You have not read this book on pets before

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister and Lady Hildegard the parrot

By Joan Chittister
Published by Bluebridge, $18.95

"As far back as I can remember," says hoodlum Henry Hill at the beginning of "Goodfellas," "I always wanted to be a gangster."

"All my life," writes Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, "I wanted a dog."

Henry got what he wished for and wound up a bum, but we love him anyway. Joan got two dogs and a parrot and became a role model whose life work teaches us to become God-like, or spelled backwards, like a dog, and love guys like Henry anyway.

Chittister was an only child who couldn't have a dog in the tiny apartment that she and her single mom lived in. One Good Friday, Joan's mother gave her a blue parakeet. "It was the best Easter gift of my life," she writes.

She couldn't snuggle up to it or take it outside to play like she could a dog, but Joan learned invaluable lessons in caring for it. "Billy became my playmate, my ally, my first guide into the depth and meaning of the animal-human bond," she writes.

A few years later Billy disappeared and "my heart was broken." It was years until she had another pet.

Chittister's new book is about how animal companions have helped her -- and can help us -- to become more loving, appreciate spiritual values, and grow character. It has three sections. Each section tells delightful stories about one of the pets Chittister had as an adult and the values they taught her and her sisters in community, followed by spiritual insights readers will appreciate whether they have pets or not.

It may sound familiar but I guarantee you, not one phrase in this book is a cliché, not one sentence a maxim, not one paragraph a repetition, and not one section less than original. You have not read this book before.

First up is Danny, a big red Irish setter with a bountiful spirit who came as a birthday gift when Chittister was a young sister. Danny had "unbounded, and unboundaried, love of life and of people."

An emotionally defeated woman came to the convent for counseling. Chittister did all she could to help her catch a spark of life. The woman had tears in her voice but not in her eyes. She held back her deepest thoughts and feelings.

One day, Danny padded into the room, as if bidden, and went to her on the sofa. "He put his great mottled head down squarely on her lap, his head tilted back, his eyes melting into hers, one soft, broad paw raised on her knee," Chittister writes.

"Then, without so much as a glance at me, she took his big bony head in her hands and began to talk to him. 'You understand, don't you, Danny? You know what it is to have no one who understands you? You understand ...' and the tears let loose in one great gasp. She bent over him, holding him ever more tightly, and cried and cried."

This one story alone is a life lesson in empathy as good as anything I've read.

Second up is Duffy, a golden retriever who was just the opposite of Danny, an uptight show dog overtrained to perform. The sisters did everything they could to help release the inner dog in Duffy.

It wasn't until they got a big fish tank that Duffy came alive again. "It was like Lazarus rising from the dead." Duffy would look at those colorful fishing moving effortlessly back and forth and slowly remembered what it is to be spontaneous and free.

"Maybe we all come to life only a little bit at a time," writes Chittister. "Which is why it is well to keep our eyes open for it so we'll be ready when it happens."

Last is Lady Hildegard, a colorful parrot who not only becomes a companion but teaches the sisters the value of change and playfulness and unfettered joy. Chittister's story comes full circle. Lady, like Billy the parakeet and all of the animals in Chittister's life, reminds us of us and what we are here for.

"In each of them, it was what they could not do that endeared them to me as much as their special abilities," she writes. "I came to see that none of us needs to do everything well. We just need to do something well because that is why we are here."

Henry Hill had bookies across the street as a clue to what made him tick. Chittister has had two dogs and a parrot. Lucky for us.

[Michael Leach is editor at large of Orbis Books.]

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