Animal Blessing Service

Animal Blessing Service at St Michael and All Angels, Watford


 'A little Eden'. Praying with wildlife in the garden and the churchyard.

                        

Revd. Professor Martin Henig

 

This other Eden, demi-paradise.

                                                  [King Richard II.Act 2.sc.1,l.42]

                          

     Our concerns in the organisations to which we  all  belong are most often focussed on  human treatment of animals , or alas more frequently, mistreatment  in Factory Farms and Laboratories, and the neglect of  (and cruelty to) companion animals and working animals. Of course we are also involved in vigorous protests against the hunting, trapping  and poaching of wild animals whether they be foxes or bears, seals or whales, elephants or rhinos. We are appalled by the destruction of habitats, especially the rain forests and the oceans, but also the desecration of local habitats in our own country. It is totally right that this should be so, and in earlier talks to this retreat I have spoken with passion about the treatment of different categories of animal: mammals and birds, reptiles and fish, and invertebrates, and their value to God. The ordering here is a traditional one, but I think amongst most people, even those with great concern for their fellow creatures, sympathies decline as one descends this rather over-refined ladder of creation, especially when one descends from birds to reptiles, amphibians and fish. As for invertebrates, apart from bees and butterflies of course, bringing moths and beetles, let alone slugs and snails , spiders and crabs, mosquitoes and cockroaches into the circle of sympathy has raised a few eyebrows even amongst passionate supporters of animal rights. One totally committed animal activist described some of the last category of animals as ‘creepy crawlies’, to which the answer is surely that to God all of us are creepy crawlies, but we are his creation and he loves us.[1] In all my talks including my earlier talk to this retreat I emphasise that our concern as fellow creatures who have been appointed as (or who, in any case, regard ourselves as) stewards of creation on behalf of  God gives us a responsibility for the earthworm as much as for the giraffe. This concern is theologically rooted, and follows absolutely logically from scripture.

 

 This leads of course to a consideration of what we might do about it, beyond signing petitions or going on demonstrations, or of course rescuing and caring for individual animals. At one level we can expand our horizons by participating however marginally in organisations which care for the habitats which are the physical homes and feeding places for wild animals, not of course forgetting the trees, ferns and flowering plants which are also intrinsic to creation. The National Trust, the Wetlands Trust, The Woodlands Trust, the various local wildlife trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds amongst other organisations do just that. Their large and expanding memberships demonstrate, at least at one level, a widespread concern for the environment and its inhabitants.

 

  But what might any of us do ourselves without necessarily involving any organisation, because all of us, at least if we live in a house with a garden (however small) or are members of a church community with a garden or a churchyard have the basis of a nature reserve, and such a small area of land, ‘God’s acre’ has the potential not only for encouraging animal life but also of enriching our prayer lives.

 

 Any spot of ground, even the concrete streets of a city thoroughfare or the arid environment of a house will be a suitable habitat for a few creatures, but clearly not for very many. But one can only really be a steward of Nature by working with it. If one has a garden it is important that there is a diversity of plants, shrubs and ideally trees to provide shelter for birds and places where they may nest, an array of flowering plants for nectar-loving insects, butterflies, moths, hoverflies and of course bees, some rank vegetation as cover for mice, voles and shrews, a pile of logs for the frogs maybe, and if possible a pond. Pesticides and slug pellets should be avoided, because they can have devastating effect on wildlife: slug pellets are surely a major cause of the decline of the snail-eating song-thrush. It is far better to exercise restraint in managing a garden. Work with nature and not against nature!

 

   Feeding birds is also important, especially for species such as the House Sparrow which have followed humans from the time of the Neolithic Revolution, depending on nomadic human groups as they moved north and west. One thinks of the evocative words of the psalmist : ‘I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top’, a frequent sight but humans can provide a good environment. And another psalm speaks of the temple as such a home, ‘Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.’[2]  A pond too will help to develop a community of animals, frogs, toads and newts, and insects with aquatic larvae as well as providing a place where birds can drink.

 There may not be room in a small garden but if there are some of these aspects in neighbouring gardens and neighbours think holistically a haven can be created. There are problems. Probably the greatest is the high and increasing percentage of gardens that have been paved over and which now provide an arid environment for wildlife as well as, in many areas, increasing the risk of flooding. The Royal Horticultural Society is currently campaigning against this menace. Another problem to which too many supporters of animals seem blind is the over popularity of cats, so that there are now far more carnivores to the acre than could ever exist in the wild to the detriment of resident songbird populations.

 

  Churches have a major part to play in creating wildlife havens; they often have around them, a churchyard where the dead have been laid to rest for centuries, or at least a garden of Remembrance. Perhaps not atypical of the various situations around the country are the surroundings of  the four churches in the Osney Benefice, Oxford in which  I serve. Two of the churches are very ancient and the present buildings date back  to Norman times. One, the old church of St Margaret’s, at Binsey with its ‘treacle well’ famous from Alice in Wonderland, is out in the fields surrounded by pasture-land, a small wood beside it on one side and a former farm building with a paddock of goats on the other. There is extensive tree-cover in the churchyard, and the area is a haven for wild-life. Unfortunately the well, a Victorian structure, is simply a hole in the ground approached by steps and not therefore a major wildlife feature in itself. The other ancient church, St Lawrence at North Hinksey, although situated very near the Oxford by-pass has a similar ambiance. The front part of the churchyard is managed as a wild-flower meadow and again there is a concern for nature here. There is a Church Primary School on one side and so a potential for using the churchyard to teach respect for nature. St Frideswide’s church off the busy Botley Road leading west out of Oxford is only Victorian in date but has a splendid setting for wildlife, bounded as it is on two sides by streams which are rich in fish and are consequently visited by heron and kingfisher. There are bird-boxes and bat-boxes in the trees while the open grassed area around has potential for further enhancement, by careful planting, and we plan to do more. Once again the church is close to a school. All of these are exciting places with enormous potential, both for the natural world itself and for involving them in our spiritual lives as praying communities.

 

 St Peter and Paul, Botley provides us with much more of a challenge and seems to me to be typical of many churches in more urban situations. Inevitably, nowadays the  area north of the church is used for parking which generates revenue. On the south side there is, however,  a quiet area, a Garden of Remembrance, the size of a small suburban garden, where ashes have been strewn and indeed flowering plants provide not only a sense of peace but doubtless a good environment for insects, although unfortunately it is not  visible from the church. This would be of greater concern if  the congregation as a whole did not have plenty of access to more extensive open space in their own gardens and the nearby countryside (which includes OxfordUniversity’s woodland reserve, Wytham Woods) and if the splendid churchyard at St Lawrence was not part of the same parish. In this case, as in the others, there is always more that can be done to enhance its attractiveness to nature and certainly  to incorporate whatever open space there is into our prayer life, and  in that regard I now want to turn to praying with nature, in the countryside, in gardens and in churchyards.

 

   This seems to me especially appropriate. Houses and churches, however beautiful, are simply buildings made by human beings. Although stone and brick and wood are natural materials they lack the quality of life that only comes from the creator. There is a suspicion amongst some Christians about praying outside in the environment of fields and woods, presumably out of a fear of encouraging pantheism, a fear that worship is directed at nature and not to the God who created all life, At its worst I think of those very conservative free church communities praying for hours in bleak chapels set in beautiful countryside which their walls are specifically designed to shut out. However one only needs to recall poems by Christian poets amongst them Blake and Hopkins who embrace nature as a reflection of the Beauty of God to see how wrong minded such a negative attitude is. It is an attitude which goes together with the rejection of art and music in worship. There is a Forest Church movement today, which affirms the legitimacy of nature as a central reflection of the divine…My only doubts about bringing a large congregation into a forest glade are those which give me pause over vast organised pilgrimages or in the secular world, mass rambles; it is  simply that they will inevitably disturb the small creatures who live in these habitats and call them ‘home’.

 

   It is better to seek a time and place where one is alone. Select a log or a patch of bare ground and sit quietly, observing and loving the sights and sounds around one. When I walk to St Margaret’s, Binsey in order to celebrate an early Mass I like to sit for perhaps twenty minutes in the churchyard just reflecting and praying. One can do so anywhere in the countryside. Thus, when I go on a quiet day or a retreat I find little spiritual value in sitting around in a building, when the whole book of nature is around one: it is so much more edifying to thrill at the dexterity of a tree-creeper or the drumming of a Greater Spotted Woodpecker as I did on the last occasion I got away into the woods. I have often told people about my ordination retreat at Cuddesdon, where I spent hours sitting in the fields and where hares and especially badgers, coming out of the cornfield as though to stare at me confirmed my vocation. As I write these words in my garden at home, I look up and there high above my head is a kite, whose supreme mastery of the air speaks to me, as the windhover did to Hopkins, of the  God who created the bird as well as us humans. Praise him!

 

 I have mentioned sparrows, and when I get up it is a joy to watch them as they go about their complex social lives, foraging for food, looking for materials for their nests, preening themselves or engaging with each other. Here I understand what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that God cared for them as he cares for us.

 

  We all have our own methods of praying, differences of ritual, even theological differences but that does not matter when as the psalmists reiterate the whole of creation prays to God. For all we know humans are less adept than other creatures at this, perhaps we are too easily distracted. As a model one might do worse than to take the example of insular saints (such as St Cuthbert) or indeed at a later period of St Francis of Assisi who saw that they were in the same sort of relation with God as were the other animals around them. Such a realisation should teach us humility, and that is a virtue which is so necessary for prayer to be effective. It is never about praising ourselves; no it is about praising God for the beauty of his work. We are taught to pray for each other, and so we should but the ‘other’ embraces all creation and I always try to include all of God’s creatures when I pray by myself , say the morning or evening office, or celebrate Mass.

 

Our Churchyards, Gardens and the wider countryside are thus amazing places of contact; they are liminal places where we can greet our fellow creatures as equals, made with love by the same God who fashioned us too, and there, I hope, we can meet him together, on equal terms. At our little church of St Margaret’s with its churchyard so radiant with life, I know from the comments in the visitors’ book that this is so. It was a special place for two close friends who eventually chose to be married there, and who share my passion for animals. But I know other people for whom a garden with its birds and small animals is the next place to heaven. Remember the garden imagery of the Song of Songs, the singing birds, the cooing turtle doves. As a Roman archaeologist and art historian amongst my favourite paintings of that era is the fresco with which the Empress Livia, wife of Augustus, first emperor of Rome, decorated one of her favourite chambers. It is a garden, but not merely  a garden for, through the varied foliage of the fresco, flit or hop many species of multi-coloured birds. One can almost hear the bird-song as one looks at this and at the many  other Roman garden paintings which survive from the cities of Campania destroyed by the eruption of Mt.Vesuvius in AD 79. Livia’s Garden Room  and these other paintings remind us of the deeply felt rustic imagery of the Roman poets, Virgil and Horace pre-eminent amongst them.  They remind us that you do not need to be a Christian to find the divine in the world of the garden, for in the Natural World, God comes to meet his creation. That is why the psalmist is so insistent that all creation, humans and other animals, was simply made to serve God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  



[1] I italicise ‘he’ and ‘his’ because in order to envision the Creator we do so in human guise and as those who developed that vision were men, God is somehow male!

[2] Psalm 102:7; Psalm 84:3


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