This week, thousands of churches will host a “blessing of the animals” to coincide (more or less) with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I’ve been to several of these, and what I remember best is a lot of barking, bored cats, and uninspired sermons. Most commonly, the sermon follows something like this trajectory: “My Mom/Grandmother/Elderly Friend has sweet little dog. She loves the dog very much. The dog loves her. That dog is the presence of God in her life.” This is followed by a round of not-completely-affirming barks and mews.
The problem is not that this all isn’t true — I’m sure that it is, including the last part. The problem is that it does too little to recognize the complex power of animals in God’s creation, or even in the life of St. Francis. The Saint, after all, engaged the dangerous animals, too, and most famously blessed a wolf.
In Genesis, the animals came first; they arrive on Day Five, while we are not created until Day Six. It wasn’t just the lap dogs that were created on that fifth day: God not only creates “great sea monsters” but surveys it all and declares it “good.” The pages of the Bible then overflow with dangerous animals. There are dragons, evil serpents, the wolf in the parable of the good shepherd, and even the demon from the pit in the book of Revelation, described as “The Beast.”
It’s too easy, though, to simply think of the domesticated animals in the Bible (the sheep, the donkey ridden by Jesus) as good, and the wild animals as evil. There is something, after all, to the fact that C.S. Lewis chose a wild and decidedly dangerous carnivore, a lion, to represent Christ in the Chronicles of Narnia.
The wild animals, unlike the tame ones, are beyond the line that divides the known from the unknown. It is a line that Jesus transgressed regularly and in a singular way — by walking on the water, for example, and in transcending death. Peter tries to cross that time line between land and sea, but he sinks. We are not God.
The phrase “… and the lion will lie down with the lamb” is not actually in the Bible; it is at best a rough approximation of Isaiah 11:6. The power of that image, though, draws from the trampling of the line between wild and tame, known and unknown — it is our reconciliation with God.
This year, again, I will be in church as the dogs and cats and fish in bowls are brought to the altar to be blessed. I won’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that God is like that sleepy cat or priest-sniffing dog. We do not own and control God. God does not do what we want. Rather, God, if he really is a God, is largely unknown to us, glimpsed briefly through the trees.
Does it matter, though? It might.
If God was pleased with his creation of sea monsters and those wild things, I would imagine there is little good in their destruction. We live in a time where the wild spaces are almost gone, and we glimpse the dangerous animals not through the gap between trees but behind the bars of a zoo. There is a part of creation that is nearly gone, and all the lap dogs in the world cannot make that right.
Mark Osler is a Professor of Law at the University of St, Thomas Law School in Minnesota. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School, Prof. Osler is a former federal prosecutor whose work has consistently confronted the problem of inflexibility in sentencing and corrections.