Welcome to St Francis Day at your Cathedral! It is also the beginning of Episcopal Schools Week, so we have invited our students and school leadership to worship with the Cathedral this morning. In honor of St Francis, I want to tell you about some of the spiritual lessons my spouse and I have learned from Gray the Cat.
Gray, who considers himself a Fur Person, chose us as his housekeepers about 3 ½ years ago. When my spouse and I went on vacation this summer, we had a visiting housekeeper for Gray. Gray is a rescue cat, and sometimes he gets anxious, so he needs people who are steady. We made sure that we had someone we trusted to feed and play with him during our absence. When we returned after a week, Gray was quite well – and he was all over us. It was clear that he had missed us. As we went upstairs to sleep that first evening home, Gray the Cat ran between our feet, raced up the stairs, and jumped onto the end of the bed, purring loudly. I did not have the heart to make him leave. The next morning, he came and sat on our kitchen table – in the middle of my work planner. He just wanted to be with us, in the center of our life. I think he forgave us for going away without him.
I love this cat. We’re tight. I think he gets me. I sort of get him. He often joins us for morning prayers. Some days before supper he sings to us the song of his people. Most of all, he allows me to exercise my inclination to love.
As far as I’m concerned, cats and dogs are really intelligent, richly ensouled critters. Often they are emotionally connected to their bipeds. If you think that way too, then what I’m about to say might make sense to you. Our animal companions can teach us something about God. In their dogginess, dogs are great lovers. In their catness, cats are great receivers of love. Gerbils, and hamsters, and fish do the running, nibbling, swimming things that God created to do and we love them for that. Stuffed animals are for loving and being loved.
Often we bless animals in church on the Feast of St Francis, because Francis of Assisi had a deep love for animals. He called them his sisters and brothers, and the mirrors of God. Francis preached to animals about Jesus and he told them that the duty of animals was to praise God. It is said that birds stopped singing to listen to his sermon. Francis organized the first large Christmas crèche in Gubbio, with people and their animals, to honor the birth of Jesus with a living picture.
The story that I told you about Gray spoke to me about what it means to be a person who is faithful to God.
I’m a priest, so obviously I’m religious. One way of portraying myself as a person of faith is to point to the way that I worship, the doctrines that I believe, and the prayers that I recite. This would not be incorrect. But it doesn’t get to the heart of what it means to be faithful. To be a faithful Christian is to be connected and committed to a person: the risen Jesus. My life is guided by my love for Jesus. And I can love Jesus because he loved me first. He gets me. On a good day, I sort of get him.
Every once in a while, we look around and see that the world is a difficult place. It is a fractious place, and sometimes unfair, and people get hurt. This has always been true. The world’s difficulty is complicated because people who have been hurt sometimes hurt other people. This leads to a cycle of pain and resentment. God sent Jesus to change that cycle of pain and to replace it with love and forgiveness. St Francis imitated Jesus, and he was so good at loving other people that he generated a religious movement.
The love of Jesus and Francis teaches us what our animal friends can teach us: love is the way, and forgiveness is possible, over and over again.
In our lives, we have many choices to make. The most important is how we respond to hurt.
We can choose to respond with love, forgiveness, and healing.
Or we can repeat the cycle, withholding forgiveness and inflicting more hurt and pain.
To be faithful begins with accepting that we are forgiven. Jesus already accomplished that for you and for me. It continues with becoming the forgivers that Jesus taught us to be. To do anything else would be faithless, abandoning the world to its own self-destructive path.
Francis of Assisi may be the most loved and least imitated saint. Perhaps we can change that. How can we, like Francis, be filled with blessing and joy even in challenging times? How can we, like Francis, know that God loves us deeply, even when we are surrounded by difficulty or failure? How can we, like Francis, share that love with all of creation? Our faith can guide us. There is no divine barrier that separates us from God, beating us when we are already down. Hear the words of Jesus in the Gospel: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
You can always come to God. Bring your selves, bring your critters, bring your friends and partners, bring your tired and broken hearts. Know the rich and merciful love of God for all. Find your joy and find your rest.
May it be so.
Jake Owensby. “A lesson from my dog.” https://jakeowensby.com/2022/04/22/a-lesson-from-my-dog-2/