The blessing was supposed to start at 4:00 but in Mexico things take a while to get going. There were benches in the park outside the church and vendors sold bubbles, candy and toys but wisely avoided selling tacos or other carnivorous treats as costumed animals, sometimes with matching humans, began to fill the plaza.
The advent of Christianity was hard on animals who were considered to be “without souls” and under the “dominion” of man. This was a radical change from Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, Aztec, Nauhtl and other indigenous spiritualities which were peopled with jaguars, crocodiles, deer, snakes, dogs, eagles, quetzals and scorpions . Animals were messengers, allies, tricksters, dancers, shapeshifters, bearers of maize, brothers and sisters. The benediciones de los animales was brought from Spain where the tradition is said to have originated, in acknowledgement that people's lives were dependent on the well-being of their livestock. And that the saints themselves were sometimes in communion with them.
Despite the absence of farm animals in 2014, there was no shortage of creatures who had come to be blessed. They were pets, mascotes, and their dominance reflects Oaxaca's growing urban nature. Dogs were the most numerous as well as being the most confident and curious, with poodles and unbelievably tiny dogs being the most popular.
I felt that the cats deserved extra blessings, and not just because they’re my favorite. In reality it's a big leap for cats to be in this sort of mixed social situation. And then there’s the fact that the blessing itself involves being doused with water, which normally cats will go to great lengths to avoid. And then there’s the cat memory of Bast, the Cat God worshipped by the Egyptians, when cats were the ones doing the blessings. . . . Nonetheless, like the rest of the animals gathered on this day, they did not struggle, fight or run off.
There were birds of all sizes, mostly in cages, but a few riding on their person’s shoulders. There was the lone ferret, a rabbit, a guinea pig, hamsters with their wheel, and several turtles. The woman in the pic has been with her turtle for nine years.
The priest was fashionably late. I admired his restraint as he seriously explained the rationality behind the blessing, without breaking into a smile or even a chuckle at the assemblage before him. He praised the wonder of creation and invoked San Ramón de Ronata, whose feast day it was and Saint Frances of Assisi, both of whom had special relationships with animals. In Oaxaca, this is the only church which gives this blessing and indeed, it is not common in Latin America or in most of the Catholic world today.
The priest dipped his wand of reeds into a plastic bucket of holy water and began liberally splashing all of us, people and animals alike, who were standing within ten feet of him. But then a line formed and the priest got more individual, blessing the animal(s) and their special people. I wondered what it must be like for him, seeing his parishioners here with their “significant others.” Once his sermon was over, it didn’t take long for the priest to start smiling and enjoying the day along with the rest of us. The marimba, saxophone, congo band played some decidedly secular music and people went happily with their pets into the path of the water. None of the animals seemed to object to this and even seemed somewhat blissed-out after receiving their dose of holy water.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a blessing just for the animals. It was an acknowledgement of relationship, of the human capacity to reach beyond him or herself and exchange love and friendship with non-human beings. And that this inter-species communion is divine and worthy of blessing.