Every October, those of us involved in ministry find ourselves summoned to bless cats and dogs.
Some attribute this practice to Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology. According to tradition, Francis preached to animals, insisting that in the eyes of God they were siblings of humans. In his Canticle of the Creatures, the 13th-century Italian friar offered an ode, proclaiming in it, “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, paintings of the saint usually show him preaching to animals, often with a bird perched on his shoulder or wrist.
After a dramatic procession of exotic and domesticated animals at St. John the Divine in New York City in 1985, animal blessings popped up yearly in Catholic and Protestant churches alike as pet people flocked (pun intended) to receive blessings for their companion animals. The practice starkly contrasted with prevailing church doctrine that suggested only humans possessed souls. (And recent papal suggestions that living with animals might be selfish.)
What Is a Blessing?
Traditionally, a blessing was a prayer, given by someone with “authority,” to make things sacred, to give praise to a deity, or with the expectation of receiving favor or abundance. Sometimes, a blessing was protection from something unwanted or considered harmful or evil. Commonly thought of as verbal, blessings can also be nonverbal. For example, a blessing might be delivered through a river into which one might submerge oneself, or it could be offered through a hand sign or by performing a specific ritual.
Many religions also suggest their adherents should seek to “be a blessing.” We might explain this as extending the grace of the Divine to others, or acting in a way that allows others to thrive. Practical mystic David Spangler, in Blessing: The Art and the Practice, explains, “In practicing the art of blessing, we are really practicing being connected. … Surely a blessing is also a flow of life force between ourselves and others or between ourselves and the sacred. It’s an act of connection. It restores through love a circulation of spirit among us that may have become blocked, forgotten, or overlooked. It reconnects us to the community of creation.”
Admittedly, blessings can have a dark side, too, such as when they are used to separate the blessed from the cursed or unfavored. And they sometimes accompany sacrifices, such as killing an animal for a religious ritual or turning them into food—both of which carry serious moral dilemmas that are now under scrutiny. (You can listen to Rabbi Rami and I talk about this on the Spirituality and Health podcast.)
Animal Blessings in the World’s Religions and Wisdom Traditions
Around this time of year, some synagogues read the story of Noah, the famous hero who gathered animals two by two to save them from a flooded world.
The Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata, two Sanskrit epics of ancient India, include stories of extending grace to other-than-human beings. As an unapologetic squirrel lover, my favorite tale of Hindu origin depicts the building of Lord Rama’s bridge over the Indian Ocean. It’s said that while millions of monkeys helped gather massive stones, and even mountains, for the construction, a devoted squirrel joined in by carrying pebbles in her mouth. The powerful primates mocked her. One even tossed her out of the work site. Auspiciously, the little squirrel landed in the hand of Lord Rama, who, after hearing her story, bestowed a blessing and a lesson: “Blessed be the little squirrel. She is doing her work to the best of her ability. Therefore, she is quite as great as the greatest of you. Never despise those that are not as strong as you. What truly matters is not the strength one has, but the love and devotion with which one works.”
In the Islamic tradition, it’s said that one day when a cat bowed down in thanks to the prophet, Muhammad stroked the cat three times on the back, gracing felines with the talent of always being able to land on their feet.
Buddhist authors and teachers provide guidance for using animal-focused mantras and blessings to help liberate sentient beings.
Secular folks uninterested in the spiritual act of blessing can still join in by celebrating World Animal Day on October 4.
Resources for Animal Blessings
Animal blessings have become so popular that many religious denominations and clergy now suggest words and even outlines for creating services.
“Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends, the animals, your creatures. We pray especially for all that are suffering in any way: for the overworked and underfed, the hunted, lost, or hungry; for all in captivity or ill-treated, and for those that must be put to death. For those who deal with them, we ask a gentle heart of compassion, gentle hands, and kindly words. Make us all true friends to animals and worthy followers of our merciful Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.” ―United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Prayers On the Care of Creation
“Protect and bless all things that have breath. Guard them from all evil and let them sleep in peace.” ―Albert Schweitzer, theologian, doctor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, pastor at Saint Nicholas Church in Strasbourg
“May all my sacred brothers and sisters walk, fly, swim, and move in love, peace and freedom.” — Judy Carman in Peace to All Beings
And for those skeptical about the success rate of getting their cat to church, no worries. Father John Dear teamed up with the folks at PETA to create a recorded phone blessing so animal companions can be blessed from the convenience of their own homes. Just call toll-free 1-833-Assisi-1 (1-833-277-4741), and you can hear the blessing any day of the week.
People interested in DIY options can look to the many books teeming with ideas from a wide range of spiritual perspectives, including:
Blessing the Animals: Prayers and Ceremonies to Celebrate God’s Creatures, Wild and Tame by Lynn Caruso
Peace to All Beings: Veggie Soup for the Chicken’s Soul by Judy Carman
A Child’s Book of Animal Poems and Blessings by Eliza Blanchard
Blessings of the Animals: Celebrating Our Kindship with All Creation by Gary Kowalski
Pet Prayers & Blessings: Ceremonies & Celebrations to Share With the Animals You Love by Laurie Sue Brockway and Victor Fuhrman
For the Blessing of the Animals by Michael J. Rosen
Blessings for the Animal Nations by David Abrams
The Blessing of the Beasts by Ethel Pochocki
Liberating Animals and Other Ways to Benefit Them by Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Why Blessing Animals Matters
At its essence, the act of blessing means that we value a being. We are stopping to think about their wellbeing and hope they will thrive. Further, we might wish that they be protected from danger and suffering. By blessing, we are saying you matter.
So, many of us animal-loving clergy go well beyond a once-a-year tribute to animalkind by offering to bless them any time of the year when requested. And I spend a lot of time educating others on the practice of compassionate plant-based eating rather than “saying a blessing” for an animal who likely suffered in human systems and then was killed.
Animals certainly don’t need our blessing, but by the act, perhaps we can remember to be a blessing to them.
Want more blessing practices? Read Roadside Blessings: Conscious Driving Practices for Animal Lovers.