My new dentist has an office dog.
Well, the dentist isn’t all that new: I’ve been seeing him for a year now. But I had, after all, been seeing the former one for nearly 20 years, until a medical condition forced his retirement. So the present dentist still seems new. A year ago I started with the new dentist on the project of a major interior renovation of my mouth that has occupied all of the time since then. This has involved frequent appointments which have often been quite prolonged.
Not long after I started this process I was in the midst of one of my first long sessions – about two and a half hours of probing and drilling, as I recall. In this midst of this ordeal the dentist, compassionate soul that he is, had given me a 10 minute respite. I was stretched out nearly flat in the chair with my arms leaning on the arm rests and my hands dropping down to the sides, thinking of nothing and trying to take advantage of the time between drillings. I was drifting half way between consciousness and sleep. And then, all of a sudden I felt something cold and wet in the palm of my right hand.
I started up and looked down to my right and there was a medium sized quite pudgy yellow dog, who had the most beguiling look in his eyes and who was wagging his long tail so vigorously that his whole body shook back and forth with the effort. All of him was wagging. He looked so perfectly delighted to have found a new person to love, and perhaps to get a scratch from in return. I obliged, and through half-closed eyes he let me know that I had given him the best gift that life affords. I was his friend for life, that was clear. “That’s Jake” the dental assistant said.
Jake’s job is to love people. He obviously likes his job quite a lot. He’s not always there when I go to the office, but when he is he roams from treatment room to treatment room spreading love wherever he goes. He delights people and delights in people. He eases the tension that always goes with dental treatment. In between times of wandering through the office he lies in a corner of the reception area, napping. But he’s always glad to interrupt his nap when the call of love arises. He is a real treasure.
Since the day I met him, Jake has held up a mirror before me. “Why” I think, “can’t I be more like Jake?” Why can’t I be given to love like that? The living out of the life of love is one of the most obvious demands of the Christian call. What is it that keeps me from doing it the way Jake does, simply, whole-heartedly, completely.transparently. Why don’t I wiggle with delight at the appearance of a new person to love?
Now I know dogs pretty well. I’m not naive about their foibles, their needs and their tricks. I know some of what Jake is up to in his doggie way. I also know myself, at least a bit, and I am not entirely clueless about the answer to the question that I just posed. I know some of the shadows and scars that keep me from that open-hearted loving response that Jake is able to offer.
This past weekend, as happens each year at this time, my dear friend Suzanne Guthrie and I conducted the annual Advent Retreat here at the monastery. In the course of one of her addresses, Suzanne raised exactly this issue in a particularly realistic and pointed way. She said:
“…….. for compassion to flourish, so much of me has to change and die. So much selfishness must be purified, tried in the refiner’s fire: the ever-accumulating dross of fear and pride, sloth and weakness, ignorance and craving and anger, all those things that make me so lovable! …… must be transformed. What a thankless, yea verily, what a hopeless task!
“Okay, okay, I get it.
“I’ve been working up to this my whole life. like the young Augustine writing about mere lust, “Make me chaste, but not yet…” I have been saying, “Make me compassionate, but … not yet.”
“Well then, when?
“Why not this Advent?”
And I look at Jake and say, why not? Can I look at him and give it a try? I have some motivation, at least, because I do know, down in the depths of my being, how important this can be.
I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and across the street from us in an ancient house was an old lady who came as close to being pure love as I have ever known. Her name was Miss Nettie Robinson. She had lived most of her life with her sister Maude, whom I only barely remembered, and since Maude’s death she had lived alone. She loved everyone, and almost everyone returned the favor. She was pure goodness, as far as I could tell, and the people in our town honored this. The local grocery store delivered her groceries long after they had stopped doing it for anyone else. She drove a 1932 Ford coupe (which she always referred to as The Machine) and people flew to the right and left when she came down the street, but no one ever thought of telling her that she couldn’t drive any longer – not for a long time. People protected and cared for her so that she could go on loving everyone.
One of the people Nettie loved most was me. She looked across the street and saw the trouble that was in our house and looked at me and saw the weight of that burden in my life and how heavy it was for me to carry. She knew what to do about a small child sinking under a heavy burden, and she responded as she knew best: she loved me with all her heart. That’s what saved me. I'm not exaggerating: it really did save me, and much of what I have of balance and stability and just plain sanity is due to the love of Miss Nettie Robinson (and also to my Aunt Sarah, another great lover of people) I know how important it can be to love people.
So this Advent, can I take up this vocation? Can I love in the mold of Miss Nettie Robinson, and of my Aunt Sarah? Can I love, just because love is what I am called to as a Christian and as a monk? Couldn’t I be just a bit like Jake, in the ways it would be proper for me to be like Jake? Could I wiggle with all my heart when someone comes along?
I would like to try, and this is the best time that I know to start.