By Emily Hylden
I’ve been thinking that I need a spiritual makeover. I have this habit of finding a New and Improved calendar organization system every eight to ten weeks, and it seems that the same sort of schedule might help my spiritual life, too. My toddler alarm clock (which rings any time from 5 to 7:15 a.m.; it’s always a surprise) stymies regular morning prayer. Constant babbling sentences — very seriously and strenuously delivered — challenge deep concentration at any waking hour. Day job and side hustles and housework and nourishing a family jockey for any latent time or brain space that my progeny has not already snatched up and smashed to smithereens (super, super blessed smithereens, assuredly).
Maybe these are all excuses, but the desire, and lack of solution, for more attention to God continues to gnaw at the corners of my mind and heart. And then this past weekend, my dog died.
Benedict (“Ben”) had lived with me longer than my husband has, and I brought him home as a rescue at two years old when my house had been broken into and I couldn’t imagine staying there unless I had a furry protector. He was a German shepherd, 100-plus pounds, and I got him during Lent 5 in 2010.
I remember this very particularly, because as a first-year seminarian, I was charged up to do Holy Week right, as only new converts can, and instead my dog’s separation anxiety set off the glass-break sensors with his screeching, and his Houdini-like ability to escape each crate I bought for him with my meager stipend required more time at home that week than I’d have liked. I didn’t make it to the Easter Vigil, and I think I held it against him for almost a year.
Eventually we found a rhythm of relationship, and until he was there no longer in the last few days. I had no idea how woven together our lives had become. I’ve spent more time away from my husband in the last eight years than I have from my dog, and though I surely hope that losing my husband would be a greater trial, this one is surprising me with its sharpness.
Ben’s health deteriorated in the course of three weeks, and we tried a treatment or two, in case the problem was less systemic than we feared. Knowing our time was short, whether a matter of weeks or a year, I thought about how I’d miss going on walks with him, and I tried to imagine the other things I’d long for (the things I wouldn’t miss came easily — endless shedding, constant securing of the trash cans, policing the toddler’s “generosity” from his high chair), though I freely admit the notions were rather vague: “Oh, I wonder if I’ll feel as safe when I go for walks.” “Hmm, perhaps I’ll notice more crumbs on the floor.”
In truth, the absence has been difficult to describe except to call it “Ben-shaped.” I opened the back door this morning to hang beach towels on the clothesline and my body stepped to the side, that Ben could race out the door as he has done every time it’s been opened for eight years. When there’s a creak in the house, I think, “Oh, there’s Ben, moving around.”
Deciding whether to work at the empty church office this morning or from home, my mind said, unbidden, “If you’re home, you can keep Ben company.” None of these moments had been accounted for in my calculus of grief.
All this made me wonder, what if my relationship with God is the same? Is my concern and self-flagellation about not praying with books and aides as focused as my mourning the dog-walking? Wandering the neighborhood without my furry companion has been the least troubling of many experiences this week.
I suspect the many mundane moments that have undone me are much more like the stuff of God’s presence in my life — the expected, constant tapping of nails on the wood floorboards, the background of sniffing and huffing when a new person enters the door, joyous leaps when the drawer that contains the leash is opened, dashing about when running shorts are donned. I can’t imagine the way my life might look if God were to drop out of it, so intimately does his presence undergird my very breath.
So perhaps the best thing to do is not to rake myself over coals for not keeping up with the daily walks I have determined must be the healthy thing for a spiritual life to do, or to worry about the most efficient or effective method of spiritual growth, but instead to pray that I might notice those most intimate and familiar intersections with God’s great love, to cherish his care, and to be buoyed by his grace.