by Sandra Hutchinson
If you’re looking for a blessing of the animals service, traditionally held in October, on the Feast of St. Francis, there may be no better place than the New Skete Monastery, perched on a mountainside in Cambridge, NY. An Orthodox Christian community, New Skete has both monks and nuns in residence, as well as a community of lay companions.
While the nuns of New Skete are best known for their cheesecakes, the monks may be best known by the public for their work raising and training dogs. The monks have several books on raising puppies and dog training, including the enormously popular How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend: The Classic Training Manual for Dog Owners.
The property is breathtaking, and it includes two churches — the Church of Holy Wisdom, built in 1983 and containing many painted icons; and the Temple of the Transfiguration of Christ, a smaller church built in 1969 with a rustic exterior and accentuated by onion domes.
Although the annual blessing of the animals was only done virtually in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were happy to see it return in person in early October, 2021.
About 60 dogs were in attendance, along with their human companions. We gathered outside the Church of the Transfiguration, where Brother Christopher conducted the service, which consisted of prayers and biblical readings. Several monks, nuns and companions sang some of the traditional chant-like prayers at various points throughout the service. Another monk lit an incense burner on a chain and swung it around to disperse the smoke. At the end of the service, Brother Christopher sprinkled holy water in the air around the canines.
One of the prayers was as follows: “As we gather together this day to ask you to bless these various animals, let us see in them the goodness and beauty with which you endow all your creatures. By the example of our venerable fathers Paul and Anthony of the desert, Francis of Assisi, Seraphim of Sarov and Sergius of Radonezh, teach us never to abuse them or to take them for granted, rather let them open our hearts to your divine love so that, together with every living being, we may all sing your praises, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; now and forever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Many people had submitted statements ahead of time in memory of or in honor of pets, many with stories about how the pets had helped them during the pandemic. These photos and statements had been printed out and suspended on twine with clothespins.
One of our soft-coated wheaten terriers, Maggie, took in the whole service with great interest. She was remarkably calm!
Afterwards, cider donuts, apples and cider were available for refreshment.
If you’re interested in visiting New Skete for the blessing of the animals, for a worship service, for one of their spiritual retreats, or if you seek more information on their work with dogs, check the web site https://newskete.org
I have been privileged to be personally acquainted with some of the companions of New Skete who lived in a communal setting on the property and supported the work of the religious community. It is a spiritually moving place of peace and reflection.