Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/5 2015

One Surprisingly Good Reason to Bless the Animals

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Blessing-of-the-petsFormer U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins begins his poem “Another Reason Why I don’t Keep a Gun in the House” with this line: “The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.”

One night last week it was my dog Wrigley who wouldn’t stop barking—or howling, rather—at every noise he heard: the neighbors’ car door, the train whistle, my wife ascending the basement stairs—whatever. And with every bark, yelp, and howl I felt anger rising.

The kids were in bed. The rest of the house was still. I was in my pajamas, sitting in my recliner, trying to read and wind down.

And the dog wouldn’t shut up.

Which is precisely why we should bless animals—as many churches did in special services yesterday—and thank God for the presence of these (sometimes frustrating) pets in our lives.

Most of the time we hear about the positive benefits of pets—how companion animals can lower stress, alleviate loneliness, help people relax. At the seminary we have a day during exam week when we bring pets to campus to help the students unwind in the midst of exams. Pets are good for you.

But I want to bless my dog for making my blood pressure rise, and here’s why.

There’s almost nothing more significant in spiritual growth than learning to let go of our shallow preferences and our egocentric agendas. Jesus said we should lose our lives for the sake of the gospel, but more often than not we lose our lives—our false selves—through a thousand small acts of letting go of “the way I want things now”: I want my food hot, I want the pillows on the sofa this way not that way, I want to be early to church. I want, I want, I want.

We like things the way we like them, and learning how not to have our way and yet not be ruined by it is at the heart of spiritual growth. It’s what many of the great spiritual writers call letting go of attachments.

And that includes, at least for me, not always having the peace and quiet I want. It means sometimes getting out of the recliner to take the dog out, or chasing the dog to get a kid’s stuffed animal out of his mouth, or distracting him from chewing the coffee table when I would rather be reading. He gives me more opportunities than I ever would have wanted to practice this letting go, to notice my frustration (and yes, sometimes anger) and not let it control me. He is teaching me how not to sin in my anger.

Of course marriage works for this as well, as does having children or spending time with other human being in general. But dogs work too.

There’s a saying of the early Christian monastics that I particularly love. One of the monks asked another monk why the demons are so afraid of him. The second monk replied, “Ever since I became a monk, I have been trying not to let anger rise as far as my mouth.”

He’s not unhelpfully repressing his anger. If something is repressed we are unaware of it until it one day wreaks havoc. No, this monk is very aware of his anger, but he takes care of it. He has learned to notice it and observe it. He is aware of when it begins, how it builds, and when it dissipates. Because he has such practice being aware of his anger it doesn’t have to control him. The slights to his ego, the frustrations of his personal preferences, the disruptions to his comfort—these things don’t have to devastate him anymore.

And I suspect that’s because he’s had lots of practice. I just know this monk had a dog.

Paul told us to imitate Jesus by looking not to our own interests but to the interests of others.

By all means: Bless these animals God has given us who provide us with more chances than we ever wanted to let go of our own interests so we might have compassion on others—even on them.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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