All creatures great and small

petey-christmas-2007They wanted to have their dogs blessed, so they went to the blessing of the animals. It was a cold day in early October, and the sun shone down on the beasts and their humans gathered at the foot of the wide stone steps of the cathedral.

Their dogs, one silky brown and black and tan and white and one curly black, were on leashes, one blue and one red. The silky one leaped from the car, knowing something special was up, and pulled ahead, busy with first one bush, then another, drunk on the unfamiliar air of the cathedral neighborhood.  Black curls trotted quietly at the heels of his human.

Priests flung open the doors to the huge cathedral and welcomed the animals in. All manner of dogs entered at the sides of their people, jumping onto the pews or hiding underneath. Cats in carriers or baby slings entered also.

They chose seats halfway down the long expanse of marble floor and arching ceiling. She looked up and wondered how the long chandeliers, shedding their soft light, had been hung.

Was it possible that a ladder existed long enough to reach that high? No, it was not possible. Was it possible that an unseen catwalk skirted the entire perimeter of the domed ceiling? She had climbed the Duomo in Firenze; such things were possible.

But here, in Minneapolis? Was there an invisible world contained between the gilded frescoed ceiling of this heavenly dome and the crisp October air above?

Down in the majestic cavern of the cathedral, dogs and their people were listening to the words of the priest, reading from the book of Genesis. The choir sang hymns, old and new, about the beauty of all creatures, great and small.

At the far end of the pew was a short, plump woman in a bright blue nylon jacket,  with a small clear plastic box next to her, the sort of cheap clear plastic box that a small girl would keep her beads and barrettes in. Inside the box was a shell and a tiny box.

The short plump woman was birdlike, glancing back and forth, chattering to all those sitting near her, gesturing excitedly at the small plastic box with the shell and the tiny box.

What was the small woman saying? What could be in that box?

The small woman was one of those people – you know the kind of person – instinctively you sense them, how they live their lives on the borderland, the margins. You might picture them in junior high,  eating lunch to the side, alone at a table.

Now the priests were beginning their walk down the long marble aisles between pews, swinging the incense and shaking holy water over the animals.

Next to her the black curly dog rested  his head on her lap. The silky one sat straight up in the pew, alert, gazing in all directions, following the progress of the priests.

Down at the end of the pew, a tiny sand-colored claw reached out from under the shell in the clear plastic box and as quickly retracted itself. The small woman turned to see her gazing curiously.

“They’re hermit crabs!” she said. “They’re hermit crabs!”

They were hermit crabs. Tiny crabs, huddled under a foreign shell and a tiny box. Hermit crabs carried to the cathedral in the arms of the small plump woman so that they could be blessed.

The priest came near, and the small woman held her plastic box up high. The priest sprinkled holy water on the hermit crabs and smiled at the small woman, who was now crying.

Holy water was sprinkled on the black curly dog, and on the silky dog.

On down the aisles went the priests, and all the animals in the cathedral were blessed. High above, the ropes that held the chandeliers were straight and steady, anchoring light.

On his way back to the altar the priest stopped at the end of the pew and sprinkled extra holy water on the hermit crabs. The small woman shook her head in gratitude and hugged the clear plastic box.

Blessed are those who endure in peace.


  1. oreo · November 18, 2009

    Blessed are those who endure in peace indeed. I’ve always meant to take a small child and large dog to that event and I always forget. Now with such a descriptive firsthand account, I feel as if I actually made it.

    How DO they hang those chandeliers? I have spent many a church service pondering those and other questions of utmost importance, such as how do they change the lightbulbs, and were they installed before there was electricity, and if so did wax drip on people’s heads? And how do they clean the stained glass windows so high, because though there be ladders of such height, one surely would not lean them against antique glass. Oh, and all that immortal soul stuff too.


  2. John Z · November 25, 2009

    The Blessing of the Animals is indeed a great service, and I’ve always wanted to get to the Basilica to experience it. The one I attended was held on the grounds of an old mill turned history museum. Schoolchildren visit there on field trips, fiddlers compete, and small shows are produced upstairs. The small town of 40 or so keep it running, closing it for the year after it welcomes the Blessing of the Animals, hosted by the humane society and the small church up the hill.

    Several owners and their pets came. A few others brought fostered pets from the local humane society. There we were, all of us strays–claimed and unclaimed–with the beings that give us hope. Whether you sit in a pew or stand on a lawn, it’s a mighty impressive cathedral out there. And what a privilege it is to scratch a blessing behind the ears and have her make that funky low growling noise.

    Thanks for the great writing (as usual), Alison, and thanks for something to think about this Thanksgiving Eve.


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