The Faithful Dog

If only human fidelity were imbued with the same constancy as the dog's

Rumer Godden is perhaps best known for her 1969 bestseller In This House of Brede, the story of a woman who enters an English Benedictine convent. It was published a year after Godden converted to Catholicism. Religion, however, permeated Godden’s books from very early on, like Black Narcissus, her 1939 novel about British Anglican nuns in India.

Godden was also a children’s books writer and a translator. One of her translations, somewhat forgotten, was Prayers from the Ark. Originally written by 20th century French poet Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, the book is a short compilation of the “prayers” of various animals that boarded Noah’s Ark. The prayers are brief and, as one commentator noted, express the essence of that animal. (The poems were written when the “advances” of non-anthropocentric “speciesism” were still regarded as lunacy.)

I want to focus on Godden’s “Dog’s Prayer.”

The dog knows his vocation is to be a faithful guardian: “Lord, I keep watch!” He keeps watch, not for himself but to protect others against threats to them, to protect men: “If I am not here, who will guard their house? Watch over their sheep?” The dog, after all, suffers little loss if the house is robbed, unless the thief is also an arsonist and Fido needs to relocate. And, if the wolf comes and the sheep are scattered, well, Rover’s duties are objectively easier. But that’s not how the dog sees things, or prays. “Be faithful? No one but you and I [Lord] understand what faithfulness is.”

Jesus told His disciples that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for another (Jn 15:13). The whole of Christian morality, summed up in “Love God and love your neighbor,” is a command to get out of self in favor of another.

The dog does not need to overcome egocentricity since, as an animal rather than personal soul, he has none. But, in its own way, the dog helps explain “what faithfulness is.”

The dog goes on, describing his treatment at human hands. Sometimes people address him affectionately: “Good dog!  Nice dog!” Sometimes they are less affectionate: “I take kicks too when they come my way.” Sometimes they pet him, sometimes they throw him “old bones.”

“They really believe they make me happy.” “None of that matters.” “I keep watch!”

As I remarked earlier, the animals’ prayers reflect their nature, and the dog instinctually protects. While one might prefer human gratitude over ingratitude, in the end, none of that matters. “I keep watch!”

Would it were that human fidelity and love were imbued with the same constancy. It is Christ who showed man that, ingratitude or even the uncertainty of the response notwithstanding, “God proves His love [and faithfulness] for us in this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).

The dog concludes his prayer: “Lord, do not let me die until, for them, all danger is driven away.” It is, of course, in Christ’s death that all real danger for us was driven away. But the dog has no messianic complex. He simply wants to be faithful, to fulfill his role until it is done successfully. “Amen” concludes the dog. We can join that “amen.”

During June, which Prof. Robert George has sought to celebrate as “Fidelity Month,” we should reflect on Dog’s short prayer. Fidelity as a virtue — towards God, family, and country — is vital. Those three relationships — Creator, family, and community — are the three places where men are drawn out of themselves to learn to be faithful and loving towards others. Those three relationships — God, family, and community — are also the three places where men, unlike our faithful hound, tend to be tempted towards infidelity: to pay lip service to God’s primacy as long as it does not impinge too uncomfortably on our agenda; to displace marriage and family by ersatz substitutes; to become “world citizens” whose allegiances ultimately lie in “what the world can do for me.”

Fidelity calls us to something better, something deeper.

By happenstance, the name of the Catholic religious order most noted for its fidelity to the Church’s teaching — the Dominicans — has been sometimes etymologically explained as “Domini canes,” “the dogs of the Lord.” Human fidelity is, after all, but a reflection of the Divine hesed (see here), the “Hound of Heaven” whose faithfully dogged pursuit of man’s love humans can only approximate (see here).

When it comes to fidelity, you can learn a lot from a dog.

 

[For more on the Fidelity Month initiative, check out the “Fidelity Month” webpage: https://fidelitymonth.com/ ]

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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