The beasts would not think it hard if I told them to walk on their heads. It would become their delight to walk on their heads. I am His beast, and all His biddings are joys. The Lady speaking to Dr. Edwin Ransom in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra.
When my wife and I first saw him there in that department store parking lot in San Antonio, TX seven and a half years ago we knew that he was coming home with us. He was a little ball of dark-gray wiry hair with a black mustache and the deepest black eyes you could imagine. He wriggled in our arms, trying to get away … but that didn’t last long. After a couple of days it was clear that he was, and always would be, a part of our “pack.”
We dubbed him “Schultz” after the inept, but lovable, Sgt Hans Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes (after all, Schnauzers are German, right?). The name fit him well. Just like his namesake he wasn’t the brightest or the most intuitive thing around, but he was easy to love and, so far as he was capable as a simple beast, he was loving to everyone he knew. But there was something else that was endearing: he was remarkably loyal too. He always wanted to be at the side of those in his pack. Never far off of my heel, he stayed in formation while on a walk or when I was simply carrying out chores around the house.
Additionally, he was continuously concerned with the pack’s defense. He kept his head held high when out with us, looking for dangers; ready to meet any potential threats with a series of barks that deafened everyone nearby (his bark was about his only weapon). And, when at home, he was sure to make regular perimeter checks to make sure our defenses hadn’t been breached. He sniffed every square inch of our fence-line on each patrol and stood at attention, sniffing the wind, making sure nothing dangerous was beyond line of sight. And you could tell that he did it because he loved us and thought it was his duty.
The most enduring vision I will always have of Schultz is that of him on duty, standing at attention. He would be out on the back porch, leaning forward into the breeze, with one forepaw bent (as if ready to spring instantly into action), long snout constantly shifting back and forth as it sampled the smells carried to him, ears forward, eyes roving back and forth, beard swaying gently, eyebrows blown back. It was caution and love that held him there in equal measure. Or, I’d like to think it was love, at least.
That is what we do with dogs (pets generally), isn’t it? We read into their behavior human-type passions and motivations? We know they’re not human, that there is only beastly instinct behind their actions, but we can’t help ourselves. We love them and we think that they love us back. And that’s not something I want to dispel in any way. God put animals here for a purpose. Some are not bright at all. Cows, for instance, don’t seem very ‘with it.’ They stare at you with that vacant expression, constantly chewing and re-chewing whatever rubbish is in their mouth. They might have something going on in their minds beyond, “Chew. Chew. Chew. Burp. Chew.” But if there is something else there, it’s not very close to anything that we as humans are thinking.
Which may be why some animals seem like such wonderful friends to us by comparison: they seem to have passions and motivations which are easier to define in human terms. Dogs are pack animals just like humans. They fight for the pack, they defend the pack, they love, cuddle and nuzzle the rest of the pack. Their instinctual actions overlap with ours and we love them for it.
I admit it: it was easier to love Schultz than it is to love my other dog, Hildegarde. It’s not that I actually DO love one more than the other. It’s just that I have a harder time showing love to the dog that is less like me – or at least less like the me I want to be. For Hilda, everything revolves around her. She spends all of her time stalking the house looking for scraps of food to eat or warm places to curl up and take a nap. She contributes virtually nothing (apart from a good cuddle) to the pack, and worse yet – in my eyes that is, she is less like me.
And so, it was especially hard to say goodbye to my buddy Schultz (not that it won’t be hard to say goodbye to Hilda one day). He was loyal to a fault, always ready and always present. He loved in a way that, while primitive, was nonetheless present. He was a good dog.
As I sit here, thinking and writing, my thoughts keep straying to what it means to love an animal in that way. Does the love actually mean anything? It’s not like Schultz actually understood something as abstract as love. But it has to mean something … right? Otherwise, how pointless would it be for God to put such wonderful creatures here on earth only to take them away from us after 10, 12 or 15 years? How cruel would God be to put a beautiful friend like Schultz into our lives only to make us face the specter of death through the loss of that friend? And throw in the unfairness of that friend dying early (Schultz was only 7) and you begin to question – if you’re not careful – God’s love, mercy and justice.
But to ask that implicit question, “How could God let this happen to [INSERT PET NAME HERE]?” is to answer it too. God placed animals (particularly dogs), with all their loving, sweet clumsiness, in our lives for the same reason He put trees on the hills and clouds in the sky and grass in the fields: sure, there is utility in them all, but the lessons we learn from them – lessons about God – are priceless.
With that in mind, I submit to you the best eulogy I can possibly give to my late, departed buddy Schultz: I learned a little bit better by walking with Schultz, how I should walk with God. No … this isn’t some sort of mushy, unintelligible mawkishness about how much more wonderful animals are than people (they weren’t created in the image of God, were they?), nor is it some weak, bumper-sticker sentiment like, “Wag more, bark less.” (At least I hope not!) It’s a truly important lesson, I think.
In C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra he makes what was surely a secondary or tertiary point in his story that has stuck with me since at least my second reading of the book (it’s such a good story, that it’s worth several re-reads). The hero of the story, a man named Edwin Ransom, makes a trip to the virgin planet of Venus. It is pure and new and beautiful and the only inhabitants are animals, birds, fish and two humanlike creatures who are the Lord and Lady of the planet (the Adam and Eve of the world). Ransom meets the Lady and begins talking with her about the world and about God. In one of these conversations, as they are talking about the only thing she has been forbidden by God to do, Ransom says, rather flippantly, that the forbidden thing “is no hardship in such a world as yours.” To which the Lady responds, “That … is a strange thing to say. The beasts would not think it hard if I told them to walk on their heads. It would become their delight to walk on their heads. I am His beast, and all His biddings are joys.”
As I considered that thought – especially paired with the wonderful way in which the animals of the Lady’s world responded with gladness to her every whim and command – I thought of our relationship with our Lord. We are but His beasts and all His biddings should be our joy. We are barely sentient in comparison with Him; far below His understanding and capability. And yet He calls us to something higher just as we call our pets to something more meaningful. He imparts to us something incredibly beyond our capacity (goodness, mercy, grace and love) just as we call our pets to something beyond their capacity (duty, loyalty, attention and kindness). As we are able to respond to God’s call to something higher, though our response may be only a poor or imperfect imitation, so too our pets are able to respond to something higher, though poorly or imperfectly.
Each time I called Schultz higher, he did his best to do what he thought I wanted him to do. Sure, he failed more often than not, but the attempt is what pleased me. The desire within him to be better because I asked him to be better is what gave me joy. When his attempts were successful, it was glorious; but the attempt alone was something beautiful.
I can’t help but think that God looks at us in the same way: when we attempt to do what He commands, with our only motive being the purest thought of making Him proud, I am certain that He imparts a different aspect of His grace upon it: perfecting our weakness. Or, to say it another way: He sanctifies our attempt itself as something sacred. Just as the offerings on the altar of the temple were to be unblemished, the intentions of our attempt must be unblemished for this sanctification to occur … but it still results in God lifting us, and our pitiful attempts to do His will, beyond our capacity.
I will miss a lot of things about Schultz. He was an excellent companion and a wonderful friend. But the thing that I will miss the most is the level of grace I was able to impart on him. I will miss being able to draw him beyond his capacity and then exult in his successes of being a ‘good dog.’ Therefore, the greatest compliment I can give to Schultz is that he helped me learn just a little bit more about how I should serve God: I should give my all in carrying out His commands and trust to Him to draw me beyond my capacity in the process.
It’s a beautiful lesson … and I thank Schultz for learning it.
Further up and further in, little buddy Schultz! I’ll see you in Aslan’s Country.
This is love for God: to keep His commands. And His commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. 1 John 5:3-5, NIV