Funny how songs from our past come back to us. Like this song from the musical Doctor Doolittle. Here’s the song:
If we could talk to the animals, just imagine it
Chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee
Imagine talking to a tiger, chatting to a cheetah
What a neat achievement that would be.
If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages
Maybe take an animal degree.
We'd study elephant and eagle, buffalo and beagle,
Alligator, guinea pig, and flea.
Speaking of talking to animals, do you notice how many of us talk to our pets in baby talk? There is even an official term for it: PDS, Pet Directed Speech. You are so cute. You are my baby. Come to daddy, come to daddy. Some say we only talk to dogs that way since there is a cat apocalypse going on and they are taking over the Internet. Sure, cats simply look away and ignore you. But it didn’t stop me. I used PDS when I had cats. O Benna, O Berna, you’re so sweet. And in PDS the pitch always goes up at the end. Dinner’s ready. Here, Fido, fetch it. Want to go out for a walk?
And Saint Francis was known for talking to the animals. Preaching to birds. Taming a wild wolf. And telling fish to swim away so they wouldn’t get caught.
With such a happy topic as animals, I’m not sure what to make of the opening to the book of Job. The story is a downer. Job is upright. He’s got virtue and character that seems missing today. Yet the very worst happens to him. An Advocate figure in the heavenly court convinces God that Job is content when things are going well—but predicts Job will curse God in adversity. So a “test” is devised—one that seems absurd to us! Job loses his animals. Job loses his house. Job loses his children. Then sores cover his body and he is despicable to look at. Mrs. Job can’t bear it and tells him to just curse God and die. Job’s three buddies come and
say nothing. There are no words in the face of such calamity. In future chapters, though, they will pontificate that Job must have done something to deserve what happened to him, and that he should repent. But so far, Job simply says this: should we not receive good at the hand of God, and not also receive the bad?
More on Job to come throughout October. But here’s my great discovery. Someone recently mentioned a book I had on my shelf. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. It’s by the same wonderful theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, I mentioned a couple weeks ago for her book: She Who Is. The title, Ask the Beasts, comes from some verses later in Job. When Job’s so-called know-it-all friends go on and on with judgment and condescension, Job retorts:
Ask the beasts and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
These days humans act as if we own the universe, that we are the centerpiece of creation, and that to “have dominion over the earth” means that everything be done in light of human needs, not necessarily animals and plants and what we call “nature.”
And look what that has brought us. Population growth out of control. Excessive consumption of the earth’s resources. A gap between rich and poor never seen before. Creatures becoming extinct due to our pollution and waste. And a loss of the biodiversity that is so necessary for the survival of all.
Listen to the animals. Listen to nature and what it teaches us about our place in the universe. Jesus reminds us to receive the kingdom of God like a child. In church we lay our hands on the heads of children. Today, in honor of Francis, we lay our hands on the creatures of the earth to bless them as well. And they remind us that we are all creatures. That we all are filled with divine life. That we are all mortal.
Listen to the children and listen to the beasts. Listen to the silence. Share the bread and the wine. For Francis and the animals help us to fall in love with the life, with the earth, with creation, with the seasons. And when we listen carefully their wisdom gives us the courage to change our behavior and to protect the earth and its resources, especially creatures near extinction. Go ahead and talk to the animals and then listen carefully what they might say.