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Growing up in the woods of the New York’s Hudson Valley, I never spent much time thinking about “nature”. It was just “the woods”, a place to get away from my sometimes sad existence as a rather inward and awkward young boy. I spent countless hours walking through the woods, gladly not yet suburban, and hopping odd streams, swinging at trees with sticks and climbing large rocks. When I did have friends over we would head into the woods, to play fort, army, or Indians. The Nature was a part of my life, much like cars are for us adults today, an extension of me. I was Nature, not the same nature as a plant or bird, but of that same Nature.
It hasn’t been that long in the march of history for us to have gotten to a place where we now worship this “thing” called Nature. Our forested sanctuary, is revered for its glass walls looking out on the very life of this planet we so love. We have moved in a broad anthropological sense from seeing ourselves as no different from Nature, Native people’s anywhere, to an exploitation of Nature, bequeathed to us by some biblical injunction, to the necessity of worshipping Nature as if this thing were inert.
I have always been of nature, even now, which is why I need occasional sojourns into the wilds to remind myself of that. And part of my nature has always been dogs. I grew up with dogs, two dogs, always two to keep the other company. Cats too, but mostly dogs. Dogs are domesticated wolves, and contrary to myth, they are more comfortable in families, than in packs. In fact, Temple Grandin, a professor of animal behavior and an autistic, points out that most packs of dogs have just created their own families. And dogs not only have an emotional life, they are, I am convinced deeply spiritual. Animals have souls, as any one of you here today with a pet can tell, but it wasn’t so long ago that Christian Orthodoxy taught they didn’t; after all wasn’t the devil portrayed as half beast? Think about it, after all dog is god spelled backwards. Maybe they are gods, laughing at us all the way. One flea turned to the other on the back of a dog and said, “You know I am beginning to wonder if there really is a dog”.
Mammals and possibly reptiles and other sentient beings have not only emotions but a spiritual center that they teach us from. Elephants never forget, which is why they are known to weep, dogs inspire us to our better selves, “be the person your dog thinks you are”, dolphins laugh, which is one of the reasons I stayed so long in California walking along the ocean, And cats, well, they call all of us into humble servitude don’t they? As the author Jeff Masson puts it “Perhaps one central reason for loving dogs (and cats) is that they take us away from this obsession with ourselves. When our thoughts start to go in circles, and we seem unable to break away, wondering what horrible event the future holds for us, the dog opens a window into the delight of the moment.” (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs)
Temple Grandin in her work, Animals Make Us Human, outlines a fascinating dichotomy that we share with all sentient beings, almost Buddhist in its simplicity. Animals, including us humans, make meaning from two or three competing emotional states, on one side, such emotions as Fear and Mortality and on the other Curiosity and Play. We need both the positive and negative to survive. The negative helps us survive, the positive helps us thrive. Big game animals that are allowed to roam and explore are vastly healthier than those who are kept confined. I personally boycott zoos. I find them cruel and, here’s an ironic word, inhumane.
Animals are so important to us, and not just for food or research. They actually remind us to be fully human, fully faith full to the project of protecting life and community. And animals remind us of the sacred power of that common ground between surviving and thriving that we call a community. As one colleague put it:
“…the plain truth is no one should have to defend what he or she loves. If I decide to become one of those dotty old people who live alone with six beagles, who on earth is harmed by the extremity of my affections? There is little enough devotion in the world that we should be glad for it in whatever form it appears, and never mock it, or underestimate it.”
That is what animals teach us, indeed bless us with: the extremity of affection.
When a pet dies, some of you know, I take it quite seriously as your minister. I have done graveside services for pets. They inspire us to our better selves. One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over the animals who live and die with them, how real that emptiness is how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake. Our culture expects us not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of how deeply we feel them.
“The death of a pet is, after all, the first death that most of us know. Such a loss prefigures the ones to come, and, as a point of origin, reverberates throughout a life. It has always startled me that psychology has placed so much emphasis on children’s introduction to the world of sexuality; compelling as such discoveries are, can we truly say they matter more to us than our initial discoveries of limit? The child’s apprehension of mortality is a set of initiations, woundings, introductions to the mystery, and animals are very often the objects of these instructions. The little turtle in the grass, the lifeless snake on the path, the toad crushed by a boot heel, the caged bird whose animation has fled with its song—they are more than themselves for us as children; they lead us into the depth of this life.”
It is ironically in the needing we become more animal, more human like. It’s not possible to be without those we love. It’s why we come here. It’s why animals are our spiritual partners, they give us meaning
Why do we come to church? To be reminded that we are all wounded and in need of one another. I learn this from my dog every day. It’s a wild idealization, I know, but then again, aren’t we all wild at heart.
As Rev. Gary Kowalski put it in his beautiful book, The State of Bliss, “Don’t animals teach US about blessing, about joy? The remind us to be satisfied with what we have. Not one of them is worried about the stock market. None brag that their religion is better than our neighbors. Each is satisfied with just a little, fresh water, healthy food…none need a passport or immigration papers. They simply are.”
Isn’t that enough?