One of the ways I understand Saints are as those people who have been honored for embracing their flowering, for allowing themselves to bud and blossom and burst forth fully into the world.
These last few months, I have been contemplating the idea of what it would mean to extend my image of the Communion of Saints to include not only the ones I love who have gone before me, but other members of creation as well. Animals don't refuse their own flowering, they are simply what God created them to be. This image has arisen for me especially in response to our sudden loss of Duke in August who was a very special creature in our life. It used to be that special connections to animals were signs of holiness. We in large part have lost the sense of the sacred bond that crosses over species and reaches beyond our perceived boundaries. We desperately need to reclaim a holistic understanding of the holy presence in all of creation.
So today, on this holy feast of All Saint's Day which is also the Celtic feast of Samhain, a time when the borders between this world and the next are especially thin, I celebrate again the gift Duke was in our life and the bond I shared with him. We found Duke at an animal shelter when he was a year old. But really he found us. We had him for nine blessed years and he claimed a place for himself in our "pack" so quickly and easily. He was Baby Bear and we were Mama and Papa Bears. Adorable I know. But it was much more than the sweet sentimentality of pets that connected us.
Duke was a profound teacher and a companion. He lived so gently in the world despite his size. He witnessed to me the power of living into your natural rhythms, the gifts of a good long nap, the joys of the body stretching and asking for what it needs, the exuberance of being reunited together after time apart. I miss his unabashed joy at seeing me. I miss his faithful presence by my side as I work and write. I miss his solid body that he loved to press against me, as if to reassure himself I was really here. I miss his heavy sighs always so perfectly timed that my husband and I were convinced he understood every word we said.
He went away with me for a week of silent retreat last January and in that sacred space he kept vigil. There I heard the sound of my name called and sung, first as a whisper and then as a roar. Duke tended to my own unfolding in ways I can't explain.
Most of all, I miss his gift of otherness and the wondering he opened within me. So faithful and steadfast, I wonder how he understood our differences in species and why he preferred our company over other dogs. I wonder if he puzzled over our actions and demands. I wonder what it was he dreamed of. I deeply miss his daily animal companionship that was a constant reminder to me of the vastness and otherness of God's presence in the world. He was truly an icon of holy mystery, I never tired of gazing on him. What would the world be like if more of us submitted ourselves to the wisdom of creatures?
Now we are connected by a slender thread between worlds, a thread I am more deeply aware of among trees and other wild places. In those sacred last moments of his life when his breathing stopped, his sweet body lying there on the hearth in our arms, he cracked open yet another door within me. I have no words for it, only a sense of longing that lures me far beyond myself into the great community of those who commit fully to their own flowering.
-Christine Valters Paintner
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