(First appeared in Clare Champion, Friday, June 12, 2020)
When we first met Seamus he was shivering with fright, emaciated to almost a skeleton, he had been living rough for three months during which time he had crossed three or four counties in search of food and shelter. He had been beaten, abused, starved and terrified; whatever faith he had in humanity must have been shattered. The start he had in life one of the worst possible, his psyche possibly beyond repair.
The fact that he was a young dog, an elegant cross between a Saluki and a Greyhound did not, in our eyes, lessen the degree of his suffering. As a family we believe that human beings have a duty of care towards animals, an obligation infrequently and always inadequately acknowledged, certainly, in Seamus’s case humanity had signally failed.
Seamus of course is unaware of the fact that he and his fellow creatures stand at the centre of a debate both within and outside theological circles that is increasing in vehemence but also in importance. Some of the potential conclusions of that debate have the potential to redefine who we think we are, our place in the world and our responsibilities as inhabitants of this planet. But for me at least the debate is resolved; I have every faith that sentient beings, creatures that can feel a range of emotions, develop relationships, bond with members of their own species and others have what Christians would conventionally call a ‘soul’. Above all, for me, the mark of a soul is the ability to give and to receive love.
We had three dogs at the time, all rescued, all having come to us in varying states of need and distress, each with their own distinct personality; Seamus was the most recent addition and the one who had by far the worst prior experiences. We knew we had a job of work on our hands. Painfully thin, he shivered and cowered in fear whenever we came too close, too quickly. He flinched at one’s touch, however gentle, he would panic if he felt cornered, or met you in a doorway.
Fortunately, we were not alone in caring for him and he soon made friends with our other two dogs, Paul, the border terrier (now sadly departed) and bouncy lurcher, Jimmy (happily still with us). Paul slept close up against him, sometimes head to head, a warm and comforting presence when Seamus was most vulnerable, and Jimmy showed him the ropes. It was Jimmy that Seamus followed around, who gave him confidence by being the first to go through the door, the first to start eating, the first to accept a pat. If Jimmy would do it, then Seamus might consider it too.
So, we took small and gentle steps. If you moved slowly you might get next to him, extend a hand, stroke him a little, whilst feeling his skin flinch and creep beneath your hand. After all he had never known love and kindness and so we gave him time, but we also persisted. Sometimes love is something you have to learn. We knew that Seamus had the capacity, the ability to feel and to give love; it’s just that like a deaf child hearing for the first time, he had to make sense of the new sensations.
One of the great privileges of taking on a rescue dog is to see this gradual awakening, this growth of confidence, the burgeoning of a personality once oppressed into hiding, now emerging tentatively into the light.
We were even perversely happy when he chewed our possessions, entire doors and furniture, as being naughty is a sign of testing the boundaries, sensing that life might be expanding.
This morning, as he does now every morning, Seamus jumped onto our bed and lay on his back, legs in the air waiting to be stroked. It has taken years. But like my own children, he too has taught me something about myself and about love, about the redemptive and healing power of love. He has proven how love makes all of us grow, both in the receiving but also in the giving. For in reality Seamus has given us so much more than we have given him; but he also challenges us. He made me see, if I ever needed convincing, that love reaches far beyond our humanity and the temptation to which too many of our faith traditions succumb, that of claiming that we humans alone bask in the light of eternal love. Seamus’s challenge to me is to wonder whether my love is too selective, too restricted to my ‘family’, to those I have allowed myself to love because it would simply be too inconvenient and life-changing if I accepted that many more creatures are deserving of my love and respect, and care and protection.
I’m worried that he might be right and I may be wrong.