Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. When I think of St. Francis, I think about his compassion for others and for all of creation, including thieves, lepers, a sultan, a lady & a count, and animals and birds of all kinds, just to name a few.
St. Francis wrote, "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men."St. Francis rightly understood that how we treat God’s creatures, is how we treat each other. If we don’t have compassion and pity for one, we won’t have it at all.
Sadly we saw such lack of compassion and pity (such hate) this past week, as another shooting took place at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon, a horrible case of animal cruelty in Virginia, and the refugees from the conflicts in Syria & Iraq who are looking for a safe and peaceful place to live being blocked and intimidated in some parts of Europe.
And yet, that is what we are called to be in these difficult days, to live a compassionate life toward others. As Br. Curtis Almquist of SSJE recently wrote:
“I would call compassion a “life skill” learnable on our knees: to see ourselves as God sees us, which will inform how we see everyone else. In a time so full of hurt and hate, the grace of compassion can make a world of difference.”Compassion for others and all of creation, we see it in the life of St. Francis. There are others who have taken up that mantle too, whose love for others and animals have helped us all to be better Christians.
I think of William Wilberforce & Hannah More. They were part of the Anglican Clapham Sect in London as they would come to be known. They were social reformers, whose faith guided their decisions in the 19th Century.
We know of Wilberforce from his tireless work to abolish the slave trade in England. More assisted him through her popular writings and philanthropy and prayers. For 45 years they worked on this issue.
What we forget is their compassion wasn’t just for those enslaved, for they looked to reform all of that society and on the treatment of animals. For 22 years, Wilberforce joined others in Parliament trying to pass bills against the cruel treatment of animals, only to have them rejected again and again.
For Wilberforce, it began in 1800 and his support of a bill to prohibit bull-baiting. Bull baiting was one variant of a host of sporting activities in which animals were set to fight against one another.
Wilberforce thought bull baiting "cruel and inhuman," and “degraded human nature." But for many years they couldn’t pass even a very mild form of protection for any animals.
Finally in 1821, a bill was passed in Parliament - "to prevent cruel and improper treatment of cattle"
And on June 16, 1824, Wilberforce joined others at old Slaughter's Pub, where the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed. (The 1st such society in the world. Our Humane Society is only 60 years old!)
More was well known during her lifetime for her widespread efforts at social reforms throughout England. For More, that would include animal welfare. As one author put it, “In the view of reformers like Hannah More, a society that mistreated animals presented a distorted image of God’s relationship to his human creation.” (Karen Swallow Prior) For Wilberforce and More, their life’s work & faith of getting rid of slavery & improving society, was also connected with treating animals in humane ways.
Another person who took up the mantle was the Lutheran Albert Schweitzer of the early 20th century. Medical Missionary, physician, theologian, Dr. Schweitzer came up with an ethic he called “reverence for life” – for he wrote, “The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition or surrounded by a halo...We need a boundless ethic which will include the animal also.”
Like St Francis and Wilberforce and More, Schweitzer knew that our relationship to each other and our connection to animals are both important and both must be valued. Again, in his words:
“I knew that a system of values which concerns itself only with our relationship to other people is incomplete and therefore lacking in power for good. Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach.”Schweitzer was worried that western civilization was losing its reverence for life and no longer had an ethical foundation. His 1936 “The Ethics of a Reverence for Life” was his attempt to help us to live in service to our fellow human beings and to every creature on our planet.
Compassion obliges us to pray and to act. We have seen in Francis, Wilberforce, More and Schweitzer lives dedicated to helping their fellow creatures. May we each find a way to bring such compassion to the lives of all animals and to all of God’s beautiful creation.
Let me end with two prayers. This first one was composed by Dr. Schweitzer and is perfect for children:
O, heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath;The second prayer often called The Prayer for Animals, which is attributed to Schweitzer, was probably not written by him since it does not appear in any of his writings, but it shares his spirit (as it does the others I mentioned this morning).
guard them from all evil, and let them sleep in peace.
Let us pray.
Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals,
especially for animals who are suffering;
for animals that are overworked, underfed and cruelly treated;
for all wistful creatures in captivity that beat their wings against bars;
for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry;
for all that must be put to death.
We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity,
and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion
and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals,
and so to share the blessings of the merciful. Amen.