Feast of the Animals

The Feast is held today, October 4. I don’t mean a feast of animals like a medieval banquet crammed with meaty dishes, but an ecclesiastical “feast” offered for animals, for blessing them and wishing them health and longevity. It commemorates Francis of Assisi.

Ah, there’s a saint worth the name! Even non-Roman Catholics like me will bow reverently to that Voice of the Poor and Patron Saint of Animals.

saintfrancis_openclipartAlthough today is the official saint’s day, it was celebrated by congregations last Sunday. Brave clergymen (or clergywomen in some denominations) allowed pets to be paraded along the naves of their churches or cathedrals to a station for blessing, praying silently there will be no dog fights or “accidents.” The scene we imagine is rather droll but has a serious intent. Whatever our religious beliefs and observances, if any, it’s a ritual worthy of the calendar to remember the services animals render to us, and be thankful for the ineffable beauty of nature that inspired Francis:

canticle

Pet parades are as much for the children as for their animals. Children open their hearts more to animals than we adults, or at least until we reach out to them again for companionship in our graying years. Parents give pets to kids for many reasons, but rarely for the life lessons that animals can teach them.

The first lesson they taught me was to leave wild animals be. As we didn’t have a dog or cat, I created a “zoo” with rodents, reptiles and beetles captured in local woods and fields, and threw in some exotic insects to impress my friends. It was a far less ambitious collection than the menagerie Gerald Durrell kept on the Island of Confu when he was growing up in the 1930s (My Family and Other Animals). But the baby tortoise I brought home from Greece (when it was still legal) died soon afterwards, and we buried it in the pet graveyard at the bottom of the garden. I felt guilty for shortening a life that might have continued for many years, even to this day, but its death was sacrificial for others because I never kept a wild animal again. A tortoise was one of Gerry’s first casualties too, and although he launched a famous zoo it was founded on the principle of conserving endangered animals rather than for entertaining humans.

The next lesson was far more subtle and is seldom taught at home or in school because words for the hardest fact come thick and slow. A child’s dilated sense of time gives her or him a false scale on which to gauge life’s arrow: Grandpa and other elders seem to have existed forever, or from the remotest dot beyond the ken of the very young. Measuring the arc of time for growing up and growing old is impossible without experience, but a pet’s lifespan can be observed from beginning to end (unless it is a donkey).  A puppy or kitten given to a child in infancy has traveled its entire existence before the end of grade school, and a hamster races through life in barely two years. Knowledge of the compressed lives of animals offers a scale for comparing with human histories, and gathering the uncomfortable realization that we too have an expiration date. When the natural lifespan of other species is apprehended, a death “full of years” is understood as the way of nature, and neither a tragedy nor a cause to Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas).

The last lesson was about that final passage, which of course we dread anyone should confront prematurely like my little tortoise. Our anticipation of reaching the end of life’s arc is a price we pay for a rich cognitive life, and, although some people have faith that the rainbow reaches down to gold in the earth, it is mostly regarded otherwise. Animals are spared that anxiety, except perhaps at the final moment.

My favorite saint passed away after completing his life’s work at a ripe age for his era and, I like to think, without pangs of anger and regret. There is a story that the closing words of his famous canticle praising “Sister Death” were added on his deathbed while singing with two of his closest brother friars. I wonder if he chose the feminine adjective as a comfort word to convey the peace of a tender sister instead of fighting the passage from life, as if it were an adversary. As far as we know, he yielded to nature like the animals he loved, and went gentle into that good night.

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About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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