Sunday, December 14, 2014

Pets and Spirituality, or do Dogs Really Go to Heaven?


My dog, Rikki.














Despite the many media reports, Pope Francis did not say that pets are going to heaven. Still, it would be nice to think that they did. And even if they don’t, animals can help us be better people in many ways, including spiritually, as I wrote about a few years ago.

“Goodbye, Kitty.”

That was the subject line of an email I received from a friend. In the message, she shared the sad news that her beloved cat, named Kitty, had died.

I sent her a short note, expressing my sympathy. She thanked me for the reply, saying she wasn't sure how people would react to the news. She worried some people might not understand how deeply her cat's death affected her -- it was just an animal, after all.

As someone who owns a dog, I know that isn't true. 

We got Rikki, our mutt, from a pet rescue shelter in 2001. Her previous owners had left her tied up in the backyard when they moved away. She has grown from an anxious, frightened animal into an affectionate and much-loved member of our family. We can't imagine life without her, and will be devastated when she dies.

Why do our pets affect us so strongly? There are lots of reasons, but I think it's partly because they help make us better people. Looking after a being that is totally reliant on you for food and care makes us more responsible and considerate. 

Observant owners can draw a parallel between the way a pet depends on them for everything, and the way humans depend on God.

But that's not all animals can teach us; they can also help us learn more about the life of the spirit. 

At least, that's what Jon Katz has discovered. The farm where Katz lives is home to a 3,000-pound steer named Elvis. Elvis, he says, has taught him as much about spirituality as any book on the subject or worship service.

"I've attended churches, Quaker meetings, synagogues, and Buddhist temples," Katz writes. 

"I've taken yoga and read Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine and the Bible. I pray often. But I had an unsettling realization recently, which is that my steer, Elvis, already has the spiritual equanimity I have been seeking. He is comfortable within himself, has no discernible anxiety, rolls with life as if it were a gentle wave, is uncomplaining, generous and loyal to his mate, and trusts and accepts people."

Cold, rain, snow, flies, ticks, mud and muck -- none of this disturbs him, Katz notes. "He is as peaceful covered in ice as he is taking in the sun with the Guernsey steer and his pal, Harold."

Elvis "doesn't have to work at acceptance, or retrain his mind to accept the bad with the good," he adds. "This, I think, is the spiritual centre of animals like Elvis, the thing that they can teach us and show us."

Thomas Merton, he notes, "wrote that one of the most important and neglected elements in the beginnings of an authentic and interior life is the ability to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things. Elvis seems to have that. I do not."

I have a feeling that Katz will be sorry when Elvis dies. Maybe he might want a prayer like the one below, that I found on the Internet. I sent it to my friend following the death of her cat.

"Thank you, God, for lending her to me. Because of her I learned a little more about loving, a little more about taking care, a little more about letting things be. Thank you, God. She is one of the nicest ways that I have ever met you. I really miss her. But I'm looking for some new sign of you. Please help me find it. Amen."

My friend replied with thanks, saying, "I sure hope animals get to go to heaven."

When I think of my dog, all I can say is: me, too. 

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