It was a chilly afternoon in early winter and there was a fluffy white mound on the porch when I arrived home from school. My sister, even at 11 years old was every bit of the animal charmer that she is today, and strays had a way of finding her. This wasn’t the first dog to follow her home but it was to become the most memorable. It took only a few happy slobbers and we were smitten.
Daisy quickly integrated into our family and her loyalty to us continued to grow until the end of her life. We remember her now as our greatest companion, at times when our world felt dangerously fragile, a quiet walk or a round of fetch could rescue us when no human voice could penetrate our aloneness. And though she had a sweet disposition we credit her with preventing more than one robbery on what could be a shady street. Our dog was a place of unity, a common love, a place of connection and the more our affection increased the more she became part of us.
This week we finished up C.S Lewis’ chapter on Animal Suffering in The Problem of Pain. I found all of this book at least somewhat interesting, but this was my favorite part. Mainly because animal pain, at least in Christian circles, is neglected, often under the uninformed idea that man’s dominion over animals means to exploit them rather than to care for them.
Lewis spends a lot of this chapter speculating on the animal soul. At this point in my life I don’t stay up at night worrying about whether or not Daisy has a soul or if I will see her in heaven (trust me I spent many a night there so if you do I understand), not that it doesn’t matter or that I know the answer, only that I’m okay with whatever the outcome. Soul or not animals are an integral part of our lives, they serve us, we raise them for food and they are our loyal companions. To ignore the significance of animals in our world is to neglect our own humanity.
Overlooking the role of animals in our lives also requires we forgo the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson about ourselves. While some animals may not have the sophistication to have a consciousness per se (in that they live in the ever present, not incorporating past experiences into some expectation of the future like the human mind does, which spares them much of what humans call suffering, the remembering of past hurt and the anticipating of more of it), other animals, especially those closest to us take on an almost human spirit.
Certainly some of what we see in them is our own desire for our animal companions to be like us. But, subtracting that, their remains a power in the relationship of man and animal. Wendell Berry describes this in Jayber Crow as he tells of the aging farmer Athey and his mules.
“He and that team of mules had got old together, and they understood one another. The mules seemed to understand even that Athey was lame. He could hang his cane on the fence and take hold of the handles of his breaking plow, and the mules would lean into the collars and just nudge the share into the sod. Athey grunted his instructions to them under his breath, and they listened. He stopped them often-as he would put it, in his quiet way of joking about himself-“so they could rest.” Everything they did on that little place was beautiful.
The harmony found in the relationship between a well trained animal and its master is beautiful. In the hands of a good trainer an animal learns patience and gentleness and the trainer too learns these things. And of course the opposite is true as we see in the misery of a poorly trained dog, either destructive or cowering, both reflections of the humans that it has encountered. When we see an animal that seems to have a soul, we see, at the very least, a reflection of the human that helped to shape it.
Life is sacrament and man’s relationship with animals is not only sacred but is also a mirror of our humanity. As we love animals well (in their right place, not making them equals with man but respecting them for the type of creature that they are) we draw closer to the God who made all of creation and gave it to us to tend. I don’t know if I will see Daisy in heaven but I do know she has soul and it looks a little bit like my own, and my sister’s and brother’s and mom’s and dad’s. And that part at least is eternal.
This post is part of our Reading Group series. Right now we are reading The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis. We would love for you to join us.
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