I watched as my 2-year-old niece attempted to feed my dog a piece of broccoli. Mojo, a small terrier mix with the patience of Job, cut his eyes at me with an expression clearly conveying that he had no interest in my niece’s persistent attempts to make him eat his vegetables. I heard her mutter something into Mojo’s face, still pushing the broccoli in his direction, and when I bent down to hear what she was saying I learned that this was no ordinary afternoon snack. “This is Christ for you,” she said to him, repeating words she must have heard in church. This was communion.
A few months later, Mojo passed away rather unexpectedly from cancer. As I reflected on his life in the weeks and months after his death, this comical-if-poignant moment kept resurfacing in my memory: my niece taking her vegetables and offering them to my dog in the same way that Jesus offered the ordinary elements of bread and wine as natural means of grace to his disciples. I now began to think about the ways our pets may themselves be natural means of grace, instruments of sanctification, for those of us humans stumbling through our mundane existence.
The scriptures reveal that God often uses the most surprising of natural means to show us the way of the Lord: not only bushes and bones, but talkative donkeys and hungry whales, gentle lions and courageous lambs. Jesus foretold that the earthly elements would praise God should humans fail to do so, and Paul wrote of all creation groaning together under the weight of its fallenness. This link between humans and other creatures in a mutual recognition of our earthliness and longing for something more, and mutual ability to praise God, suggests that humans might also learn to praise and enjoy God better by watching, listening to and learning from our animal companions. This may seem like an odd claim, but to put it even more strongly and personally, I believe my dog made me a better Christian. Perhaps our furry friends are capable of imparting God’s grace to us, their human companions, as witnesses of Christian virtues. St. Francis became famous for preaching to the animals; but maybe if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear, our animals are preaching to us in the small and quotidian behaviors of their daily lives.
Before I knew him, Mojo was discovered by a dog-shelter employee tied to a tree at a yard sale. When I first brought him home, he was aloof — and even ran away from me the first day I had him — but we quickly settled into a happy life together. Regal, even sage, he possessed an “old soul,” but also a ceaselessly wagging tail. Mojo was my constant companion through graduate school, my road trip buddy, my couch partner as I spent long hours sitting and writing a dissertation on Christian ethics — along with a few Netflix breaks, of course. Mojo enjoyed watching everything with me except college basketball games, during which he would grumpily leave the room at my first angry outburst at the refs. He was a constant cause for joy, greeting me eagerly at the door, tail-wagging and always eager to cuddle after a long day. But it was only after his passing that I began to realize he had not only been a means of companionship, joy and comfort. Mojo had also been a means of grace and sanctification. His life was a witness: exemplifying, teaching and training me in Christian virtues — what Paul called the “fruits of the Spirit.” As I spent seven years reading, writing and listening to lectures on Christian ethics I discovered that perhaps my greatest teacher had been snuggled beside me all along.
Graduate school is not a time for easy recreation or interaction. When not working, you are plagued with guilt over all the work to be done. Mojo encouraged patience in many ways, content to curl up by my side as I fervently typed away on my computer. I was blessed that Mojo had the self-control of a nun when it came to his bladder; on rainy days he could hold it for 12 or more hours in preference to getting his paws wet. But his bodily discipline had its limits, and his excited sprints back and forth between my couch and the front door signaled that it was time to stop working.
In those walks, he taught me the patience — and even self-control — of taking healthy work breaks. He taught me to enjoy God’s creation, to rejuvenate my mind and body, to stop and smell the roses (though preferably without also peeing on them). Our strolls leisurely meandered around the block, not solely because of Mojo’s stubby legs but because of his personality. He was curious about the smell of every plant, eager to make friends with every person, canine or squirrel we encountered, content to enjoy the warmth or crisp chill of an afternoon, to soak in the glory of God’s creative wonder. Typing could always wait. When he would sense me growing impatient with our pace, he would pull beside me and nudge my hand with his nose: his way of saying “Slow down, Kris. It’ll be just fine.” His leisurely curiosity trained me to enjoy the world beyond my computer screen, to not avoid the approaching family or dog-walker but take pleasure in the unexpected encounter and new friend, to perceive the remarkable in the ordinary, and to allow myself the time to do so.
It is often said of the great sports players that they made their teammates better, and of great people that they did the same for those around them. And likewise, one of the Christian virtues is that of contagious discipleship; of embodying such a gentleness, kindness, generosity and peaceableness that you inspire, pull or prod those around you toward the same. I have often doubted that anyone would say such a thing of me. For example, I aspire to nonviolence as an essential Christian characteristic, but as famous pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas often says of himself (though with saltier language), my commitment to pacifism may be because I know that I can be so darn violent and volatile. Like many Christian essentials, peaceableness does not come easy. But that was not true of Mojo.
More people than I can count observed the way Mojo made their dogs behave better when they were together. Often this was a simple commentary that their dogs barked or growled at every other canine they encountered, and only behaved so friendly toward Mojo. Mojo had a contagious gentleness that allowed him to endure the persistent pestering of a housemate’s cat, or the eager vegetable-feeding of a toddler, but it also rubbed off on other dogs. And I think my time with Mojo, witnessing his example, formed my disposition as well. This is not to say that I am never quick to anger or unreflectively terse. But I do think my seven years with Mojo made me a calmer, less stressed, less volatile person. At least during those times I can feel my blood pressure rising, I now think about him, and peaceableness comes a bit more naturally.
Loyalty is a characteristic often associated with dogs. And I won’t suggest that Mojo was more loyal than other dogs. Yet, his camaraderie resembled the type of faithfulness the apostle Paul talks about as pistis, or deep trust, and which he links with agape, or unconditional love. I believe Mojo’s witness to the biblical model of faithfulness stretched beyond his quick ability to forgive me for the times I left him alone in a thunderstorm, took away the donut he delightedly discovered on the sidewalk, or became frustrated at his slow pace on walks. Mojo loved me anyway. He embodied a deep unconditional love, but he also taught me the true meaning of faithfulness through his dependence.
For example, despite his remarkable bladder, Mojo, like any dog, still determined my schedule according to his needs. My devotion to and care for him required sacrifices of my time, money, schedule and energy; and in this way, he taught me what Paul described in Galatians as carrying one another’s burdens in Christian community. This is not some chew-toy-in-the-sky idealism, but the hard gritty work of putting another ahead of yourself. Many social occasions were postponed by a thunderstorm that left Mojo shaking under the table. Many vacations were abbreviated by the schedule of a sitter. Yet, my life was bound up with his in a way that I never experienced as burdensome — though it definitionally was. And this is the lesson I believe Paul illuminates.
Mojo taught me something about the core characteristic of Christian community: faithfulness to God and to one another requires putting others before yourself, committing yourself to their flourishing (often at your own expense), carrying the burdens of those members of the community who experience a greater degree of dependence, and rejoicing in the opportunity to have your life bound by others. In the time since Mojo’s passing, the newfound independence of my schedule, time and money has not felt like freedom. I am reminded of the theologian Karl Barth’s insight that our freedom, like God’s, is a relational freedom. It is not realized in autonomy or independence. True freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for — the freedom to give one’s self to God and to others. Genuine freedom is not the absence of burdens, but the faithfulness generated by our boundedness to others. And my life without Mojo feels less free, and less faithful.
I think the person most affected by Mojo’s passing, besides myself, is my niece, Bethany. Now 3, she still asks about Mojo every time she sees me. We have told her that Mojo is in heaven now, and I do hope along with Pope Francis and St. Francis and many others not named Francis that in the final redemption of all creation our furry companions will be present with us once again. But in the childhood world of painted wings and giant’s rings, all lost dogs come back home. Recently she asked if Mojo was lonely in heaven, if we could bake some dog biscuits and take them to him (perhaps some broccoli as well). We try to explain that while we miss Mojo very much, we are sure he is having a wonderful time, living a life abundant with all the treats to eat and squirrels to chase that he could ever want. There is no way for us to visit Mojo in heaven; but perhaps we are a little closer to heaven already because of him.
And while I, of course, think that Mojo was the best dog to ever walk the planet, I suspect that many of our animal companions are able to sanctify us in similar and different ways if we allow ourselves to look and listen and learn. We might just catch glimpses of the fruits of the Spirit — of gentleness and love, faithfulness and peace, patience and self-control — and see the ways our pets exemplify and prod us toward Christian grace and virtue in ways we might never expect. May we thank God for their lives and their witness.