As a philosopher and theologian, Saint John Paul II developed an entire system of thought based upon scripture and tradition that considers what the human body reveals to us about God’s plan for us, which he appropriately entitled, The Theology of the Body (TOB). It’s a major contribution to the Christian intellectual tradition and most people who run in Catholic circles have at least heard about TOB; many others are quite familiar with its content. Inspired by John Paul II’s phenomenological approach of letting things “show up” and “tell us about themselves” the way that he did with the human body, I want to briefly investigate the phenomenon of encountering a dog and see what spiritual lessons we can glean from such an encounter.
As a boy I remember my dad teaching me that when you first encounter a dog, you don’t want to run at the dog, pull its collar or tail, or scare it in anyway. Rather, you should simply stand still and make a fist (so that the dog doesn’t bite off your fingers) and extend your arm so that the dog can approach you and smell your fisted hand. This is the first step in allowing a dog to get to know you and it ensures that you do not threaten the dog.
The second step, once the dog has finished its initial investigation of you through sniffing, is to release your hand from the fist formation and to begin to pet the dog with an open hand. This move comes naturally to most people, and if you aren’t sure about whether it’s time to rub the dog’s head or not, often times the dog will use its nose to loosen your fist and begin step two for you. Petting a dog is a pretty easy thing to do, so this step doesn’t need too much explanation. However, I should mention that many dogs like it when you scratch behind their ears and for some reason they like it when you talk to them as you pet them. (Perhaps it’s because, like human beings, the more senses that are involved, the better.)
If a dog really enjoys the way you are treating it, then you will soon move to step three. Often without warning, the dog will roll over, throw its head back with open mouth, wag its tail, and wiggle side-to-side on its back, beckoning you to scratch its belly. Then, just as you did with the dog’s head, back, and behind its ears, you begin to scratch its belly. Up and down scratching motions work well, but some dogs enjoy circular motions even more. The dog will be very pleased if you engage in this third step, and often times the dog will fall asleep while you are doing it. Make no mistake about it; if you get to this third step with a dog, the canine trusts you and you’ve made a friend for life.
So what possible theological lesson can we learn from such a seemingly simple activity as getting to know a dog? Let’s try something by way of analogy. We human beings, due to our fallen nature, often see God as our competitor rather than as our Savior, Lover and Healer. We can easily fall into the trap of believing that God is somehow a threat to our freedom and so the thought of getting too close to God can make us nervous. So how is it that God comes to us? He comes to us kind of like the way my dad taught me to first approach a dog: non-threateningly and non-violently. God comes as Jesus Christ, as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. He then shows himself to us on the cross, as one who doesn’t come to destroy us but as one who allows himself to be destroyed by us, in order to save us. And to this very day, that same Jesus makes himself present in a real, non-threatening, vulnerable way on every altar around the world under the disguise of bread and wine in the Eucharist.
So – (and I know this sounds very strange at first, but remember, it’s an analogy) – the way that we ought to be around Jesus is like the dog, who, after catching the scent of a new person, and after accepting some pats on the head and some scratching behind the ears, rolls over on its back and exposes the most vulnerable parts of itself, particularly its heart, to the one who scratches his belly. (It would be great if we could all jump right to step three, but for most of us, it’s a process.) If we hide the most vulnerable parts of ourselves from the Lord, we’ll never experience true healing and deep friendship with Him. But if we allow the Lord to see as we are, and if we make ourselves vulnerable before Him, then we’ll find the remedy to the aching of our human hearts.
It was God who first made himself vulnerable to us in the Incarnation, specifically on the cross. So why not trust the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to him? He can be trusted. And perhaps he even created dogs to give us an image to encourage that trust in us.