Hebrew Scripture Reading-Psalm 148
What’s fact and what’s fiction is hard to determine, but legend has it that on a road six miles south of Assisi, Saint Francis became a bit perturbed. His preaching was not getting the response he desired. Losing faith in his fellow humans, he turned to an audience of birds. Assembled in this feathery congregation were doves, crows, and magpies. With great enthusiasm, he greeted the birds as he greeted everyone: “The Lord give you peace.”
Contrary to what he expected the birds did not take flight, and so with fervent delight, he asked that they listen to a word from God. He said, “My brother and sister birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love God always. God gave you feathers to wear and wings to fly. God made you noble creatures and gave you a home in the pure air.” According to legend, “the birds stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him.” Saint Francis then walked among the birds with his cloak brushing against them as gave blessings and made the sign of the cross. It was “from that day on” that Saint Francis preached to all animals. Whether they were birds or reptiles, he exhorted them “to praise and love” God.
Saint Francis even loved his brother and sister worms. He would gather them from the road so they wouldn’t be trampled upon. Then, there were his brother and sister bees who needed honey and wine during the winter so they would not starve to death in the cold. Ah, the animal kingdom magnanimity of Saint Francis. Of course, there have been scholars who have come along and have tried to say some of these things didn’t actually happen and that the legends about Saint Francis were often metaphors expressing various spiritual truths. For example, the doves, crows, and magpies were known to symbolize those who did manual labor. Thus, the story of Saint Francis preaching to the birds is thought to really be about his bond with the poor and disenfranchised of society.
Be that as it may, I can still see why Professor Lynn White of UC-Berkeley declared in 1967 that Saint Francis should be the patron saint of ecologists. He argued that for too long Christians had thought of themselves as having rule over creation rather than having kinship with creation. For Professor White, the world’s ecological crisis needed a “spiritual revolutionary” like Saint Francis who saw birds as his brothers and sisters.[i] Now, as much as I like the spirit of Saint Francis’s kinship with other creatures, I must confess that I have the same question for him that I have for the author of Psalm 148: why all this funny business about animals praising God? I’ve been working on Joey for months now, and even though he is very spiritual in his unconditional love and his playful friendliness, I’ve simply had to conclude that he is just not going to be praising God anytime soon.
Well, maybe, we are not supposed to be so literal here. Maybe animals praising God is just a poetic way of expressing how excited and joyful one is. God is so wonderful fish are just jumping out of the water with leaps of joy. But is there more too it than that? People often wonder why humans even praise God in the first place. Why would God need our praise? But, then C.S. Lewis came along and helped us to understand that giving praise not only expresses joy, it makes joy complete.[ii] If that’s the case, maybe all this poetry about animals praising God is really an expression and a completion of the joy Saint Francis and the Psalmist felt when they realized with awe and wonder their kinship with all the magnificent creatures of God.
Now, I have not always been an animal lover, so I can understand if some of you might not fall into bliss over the thought of realizing that one of your kin is a worm, but perhaps, no one in modern times has done more to help convey this sense of spiritual connection between animals and humans than James Herriot, the legendary veterinarian and author of All Creatures Great and Small. In one of his tales, Herriot tells of his encounter with two families: one with absolutely no spiritual connection to their dog and another with a deep, caring connection.
The story begins at eight o’clock one Saturday evening when Herriot is summoned to two homes.[iii] Just as he is about to visit a farmer’s sick calf, he receives a call from a Mr. Birse who rather curtly and unpleasantly requests that Herriot come and attend to his ill dog. Herriot says he will and drives straight there. He arrives and rings the doorbell, but there is no answer until finally after five minutes, Mr. Birse opens the door and hastily ushers him inside the house into the front room. Mr. Birse quickly jabs his finger toward Jet, a black lab, lying in the corner. Mr. Birse then plops himself down into a sofa chair to rejoin his family’s collective engrossment in a TV show. Herriot can tell he is not to disturb the family, and so he goes about making his diagnosis without their input. He immediately notes that the black lab’s body is covered with bald spots and sores. His skin is inflamed, and Herriot deduces that Jet has a particular case of mange that has gone untreated for sometime and is now causing the dog to no longer eat.
Over the noise of the television, Herriot shouts in Mr. Birse’s ear the problem. For a split second, Mr. Birse’s eyes flicker toward Herriot before returning to their “hypnotic stare.” Herriot gives the man the treatment needed to relieve Jet. He instructs how Jet is to be bathed with it that day and in a week’s time. “Glassy-eyed,” Mr. Birse nods his head. Herriot is then off to diagnosis the calf.
At the farm, Herriot is warmly greeted and told that the kettle will be put on the stove for him to have tea afterward. Herriot soon finds that the calf has pneumonia. After injecting the calf, the farmer and his son-without a word from Herriot-thread together a sack to wrap around the calf’s chest.
That night after Herriot returns home he worries that Jet will not get the bath he needs, so on Monday morning he drops by the Birse household under the pretext of being in the neighborhood. Mrs. Birse leads him straight to the dog in the front room where the treatment lies unused exactly where he left it. Determined not to let the job go undone, Herriot proceeds to do it himself in the Birse’s back yard. As he works, he soon discovers he has an audience. A pair of eyes are watching him over the hedge. An elderly neighbor is looking on. The two talk about the dog and its treatment. Herriot hopes that the family will wash the dog themselves in a week. The neighbor thinks that would be a lucky occurrence. The family does not care one wit about the creature. Herriot in that moment knows he will be back in a week. As he leaves, Mrs. Birse comments disdainfully about how nosey their neighbors are.
When Herriot arrives a week later, Mrs. Birse informs him that the job is already being done. The neighbor is doing it, and indeed on the other side of the hedge Mr. and Mrs. Howell are scrubbing Jet. Herriot examines the dog and knows it will need several more weeks of treatment. He asks if they are prepared to undertake the job. They are. They are dog lovers, and they had their own dog until he was “knocked down and killed” a month earlier. Herriot senses the lingering grief and advises them that another dog is the only solution, but they reject the idea. They are in their seventies. If they get a pup now, there would be no one to look after it when they pass. Herriot understands.
Three weeks later Herriot sees the Howells in the local market with Jet. The Howells inform him that Jet is theirs now. They had scared the Birses into giving away the dog. They had told them how big their vet bill would be after all the treatments and the special Saturday night visit from the vet. Herriot actually does not charge extra for such visits, but he can tell the white lie served a good cause.
Herriot, nevertheless, wonders about the Howells earlier reservation and asks about their fears of growing old. The Howells explain that the dog is six years old and they figure the three of them could “just potter on together.” Herriot immediately recites to them the lines of a poem by Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” The couple laughs and agrees. Herriot looks at Jet who seems to be laughing too with his mouth open and his tail waging back and forth.
Many weeks later Herriot sees the couple again as Jet romps around in the fields outside of town. The dog no longer has any bald spots. His coat has a “rich black gloss.” Mrs. Howell declares that taking care of the dog has “been worth it.” They are having a great time with Jet and cannot believe their luck. With cheerful voices, they shout their encouragement to Jet as he chases down a stick. As Herriot watches the trio, he again thinks of how for these three the best is yet to be. So it was that on that day and upon that field, one could say there was indeed cause for humans and animals alike to praise their Creator. Amen.
[i] Adrian House, Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life, (Mahwah, New Jersey: HiddenSpring), 10.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (Harcourt, 1958), 95.
[iii] James Herriot, The Best of James Herriot: Favorite Memories of a Country Vet, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 515-521.