What does an Animal Chaplain do?
WE PROVIDE SPIRITUAL SUPPORT FOR LIFES JOYS & CHALLENGES
Sarah offers: "I support beings of any species or belief system through the joys and challenges of life. I help people learn interspecies mindfulness practices, work with humans around animal grief/loss, and advocate for exploited and endangered species within both religious and secular contexts."
Reflections on Animal Chaplaincy
What is a chaplain?
The first time I recall hearing the word chaplain was watching M*A*S*H. Father John Mulcahy was a staple on the show, a soft-spoken man in a clergy shirt, cross, and Army shirt. Myself a Presbyterian preacher’s kid, I was always curious about clergy from other faiths. To my young eyes, Mulcahy seemed both spiritual and secular—bridging the religious/secular binary that I was increasingly uncomfortable with. To my adult eyes, this bridge is the key to chaplaincy.
As chaplains, many of us come from a specific religious or wisdom tradition, and yet extend beyond it. Operating outside the walls of a house of worship or a specific community, we find ourselves instead located in hospitals, universities, fire departments, corporations, prisons, and the military, serving people of many faith traditions and paths of meaning, as well as those who are unaffiliated but seeking support.
Regardless of where we serve and who we serve, chaplains offer spiritual support. In this use, spiritual can mean related to a religious/spiritual belief or related to the human/animal spirit.
Increasingly, chaplains are popping up in new areas, from eco-chaplains who bridge humans and the Earth to cruise ship chaplains supporting travelers at sea to animal chaplains.
What is an animal chaplain?
As an animal chaplain, I support all sentient beings, regardless of their species or their belief system.
What do you do?
My ministry takes place where animals are.
8 million dogs and cats surrendered to animal shelters each year in the US—more than 913 each hour. Each week, I spend time sitting, playing, or talking with some of these animals at shelters, sanctuaries, and pet stores. Addressing their need for love, touch, and attention, I’m especially drawn to those who are hardest to place in new homes, the so-called “special needs” animals. Many needs are simply symptoms of being scared, lonely, or confused as the result of being abandoned. Our love and care can help ease their suffering. Beyond companion animals, those captive in human systems—such as factory farming, circuses, or endangered habitats—also need support. To learn more about this, check out compassionconsortium.org
Promoting Human/Animal Bonds:
For people just beginning their relationship with a companion animal, I provide adoption support and welcoming/blessing rituals as well as education on the needs of animals who live with humans. From our cleaning products to our ice melt to our food to the plants we choose for our garden, each choice needs to be informed by the needs of all the beings we live with, not just the two-legged ones paying the mortgage.
In addition, I teach interspecies meditation practices. Based on the concept of interdependence, I recognize that we are all related and connected. Our homes can be busy—and thus stressful—places for the animals living with us in our homes, as well as those outside them. Not only cats and dogs but also deer, squirrels, birds (and frankly any other being) can benefit from our spiritual practices.
Another helpful practice I recommend is The Trust Technique, from James French. "The Trust Technique® is based on the premise that animals and humans share and react to micro feelings. When an animal or a person is over-thinking it creates strong emotional feelings. When this happens it can become more difficult to understand or connect with each other. This can have a negative impact on the relationship and ultimately may lower trust levels. Anxious over-thinking is one of the main causes for so called ‘behavioural problems’ in both animals and people." Learn more at https://trust-technique.com/
Humans can also be scared and downright perplexed when it comes to decisions around medical care and end-of-life decisions regarding their companion animals. As a chaplain, I help people deal with these issues and the grief and loss that often follow—from being present at the passing of a pet, to memorial services, to grief counseling. I also support the sendoffs of “wild” animals by removing roadkill from the road and honoring their lives with a short blessing. For more about animal loss and grief, get a copy of my latest book Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice For Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Trying To Heal The Planet
Advocating for Non-Human Animals:
As our society continues to expand into what was once wild, we traumatize and displace millions of other creatures. In the book Ethics on the Ark, William Conway notes, “It is a paradox that so many humans agonize over the well-being of an individual animal yet ignore the millions daily brutalized by the destruction of their environments. … We are touched with sadness at the plight of vanishing species but much more readily brought to tears by the difficulties of E.T., Dumbo, or Mickey Mouse. … Poorly equipped to discern data from deceit, we populate our concepts with caricatures.”
Further, we seem oblivious to what is happening in our food, entertainment, and consumer goods systems, which are clearly out of alignment with what our spiritual and religious traditions espouse.
So, animal advocacy takes an increasing amount of my time, as well as educating people on animal welfare issues and rights.
What can I do?
Take a few minutes to consider these words from His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” How can you live your life in a way that hurts the least amount of sentient beings?
Ok, I’m sold! How can I learn more about these issues?
Pick up a copy of my new book Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice For Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Healing The Planet. Or join me for interfaith, interspiritual, and interspecies Sunday Services at the Compassion Consortium.
Enroll in the Animal Chaplaincy Training program.
Speciesism: The Movie
A Prayer for Compassion
Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy, Ph.D.
A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion by Matthieu Ricard
The Human Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife by Nancy Lawson
The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System by Jacy Reese
And check out these organizations:
Association for Pet Loss & Bereavement
World Animal Protection
In Defense of Animals
Mercy for Animals
Sama Dog: Meditation with Dogs (Ayurvedic/Yoga)
What is your religion?
My goal is to help you connect with what supports you, by whatever name you call he, she, or it. It's what you believe that is important. So, I'm here to honor that connection, rather than to tell you what you are "supposed to" believe or proclaim that one path is better than another.
My spiritual journey has been admittedly challenging and beautifully messy. I was raised Christian, then spent my teens fluctuating between atheism and agnosticism. As an adult, I embraced (reluctantly at first!) 12-step spirituality, then fell in love with Buddhism. As my meditation practice expanded, I added practices and beliefs from other so-called “eastern” spiritual paths. I became heavily influenced by statements that advocated for finding that which is the same rather than focusing on that which is different, including Ramakrishna “Yato mat, tato path: Many faiths, so many paths” and Ashoka: “One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others … all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions … for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.”
Soon, I found myself curiously drawn to an Interfaith/Interspiritual seminary to learn more about the myriad ways we find meaning. Falling in love with the program, I now serve on the academic staff.
The word interspirituality was coined by spiritual teacher Wayne Teasdale. Describing a spiritual perspective rather than a specific path, interspirituality recognizes that beneath theological beliefs and rituals there is a deeper, shared unity of experience underlying them all: the common values of peace, compassionate service, and love for all of creation. By bringing an open mind, generous spirit, and warm heart to our search, we can find expression through myriad wisdom traditions. Interspirituality’s roots draw from a wide range of teachings, including those by Baha’u’llah (founder of the Bahá’í faith), Indian mystic Ramakrishna, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and Father Bede Griffiths, among others.
I like to refer to it as being a “free agent.” By this, I mean free to pull from all belief systems—religions, wisdom traditions, spiritual “ways,” philosophical paths, and scientific perspectives—so I can support each being in the way that is most helpful for them.
"Rather than thinking we need to move on, get past the pain, or stop feeling grief, we may just need to find a place to put all that love we once showered on our pets when they were alive. Because while we may not know the precise details of what happens after bodily death, we can still cultivate spiritual connections to those who have passed on. Talk to your passed-on furry friend. Write them love poems. Make a small altar to honor their life."
―SARAH BOWEN, animal chaplain & author of Sacred Sendoffs
Schedule a 1-on-1 with Sarah
Are you reeling from a recent loss? Or anxious about an animal's critical illness?
Grief over animal loss is natural, normal, often painful, and frequently not supported by society. Yet, animal loss causes disruptions to individuals, families, workplaces, and communities, and so it needs to be addressed for the well-being of ourselves and those around us. Luckily, mindful, meditative, and spiritual practices can help bring healing.