Sunday, 2 October 2016

Lessons from the Animals

Every year I conduct an "Animal Blessing" service. It is held on the first Sunday in October, the nearest one to the Feast Day of St Francis. This year we looked at animals as teachers. We explored what lessons we could learn from the animals around us and in our lives. This blog includes material and thoughts that we shared in worship. The first piece is taken from “Journeying in Place” by Gunilla Norris

“What I learned is that of all the creatures that I can see in this landscape, the geese best represent the communion of saints. They depend on one another. The lead goose does the most work, but when it is tired, it falls back and another takes its place. To be able to rely on others is a deep trust that does not come easily. The geese fly in the wake of one another’s wings. They literally get a lift from one another. I want to be with others this way. Geese tell me that it is, indeed, possible to fly with equals."

Geese and the way that they fly can teach us so much about what means to live in spiritual community, what a congregation or any loving community ought to be about. One of mutual love, support and interconnection. Yes one where the individual is encouraged to be all that they can be, but who can only truly become all that they can be through living in common unity, through living in and being in love.

The following is taken from “Medicine Cards” by Jamie Sims and David Carson

"All animals are sacred, but in many traditions White Buffalo is most sacred. The appearance of White Buffalo is a sign that prayers are being heard, that the sacred pipe is being honored, and that the promises of prophesy are being fulfilled. White Buffalo signals a time of abundance and plenty.

Buffalo was the major source of sustenance for the Plains Indians. It gave meat for food, hides for clothing, warm and soft robes for long winters, and hooves for glue. The medicine of Buffalo is prayer, gratitude and praise for that which has been received. Buffalo medicine is also knowing that abundance is present when all relations are honored as sacred, and when gratitude is expressed to every living part of creation.

Because of its desire to give the gifts that its body provided, and because of its willingness to be used on Earth for the highest good before entering the hunting grounds of Spirit, Buffalo did not readily stampede and run from hunters….

Buffalo medicine is a sign that you achieve nothing without the aid of the Great Spirit and that you must be humble enough for that assistance and then be grateful for what you receive."

...In the service we offered gratitude and thanks for our animal brothers and sisters...Here are some thoughts that were shared...

It is wonderful to be here together with our fellow animals. I’m not just talking about our animal friends here by the way. It is important to recognise that we too are animals. That the animals who we share this world with are kin. We are formed from the same flesh and I believe have the same spirit animates us all. Ok we are not exactly the same, but we are formed from the same earth and are animated by the very same breath of life. In fact it is worth remembering that the word “animal” is actually from the Latin word “animalis”, which actually means having a soul and shares the same root for breath “animus”. So yes formed from the same earth with the very same spirit within us.

Now somewhere along the lines of our history we humans began to think of ourselves as far superior to other animals with the intrinsic right to make use of them in whatever way we wished. But this was not always so, in ancient times and in the so-called primitive cultures, people revered the animals as great teachers, purveyors of wisdom, possessors of souls and of spiritual qualities. There was a time when humans and animals were more closely connected. Now some of we  so called rationalists tend to look on all this as ignorance. But I wonder if actually we have forgotten something precious and obvious to them. I wonder if they knew something that we somehow managed to forget.

We can learn so much from the animals, if we have enough humility to do so. They can teach us so much about life. They can be our greatest teachers. Jesus taught his followers to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, that these were the characteristics for discipleship in a challenging world. Words that our Unitarian brothers and sisters have used as their motto, over the many trials and difficulties they have lived through. The passage in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 10 v 16 reads “Behold I am sending you forward as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be therefore wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Here Jesus is warning his disciples of the dangers that they will face in carrying their message of radical love, to a wounded world. That they will be no safer than lambs amongst wolves; he is saying that they must employ wisdom in the way they impart this message, in a hostile world.

Now the dove of course is an important image in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It makes its first appearance in the story of Noah’s Arc. Noah sends out a dove to find land, eventually it returns with an olive branch. This symbolises the re-birth of life tying humanity to the earth, to the ground, to the soil and the cycles of life. It is important to remember that humanity and hummus are linguistically linked, along with humility. Something we can lose sight of in our technically advanced age. We are not above nature though, we are interdependent with the web of all existence.

We can learn so much from our animal brothers and sisters if we would pay attention. They can teach us how to live in the moment “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew ch 6 v 26). Simply watch a pet and notice how they live in the moment in which they find themselves. They are not caught up in regret about the past or fear of the future.

The animals can teach us how to listen to our bodies. When they are ill they do not push themselves beyond their limits. They are yoga masters too, just watch a cat or dog and how they stretch constantly. They can teach us about balance, for they do not take more than they need. They eat what they need and do not take more than is required for themselves or their dependants. It is only domesticated animals that become overweight, depressed and or obese. They can teach us how to be true to our natures. They can help us to see ourselves as we truly are. As a part of life, as part of the nature of everything. So many of our human problems stem from our sense of separation, that we are not a part of everything. By observing the animals we can once again see that we are a part of everything and that we belong here and that there is nothing really wrong with us. We just forget who we are from time to time.

We can learn so much from our brothers and sisters the animals, they can teach us once again what it is to be fully human and a part of life.

The following is taken from “Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life” by Bonnie Friedman

"Outside the Cathedral holding ancient relics in Valencia, a woman kissed pigeons. She saw these birds as symbols of God. Gray and white and black as discarded shells, these were creatures I'd been taught to think of as 'filthy.' They seemed filthy, in fact, with their staring orange eyes and patchy feathers. But now, while I looked, they turned into doves. Of course they always were doves, or rather, of course doves always really were a type of pigeon. But I never really believed it until this woman showed me her belief. Her kiss transformed ugliness to beauty.

So it was like a fairy tale after all. It was the old story: what is loved reveals its loveliness. Here she squatted, radiant, smiling, enrobed in life, in a dozen pairs of folded wings, in a dozen pairs of pearl gray and, as I looked, yes, even lavender, even royal purple wings — a woman in an ordinary black cotton dress who smiled as if she knew she was the luckiest person on earth, swathed in blessing."

This lovely little tale brought St Francis to my mind. St Francis was a thirteenth century monk who held animals in the highest of esteem. He would commune with animals in much the same way as he would commune with people, he saw no difference. Here is one story, of many told about him, where he was found communing with a bird:

· "Once when Saint Francis was about to eat with Brother Leo he was greatly delighted to hear a nightingale singing. So he suggested to his companion that they would also sing praise to God alternately with the bird. While Leo was pleading that he was no singer, Francis lifted up his voice and, phrase by phrase, sang his duet with the nightingale."

There is a similar concept in Judaism. In “What do Jews Believe” David S Ariel wrote “While Hasidim believed in the importance of observing the mitzvot, learning Torah, and praying with devotion, they believed that there was a deeper spiritual realm of listening to the world as the song of god. The disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, for example, noted that their teacher went to the pond every day at dawn and stayed there for a little while before returning home again. One of his students explained that he was learning the song with which the frogs praise God.”

I have a similar relationship with the blackbird that sits and sings on the top of my house. He sings sweetly and I often find myself singing back at him. To which he often responds. It seems that we are encouraging one another to sing our song of life ever more sweetly. It certainly lifts my spirit and animates my life and increases my sense of connection.

Our relationship with the animals and with all life, including one another ought to help us to develop that most vital aspect of our humanity, compassion. Compassion is at core of all the great religious traditions and it is through living compassionately that we truly live out a full spiritual life. To develop spiritually is to increase our sensitivity to life, to feel life more fully, I have learnt that this is done through compassionate living.

Karen Armstrong teaches that compassion is an act, not merely an emotion, a feeling. It is way of living and being in the world. She claims that if it were an emotion, it would not be a comfortable one, but one of discomfort. Suggesting that if we are to understand compassion for the “Other”, we must cultivate the emotions of discomfort and disturbance, we must feel their pain, we must empathise and not become detached or indifferent. We develop empathy for the “Other” by embracing the word 'umvelt,' which means honouring the world as it is experienced by different people, animals, and organisms. she believes that it is through our capacity to imagine and empathise that we will be brought into a more authentic relationship with the Earth. It is through humility in the face of our own finite humanity that allows us to see ourselves as 'one species among many' not the indomitable centre of a human centred and created world.

By increasing our sensitivity to all life, we see ourselves as part of all of life and through doing so we set ourselves free. Free to what? Well free to live and be in love. You see when we increase our sensitivity to life we widen, broaden and deepen our experience of living.

When we look into our own eyes, when we look into one another’s eyes and when we look into the eyes of every creature what do we see? When we look with intensity at all life what do we see?

I see that same spirit that animates all life. I see “animalis” I see soul and I see the “animus” running through it all, the same breath, the same spirit that animates it all.

Let us give thanks for the animals...Our brothers and sisters in body and in soul...

I will end with the following blessing, the author of which I cannot find...

You – Birds of the Air,
Hawk, Sparrow, and laughing Jay
You remind us of freedom,
delight us with your song, astound us with feats of migration...
Grant us your perspective,
for too often our horizon is limited
and we are blind to the full results of our actions.

You – Worms of the Earth,
Ants, Beetles, Spiders and Centipedes
You are an essential but often forgotten part of nature’s web.
Through you the cycle is complete;
through you new life arises from old.
Remind us of humility.
For the wheel of live does not turn around us;
we are not the axle, but merely spokes
just the same as our unseen, unknown and ignored companions

You – Animals of the field and woods and mountains and desert—
Bear and Bison, Skunk and Squirrel, Weasel and Wolf
Too often we have destroyed your homes in the name of progress,
cutting the forests to gratify our desire,
or covering the earth with tarmac, cement, and lawns.
Pray that we may remember that the earth was not given for our needs alone,
and what we do to you, in the end we do to ourselves.

You – Animals of the farm—
Horse and cow, pig and chicken
Willingly or not, you give your very lives for us,
your milk for our nourishment, your flesh for our meat,
Yet too often we forget that the food on our tables was once as alive as we are.
Forgive our willful ignorance,
and remind us constantly to give thanks for your sacrifice...

And – You – dearest Companions in our lives
Dogs and Cats, Hamsters and Goldfish
Some of you are with us here today
Some were not able to come today
and there are some who will always be present in our memories
You have enriched our lives in so many ways
put up with our failings with calm acceptance
taught us something about being a good person
taught us how to love.

May we hold you in our hearts throughout the days of our lives.
We give thanks for the joy you bring into our lives
and together we give you a blessing
We pray for you – for playful days and peaceful nights;
for lots of tummy rubs and joy in being our companions.
Gracious Creator,
Hear and bless
Thy beasts and singing birds
And guard with tenderness
Small things that have no words

And may we carry that unconditional love with us in all that we feel and all that we think and all that we say and all that we do


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