A beloved member of monastic community
Sister Claire Marie Lessard, superior of the Sisters of Jesus Our Hope, Bloomsbury, N.J., shares the story of Bella, a dog who has become part of the monastery family and routine:
About five years ago, we came to live at our present convent. It is located a distance from the road on a ridge in the countryside and surrounded by woods, spruce trees and a large field. In other words, we are surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation.
No one had lived here for two years before we came. And so, other parts of God’s creation — groundhogs (we caught 32 in our Havahart trap the first year), deer, rabbits and mice had decided that this was their home.
And that is where Bella, our pooch, comes in. We had never had a dog, but we decided that we probably needed a little help to keep our “animal friends” at a distance.
Bella comes from a shelter. She was 4 years old when we got her, and she is now 8. She is part husky and part collie with bi-colored eyes, and she is beautiful. She is big (62 pounds), gentle, friendly and quiet except when a stranger comes to the door or when she sees groundhogs, deer, rabbits or mice. Beware! They keep their distance.
Our convent has a “regularity of life” with specific times for communal and private prayer, times for communal meals, and times for recreation together. Bella is a dog that likes structure, knows our schedule and has adapted to it quite well. As I mentioned, she is quiet and gentle, good traits for “convent life,” and she does well.
What can we learn from our Bella? In Psalm 148 we read: “Praise the Lord! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all stars of light! Fire and hail, snow and clouds, stormy wind, mountains and all hills. Praise him fruit trees and all cedars; beasts and all cattle; creeping things and winged fowl.” Bella is a part of God’s beautiful creation and we praise him for giving her life.
What does she teach us? She keeps her eyes on her mistress, and follows her wherever she goes. And so she reminds us of the ultimate importance of keeping our eyes on “the Master” and following him wherever he leads us, which ultimately will be life everlasting with him in heaven.
She is also patient. She waits for someone to take her for a walk. She waits to be fed. She waits for someone to open the door to the back porch. And she waits patiently. She teaches us the value of waiting and being patient, especially in this fast-track microwave society we live in. Everything needs to happen now or yesterday. …
Bella also has a sense of group, clan, community, family. She knows that the sisters who live here belong together. When a sister is out, she eagerly awaits her return. She does not usually go to sleep for the night until all the sisters are home. She just patiently waits. …
As much as we are fond of our Bella, we probably will not see her in heaven. She was not born with an immortal soul as we were. But she surely gives us great joy day by day.
Realizing the glory of the Creator
In honor of her late, three-legged shelter rescue dog, Colleen Smith, a Denver-based author, founded Friday Jones Publishing, which recently published “Glass Halo.” Here she shares the story of Friday:
When I adopted Friday, I was 29. When she died, I was 45. I had suffered a lot of loss in my life, including the death of my brother, my mother, and my father. Friday provided so much consistent comfort for me over all those years, even as I provided consistent comfort for her. I had no idea of the depth to which our relationship would grow. I’d been exposed to family dogs, but not my “own” dog. Since I was not blessed with children, these dogs really did seem surrogate children to me, yet I was careful to understand that they were dogs.
Friday had health problems literally from the time I adopted her. Diagnosed with cancer at age 6, we entered a clinical trial for a cancer drug. This involved lots and lots of time, money, resources, injections, and Friday lived to be 15 and died a natural death in my arms in her favorite place in my secret garden. I learned to pray in a new way. I had a litany of “dog saints” I petitioned constantly. I felt responsible and loved her so much and wanted to do the right thing and always feared having to make a euthanasia decision. …
The connection with a pet is profound. For me, I realized the glory of God, in part, through my pets. Their complexity astounded me, and I realized that was true of every creature in nature God created.
I also felt tremendously loved that God had given humankind such beautiful and astonishing animals — especially dogs, but every species in creation. The animals cause me to sing the praises of the Creator.
Animals’ ability to heal and challenge us
Jeanne Grunert, a writer and editor living in the Southeast, feels a spiritual connection to her pets and has seen how they can heal relationships and move us out of our comfort zones:
Kricket was a horse who was very special to me. I was a horse-crazy kid, but I lived in a suburban Long Island home, and was the youngest of five kids, so my parents could afford neither the time nor the money for riding lessons.
My aunt knew how much I loved horses, so she arranged a special outing for me when I was 9 years old. She taught biology at Molloy College, a Catholic college on Long Island, and was friendly with the college riding team’s coach. She arranged to take me to Coach Carole Gerrity’s stable to visit the horses. That summer day was magical. It was on that day that I met Kricket. I fed him carrots and my aunt took a Polaroid photo of us together (now since lost). I taped the picture to the wall of my bedroom and vowed someday to have a horse. Kricket was my dream horse!
Ten years later, as a freshman entering Molloy College, I decided to try out for the riding team. I had taken lessons for about a year (as soon as I could drive) and when I arrived at the stable, there was Kricket. Carole encouraged me to lease him, and I leased him for the four years while I was at college until he died right after I graduated. We had many adventures together and it was a dream come true for me to lease him until he was euthanized.
My mom had been sick with multiple sclerosis since I was 7 years old, and she died when I was 20, just finishing my junior year of college. The weekend after she died, Kricket and I were due to enter our very first horse show together.
Having a focus, having a horse that counted on me, that is what kept me going. … Kricket was an elderly horse by then and needed care, and exercise and attention. In truth, I needed distraction from my grief. It was that focus and caring for something else — the horse — that helped me overcome my own grief.
We won our first and only blue ribbon at that horse show, and I think it was because Kricket seemed to sense that I needed some special TLC that weekend. Having a focus on another living being kept my mind off of my own grief. …
There’s definitely a strong spiritual connection between myself and my current pets: Pierre, a gray cat I adopted as a 6-week-old kitten, and Shadow, a longhaired German shepherd we adopted from the local animal shelter. … Shadow has helped me become more patient and kind with people. I am a Type A-plus, as I joke with folks. I can be extremely impatient with people. Shadow is changing me and helping me learn patience as a virtue. It took me many weeks of patient training to help her understand where to go to the bathroom, how to walk on a leash, when to sit, that sort of thing.
She is the kind of dog that responds only to praise, any harsh words and she just shuts down and won’t listen to you. You can’t yell at this dog; it doesn’t work.
Only patience and kindness works, and because she’s made me practice those qualities, I find myself remembering to slow down with people, too, to listen more attentively, to go slowly, to have patience.
Read "Pets — our fellow travelers on the spiritual journey"