Music soothes the Savage Beast. I first herd that quote as a boy while watching a scene on TV where Bugs Bunny was being chased by a gorilla. With the savage ape getting ever closer to his wisecracking nemesis—a violent fight seemed likely. Everything changed when Bugs picked up a violin and began to play. The aggression of the gorilla suddenly disappeared and the beast even began to dance around. The scene was comic and fit into my experience of their being wild and savage animals in the world in contrast to familiar and tame family pets.
Scientists have assembled considerable evidence that identifies dogs as being the first domesticated animal. Dogs are the descendants of wolves and between 30,000 to 10,000 years ago wolves somehow became incorporated into the camps of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. No one is exactly sure how the process unfolded—whether wolves gradually became familiar with humans in scavenging for food scraps around the campfire; or if while hunting a series of young wolf cubs were captured and raised by humans beginning the process of domestication. What is certain is that this process of domestication took place before the advent of agriculture and long before the Hebrew concept of their being only one God.
Today we celebrate the life of St. Francis. He was a 12th century saint who compared to his hunter-gatherer ancestors benefited from amazing leaps in human development. Francis lived in a refined and sophisticated world that benefited from advances in agriculture, saw the invention of the wheel, and the development of written language. The Hebrew people had shared with the world their belief in one God, and Christianity had proclaimed for centuries the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Francis’s day, churches worshiped with gorgeous Gregorian Chant.
Francis was the son of wealthy textile merchant and he lived a life that hunter-gathers could not have imagined. As a young man Francis enjoyed his wealth and had ideas of seeking military honor. Francis joined the military and soon saw action on the field of battle. There he witnessed the horrors of war and saw dozens of men left for dead. Francis was taken prisoner and held for some time until ransom demands were met. If Francis shared my childhood notion that only wild Beasts were savage and untamed—in war he learned that there can exist something savage within the human heart.
Sometime after Francis returned home he had a roadside encounter with a leper. Something in that encounter resonated with Francis. It changed his heart. He began to identify with Christ and he eventually did a radical thing. Francis decided not just to minister to the poor—he decided to become poor. In order to fully live out the Gospel he gave away all that he had.
Francis it seems came to comprehend the essential truth of God’s love for him and the world, and he was moved to in turn share that love with others. And so began an incredible ministry. A ministry that understood that the love of God could transform a savage heart, and also knew that the love of God extended to animals and all of creation.
It’s strange to think that Francis’s life could be so transformed by an encounter with a leper. On this day it is also interesting to contemplate how once wild animals could become such blessings to us. Francis learned that both lepers and animals—each in their own way—point to God’s transformative love song for the world.
The next time you look into the eyes of your pet—think about how once there was a more wild and savage heart there. It just might remind us how God’s Song of Love has worked to transform the world. How God’s love song shaped and formed Israel. How God’s hymn was sung by Jesus and transformed his followers. When the tune of God’s song was picked up by Francis, the world began to understand that the whole of creation was embraced by God.
In the midst of this day’s blessings it’s strange to think that the pets among us were once savage or wild animals. The Feast of St. Francis reminds us that God’s love song comes to us through time affirming that: our hearts, our lives, our souls will be soothed and transformed by God’s steadfast Love.
Homily offered by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, at the 8:00am and 10:15am (outdoor) services, on 1 October 2017, The Feast of Saint Francis. Lessons: Galatians 6:14-18; Psalm 148:7-14; Matthew 11:25-30.