The first time I visited The Advocate for worship, I couldn’t help but notice a smallish fluffy white dog, moving freely through the congregation. It seemed that everybody there knew Snowball. Many churches celebrate the Feast of St. Francis with a “blessing of the animals,” but The Church of the Advocate is the only church I have known to welcome animals as part of the congregation.
When I had been at the Advocate about a year, Lisa, our Vicar, told me that she was thinking of adopting a church cat – an “Advo-Cat.” I thought of how calming I find a cat when I am feeling anxious, about the effect Snowball has on the worshiping congregation on the rare Sundays he visits, about my own daughter’s special relationship with animals in general and with cats in particular. I thought of my evolving understanding of animals as our fellow creatures, beloved of God. I thought it was a brilliant idea.
Not long afterwards, Smoke became a part of the life of our church. He had been an outdoor cat in the past, and so he was allowed to move freely around the grounds, and in and out of the sanctuary and the house in which our resident lives and our Sunday school classes are held. Like any cat, he was always on the wrong side of the door. But unlike most cats, he had a knack for knowing just who needed him most. He moved among us as if he were led by the Holy Spirit. He was, simply speaking, a member of our church – a particularly soothing, entertaining, and empathic member of our church.
On April 10, Smoke died. We held a service for him that day, and interred him on the church grounds. About 15 people gathered for the hastily arranged service – which is no small feat when you consider we have less than 100 attend a typical 11am Sunday Eucharist.
We each shared a memory of Smoke, and then shoveled some dirt, participating in his burial. It was cathartic. It was a celebration and a sharing of our grief. It was a fitting goodbye for a fellow Advocate.
It felt right to bury Smoke on church property, so close to the front door, near his favorite place to stalk mice. We inter the ashes of our human church members here, and Smoke, while not human, was a church member too.
I have only once before known of an animal buried on church property: my first pet, a Norwegian Elkhound named Emily, who my father buried without permission at the church he was serving – the church in our backyard. I was five years old. I don’t remember if anyone but myself was there to witness it. It made me sad that no one but my family would grieve such a wonderful dog, that only my father and I would know where she was buried. Plunging my hands into her fur was the most comforting feeling I had known. She had loved my little sister and me.
At Smoke’s burial, we read Psalm 104: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” Any creature with whom we have known love, any creature through whom we have received insight into our own creature-ness, any creature who has given us comfort is a creature through whom we have been brought closer to God. Any creature, human or not.
Since Smoke’s burial, I have been even more aware and even more grateful that I am part of a church that understands that our responsibility for the care of creation does not entail any sort of superiority over it. We are creatures too, created by God as every other thing is created by God. And because we understand this, we do not have any false pride to be injured by admitting that this cat was part of the church family. It cost us nothing, or at least nothing but a few stuffy noses on the part of those of us with allergies! And, for me at least, and I think for many of us, Smoke’s presence among us expanded our definition of who can be God’s servant.
— Sarah McGiverin