Mourning a dog
News of the death of Millie who had been our family dog in my final years in Ireland, brought memories of Bella, who died four years ago.
Becoming ill in the morning, Bella had died in the afternoon, having reached the grand old age of sixteen or so (we were never certain of her age, she had been abandoned at a roadside at the age of what the vet thought might be eighteen months). At the age of three, she had been joined by Holly, another rescue dog, and they were great friends and companions for eight years. Holly had died five years previously and I posted a piece here that evening, a piece inspired by a Baptist pastor’s description of his hope for heaven.
“What’s heaven like?”
“Heaven?” said the pastor, “Heaven for for me will be standing with my dog on a bridge in one of the glens of Antrim; just standing there looking down the glen. And someone will come up and say, “What are you doing?”
And I’ll say, “I’m just standing here enjoying the view.”
And they’ll say, “Are you standing here long?”
And I’ll say, “Ach, no, not more than ten thousand years.”
Of course, it was not a story to be repeated in the wrong company. A stern minister set me right on the subject.
“Do you know”, he said, “some people imagine heaven as a great big family reunion?”
“Aye.” I said. His doctorate was from Princeton and he was a good Scripture scholar. I wasn’t about to challenge his line of thought.
“I have to try to point people to a right understanding”.
“Aye”. I said.
What is a right understanding? Does what the Bible say represent a full, complete and final understanding of heaven? Does it conform strictly to the limits set down in the book of Revelation?
It might not matter to some. “We’ll find out when we get there”, I was told once. But it’s an important pastoral question. When a young couple lose their little boy at the age of 21 months, it matters a whole lot where he has gone.
It’s a serious theological question. If justice is part of God’s nature, then there must be some place of eternal reward. If heaven is no more than wish fulfilment, then short lives lived in Darfur are without meaning or purpose. Being realistic, if this is it, if there is nothing else, then most lives are without meaning or purpose. Maybe it’s better than the nasty, brutish and short existence described by Thomas Hobbes, but not much better.
At a personal level, I hope the pastor’s account is the right one. I would like to have my dog with me to stand on a bridge to ponder the scenery. She was eight years old and went to the vet today to have a simple wart removed and never came around from the anaesthetic.
Paul says in Romans Chapter 8 that Jesus’ death on the Cross frees not just human beings but God’s very creation from the burden of sin and death, he writes, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”.
I hope Paul is right. I loved that silly old dog.
I buried Bella that June evening, finding a quiet space among the bushes she loved to explore and digging her grave with a long-handled spade. The church made no provision for such occasions, I think there was some medieval theology that animals do not have souls, but I gathered stones to cover her grave.
I remember her and Millie and Holly and their predecessors, Paddy and Maeve, with affection. And if a theologian says there are no dogs in heaven, then he is wrong.
There’s nothing more certain than any contemplation on the subject is bound to come under one or more early heresies.
But I would say two things. Heaven would be a sadder place without pets. And the gift to the humanity of those that live with pets is bound to be recognized.
Charlotte Mew’s ‘Old Shepherd’s Prayer’ is one of my favourite poems