What makes us want to include our animal companions in our spiritual lives?
Bouquets of sunflowers and small greenery pruned to mimic dogs, cats, and turtles sat behind the altar at an Episcopal church in downtown Atlanta on a recent Sunday. The holy house was packed with bodies for mass, both human and other. I was visiting All Saints Church, which like many other places of worship throughout the U.S., holds an annual “blessings of the pets.” Though these ceremonies have become more popular over time, animal blessings like this have been practiced elsewhere more casually for centuries. They usually run around October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. The performed service is exactly what you’d guess: priests bless whatever animals congregants bring to church that day. (Regardless of the Christian roots, some Jewish rabbis also perform blessings around the same time each year.) The day I attended my first pet blessing, it was 98 percent dogs with a miserable-looking cat or two tucked in. But All Saints’ Rev. Tim Black said he’s blessed guinea pigs, snakes—even a hissing cockroach.
People definitely take their pets seriously. Animals get absorbed as official members of the family; folks may refer to their dog or cat as their “child,” without a drip of irony. My dad recently confided in me his close friend’s final wish: to be buried with an urn holding his dog’s ashes in it. The American Pet Products Association found Americans spent $58 billion on their captive animal pals last year. (If you need any further proof of this phenomenon, look at most any recently gentrified neighborhood in a major metropolis and play vegan pet bakery bingo.) Through ceremonies like the one at All Saints, parishioners are further investing in their non-human companions, blessing their animal souls—which Rev. Black said all creatures capable of love possess.
During the ceremony, he and another priest made rounds through the seated crowd, laying hands on the animals, reciting prayers. There were lots of families but also couples and plenty of folks alone with their pets. I saw a manicured white long-haired terrier with luxurious locks, an elderly three-legged greyhound with a long stick tail, an absolutely terrified cat. I sat next to a prim woman with a warm smile, her two sharply dressed small boys, and their excitable boxer, Rosie.
While matters of animal spirituality and serious talk of pet souls didn’t seem to weigh too much on minds of these gathered congregants, having cats or dogs or even hissing cockroaches (maybe) as a part of one’s young life instills at least trace amounts of responsibility and a sense of mortality. As Rev. Black pointed out, pet ownership gives us practice and familiarity in dealing with the cycle of life and death. “How many times have you talked to somebody who said, ‘My dog died and I was sadder about how my dog died than I was about my grandma or uncle’?” he asked. “It’s because there’s this bond... We go through death with our animals and old age with our animals. Over your lifetime, you may have five, six dogs. It’s really sort of a dress rehearsal for our own death, for the death of other people that we know. I think it’s a gift they give us because they teach us not to be afraid.”
Rev. Black made some valid points. But not all Christian denominations believe animals have souls. My friend Amy grew up fiercely Baptist, her dad preaching the word professionally. “When my friends’ dogs would die or animals I knew, I asked where they went,” she said. “And my mom would be like, ‘Well, animals don’t have souls. So they’re just gone.’ Really healthy stuff.” Regardless, her parents tolerated several goldfish funerals in the backyard.
Rev. Black said he’d performed blessings on at least two dogs in their enfeebled, final twilight days. In 2012, the Episcopalian General Convention approved a set of last rites and prayers for dying animals.
Getting older means a lot of shitty things, but worst of it is watching those we love die. I looked around me at the gathered animals at the blessing ceremony. For some reason, contemplating the spiritual fates of these beloved companions made me think of my maternal grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. The last I sat with her, my hand tucked in hers inside a borrowed trailer, I quietly absorbed an anecdote she retold with slightly differing language seven times in a row. I suddenly recalled my childhood cat, Clyde, in his later years, fur matted in orange patches, withered tail hanging limp like a flaccid stingray. One day my mom called crying. Clyde was not well, and before he left us, she wanted him to have my own blessing. She wanted to give him peace, and therefore, all of us peace.
But at All Saints, the wider spiritual implications of finding pets a place in our religious existence stayed beneath the surface. Through the rite and ritual of the event, though, the scope of the lives we live with our animal companions came into a particular kind of focus; waves of gratitude rippled through the fur-speckled pews. A dull roar of yips and dog yawns made a glorious, cacophonous soundtrack. When Rev. Black asked the congregation to exchange signs of peace, the humans shook hands and the critters followed suit—sniffing each other, nuzzling, a few curious growls. I got thwacked by more than a few excited, wagging dog tails. Rosie the boxer’s jowls hung loose and she awarded my outstretched hand with a kiss. The air of the pet blessing generally levitated with lightheartedness and the congregation formed a span of ebullient human and animal faces (more of the former than the latter, admittedly).
“Blessing is not about ‘saving’ someone or an animal but is about praying for them the greatest thing we can ask for: God’s peace and blessings,” Rev. Black said. “It’s definitely more for the person. For the dogs, it’s disruptive.” This point was validated by his own dog, a longhaired dachshund named Gertrude, who sat in his elbow nook, nervously shaking during the homily. Another woman I met in the parish echoed the sentiment. I caught her, all in taupe, calming her anxious dog decorated with pink satin bows. It was the animal’s second or third blessing, she explained. I ask how the dog—I didn’t catch her name—seemed affected by the blessing experience each year. “Oh, she’s the same,” the woman said, laughing. “But it does make me feel better. For some reason.”