Spirituality of dogs, demonstration of unconditional love

I brought Clementine, left, and Bernie into my life in 2002.

Tuesday afternoon, my beloved border collie Clementine died. There were a lot of things going wrong in her little, 16-year-old body, and in recent days they had become mutually reinforcing in a bad way, and we had to make the dreadful, and dreadfully humane, decision to have her put to sleep.

Regular readers, and all of my friends, know how devoted I am to my dogs. I got Bernie and Clementine two days apart back in 2002. I picked Bernie up at a shelter on the eastern shore of Maryland on June 4, anniversary of the liberation of Rome during World War II, and Clementine arrived two days later from a shelter in Tennessee. It was D-Day, and she certainly made it a memorable one. Border collies do not actually jump over fences so much as they climb them. Clementine was over the fence within five minutes, and I spent much of the night coaxing her on to a leash and back into the house. She was terrified and hid, first in the attic, then under the bed. I was prepared to send her back, but on the third day, I got home from work, and she and Bernie were both standing on the sofa. He had started to bring her around, but she remained very scared of me and whenever company came, she would go back to hiding under the bed.

This changed in the following weeks as she warmed up to the idea of being a companion. She became Daddy's little girl. When, at bedtime, she saw me get up from my desk, or from watching TV, she would get to the bed first to make sure she was on my pillow by the time I got there. After a few minutes of being patted, she would retire to the bottom of the bed and sleep the night there. She liked to sit by my feet while I worked at my desk. She wanted to be in the yard when I was doing gardening.

Clementine had these beautiful floppy ears. When you would walk her on a sunny day, and the sun was at our back, the shadow of her ears flopping always made me think of the wimple worn by Sally Fields on "The Flying Nun." She was not what you would call a good walker: She thought she was taking me on the walk, she was always in the lead, not on it, and I went wherever she wanted to go.

The only lady in a house with two guys and two male dogs, Clementine was, of course, the alpha. If Ambrose, our St. Bernard, was eating a bone, she could walk up and take it from him and he would not object. She and Bernie were joined at the hip, and she took his death two years ago very hard.

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She loved to lick my hands and could do that for many minutes at a time, but she was not a face kisser until she got cancer two years ago. She went through chemo. We all know people who have gone through chemo with a spouse or a parent or a friend. Going through it with a patient who does not speak is a special challenge, but it produced a special grace: After the walks, she started licking my face.

Border collies are rightly considered among the smartest of dogs. When Clementine was going through chemo, I tried everything to get her to eat. I started making pot roast to put in her breakfast, and threw in a cut up hot dog as well. She needed pumpkin for roughage so that went in to the mix as well. In the evening, with dinner, she took to pork tenderloin and turkey bacon. Of course, when the chemo was complete, she saw no reason to change the menu and enjoyed her admittedly extravagant meals until the day she died. That morning she ate nothing, one more way of letting me know it was time.

Dogs are not conducive to everyone's spirituality, but I feel very close to God and his creation when I am with my dogs. My devotion to St. Francis consists largely in his love for animals. Shortly after Clementine died Tuesday, a bishop friend called about something else, and I told him the sad news that she had just died. He quoted St. Paul to me: "For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him." I like St. Paul, but I think the late great Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete said it even better: "No creature so filled with love can simply cease to exist."

One of the key thing about dogs and the spiritual life is that they are completely dependent upon us for their food and their heath care and their walks. They are domesticated and it is our domus. In our culture, with its insane emphasis on individual autonomy, feelings of dependency are shunned. Freedom of choice is a winning argument. When you have a dog, there are lots of things you can't choose: You can't sleep in late, you can't go out to dinner and leave them to fend for themselves, you can't let them drive themselves to the vet. They need you. And they are not only not shy about needing you, they take delight in that fact.

The relationship, however, quickly becomes reciprocal. Not in the marketplace of ideas, nor in the marketplace of commodities, but in the most important marketplace, where affection and loyalty are traded, dogs give as much as they get. Clementine was the most loyal of beasts. A gentle dog, if anyone threatened me, she had quite a growl. Once when Bernie was cornering a hedgehog, she jumped into the fray and came out with a gash that required seven stitches. Her capacity for affection was limitless. Even in her final days, she seemed more anxious with my concern and sadness than with her own pain: Dogs mask pain much better than we humans do.

The other key thing about dogs and the spiritual life: There is no better approximation of unconditional love in this vale of tears than the love of a dog. 

"If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went," said Will Rogers. The premise is false. Why would dogs, who are such sources of grace and exemplars of unconditional love in this life, not be forever with the source of that grace and love in heaven? But, whatever his premise, I agree with the sentiment. As she drifted off into unconsciousness, I whispered in her ear, "I love you. Say 'hi' to Bernie. I will be with you guys forever someday." She died peacefully. I thought of praying "May the angels lead you into paradise," but then I remembered how she was always in the lead during her walks. I suspect that once the angels lead her into paradise, she will soon start leading them around the celestial precincts. I pray that when my time comes, Clementine will be leading the angels as they lead me into paradise.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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