I spent this past week at Bishop’s Ranch, an Episcopal retreat centre located about ninety minutes north of San Francisco. I was at the Ranch as part of a self-directed preaching conference that six colleagues and I organised. During our time together, my colleagues and I looked at the readings scheduled for the coming year, we shared Biblical research and ideas, we preached draft sermons for one another. And in between our work, we went hiking.
Bishop’s Ranch is located on a multi-acre property in Sonoma County. And as those of you who have been there will know, it is a glorious spot: the rolling hills, the early-morning fog, and the abundant trees all glow with the artistry of God. A hiker does not have to go far from the sleeping quarters and the office and the dining hall to feel as though she is well and truly into the backcountry. In a handful of steps, the buildings are gone and the silence is old and deep. At midday, when we set out for our hike, even the birds were at rest, their song perhaps postponed for a siesta.
For the first hour or so, our hike was lovely. We encountered a picturesque lake and a wondrous view of the surrounding wine country. But – maybe because we underestimated the distance of the hike, maybe because we didn’t foresee how many hills and, therefore, how much climbing there would be, maybe because it was hotter than it looked – at a certain point, the hike stopped being fun.
We ran out of water. And at least two members our party ran out of steam. Unable to climb any further, they found some shade and sat down beside the road.
It was at this moment of dehydration and exhaustion that we looked up into the sky and noticed that there was a vulture circling overhead.
A couple of my friends and I hiked out. Thankfully, it was all of a mile back to the main office building. And there I asked the staff if they would mind going to pick up the rest of our friends. The staff did. And everyone got home and chugged a bunch of water. So, a happy ending. No big deal.
But the experience – well, it’s staying with me.
Living in an urban environment, I rarely feel vulnerable in the way that I did in the wilderness outside of Bishop’s Ranch; I rarely feel the kind of immediate vulnerability that I imagine our ancestors knew with regularity, the danger that comes from simply being alive and walking the earth. Occasionally my adrenaline will spike when I’m out on my bicycle and a motorist passes by too close. Occasionally I wonder about what the guy on public transit might be capable of who is screaming profanity at the air around him.
But most of my worries are actually relatively abstract: I worry that a time might come when my family doesn’t have enough money, that Phoebe and I might not be able to afford to pay for the university education that is, increasingly, a prerequisite if our children hope to avoid poverty; and in these weeks leading up to the election, I sometimes worry that our country’s social fabric is becoming thin and torn, that we are losing our hold on our ability to believe and trust in the humanity and the goodness of our fellow citizens.
But very rarely do I experience the ancient and totally non-abstract vulnerability that I touched (however superficially and however fleetingly) on the paths of Bishop’s Ranch. Here is the fear that the water or the food might run out right now. Here is the realisation that death, which an hour or two ago seemed safely decades away, might suddenly be standing close. Here is the understanding that the words of Ash Wednesday – remember you are dust and to dust you shall return – are not abstractions.
Here is the glimpse of the vulture descending, not for some unfortunate and expired woodland creature, but for me.
Today we mark the most popular non-official Feast in the entire Episcopal calendar: St. Francis’ Day and the Blessing of the Animals. Francis’ official Feast Day is on Tuesday. But in a flagrant violation of every rule there is, many parishes, this one included, move Francis’ collect and readings to this day, so that we hear about this 11th and 12th-Century saint on the day when our congregation is appreciably more furry than usual.
The belovedness of this Feast Day, the energy around it, is palpable. I look forward to this day all year. And I know that a lot of you do as well. Over the years, I have met a number of folks who self-identify as “C & E” churchgoers – the two days of the year on which they are reliably in church are Christmas and Easter. But it’s only in the last year or two that I have begun to meet “C, E, & F” churchgoers – the three days that these folks won’t miss are Christmas, Easter, and St. Francis’ Day.
Part of the belovedness of this day has to do with the simple joy of being in a room filled with pets. There is a kind of holy chaos here, there is delight in knowing that at any minute a hymn might be joined by a bark or a howl of whatever noise it is that a guinea pig makes.
Another part of this day’s belovedness comes because it offers us a ritual opportunity to name just how much we love our cats and dogs and birds, what good and loyal friends they are to us, how they companion us in our days of celebration and our days of sorrow. I notice that, when a pet dies, people are often embarrassed about sharing their grief – I don’t understand why I am so upset, someone will say, it’s just a cat. But the Blessing of the Animals declares that, actually, having an animal friend is a really big deal and, therefore, the death of such a friend is a big deal. We can and do share a deep love with a cat or a dog or mouse or a bird. We can and do experience deep loss when such a friend dies.
And part of the reason that this Feast Day is beloved – and this is the aspect that I am wondering about most strongly after my experience on the trails of Bishop’s Ranch – is that by gathering with and among animals, we remind ourselves that human beings – that we – are divorced neither from the beauty not from the danger of the natural world.
We are inheritors (maybe from the Victorians – I’m not sure when this idea got its start) of the notion that we are observers of the natural world, of the animal world, but that we are not really participants in it. The sun and the moon, the hills and the trees, the animals that dance across the canopy of the sky or upon the arc of the land: we can measure these things, we can tame them, we can use them, we can perhaps even exploit them. But they are separate from us.
This separate and controlled way of relating to nature is embedded in a lot of our culture. Clothes and buildings and landscaping and cleaning and rituals alike all declare that we aren’t in the wild, we aren’t of the wild. The buildings in this neighbourhood, this church included, tend to be pretty orderly in nature. The pews are lined up in a precise way, the costumes that people like me wear are carefully cared for, many of us have smart haircuts, we are reasonably well-dressed. One of the things that a building like this tells you is that the natural world – and in particular, the dangers of the natural world – well, that stuff is somewhere else.
I suspect that part of us – a big part of us – senses that this declaration of nature’s somewhere-elseness is false. And so we are drawn to a day on which – with a church full of animals, some of them furry and some of them us – we remember that we are not observers of creation, but we are part of creation. We are drawn to the Feast Day of Saint who is able to speak of the earth – and to the earth – with the language of reverence and awe and love. Francis’ love extends up and to including the earthy reality that our time on this planet is finite, that we are here but for a while before our bodies return to the clay from which God shaped us.
It is Francis, in his writings, who speaks of Sister Death.
When we escape from the frantic work of avoiding vulnerability – either because we choose to participate in a day such as this one or else because we receive the difficult gift of having the kind of experience I had on the hiking trail, in which we are startled by the evidence of our own mortality – we may be surprised to find that there is something good and freeing in the very thing that we sought to avoid. There is something waiting in the danger, beyond the danger. Because in recognising that this life is fragile and fleeting, we often recognise as well that it is an uncommon and a beautiful gift. We recognise that, during our sojourn on this earth, we have a glorious and brief opportunity to do something divine, to join Francis, to join our animal friends, to join Jesus, add to the sum of goodness and beauty and love in the world.