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The Gift of Pets

Spiritual lessons God can teach us as we love and care for animals

I've always thought that one of the strongest proofs of God's existence is the love that can develop between humans and animals. 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 or feeling my cat Pudding at my shoulder as I read or watch TV. Then there's the mischievous Neptune, my red hunting dog, and what inevitably happens when I leave leftovers or treats in reach of his powerful nose.

Once I fruitlessly searched my huge bag for my gourmet muffin eventually deciding I must have 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 enables 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?"

Learning to Love … From a Dog?

I took my musings to Leon Chartrand, visiting professor of theology, ecology, and ethics at Xavier University, who is also a wildlife biologist and former bear management officer for Yellowstone National Park; and to Christopher Savage, a monk at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, New York, 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 black lab, was his constant companion and still is today, even in the classroom.

"My students seem more relaxed and more open to discussion when she's there," Chartrand says, adding that Neala brings with her a loving, relaxing presence emblematic of the relationship between canine and human that stretches back millennia. Her trusting brown eyes and wet nose remind Chartrand's students of a beloved pet they left back home or perhaps of a time when life felt simpler. Neala also makes hospice visits with Chartrand where she brings comfort to those in the last stages of life.

Chartrand explains that dogs are acutely sensitive to our moods, responding to our emotions in a deep way; to our smiles, our anger, our depression. They even express jealousy when the object of their affection needs to be shared.

"Is it jealousy the way humans feel jealousy? No. But it's jealousy the way dogs feel jealousy," says Chartrand.

Primatologist Frans De Waal, in "Morals without God" (published on a New York Times blog), described how young female chimpanzees helped an elderly female get water. He's also observed chimpanzees break up fights, and hug, kiss, and comfort one another.

"Mammals are sensitive to each other's emotions, and react to others in need," writes 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."

Transcendent Truth

Many commentators took De Waal's observations to mean that because humans aren't alone in feeling compassion, there's no reason to attribute human empathy to a creator. But I see just the opposite: Empathy among humans and animals is proof that a loving Creator made us all! The Creator's love undergirds his good creation and points to something beyond ourselves.

Have you ever, like me, been baffled and even stunned by a dog's unconditional love and trust? Their loyalty and enduring affection can inspire reverent awe as we're compelled to consider our Creator and look at our relationship with him in a whole new way.

God can speak to us through our relationships with animals, whether it's through a pet or observing a wild animal, asserts Chartrand. Through God's created world—whether it's the wonder of a thunderstorm or an encounter with an animal—we can glimpse the transcendent quality behind all created things. "Through everything God made, [people] can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature" (Romans 1:20).

Caretaking, Relationships, and Spiritual Formation

Brother Christopher Savage agrees that animals can reveal aspects of God's character and presence to us, but he 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 to us, he says, is their lack of guile. We often suspect that other humans aren't being straightforward or are guarded in their emotions. But 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 monks 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."

Heart-Breaking, Generous Love

I still remember the day that my 18-year-old terrier Jupiter died. He'd been suffering from congestive heart failure for a few months and was on heart medication. One day I watched 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, instinctively sensing his imminent death. I came home from work later that day to find Jupiter lying still in the living room. It was the first time he didn't jump up to greet me. Although he was still breathing, I knew it was the end. I lay my head against the doorframe and sobbed in a way that I hadn't 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 reflected in my journal about how I'd sensed God's presence during the whole painful experience. I wrote about 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 candleholder to comfort me. How a woman from my church, Anne, had called to inquire about me, and then sent her husband, Charlie, over to bury my dog. How God had been in every 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, young Colton reported seeing animals in heaven. I know there's controversy in the church about whether animals have souls that transcend death, but I've experienced my animals as a profound gift of love in my life. Why would God give us less to love in heaven than he does on earth?

Hope E. Ferguson is a freelance writer in upstate New York.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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