Meet Ida. She’s a half-standard, half-miniature dachshund my wife and I adopted one year before the birth of our daughter. She is probably the most gorgeous dachshund you’ll ever meet. Really. Everybody thinks so. But don’t let her outer beauty fool you. For beneath her ravishing exterior is a demonic hound from Hell ready to growl at your slightest infraction, to rip your clothes, to sink her teeth into your hand if you approach her when she’s in a foul mood (which is always). Ida’s aggressive personality didn’t manifest until after our daughter was born, but since then she’s become a greater and greater menace. And the target of her ire is mostly yours truly. She rarely threatens my wife, but she exudes hostility at me constantly, especially if my wife and I are in the same room together with her. For a long time we took all the drama in stride, but eventually, we just couldn’t take it anymore. So several months ago we decided to give Ida to a Lutheran woman in our neighborhood who loves dachshunds, and who already had one of her own. Ida’s new digs really are ideal for her, and for us too. We are able to visit her regularly, but we no longer need to endure her aggressiveness on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, in recent weeks Ida has transferred the animus once reserved for me to her new owner. And it’s becoming a real problem. So a couple weeks back, the owner contacted us with a special request. She invited us to attend church with her in the Lutheran chapel across the street from our local LDS ward building, in order to observe her congregation’s annual “Blessing of Animals” after regular services. She asked our family to witness the blessing with her, in much the same manner we might invite our member or non-member friends to the blessing of our own child. But this was not your average baby blessing.
For Ida didn’t need a “blessing”. She needed an exorcism.
After the morning service ended, about 15-20 of us descended into the church basement with our pets in tow. All present spontaneously formed a circle with their animals, and the Lutheran pastor joined us shortly thereafter. Ida’s new owner brought Ida into the room, and handed her to my wife to hold in the circle. The pastor began to speak. He read several animal-focused scriptures like Genesis 1:1, 20-28 and Psalms 148. Then came the actual “Blessing of Animals,” which consisted of a reading of the following prayer:
“Gracious God, in your love you created us in your image and made us stewards of the animals that live in the skies, the earth, and the sea. Bless us in our care for our pets and animals [Ida, etc.]. Help us recognize your power and wisdom in the variety of creatures that live in our world, and hear our prayer for all that suffer over work, hunger, and ill-treatment. Protect your creatures, and guard them from all evil, now and forever.”
This was lovely, but not quite what the doctor ordered. I was a little disappointed at the lack of Beelzebub references or a “Fie on you Satan!” or two, as they would have better met Ida’s needs. Oh well. After he finished his oration, the minister approached each dog in turn (all present were dogs), petted it gently on the head, and muttered a few more words of blessing.
As he worked his way around the circle, I naturally wondered how Ida would comport herself. Did my wife and I have a duty to disclose Ida’s devilish nature, or should we let the pastor figure things out the hard way? It was too late to raise the issue, however, for it quickly became Ida’s turn. The pastor leaned over slowly to pet Ida gently. Impressively, Ida didn’t growl in anticipation of the petting, as she is known to do. Instead, she just sat there quietly until the pastor’s hand was about a centimeter above her head, and then she lunged. Rapid-fire barking erupted from her evil jaws as she attempted to sever the pastor’s fingers from his hand. Fortunately, my wife had anticipated this reaction and held Ida down, preventing her from making physical contact with her blessor. Crisis averted. Embarrassment endured.
There was something vaguely Linda Blair-ish about Ida’s performance, particularly given the crucifix in the room, the approaching Christian pastor, and the physical constraints that held Ida down. There was no holy water, no “The power of Christ compels you!!!,” but Ida was so angry, her head might as well have spun all the way around. Naturally, I quelled my embarrassment by thinking happy, judgmental thoughts about others. Since Ida was raised in a Mormon household, I told myself, she probably internalized LDS teachings on priesthood, and was objecting vigorously to the exercise of apostate ordinances by those without proper priesthood power and authority. Good for her.
Ida’s blessing was pretty unusual from a Mormon perspective, but not unique. Ask Stapley about the occasional 19th Century practice of blessing transport animals in Kirtland, the pioneer trek West, and Utah. Ask me about the infamous Elder Andrade in my mission who was known to give priesthood blessings to stray or injured dogs, orally promising them that they would die. (These ordinances were not efficacious; blessed dogs were later spotted alive and well, without limp or injury.) Now, I grant you Elder Andrade’s view of proper priesthood ordinances was a wee bit expansive (He had a habit of anointing and blessing the broken space heater in his apartment to make it function properly.) And anointing exhausted cows or oxen seems pretty far removed from our current LDS experience. But whatever. The point is that Ida’s ordinance — although performed by a Lutheran minister — is not entirely without historical precedent in Mormonism. And so I’m left wondering if we ought not resurrect this practice in the modern Church, and what exactly the ordinance might look like if we did.
I don’t pretend to hold firm views on how the priesthood can best be employed on behalf of our canine and bovine brethren. But if we are to reinstitute the practice of animal blessing, we must reflect on a set of profound and underanalyzed questions: If the efficacy of blessings turns in part on the faith of the recipient, do common housepets possess the requisite agency to exercise that faith? How do priesthood holders distinguish the need for blessings of health from blessings of comfort if making verbal inquiries of barnyard animals is impractical? If you’re trying to anoint a puppy with oil, and it licks your hand, is this a sacreligious act that preemptively nullifies the blessing?
These questions will undoubtedly preoccupy Mormon philosophers and theologians for generations.