On the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, earlier this month, many churches held blessings of real animals, which were inspired by St. Francis’s own love for all earth’s creatures. Yesterday I heard a report by Charles Lane on NPR, about a church in Patchogue Long Island which, in honor of the Feast, held a blessing for stuffed animals.
One of the congregants, an elderly gentleman whose wife had dementia, brought with him to church a teddy bear which was given to his wife. It kept her company in the nursing home. For him that bear was representative of the vow which he made to his wife of 58 years: “in sickness and in health.”
The pastor of that church, Dwight Lee Wolter, provided a more philosophical rationale for this unusual blessing. He argued that throughout our lives we deaden large parts of ourselves and they become like the useless stuffed animals, which we once felt connected to. Those parts could be our tenderness, our willingness to trust or our vulnerability. The pastor encouraged the congregation to stretch enough to be able to see the presence of soul, or the spirit, in the dead parts of ourselves and in the world around us..
It takes a very confident, or extremely naive, preacher to use in the service inanimate animals as a symbol for what we have lost.
Some speakers are so persuasive that we tend to suspend our judgement. From the short segment which I heard on the radio it appears to me that Dwight Lee Wolter is such a charismatic speaker. The concept of suspension of disbelief (or judgment) was coined in 1817 by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that in literature and drama if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader/listener/observer would suspend judgment and believe in the narrative.
As children we were trustful and vulnerable, we loved our stuffed animals and regarded them as real friends. Wolter encourages his congregation to bring back those qualities into their life.
These are lofty ideals, but in reality breathing new life into those parts of ourselves which make us defenseless is risky. We appreciate tenderness, trust and vulnerability in our friends and family. Yet in the business world, for example, those attributes are not seen as qualities, quite the contrary, they are regarded as a dangerous sign of weakness. We hear about companies which deny that their CEO is ill for fear that their stock would plummet. Moreover, even regular employees are afraid to tell their superiors that they are sick because they may lose their job.
Dwight Lee Wolter came up with a fun and original idea for a service to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. However, in the rest of the year it is the sad responsibility of the preacher to remind the congregation that in the outside world there are real wolves, lions and bears.
PS. The short segment from NPR on Blessing the animals by Charles Lane