In the past, I have posted conversations between Champ and Major, the Biden family’s German Shepherds. Champ passed away last week and his little brother, Major, has been very sad. I have written a letter to him.
Hi Major: I see you there, solitary, by the fireplace, head down on your paws, eyes lifting only at the sound of a footstep. No movement. You don’t feel like it, do you? You are sad.
It seems, Major, that you are not sure what has happened to Champ, your caring older brother. You only know he is missing. His large, all-embracing heart is no longer here. You’ve been wandering into different rooms looking for him and at night. You let out soft whimpers asking where is he in this Great House? You both shared the responsibility of protecting your Pop and playing with him to lighten his load. Champ once told you the only time he ever saw Pop cry was at the death of his son. And the other night you noticed tears in Pop’s eyes after Champ disappeared. You figured he was crying over Champ and so you moved respectfully to your hangout, the fireplace. You were right.
The death of a loved one, be it human or animal, is not tender, Major. It rips the heart wide open and sets the soul wandering in a desert of grief, the sheer rawness of loss rubbing sand into your soul. I know you feel it. But unlike your human family members, you cannot use words and so you amble toward that fireplace again where you and Champ sat together. You think if you wait by the fireplace, he might come back. Only the soft chime of the clock on the mantle brings some comfort.
But, just like your human family, you suspect that no matter how long you wait for him, it won’t happen. And you are right. You will have to live with the memory of Champ, recall his brotherly advice to you, be conscious that he is with you in some mysterious, integral way. Run free on the lawn, Major; chase the tennis balls and leap for the Frisbees. Champ would want that. For you see, when you play with your Pop, you are ministering to a person, and a world that Champ loved as well. You are caring for and protecting that person, and magnanimous creature that you are, you will do this following the example of Champ.
You can do it, Major. Someday soon.
Our Church teaches that animals have souls, but in our twisted superiority and sense of dominance, we argue that the animal soul is not eternal. It cannot ‘choose.’ And yet, we know that animals, like humans, fold their grief into maddeningly beautiful expressions like the elephants who grieve in community around the body of a dead elephant, or the lion and lioness who roar pathetically at night after a cub has been killed. Examples in animal research abound, especially among placental mammals. Scientists are telling us that animals are, indeed, self-reflective in their consciousness. They experience the same emotions we experience.
The Rev. Andrew Lindzey, English theologian, has cited a scholar who wrote: “…we have lost the capacity to celebrate, the capacity for wonder, awe, astonishment at the marvelous creatures around us. Perhaps we only think of animals as things here for us, or for our own advantage, because we have not ever seen them as subjects of value in their own right.” (p. 3, Creatures of the Same God.) The exceptional American theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ., has written in her book, Ask the Beasts, “…even individual creatures are not abandoned in death, but taken into communion with the living God. Nothing is lost.” (p. 231) Everything our loving God created returns to God because He wants to ennoble it, to reward it as a sentient being that did just what He created it to do. Sometimes we humans do not live this way. But animals do.
Perhaps you cannot have an animal in your life. I would suggest contributing the following to a local pet shelter: old blankets, used leashes, stuffed toys, hair dryers. Maybe you can give personal time to volunteer walking the dogs. If you have had a pet, you can donate all its belongings like kitty litter boxes, beddings, and cages.
To expand your mind and theological background in the area of animals and theology, you might want to read the books mentioned above and they will lead to other very fine books and publications on the subject. You could also be an armchair advocate donating time and treasure to worthy causes in prevention of animal cruelty and the extermination of species.
Pray that we, as a people, will become more compassionate in general and this includes active compassion for children, adults and animals all over the world. Really, pray for this. I’m including the last verse of Rev. Lindzey’s prayer for a deceased animal. It’s a nice, short prayer that covers all of what I’m addressing here.
“…enlarge our hearts and minds
to reverence all good things
and in our care for them
to become big with your grace
and signs of your kingdom.”