who had come from a circus), the leashing of the dogs and the caging of the cats — by the essential ownership of these animals by the dominant human species. Perhaps, ultimately, what the service points to is the blessing of ownership, the stewardship principle by degrees elided into property, the gilded cage of love we human animals extend to the companions in our care.

Attending a talk the next day with the Dean of the Cathedral, James Parks Morton, Father Thomas Berry, the scientist Brian Swimme, and the creation theologian Matthew Fox, I was struck by the passion (and the vagueness) they brought to their discussion of the new demands and vistas of the so-called Ecozoic Age. A question at the end of the talk mentioned our relation to animals and the possible vision of a necessarily vegetarian world. Matthew Fox was the only one to answer in terms of personal praxis. He had stopped eating beef four years ago, he said, mainly after reading Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef. But, he continued, he still ate chicken and fish... and stuff. What — or rather who — is or are this “stuff” he refers to. Could it be the live beings who the day before had been championed as worth the blessing, as being co-participants, co-religionists, co-habitors of this our world? How could they become “stuff” so soon; how could they become “stuff” at all?

If she or he had the choice between the open savannah or the forest and the inside of a building filled with people, what do you think the elephant would choose? If you opened the window to a bird — would she or he fly out? If an animal had the choice whether to be blessed by a priest before being eaten or killed or blessed by neither being eaten nor killed — which would she or he opt to do? We can bluster that we care for the environment and its denizens; we can shout all we like about the disappearance of wildlife and the pollution of the waters and the land and the air; we can pronounce gravely that animals are divine, or they possess rights, or they are God’s gift. But until we recognize that the greatest blessing we can confer upon an animal in the industrialized world (if not elsewhere) is not to kill and/or eat her or him, then all of the above — all the piety and prostration, the howl of the wolf or the rumble of the whale — is mere sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is, without doubt, an extraordinary place: suffused with all that is good about a diverse city and a passionate commitment to social change and outreach. It is not ultimately at fault here. What is, is somehow a failure of nerve, something within all of us that allows us to talk the talk without really walking the walk, convinced that by expressing the power of the steps that need to be taken, we are in fact taking them. Yet it is surely not too much to ask those who preach the glory of the animals and confer blessings upon them to say to the animals of their own species, including themselves: “Think of whom you eat; think of whom you wear; think of whom you kill. Think hard and long and honestly. And then, and only then, talk about blessing.”


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