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My parishioner Marie’s life was 28 dogs long. In my tenure serving the church here in Little Falls, New Jersey, I only knew the last four of her beloved pets—Wendy, Maggie, Chrissy, and Katie. But Marie hostessed each of the dogs one at a time across her 102 years of life, ever since she was a teenager. She lived with her parents in the family home, remaining there until they passed away, and Marie never married or had children. She was an only child. There were just the 28 dogs, one at a time.
Marie was a wonder! As she passed the age of 90, she was still going strong, even playing the organ from time to time in our worship services. She passed the age of 95 almost without incident; the age of 99 with a minor fall; the age of 100 with flying colors, the age of 101 with a small stroke (let it be known that on the day of that small stroke, Marie woke up unable to speak, but made the dog’s breakfast and took her for a short walk before contacting the ambulance!).
I prayed I would never have to write a funeral for Marie. She might be the first person on earth to live forever! I admit that I began to watch her more closely after the stroke, eyeing a file box of wills and living wills that the previous pastor had kept in the church office for various parishioners. Marie’s name was on one of those files, and I wondered if I should look to see if the living will contained anything I should know about pastorally, seeing as how she didn’t have any living family. But I didn’t dare look, feeling like I would be tempting fate.
Finally Marie, now almost 102 years old, was hospitalized for what seemed like a significant injury, and I pulled out the file with her name on it and opened the folder. I stared, speechless. What did I find? Not a multi-page living will, not a signature-verified Do Not Resuscitate order, not Marie’s notarized Last Will and Testament. No, inside the folder was a single-paged, 1976 receipt from a New Jersey pet cemetery, $45.00 for a plot of ground for Gigi, her current dog at the time. If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’!
Marie’s love for and commitment to her canine companions knew no bounds. She would sometimes say that she felt that paying attention to these animals brought her closer to God, and that she felt that she was obeying and serving God by taking care of them.
She reminded me of Saint Francis of Assisi, the medieval friar, now the patron saint of animals, who was reputed to be able to communicate with the natural world by a mysterious power. There is much lore about this aspect of Saint Francis’ ministry—a rabbit freed from a trap would not stop following him around, jumping into his lap whenever he sat down; a dreaded man-killing wolf with which Saint Francis entered into a peaceful pact that lasted until the wolf’s natural death; bleating lambs headed for the slaughter that the friar bought off the farmer, adding the lambs to his congregation; the preaching to the doves and ravens, reminding them to give thanks to God for their plentiful food, for their beautiful and expert plumage.
In Jane Goodall’s short and beautiful book The Ten Trusts, she shares story after gorgeous story of her experiences and interactions with the animal world. She reminds that “humans are part of the wonderful animal kingdom and part of nature, not separate from them. We all share that mysterious elixir—life.”
Saint Francis knew that God and animals and the earth have a very real and mutual relationship, one that humans aren’t often very curious about—he is said to have wondered aloud to fellow monks why more of them weren’t bringing the Word of God to the birds!
But my parishioner Marie (who, alas, I did eventually have to funeralize) knew that to love her 28 dogs was to love God, and that to care for them so intensely was to serve the Lord. May we each find a reason and a means today to praise God by caring for the natural world and practicing kindness to animals. It will make us better Christians.