Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/4 2018

Not Just Chickadees—Remembering Francis, a Subversive Saint

St. Francis Blessing of the AnimalsI’ve already seen the signs: “Blessing of the Animals—This Sunday”.

In honor of St. Francis—who preached to chickadees, tamed a wolf terrorizing a town, and welcomed chipmunks onto his shoulders—many churches will be offering animal blessings this Sunday. They will invite dogs, cats, gerbils, lizard, cockatoos, and more, into their sanctuaries—or at least into their front yards. They will sing All Creatures of Our God and King. They will invoke the name of Francis. And they will bless these furry and feathered friends. The children will love it.

What they won’t do? Encourage kids to steal.

Maybe they should.


Francis the Thief

Before he ever preached to an animal, Francis criticized the burgeoning merchant economy of 13th Century Italy. He grieved the way the economy put money into the pockets of some while leaving others begging along roadsides.

One of Francis’s first acts on his way to becoming St. Francis was to steal fabric from his father’s business and sell it. One account says he gave the money to a church, another says he offered it to the poor. Either way, he didn’t seem to appreciate the notion of property. The fabric—and the money it fetched when sold—wasn’t his to give away.

He did it anyway.

This act marked the beginning of what we might call Francis’s conversion—the 180 degree turn God’s Spirit was working in his life: a turn from a world in which a human economy allows people to say, “This is mine, I earned it, I can do with it what I want,” to a vision of a divine economy in which all that is belongs to God, is oriented toward God, and should be used for God’s purposes.

And, as Francis found out, living in that kind of economy can get you in trouble.


A New Vision Emerges

Unsurprisingly, Francis’s father did not think highly of this act of generosity. He flew into a rage, and Francis absconded. He hid for several weeks in a small cave, where only one friend knew where he was. He ate what little food his friend brought him, and he prayed. As one early biographer put it, “The Lord sent him such consolations and delight as he had never known.”

There’s no way to know exactly what happened to Francis in that cave, but I love the way G. K. Chesterton, in his biography of Francis, describes his new attitude when he emerged. Chesterton suggests that, when Francis came out, he saw the world upside down:

The effects of this on his attitude toward the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. . . . If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging.

Francis saw the world—all of creation, even himself and, presumably, his father and his father’s fabric—as suspended from its divine source. He saw things as they really are—coming from God, belonging to God, to be used for God. And that kind of vision doesn’t jibe with the way things typically work.

No wonder we bless the animals—that feels safe. Celebrating Francis-the-thief would contribute to the corruption of minors.


Of a Piece

But Francis-who-blesses-the-animals and Francis-who-steals-the-fabric are one and the same Francis; these two aspects of his character are of a piece. They flow from his radical reorientation.

Francis discovered a kinship with the rest of creation—Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Second-Cousin Squirrel—because he saw the trees, wolves, cockatoos, and gerbils as existing in God, as all things do. He peered into their divine heart—the same divine heart in his father and in the poor beggar. But the human economy—This is mine! I earned it! You can’t have it!—blinds us to this truth.

So when we bless the animals, we’re not just doing something cute, and we’re not just putting at risk the sanctuary carpet. We’re glimpsing the heart of reality. We’re practicing radical kinship. We’re being a bit subversive.  We’re learning that not only the animals, but our very lives and our things, come from God, belong to God, and should be aimed toward God’s purposes.


Stealing St. Francis

When my wife and I got married, she bought me a little statue of St. Francis holding a basket. I filled the basket with birdseed and placed it in the front yard of our house. I loved that statue of Francis, loved how he greeted me each time I approached the front door. And I loved how, from the dining room table, I could watch the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds eat their fill as I ate mine.

When we sold the house 13 years ago, we forgot Francis. He stayed in that yard, and I wanted him back.

Last summer, when our family visited that town to see friends, we drove by the house to show our kids. “Boys,” I said, slowing down as we passed, “this is where we lived when you were born.” And then I stopped. I saw Francis, my Francis. He’d been moved from the island of azaleas in the front yard to near the bushes beneath the dining room window.

I glanced at our eight-year-old daughter, quick and small. She could pull off a heist if anyone could—dash into the yard, pluck Francis from among the bushes, and jump into the van before anyone saw her. And I’d never driven a getaway car before. It felt exciting.

Until I remembered—that’s not the kind of thief Francis was. He didn’t steal in order to own. He stole because what his father possessed wasn’t being used for its divine purpose. It had lost its place in Gods economy.

So we drove away, and I was left wondering, not whether I would every have my Francis back—I won’t—but whether I could let this vision of Francis shape my life. Would I ever really see the world the way Francis did?

And would I be willing to show that world to my kids, knowing the trouble seeing the world this way could cause them?


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDivDoctor 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. His latest work is Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife (Church Publishing Inc., 2019).


10/5 2015

One Surprisingly Good Reason to Bless the Animals

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.