St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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I Wish I Was As Good As My Dog Thinks I Am

This weekend the Las Cruces Dog Park celebrates its second anniversary. This column is especially for my friends, human and animal, who spend time there enjoying one another.

I’ve often been asked if I think pets have souls or if they go to heaven. The question usually comes up after, say, the death of a dog that was as much a member of the family as Uncle Maxwell, maybe more so. If dog Annie gave unconditional love all her life, and Uncle Max didn’t seem capable of doing so, you tend to think more highly of Annie.

Folks do not want a long answer to the heaven question, so for short I say “yes.” But there is the long answer:

Heaven represents an unbroken, timeless relationship with G0d. This is the view of the Christian scriptures. Truth is we humans are in trouble because we get separated from God. The Bible calls this separation “sin.” Now sin requires choice and free will. Sin presumes that we are aware of the difference between trespassing and observing boundaries. My dogs and cats never had that awareness, not in the same way humans do. Furthermore, what love and companionship they show us is their nature, and we interpret their behavior as we will. At the very least they attach to us and we call it love.

Some animals have learned to inhabit our world, but not many. Dogs, cats, and horses top the list. Maybe they taught us to live with them. In any case their reality is different from ours. Yes, animals have souls; they have animal souls, not human ones, but scripture is clear that they are living beings as we are. Nothing separates them from their Creator. They are unable to sin; only humans sin because we need to be able to make choices to fall into sin.

Animals thus are “in heaven” all the time. We are not because we constantly break our relationship with God, others, and ourselves.  We know instinctively that when we lose touch with the source of our being we are out of kilter.

That’s why Annie seems so much more loving than Uncle Max.  She is a simple vessel, unblocked by the self-centeredness and self-absorption that stops our love from flowing freely. If you are attentive, your dog can teach you how to be more loving. Maybe that is the God-given mission of pets. While themselves not human, God has given them to us to teach us how to become more fully human. Wonder of wonders, that not only children but also animals should lead us, kicking and screaming all the way, into the Kingdom of God.

An acquaintance of mine, the poet Gary Snyder, said that as a child he was very sensitive to the life of animals, and upon attending Sunday School he asked the teacher if animals had souls. The teacher not only replied No, but made Snyder feel bad for even asking the question. At this point he figured he didn’t want to consider the Christian faith any more. What a pity.

The creative energy of the universe astounds us in animals, and thus they serve as pointers to the Creator. Our dogs and cats and horses may be like the needle of a compass, pointing us toward the true North our souls long for.

So when a pet dies, we may want to say that the animal dwells in the same presence of the God of love in which she lived during the years she taught us love and made us happy – as the Psalmist says – “just for the sport of it.”

Happy Anniversary to the Dog Park.

published 24 May 2011