Ask the animals and they will teach you

Lucy reflects in Lent on the deep relationships that can be formed between human beings and our other-than-human companions as part of environmental theology.

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Church Window Mask

He was on the front page of Gumtree. Not that I’d ever visited the site before – something made me do it that Friday in April 2011. I’d moved to St James’s at the end of the previous year and one of the things I was most looking forward to was that, even living in a central London flat, given that three parks were in walking distance, I thought I could get a dog.

I’d always wanted one and had made grand statements about rescuing a mixed breed dog, definitely a female, made vague plans for visiting Battersea Dogs Home when I was ready. But that Friday on Gumtree, the face of what I immediately knew was my dog was looking out at me: one year old black cocker spaniel, current owner unable to keep him, now moving abroad in any case, viewing essential. Later that day I found myself in a flat in Croydon attempting to drink a cup of tea while a whirling dervish of an animal circled the small living room across the top of the sofa, onto the window sill, up and down off the chairs. He was running at head height along the top of the furniture throughout my 45 minute visit, and the really nice but permanently alarmed owner, apologised and said ‘he’ll calm down soon’. I asked why he was called Joey. Her boyfriend had named him after the character in Friends because he was good looking, boisterous, and seemed to be addressing the world with a confident, even defiant ‘How’re you doin’ ?’ Expecting the world to love him.

I wrote a cheque there and then for the whole amount, and agreed that she would bring him to Piccadilly on Tuesday. Little did I know what his arrival would mean, really mean for my daily life. Contrary to my previous grand statements, my dog turned out to be a pedigree, smart, hugely energetic young male. Not at all what I’d thought I wanted, but, as it turns out, unmissable, irreplaceable and ever-joyful Joey.

Thirteen years later I have thought a lot about what it means to live alongside a non-human creature, or as we say more these days, other-than-human or more-than-human. Eco -church theology will always place me as a human being within rather than apart from the rest of the created creation. The current series of ‘Changing our Minds’ conversations, the theology of the Eucharist (‘all things come from you O God and of your own do we give you’), the deepest possible recognition that God created and creates abundance, variety, and that in the words of the Book of Job, ‘ask the animals and they will teach you’ is a fundamental part of what it means to be human in the world.

Joe has taught me so much over these years: he simply does what he wants to do when he wants to do it, unless someone stops him. He is without artifice or guile. He is delighted to be alive and seems not to be afraid of death. Although he screams when he’s wet. He takes his opportunities to celebrate wherever he comes across them, is ready to eat, drink, run or poo at the drop of a hat, all of his favourite things, even moments after he’s woken up. When I come home, he’s thrilled. When he goes to bed he’s thrilled. When he’s getting up, having breakfast, sniffing the pavement, chasing a squirrel, stealing the parish administrator’s lunch, or the Operations Director’s lunch, or the Vergers’ lunch or, in the early days, distracting the Standing Committee meetings by lying across their feet in my study, he’s just thrilled. Permanently glad to be alive. Permanently glad to be him.

Over the years his obsessions have come and gone, as is often the case with spaniels. It used to be pigeons, he moved onto motorbikes – and became hysterical when he found a ‘nest’ of them parked on St James’s Square. Every object, living or mechanical, is a potential playmate, and a reason to be grateful. In the words of St Ignatius, Joe seems to live his life acutely aware that he exists in a ‘context of gifts’. Potential for excitement and happiness is everywhere and that next great thing is just around the corner. When he winks at me, which he often does, I mostly wink back in case it’s a secret sign. I tell him stuff and he is gloriously uninterested in even the most critical and urgent issue I might have on my mind.

In the past couple of months, Joe has got ill. Neurological problems compounded by severe arthritis have made him unusually sad, timid now, often confused as to where he is or what is happening, and sometimes not able to get out of his bed. While he loves his food and wags his tail for a cuddle, while he likes going to the garden and walking down to the Red Lion pub, we’re still on this journey together. But as the vet tells me, (often these days so he knows it’s gone in….) a difficult decision is not too far away.

Although dogs have been domesticated for generations, and are among very few creatures that often prefer the company of humans to their own species, I never forget that he’s a creature of the earth, so completely different from my species, but so completely mysteriously in tune too. And in that mystery of connection, there is a theological and spiritual context to companionship with my dog. Exactly as Job says, if we ask the animals, they teach us. I am taking this wisdom from Job into Lent this year, in the light of the climate emergency and the ecocidal reality we live with in 2024. In my own home, I have had the best teacher, learning that now is what we have; that joy in living is the energy of the universe, and that I am part of a mysterious and created order full of living things with voices very different from my own.

Is it right to pray for an animal? Of course: I pray in thankfulness for the gift of Joey, and in great gratitude for the Piccadilly years we’ve spent together. And in thankfulness that through the vagaries of life, he found me and gave me a home every bit as much as I’ve provided that for him. We say it at the Eucharistic Prayer, with all that lives and has lived, with all that gives voice in creation: thanks be to God.