The Gift of Pets

Does God Speak to Us Through Our Animals?

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My late dog Jupiter

I have always thought that one of the strongest proofs of the existence of God is inter-species love. It’s something so seemingly superfluous and unnecessary. We don’t need to love our animals to survive. They really don’t need us either – many animals live in the wild just fine.

But there’s something achingly sweet about seeing my long-haired black cat Tasa curl luxuriantly in the crook of my knee; my cat Pudding at my shoulder as I read or watch TV. Or the mischievous Neptune, my red hunting dog, when I leave leftovers or treats thoughtlessly in reach of his powerful nose. Once I fruitlessly searched my huge bag for my gourmet muffin, eventually figuring I’d left it in the car. I found out otherwise when I saw Neptune scampering away, his prize between his teeth. It’s impossible to be angry with him. Instead, I laugh and think of my weight-loss goals: Better him than me.

What is it about our animals that allow us to love so unreservedly, so lavishly? What makes them so easy to forgive, when we struggle to forgive family members or people in church? Why do 63 percent of us fill our homes with what primatologist Frans De Waal affectionately calls “furry carnivores?”

I took my musings to Leon Chartrand, visiting professor of theology, ecology and ethics at Xavier University, who’s also a wildlife biologist and former bear management officer for Yellowstone National Park, and to Brother Christopher Savage, a monk at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, N.Y., known to many for his Animal Planet show Divine Canine.

As a wildlife officer, Chartrand was on the road at all hours, living out of his truck, driving many lonely miles responding to bear calls. His dog, Neala, a six-year-old black lab was, and is, his constant companion – even in the classroom. “My students seem more relaxed, more open to discussion when she’s there,” he says, adding that she carries a loving, relaxing presence emblematic of the relationship between canine and human that stretches back millennia.

Her trusting brown eyes and wet nose remind them, perhaps, of the pet they left at home; of a time when life was simpler. She also makes hospice visits with Chartrand, where she comforts those in the last stages of life.

Dogs are acutely sensitive to our moods, responding to our emotions in a deep way; to our smiles, our anger, our depression, Chartrand says. They even express jealousy when the object their affection needs to be shared. “Is it jealousy the way humans feel jealousy? No it’s jealousy the way dogs feel jealousy. We think of ourselves as conscious in ways of no other beings;” yet even a sunflower shows mutuality with the sun, as it follows its source of light, says Chartrand.

Frans De Waal, in his post, “Morals without God,” in The Stone, a philosophy blog on the New York Times website, described how young female chimpanzees helped an elderly female get water; how chimpanzees would break up fights, hug and kiss and comfort one another. “Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need,” wrote De Waal. “The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs. Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good.”

Many commentators took this to mean that because humans are not alone in feeling compassion, there is no reason to attribute human empathy to a creator. I saw just the opposite. Empathy among humans and animals is proof that a loving creator made us all, and that His love undergirds his good creation and points to something beyond ourselves.

After all, the sheer power of a dog’s unconditional love and trust can inspire reverent awe.

In her poem “Biscuit,” Jane Kenyon likens giving her dog a biscuit to a priest administering the Host:

I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.

 

God speaks to us through our relationships with animals, whether a pet or a wild animal, says Chartrand. “Whether we recognize it not, it’s the divine voice speaking to us, interrupting our study/work with the power to remind us of who we are. The challenge is to quiet the mind long enough to listen to what they are saying.”

Through creation, be it a thunderstorm, or an animal, we grasp something of the transcendent quality behind all created things. They are all avenues to grasp the idea of the divine, says Chartrand.

Brother Christopher agrees with that, but also emphasizes the sheer “mystery” of our animal companions. Brother Christopher is the chief dog trainer at the monastery and the author of several popular books on dogs. One thing about dogs that appeals, he says, is their lack of guile. We often suspect that other humans are not being straightforward, or are guarded in their emotions. There’s no such fear about our dogs. “Any relationship calls us out of ourselves,” he says. Taking care of a dog is a “responsibility, a covenant. In return for their unguarded affection, we agree to provide for their needs and they fulfill our longings for love in a healthy way.”

As Brother Christopher and the other brothers work with the dogs at New Skete, he sees how they “have a profound impact on our spiritual formation.” As he trains them, and they respond to his commands, he finds that he becomes more patient, less egotistical, more loving. “The things we learn as we work with our dogs tend to carry over to our relationship with other human beings,” Brother Christopher says.

“When you get to know dogs you become aware of the mystery of the creator. This is a totally different species, yet you are able to have a relationship – not better, not worse than with humans – it is what it is. When we experience that relationship and mystery, it has the ability to sensitize us to the mystery of God. On a spiritual level, that enriches us; it’s a very important gift.”

I still remember the day that my 18-year-old terrier, Jupiter, died. He had been suffering from congestive heart failure for a few months, and I had him on heart medication. One day, I remember watching him walk to the porch, where he flopped down, as if too weary to go on. My youngest cat, Ciara, was afraid to go near him, sensing death, in a way that only animals seem to sense death. I came home from work that day, to find Jupiter lying still in the living room. He was breathing, but it was the first time he did not jump up to greet me. I lay my head against the doorframe and sobbed in a way that I had not since I lost my mother to cancer at age 11.

I took Jupiter to my vet, Dr. Peters’, the next morning. I remember the thin thread-like red ribbon he tied around Jupiter’s leg like a tourniquet. I remember stroking Jupiter’s back as Dr. Peters stroked his nose, and watching as he slid the needle into Jupiter’s outstretched leg. I remember Jupiter’s eyes turning glassy as marbles, then taking him home, wrapped in a black garbage bag.

Later, I wrote in my journal about how God had planned the whole weekend; how the crisis happened on a Friday, so I didn’t need to take time from work (or be distracted while there); how I had a pre-existing dinner date on the lake with friends Saturday, the day Jupiter died. How my friend Judith gave me a blue and white ceramic candle holder to comfort me. How a woman from my church, Anne, had called to inquire about me, and then sent Charlie, her husband, over to bury my dog. How God had been in every little detail.

C.S. Lewis believed that our love creates immortality for our animals; that they, so to speak, are swept into heaven on the coattails of our love. I was comforted when in the book about a young boy’s near death experience, Heaven is for Real, he reported seeing animals in heaven. I know there is controversy in the church about whether animals have souls that transcend death, but I have always felt, why would God give us less to love in heaven than he does on earth?

This article was originally published in Today’s Christian Woman http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2012/may/giftofpets.html

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