The last few posts have been particularly heavy, so I'd like to turn to something a little lighter. A CatholicExchange.com reader recently criticized the fact that I refer to my border collie, Missy, as one of my "children." She writes, "I realize the author knows the difference between owning a dog and loving a child... It just bothers me."
Of course she is right to suppose that I know the difference between owning a dog and raising a human child. His Holiness the late, great John Paul II urged pet owners not to ascribe to pets the treatment and dignity due only to other people. And yet, he also acknowledged the unique and privileged bond that can exist between humans and other creatures. (Go to http://www.dreamshore.net/rococo/pope.html.)
Missy (my border collie) has been with me since I was single, and -- believe it or not -- helped me to acquire many useful parenting skills. For one thing, since I didn't become a real parent until I was well into my thirties, she kept me flexible -- inside and out!
I'll never forget the night when she was a puppy refusing to come in for the night (we lived on a farm, and she spent the day chasing cows with the owner). She wouldn't come in for supper -- and if we went inside she sat outside my bedroom window and whined. This went on for hours (making it impossible for me to go to bed because of the noise), until Craig and I figured a way to outwit her: We sat with a bedspread pulled over our heads on the front porch, until her curiosity got the better of her -- then we tossed the blanket over the indignant dog and pulled her inside. Then Craig went home -- and I went to sleep. A short time later, I discovered that a pocket laser pen freaked Missy out so that she would bolt inside the moment she saw the little red light. No more runaways.
The Dog Gets the Man
Missy is also at least partly responsible for my husband and I getting together. For our first official date, Craig invited me and my little "blind spot" on a picnic at a local park. Gallup Park is divided in two by the Huron River, which is spanned by arched Japanese-style bridges at either end of the park. When we arrived, we picked out a spot near the edge of the river, and Craig proceded to toss Missy's favorite pink ball into the river for her to retrieve. Missy was only about nine months old at the time, and would wade in only as far as her undercarriage.
After a couple of throws, Craig got one in a little too deep, and Missy waded in then turned back and looked at him as her precious ball floated down the river. The message was clear: "YOU got me in this mess. YOU get the ball!"
Obligingly, Craig took off his socks and shoes and waded into the mucky river to retrieve the dog's favorite toy, dropping his beeper in the process. Dripping wet, he clambered on the bank and presented the ball to Missy -- then suggested that we go somewhere so he could dry off. As we made our way back to the car we crossed the archway. Missy -- who apparently had not finished "testing" this interloper for her master's affections -- waited till we reached the highest point on the bridge... and spit her ball back into the water. She then turned and looked at him again, with an unmistakeable expression. "There. You gonna get THAT one, too?"
To his credit, Craig did not toss Missy over the rail to fish the ball out for herself. "Sorry Missy," he said mildly. "I'm not going to be able to retrieve THAT one."
The very next time he showed up for a date, he had a new pink ball for my "problem child."
So you'll forgive my blind spot, won't you? Missy has been with me longer than my husband and children, and so it is hard to think of her as "just" a dog.
When I was in seminary, there were sometimes rousing arguments concerning the nature of pets -- particularly the quality of "animal intelligence" One professor in particular insisted that animals cannot "reason," that they have only instinct -- and that "of course" animals will not be in heaven, since they have no rational soul.
Strictly speaking, animals do have a qualitatively different soul from that of humans, who alone are made in the image of God. Humans are capable of infinitely greater good ... and infinitely greater evil. And yet, many pet owners will also concur with the idea that the loving, loyal companionship of an animal does something very special for our own capacity to love, expands it in a way that few other relationships can.
In his highly recommended book, "A Travel Guide to Heaven," Anthony Destefano observes that it is not unthinkable that God would permit our beloved animals to be in heaven with us, since God does not waste goodness. (I can't find my copy to quote it directly, since it seems every time I get my hands on a copy someone dies and I give it away). But I think he has a point. Love is what makes heaven heavenly. And though it is the greatest and most perfect love -- the love of God -- that cements the streets of gold, it seems only reasonable that in that vast expanse of goodness God would be able to find a tiny corner to celebrate those hints of heavenly goodness we enjoyed while we were on earth. (Christopher plans to ask God to show him the dinosaurs as soon as he gets there. I will ask for my recalcitrant border collie.)
St. Francis, pray for us, that we might learn to love and serve God even more faithfully and gladly than our pets serve us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.