The last few nights I have been reading and re-reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise be to you, my Lord) on care for our common home. As I do, I keep returning to thoughts of my dog, Wanda.
Wanda is not a very friendly or personable dog not a very useful dog. Wanda is a tired old hound dog who spends 23 hours of her day sleeping, napping, or trying to nap or sleep.
She doesn’t play fetch, tug of war, or any other game I’m familiar with dogs enjoying. She doesn’t chase cats or squirrels and she only very occasionally enjoys the presence of other dogs. When I come home, she might come and greet me by sniffing me briefly before returning to her puppy pad—if she feels like it. Many days she just lifts her head, looks at me as if to say “Oh, hey,” and then lowers it again. If it were not me—but rather a stranger or burglar—I’m pretty sure her reaction would be the same.
She has a history of abuse which has, along with her advanced age, left her with a troubled tummy. She doesn’t like to eat most food and is very picky about her treats. She will only deign to eat even her very most favorite meals (that involves boiling chicken, dicing it into tiny pieces, then mixing it into a blend of wet dog food and either kibble or rice) about half the time. Many a morning I have, tired and bleary-eyed and waiting for coffee to kick in, laboriously mushed her special blend together only to have her smell it once and then walk away without taking a bite.
Her tummy troubles also lead her to get sick easily and explosively. Twice in the year she’s slept under our roof I have come home to find she has vomited (or emitted similarly liquid excretions from her rear end) her way across the house. One of these episodes ended with a late-night carpet shampooer rental.
And every now and then when I look upon Wanda and see all the trouble she causes, all the effort she costs me, and couple those thoughts with a lack of sleep or patience, I find myself thinking “What’s the point of this good for nothing dog?”
When I ask that question, I tend to get an answer. I feel it rather than think or hear it. But as I read Francis’ encyclical this week, I heard the words that could give voice to the feeling.
In Laudato Si’, Francis reminds me that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”
Throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis warns us of how incredibly, dangerously anthropocentric we can be. We think that we humans are the measure of all things and that all things—and all beings—were made for us and are to be used by us. If something or someone does not immediately bring us utility or happiness, then they are to be disregarded or avoided. What Francis says of humans could probably be equally applied to us as individuals as well: we think we are the center of the world and if a thing or being does not serve our ends—if it causes us frustration or discomfort or inconvenience—then it’s a problem to either solve or end.
Which brings me back to Wanda: a living being, a being which God spoke into existence who manifests something of the divine. Merely by being among the multiplicity of creation, by being fearfully and wonderfully made, Wanda gives glory to her Creator. As the encyclical states, “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the created things present in the universe.'” The “contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us.”
Wanda was not created for me. Her ultimate purpose is not to give me anything. If she gives me usefulness as a watchdog or happiness as a companion then so be it; but if she does not, she has no less a place among creation. I am not the measure of her life. Wanda is alive. She is. And that’s her point. My Father is her Creator— her point and purpose are ultimately His, not mine.
Wanda did not ask to be abused, didn’t decide to grow sick and old and then, as a result, left at a shelter by an owner that got tired of taking care of her. These things happened to her because others decided she would fit into their lives as they wanted her to, or not at all.
We have a thread of dangerous utilitarianism that runs through our whole culture. If we can’t find the “point” of someone, if we can’t discern their usefulness, then we are quick to ignore them or discard them. The sick, the old, the unborn—if we don’t want them, they run the very great risk of becoming a problem to be solved in a most gruesome manner. And Pope Francis is right to warn us of it, and call us to be better.
Is there someone inconveniencing you today that you can choose to serve rather than have serve you? Who do you need to see as a being with dignity rather than just as a means to achieving your interests? Who can be the center of your world today, other than yourself?
As for me and Wanda … I’m going to go make her dinner. She may or may not eat it. But afterwards I will pray night prayer next to her, while she naps, and mediate on the point that the bishops of Japan make: “to sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope.” And I will thank God that I’m privileged to protect and tend to this creature in her golden years, as we lead each other to God. That is, after all, the whole point.