I am continually amazed at what God looks like…hardly ever what I expect!
My wife and I like many of you, I suspect, are animal lovers. Our current menagerie consists of two cats, Sallie the Itty Bitty Girl Kitty, and Archie the Black Kitty Cat, and two dogs, Sammie, a.k.a. Knucklehead, the Golden Retriever, and Sadie, Destroyer of Worlds, who is mostly Lab. All of them are “rescues,” all of them are dear, and all of them have taught me a great deal about spirituality. Indeed, I believe it was Eckhart Tolle who once commented that he had had many Zen Masters, and that they had all been cats! I believe I understand what he meant.
A number of years ago we bought a house adjacent to Betty Virginia Park in Shreveport, and I made the commitment to myself that I was going to walk the dogs regularly. What I discovered is that walking two great big handsome dogs sounds like a marvelous idea, until you actually get down to doing it, at which time you learn that it is much easier said than done!
You see, while pretty much all dogs pull on their leashes, big dogs tend to pull a lot! Indeed, when I queried my friend the “dog whisperer” about it, her sage counsel was simply to “walk faster.” It proved to be very good advice! And what I have since learned is that the first mile is the hardest, after which it gets much easier. As such, walking in the park has become one of our regular things.
I walk the dogs in the park for their exercise, for my exercise, and for my spiritual well-being. The dogs, of course don’t need any spiritual help, they’re pretty much there already. Indeed, they, along with the cats, are among my most important spiritual teachers. And yes, I do believe that all dogs go to heaven! But over the years, something has dawned on me when observing Sammie and Sadie in the park that I have found really helpful in my own life. It is that they are really happy to be there. Now this sounds like a really simple thing, but I think it is most important. Every single time: they are really happy to be there. And it doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold, rainy or dry, windy or calm; or who’s in the park, they’re just happy.
Indeed some days I imagine their wagging tails as two great big metronomes…back and forth and back and forth. And while I always enjoy going to the park as well, I generally bring “baggage” with me, which inevitably colors my experience: the various feelings that come and go, the latest irritant great or small, all the reasons why I’m right about this thing or that. The impediments to my happiness in the park seem endless. They, on the other hand, have no such problem.
And it occurs to me that the main difference between me and my dogs when we’re in the park is that, they are really in the park, while I, though bodily present, am often distracted by many things, and so for all practical purposes may very well be many miles away. While the dogs are totally focused on what is, the squirrel, or the bird, or the other dog, whatever it may be, I am often focused on what was, or what may be, or what should be, or what I should have said or done.
Because of that, over the years I have developed the practice of trying to be more like my dogs. More focused on the present moment. More focused on God’s creation: the grass, the trees, the sky, the occasional hawk. But most of all, I’ve learned to focus on them, on the dogs themselves. The more I watch them, the more I learn.
And you know, some mornings, it’s so quiet and so still, and so special, that the park becomes a kind of holy place, almost magical, and I feel God’s presence all around us. In those moments, it’s probably the most peaceful I ever am, absolutely certain, not just in my head, but in my heart—in my very being—of God’s transcendent and pervasive presence, in which, according to St. Paul we all “live and move and have our being.” And for a little while at least, I just sort of rest in the arms of God, walking in the park. I highly recommend it.
At the same time, over the years I have learned that every single person I encounter in that park is a spiritual teacher, perhaps unwitting but nonetheless. For every single person I encounter there, is in a very real sense, a single small incarnation of the God who created all there is. And thus, if I’m willing to see past my own nose, past my own prejudices, I get to see all the different forms in which God can appear…right there in the park. And here’s the kicker; I’m continually amazed at what God looks like…hardly ever what I expect!
All things considered, it’s a pretty important thing to learn. Which is why I walk the dogs in the park. It’s really good for them, but it’s even better for me.