new skete

Recently my wife and I adopted an Australian Shepherd puppy. Although our pup has only been in our lives for about six months or so, we’ve experienced countless moments of joy, a fair share of sleepless nights, laughs, frustration, and a reinvigorated appreciation for the mystery of non-human life.

Looking for a bit of help in raising our puppy, we decided to train our dog according to methods developed by the monks of New Skete. The Art of Raising a Puppy and How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend have proven to be invaluable resources, especially when we step back and reflect how we have changed throughout the training process.

In The Art of Raising a Puppy, the monks speak about the inherent spiritual dimension within the human-dog relationship.

By virtue of their very otherness, dogs have the capacity to put us in touch with the natural, nonhuman world around us. They are guileless, responding to life spontaneously and without calculation. Because of this, they become windows to the soul, prodding us to pay careful attention to them in a manner that also awakens us to the divine mystery all around us.Something so simple as walking the dog takes us out of ourselves and reminds us that life’s beauty beckons to be acknowledged. Or think if a dog greeting her owner after several hours’ separation, her body showing effusive yet controlled signals of joy. It is as if she’s saying, “This is the high point of my day! You’re home.” Could we ever merit such affection? It is pure grace, yet its sincerity draws the best out of us, encouraging us to respond by trying to live up to such love (86-87).

Thankfully, the monks manage to avoid sentimental or spiritual platitudes. They manage to draw together the cosmic mystery of creation and grace, while remaining firmly rooted in the very particular – and peculiar – relationship between canine and humanity.  As the monks continue,

To see the world in this manner is to have deep respect for nature’s astonishing diversity, to be conscious that it is balanced and related in a mysterious unity. We, too, are interrelated. This does not mean we’re being swallowed into some vague, homogeneous cosmic order; rather, we’re being challenged to participate consciously in a living communion with God through one another and the whole of creation, attentively listening to the vast symphony of life (316).

When our puppy rests its furry muzzle on our laps after a stressful day, it’s difficult not to sense the truth of these meditations. In spite of the accidents in the house, the dirty paws, the chewed furniture, it is a deeply moving experience to find oneself locked in the gaze of non-human life, and to sense, however dimly, that this very relationship echoes the Trinitarian mystery of creation. But none of this changes the fact that he still has really smelly breath from time to time.