February 20, 2008
Remembering Marie: Speaking about Pets with Passion and Faith
Do your views about animals influence your faith? Contributors to The Francis Files share their stories.
By Stephen H. Webb
Pets are a private passion, so writing about a beloved dog risks sounding foolish. Yet delegating our life with dogs to silence is not quite right either. There is something excessive in our love for pets that begs to be put into words, even if those words always fall short. If we do not share our stories about companion animals, we ignore a crucial dimension of human experience.
In my case, I had a relationship with a dachshund that lasted throughout my twenties and into my thirties, just as I was building a career and beginning to raise a family. Friends worried about my intimacy with Marie. Visitors noticed the way Marie would claim me as her private property, and I would laughingly explain that my lap was her throne.
In the era before channel changers, Marie would get up off my lap and follow me the few feet to the TV before returning with me to the couch. When we were apart for even a short period of time, our reunions were a bit comical. She would attack me with a love that looked a lot like violence.
My mom, remembering how saddened I was at the death of my boyhood dachshund, Mitzie, warned me not to get too close to Marie. And my wife, Diane, told me that we could not raise our children like I raised Marie! Diane loved Marie too, but she would sometimes say that I ruined her, and there was some truth in that—but only some. People who have loved animals know the difference between pets and children. The love of a dog is always a bit more ostentatious, a bit more visceral and imbalanced, than the love of a child. The two kinds of love are just different, and there is no use in comparing them.
Admittedly, part of my love for Marie was based on nostalgia. Through Marie I smelled my memories of Mitzie. Marie was my permission for unrestricted extravagance. My love for her was defiant in its public displays of deep intimacy. In retrospect, I think I was rebelling against all the forces in the world that conspire to keep our affection for others within tightly drawn boundaries.
During my first few years as a college professor, my wife stayed in Chicago, successfully pursuing her acting career, so Marie and I had a lot of time on our hands. I began thinking about all the ways that the love of dogs for us resembles our love for God. I eventually organized my thoughts into a book, "On God and Dogs," which was published by Oxford University Press (1998). That book was an attempt to put my love for Marie into a scholarly language, to make it acceptable for theologians and philosophers. Even still, my friends kidded me about writing a book on such a silly topic, and I cannot tell you how many times I heard the joke about the dyslexic who spelled God "dog."
I didn't get to say all the things I really wanted to say about Marie in my book. How could I? A scholarly book about dogs is almost an oxymoron. Dogs ask us to touch them, and touching is as concrete as thinking is abstract. Yet what I remember most about the years I spent writing that book is that every time I was at my computer, Marie was on my lap.
My book was a reflection on the odd place dogs occupy in creation. They are in-between the animal world and our world, just as we are in-between the material and the spiritual worlds. Perhaps that shared status of stretching out from one form of life to another is why we are so close. We have called dogs to join us, just as we have a higher calling to seek God. In their eyes we can see a little bit of the worship that we owe our creator. We can also see the anxiety of freedom, of not knowing what to do next, the tremendous burden of hoping to be loved. Dogs plead, and in their submission they risk everything for us.
Marie was too dependent on me, I suppose, but I was always there for her, right up to the very end. When she collapsed after a long illness, I saw the spirit go out of her right before my eyes. There was something in her that gave her not only life but also the capacity to love, and I saw in the last look in her eyes her attempt to save me from her pain. Diane and I put her to bed next to us and calmed her breathing. In the morning my children watched me dig a deep hole in our backyard and lay her in it with her favorite blanket. I cried for her only once, and kept my promise to never get another dachshund (three years later we got two!). I missed her, but I did not overreact like so many of my friends thought I would. I knew that we shared the same spirit, and that I would never let her go.
Stephen H. Webb is a theologian and professor of religion at Wabash College in Indiana. He is the author of several books and publications including "On God and Dogs" and "Good Eating" (The Christian Practice of Everyday Life series).
Do you have a story to share of how your view of animals has influenced your faith or how your faith has influenced your view of animals? Submit your story and we may share it with our readers. The opinions of the authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of The Humane Society of the United States.
Posted Feb. 20, 2008.