‘I can’t possibly ask him that’, I said quietly to Guy in English. ‘Go on’, he insisted, ‘Of course you can. Say it in German’. So I did; and Guy was right.
It wasn’t exactly a familiar situation. It happened two and a half years ago, on my walk through Germany, as I was having dinner with the prior of the ancient and famous monastery of Maria Laach. My dog Mitzpah, who had accompanied me everywhere, was invited too. I tried to explain to him as we walked down the long corridor lined with crosses that, unlike most Jewish people, monks often ate in silence and that this wasn’t the time to bark. In the event he curled up on the carpet and slept for the duration of the meal.
‘Ask him’, said Guy, who was filming the whole enterprise, including this repast, ‘what he thinks your dog adds to your adventure’. So I did.
The dog, the prior explained, reminds us that we humans are not the sole centre of God’s world, which we share with all of God’s creatures. It’s a lesson in humility, and compassion.
I thought of the prior’s words yesterday when, down in the New Forest on my way to teach in Bournemouth, I watched a car pull out of Tesco’s and stop for a donkey to cross the road. It’s not a sight I often see in Finchley. There were a whole group of grey donkeys at the entrance to the village, enjoying the sunlight and fresh grass which they badly needed to put some flesh around the ribs which showed sharply beneath their coats after a lean and bitter winter.
Maybe it was the view from the upstairs room in our childhood home in Glasgow which did it. I remember how my brother and I would sit and stare out at the golf course, the green hillside beyond it and the two beautiful horses which grazed there on bright days.
I’ve always loved animals, (though I used to be frightened of dogs). But love isn’t quite the right word, though I admit I’m sentimental. I often find companionship and solace in being with domestic animals. In their presence and in the sound of their breathing I’m reminded at a level which isn’t merely notional or intellectual that I belong together with them in this world of changing seasons, light and dark, cold and warm, rain-driven wind and stall spread with hay. Here is a relationship without complexity or guile. Something within me unfurls and I rediscover the God I share with the horses and the sheep.
When I can, I like to pray among the animals too. Admittedly it’s a different kind of congregation or communion, more continuous perhaps with some great evolution and community of life and it almost always draws me into the calm of contemplation.
I hate to see cruelty or to recognise myself as, even unintentionally, a contributor to it. This is not only because animals suffer both physical and emotional pain. It’s because wanton cruelty to animals is a form of contempt for life itself, life which we are taught to treat with reverence and respect in all its forms.