Brandie had nine precious lives and she used up every one of them.
She was not a cat, though. Brandie was a little wire-haired terrier who came into my life 10 years ago. She had lived with a friend of mine, but Brandie’s aggressive older brother had turned her into a very aggressive alpha female and when they had to be separated because my friend was tired of the dog fights, Brandie came into my life.
Wire-haired terriers can have a kind of innate foolishness about them and it became clear to us that Brandie needed to be protected from herself. She would get out of the house and run away to explore the neighborhood and could not find her way home. When a neighbor would find her digging in their garden, she was sent to the local animal shelter, which we call doggie jail. I had to bail her out.
The first time I ever took her to my parish when I worked in Laguna Hills, she spotted a crow and jumped out of the car to chase it. She ran down the middle of a very busy road and a kind lady took pity of this crazed looking, dog collared person who was chasing his god down the middle of the street … and gave me a ride. We followed Brandie at about 30 miles an hour dodging traffic until another kind lady stopped her car and caught the dog from the other direction.
Yet, when she was still and in her right mind, she was the sweetest pet. Kids in our school adopted Brandie as their mascot and she would often sit in the laps of troubled parishioners who had come for counseling. They petted her as she snuggled them and I believe her pastoral care was much more effective than mine. “Francis said preach the Gospel at all times and use words if you have to.”
She was such an intelligent little creature and loved to watch the news paws akimbo<.i> with her nose touching the screen. She loved “Animal Planet,” growling and barking at the wonders of creation.
Brandie met her end while staying at a friend’s house when she unfortunately ate her nylon stockings. By the time we had realized what had happened, we could not save her. We got a call that she was dead and we later arrived at our friend’s house. We were all devastated and brought her home to be cremated and buried in San Diego. Brandie had nine lives and she lived every one of them.
This past Monday, I flew back from a trip to New York and looking out of the plane’s window, I noticed a white cloud in the night sky with a little light shining from the ground sparking through it. It reminded me of Brandie’s sparkling eye and the cloud looked like her curly snout. The dead always plays those kinds of tricks on us. If we reflect on some the important lessons of life, it was through our pets that we learn unconditional love. We learn about the hard work of taking responsibility and caring for another living creature and we often learn as children about death and resurrection -- life is finite and the love and memories of those little animals stay with us long after they are with us physically. We are their caretakers but they are often our mentors and little gifts of God’s Grace.
Learning from the mistakes of our ancestors
This week, we celebrate St. Francis Day and we recall with thanksgiving the saint who could talk to the animals and saw nature as interdependent and whole. We are ultimately connected to one another.
The readings from Jerimiah and Mathew’s Gospel are about this connection. Jerimiah lived in the turbulent years of Israel’s early history when nationalism and “going it alone” did not serve the people well. There is a story of Jerimiah dramatically appearing in court before the king wearing a wooden yoke that was used by two oxen to plough the fields. His neck was in one of the two spaces reserved for the cattle. His point was clear. Negotiate peace with this very large and aggressive country beside Judah while you can and avoid a major conflict. But the king and the religious leaders of his time would not hear it. The following year, the king of Babylon invaded Judah, destroyed its temple and exiled tens of thousands of her people and leaders. Jerimiah had been imprisoned for his attempt to advise the king; he was released and given honor by the opposing King Nebuchadnezzar for his courage to work out a failed peace treaty.
Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, uses the imagery of a yoke where he is in one of the spaces and invites us to join him in the other. He invites us to work together to heal the world. We are inextricably linked to one another and if we see that, “the burden is light and the yoke is easy” in doing God’s work of repairing the world. When we are yoked and work in collaboration with another, or when we see the link with have with these little creatures ... we understand how God wants and needs us to take care of this fragile Earth , our island home.
Francis of Assisi
No one in the human family has understood this more than Francis of Assisi. Born into a rich family and a decadent and corrupt church, Francis realized our health as a human family depended on how we took care of the most vulnerable in our midst, two- as well as four-legged creatures. He said this:
“If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
There are three stories from the life of the saint that resonate deeply with me. The first is the story of the way his successful order of lay people who began to have their lives radically transformed by engaging with the poor and lepers -- the marginalized -- soon found “Holy Poverty” a difficult rule to keep so within his lifetime, Francis became alienated and cast out from the very community he had formed. There is always in any institution, including the church, a shadow side where we can sabotage our best intentions.
Brandie’s self-destruction reminds me of that which is within ... not that which is without. How many times do we hear of marginalized communities turning the guns of the firing squads towards their own leaders? Francis said this:
“No one is to be called an enemy, all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm. You have no enemy except yourselves.”
Embrace that which you fear most
The second story I love about Francis is the famous “Wolf of Gabbio” story.
A ravenous wolf was killing sheep and cattle and even began to kill people. The people of Gubbio in Italy were terrified and wanted the wolf stopped or killed. They ask Francis to intercede. He confronts the wolf, who promises to stop the carnage with the condition the city feeds him. Francis meets with the leaders of the city to report back his solution to their problems “People of Gubbio-feed your wolf!” The wolf was fed by the people and when he dies two years later, he was greatly mourned by the city.
The message was simple: Pay attention and take care of that which you are yoked to. Feed your wolf. How we care for the “wolf inside us” is also a kind of reconciliation to avoid the kind of self destructive behavior that can terrorize others, is also a mark of the spiritual journey towards wholeness and personal integration.
The third and final story is about the legend that Francis bore on his body the stigmata (wounds in the hands, feet and side similar to those born by Christ after the crucifixion).
St. Paul also refers to these wounds in his letter to the church in Galatia. He talks about “bearing in his body the marks of Jesus.” There has been a lot of study done on this strange phenomenon, but I believe it is a distraction to concern ourselves with the need for scientific proof or finding hypotheses as to the cause of stigmata.
What is more relevant for me is to ponder the impact of what Francis was doing by working among the most marginalized of his society and accepting and taking upon himself their stigma. Stigmata is something I am not very familiar with, but stigma, I know well. I have witnessed people who bear stigma, some which is their own and some who bear it on behalf of others. They are yoked to them.
For example, an Anglican priest I know from Malawi who is HIV-positive (he’s straight and married with children) worked through his own stigma of being seen as a modern day “leper” in the church (someone regarded immoral or unclean), and he came to a deeper understanding of the place of LGBT people in his country. As a result of his advocacy to include them in the church and the healthcare system, the community firebombed his home with his wife and children sleeping inside. His bore in his person “the marks of Jesus.” He took on another’s suffering and by doing so, transformed and healed it. He is now the personal adviser to one of only African presidents who are women and has become his president’s personal liason for Non- Government Organizations. His witness for the cause of justice and inclusion, was rewarded like Nebuchadnezzer’s reward of Jerimiah hundreds of years ago.
Stigma and stigmata are not some esoteric pietistic phenomenon, devoid of reality, but when we do the work of Jesus, Jerimiah, Paul and Francis in the world, we will undoubtedly and gloriously bear in our body, the stigma of the suffering ones -- the ones to whom we are yoked and invited to transform the burden, often by simply walking alongside someone and assuring them they are not alone.
Francis was a genius in figuring out that we can learn this from simply being and enjoying the creature connection we have with each other, not from a place of power or superiority over another. The wolf was a part of Gubbio and they just had not yet figured this out, but they did eventually. Pay attention and you will find a way. Trust that part of you and you can find a way to make it happen. Francis’ final words of wisdom:
“Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
Enjoy your pets while you can!
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.