St. Francis at the Zoo
by Jeff Goolsby
I was intrigued when I first heard about “St. Francis at the Zoo.” For many of us, the Abilene Zoo is a familiar and well-loved destination for our families, though I will admit as my children have gotten older we have visited the zoo less frequently. I was pleasantly surprised to see new and expanded habitats, fresh landscaping, and of course our itinerant and uncageable guests, the migrating monarch butterflies.
The sight of clergy and acolytes in white vestments, stoles, gloves, much of the liturgical finery you would expect in a Sunday morning service, even a processional cross—juxtaposed with flamingos and food trucks. Did you see the zookeepers throwing hunks of meat to the hyenas? We witnessed the carnal and the clerical joining hands.
When Fr. David asked me to write a parishioner’s reflection on “St. Francis at the Zoo,” my mind, unsurprisingly, went to a piece of choral music. Benjamin Britten’s fantastic and challenging “Rejoice in the Lamb” partially sets a much longer text by 18th-century English poet Christopher Smart.
“Rejoice in the Lamb” begins with a remarkable call to worship, inviting all nations and every creature that has breath to join together in magnifying the Lord. Various Old Testament figures (many of them quite obscure) are assembled—Nimrod, Ishmael, Balaam, Daniel, Ithamar, Jakim, and David. Along with a menagerie of animals—a leopard, tiger, donkey, lion, chamois (a type of goat), a bear, and even the mythological satyr. The scene shifts then to a domestic setting, where the housecat Jeoffry has just woken up from a nap:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
Wait a minute! In what way does a cat serve the Deity? Our own cat Fanny sleeps most of the day, occasionally making her presence known when it’s time to eat or to be a nuisance as she wiggles between our legs as we prepare dinner. Jeoffry and Fanny (and your own dearest pet) serve God in their very nature as creatures; that is, they are created and God called him “good.”
Cats are cats as lions are lions, and Jeoffry the housecat, as he shows forth his cat-ness, plainly embodies that purpose for which he was created:
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
I have no problem imagining the Abilene Zoo’s lion Jabulani, far from his natural habitat, waking up to a West Texas sunrise, bowing his magnificent head to the east, acknowledging as all creatures do his dependence on Almighty God.
Seeing Jabulani proudly perched receiving the clergy’s blessing and our prayers, I thought of Jeoffry the cat, our own Fanny-cat, and blessed St. Francis—who preached to the birds, extolled Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and taught us humans to be instruments of peace. “St. Francis at the Zoo” was for me a poignant invitation to worship, a call to all that have life and breath to rejoice in the Love that moves the sun and other stars.