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The Gospel According to Scruffy: Or, Contemplating the Name of Dog

I discovered his name in 2008. I wish I could say that it came to me in a dream or vision, but in fact it came to me in one of those terrible mothering moments you probably should not admit to in public. I was dying to have a dog. I have been a dog person for as long as I can remember and I waited until my children were of the age which I could be assured that they had sufficient conscience that they would not ride him like a horse or maul him like a UFC fighter. Canon Law says that seven is the age of reason. I prudently waited one more year until my youngest was eight (just in case Canon Law was wrong) and then I went full-blown dog wild.

So the bad mothering bit is this: my son was then 9 and was dead-set against the idea. He had never been around dogs much; perhaps he was afraid of them, but by the time we met our new puppy, he was having none of it. On the ride home he wailed, “I don’t want a dog.” I reasoned. I bribed. And then I pulled this one from my maternal arsenal: “But, Honey, YOU get to name the dog!” And so, our tiny Lhasa Apso, the one I wanted to baptize with a dignified and weighty name (like Augustinor Anselme), received the cliché appellation of countless canines of yesteryear, Scruffy.

But Scruffy grew into his name. And his name grew into him. He was the Alpha and the Omega of Scruffies. Although technically a toy dog, this guy would never submit himself to a decent grooming. His hair was matted before he left the groomer’s. His pronounced underbite was so lopsided that only one lower canine stuck menacingly out. And he was tough. He would try to take on all manner of enemies: plumbers, annoying houseguests, German Shepherds, slippers. There wasn’t one tree that that little dog didn’t feel obligated to mark. He was Scruffy.

Scruffy soon became for me the name of Dog. He would appear in countless sermons, in lecture illustrations; his image was sprinkled like stardust on all my social media. And soon just saying my Beloved’s name became half-summons, half-song of praise. I would say it over and over again to him because he loved to hear his name (who doesn’t?) and because his name said over and over again was, for me, an Alleluia Chorus.

Almost 11 joy-filled years after that car-ride, Scruffy began to decline. His liver was badly diseased. He became allergic to everything and was losing weight and muscle mass at an alarming rate. His back legs refused to cooperate until he could no longer climb stairs or walk more than a few steps. When I called his name he eventually ceased to come. The sing-song “Scruf-feeeeeee” now caught in my throat, and, as the final days approached, I could barely release it from my lips. I held him in my arms as he lay dying at the vet’s, with my now-adult daughter and son by my side. And I sang to him and I whispered his name to him one final time, “Go with Jesus, Scruffy.”

In the days that passed since his death, I find myself in an empty house rendered painfully silent by the ceasing of click-clack paws. I already strain to recall his hoarse bark. And in a futile effort to recreate just a few moments of the joy I once had, I tried to sing his name again, “Scruf-feeeeeeee,” but my voice sounded strange; I could no longer find the right note. I realize I will never say his name rightly again; that his proper name must now become silence, because to speak it now as I did back then is to ring hollow and false.

This is a terribly depressing realization… unless we think of the hair’s breadth that exists between silence and prayer. In Divine Names, Pseudo-Dionysius reminds us of the impossibility of calling noisily or confidently to the Beloved, not because of his absence (or our despair), but because of God’s very transcendence, a transcendence that begets the praise of silence:

“How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all things while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?”

There are certain names – like God and Dog and Love and Death – that are too high for us; we cannot attain them. In such cases, the best form of speech is, in fact, silence – the stopping of our busy and noisy human words. For far beyond words – and even our most love-laden names – there exists a grace, which embraces and anticipates all things.

I like to think that this dog has entered into that nameless and encompassing grace.

 

Jane Barter is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, who is currently serving St. Peter, Dynevor (Selkirk), St. Phillip (Hodgson), and St. Matthew (Peguis). She is also Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg.

 

This article originally appeared on Jane’s website, Women in Theology.

4 Comments

  1. From one that has loved and lost several dogs in my 73 years I find this so touching. I am a fan of silence and certainly feel it is a form of prayer.

    • Thank you, Ruth!

  2. This is a beautiful piece – a narrative about a beautiful relationship, a beautiful recognition of the God-given ness of every creature, and beautiful insight into life of the author. Thank you!

    • Thanks so much, Bishop Don!