a blog post from Jennifer Merck, Pastor for Children
October 4 is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. At All Souls, we typically honor and remember St. Francis on the Sunday closest to his feast day. We hope you were able to join us for this year’s Blessing of the Animals.
If you’ve been with us on the Sunday closest to the feast day, you’ve probably observed the liturgy we have come to fondly know as “The Blessing of the Cuddlies.” And you might be wondering: why in the world are we blessing stuffed animals? Well, I’m glad you asked!
Sofia Cavalletti was an Italian biblical scholar and educator. In the midst of her career, she relucantly agreed to do a favor for a friend, a Montessori teacher named Gianna Gobbi. Cavalletti’s favor: to teach biblical stories to three children. Her perspective was that this was a waste of her time; young children were not capable of spiritual insight, nor capable of a relationship with God.
What Cavalletti discovered, however, fundamentally shifted her work. She spent her remaining years listening to and working with children, discovering what she called their “religious potential.” Cavalletti’s research and insights are the foundation of All Souls’ Children’s Worship. Each Sunday, we use principles Cavalletti identified as we work with children in the Undercroft — and in this season, even outdoors.
At the core of Cavalletti’s observations was the essential nature of wonder in religious experience. She noted that wonder naturally exists in children and is at the core of their ability to see God at work, enjoy His good gifts, and praise and thank Him for those gifts.
Ontological density is different in childhood. Realness is often more about connection and perception than about biology or physical animation — a beating heart, brain waves. When a child has a stuffed friend that s/he plays with or brings along wherever s/he goes, the cuddlie creature is a true companion — almost an extension of the child, in the same way an imaginary friend can be a way a child expresses his or her innermost feelings.
So, why do we bless the cuddlies? We bless the cuddlies because we bless the children. In our Gospel reading on Sunday, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” At All Souls, we invite the children to come close. We invite them to the rail each week. And once a year, we invite them to bring their cuddlies — their extensions of themselves.
When the priest blesses a cuddlie, he is blessing the child. He is saying, “God created you. God loves you. God wants to be with you. God wants you to be with Him.” In a nutshell, that’s what God says to all His children, to all of us. So, once a year we say it in this special way, a way that connects with the children uniquely because of the realness of their spiritual imagination — an imagination we hope will grow and change and live on as they grow into adult faith in their Creator.