The dog

August 11, 2005 | 25 comments
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It happened in the back of the former living room we called our chapel. The church itself was an insignificant Flemish rowhouse. Thirty-six chairs crammed the room. Six rows of six. When half of them got filled, we boasted on the Church’s growth in our city.

One Sunday, the old man walked in. Shabby, bizarre. Sacrament meeting had already started. He must have seen the sign out front, roughly painted on a wooden board: “Kerk van Jezus Christus van de Heiligen der Laatste Dagen – Vrije toegang – Iedereen welkom”. Indeed, Free entrance – All welcome. He sat down on a chair on the last row, with a serene look as if he had been coming to Church for years. His dog, on a worn out leash, lay down next to him. It was a cur of sorts, old, ugly, sleepy.

As we said our Amen to the closing prayer, the visitor had already slipped out of the building.

A week later he was back. The usher was prepared:
- Err… good morning… Normally, we don’t allow dogs in the building.
The man mumbled something which sounded like good dog, no bark, no bite. And took his seat, the dog quietly at his feet.

The branch presidency discussed what should be done. For once someone had entered the Church on his own initiative! The handbook? It did not say dogs were not allowed. Of course we would not count the animal as a visitor on our attendance report, only the old man. And one more chair filled helped our progression to converting the whole city. So, with a conditional “unless he starts barking…”, we avoided an expulsion nobody would volunteer to execute anyway.

Besides, those who could have seen the rest of our tiny congregation would have understood our leniency.

He kept coming for months. When the Sacrament was passed, he would reach out his arm well in advance, to make sure he would not be omitted. The first time he came, our only deacon had skillfully ignored him, following instructions that the Sacrament was not for non-members, and, in free interpretation, certainly not for a vagabond with a dog. The man had looked dejected when the deacon passed by. Now, with his arm raised and his eyes eagerly turned to the approaching boy, who could refuse him the bread and the cup?

But he was unteachable. As missionaries or members tried to strike up a conversation, he would mutter a few unintelligible sounds. When we asked for his name, he got nervous. Still, he kept coming and simply blended into our Primitive church. Members shook his hand. A lonely child cuddled the sleepy, grubby mutt who was as deaf as a post.

Our only concern was the Sacrament and the dog. Each time the old man partook of the bread, the dog would lift his head in a quiet, unassuming movement to look at his master. Did he expect his part? We knew we could not tolerate that, and prayed inwardly the man would not take a second piece. He never did, but each Sunday the ritual of the dog’s lifting eyes, our anxiety and subsequent relief became part of thinking of the atonement.

One day, the drifter entered without his dog. His beard snotty, his back deeper bent than usual.
- Dog dead, he said.

That Sunday, he did not partake of the Sacrament, even when the deacon touched him lightly on his shoulder.

He left softly. It was the last we saw of him.

25 Responses to The dog

  1. Steve Evans on August 11, 2005 at 9:36 am

    Wilfried, you are a gifted storyteller. Thanks for a moving post.

  2. Carrie Lundell on August 11, 2005 at 10:02 am

    It might just be that I am days away from giving birth and who knows what the hormones are up to, but I am now sitting at my computer with tears streaming down my face. Old men and dogs both hold a special place in my heart. Thanks for the beautiful story.

  3. Jesse on August 11, 2005 at 10:14 am

    As a missionary I was assigned to an area that was a rather stark contrast in economic terms. At one end of the ward’s boundaries were houses larger than I’ll ever live in, including that of the country’s then president. On the other end, you could find dirt floored, tin roofed shacks (with running water and electricity, though, thanks to some artful “borrowing” from the nearby water mains and overhead powerlines). One of the residents of the latter area was an older, single brother who had a small dog, something like a washed out black and white collie. The two were inseparable, and indeed, symbiotic, given the man’s occupation as a night watchman at the private airport behind the rich part of town.

    This brother attended all of his meetings, regularly worked with us to teach his friends and neighbors, and went out of his way to guide the missionaries around the rather convoluted paths in the shanty town. He was genuinely concerned about his neighbors, not simply wanting them to learn about Christ, but also to know that they had the necessities of life and he wanted to see us be able to help them. His dog was present during all of this. During church services, the animal simply lay down under his companion’s set and slept, rising to go to sunday school and the elders’ quorum. I often got a grin out of the fact that the dog was more faithful in his church attendance than many members.

    I’ve often thought about that man and his dog, mainly because he was someone who was impoverished, illiterate, and not tremendously intelligent (all things I had been taught to value), but who had figured out how tremendously important it is that we love other people and who regularly put that principle into action in ways that I still am not as capable of doing. I value the lesson that he taught me.

  4. J. Stapley on August 11, 2005 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

  5. kristen j on August 11, 2005 at 11:37 am

    Thank you for the lovely post. It provided a nice start to my day reminding me to be compassionate and charitable to all I come across.

  6. danithew on August 11, 2005 at 12:04 pm

    I love dogs … well, most of them anyway. I’m glad the congregation tolerated the dog being there. Maybe the man was walking the dog, heard music inside and came in for that reason. Part of his leisurely routine. With the dog gone, the walk and meeting could have lost much of their meaning for him — or even been a reminder of his loss.

    My in-laws recently had to put a beautiful pug to sleep. He knew us all by our names and if he was told that Diane and I were on our way to visit, he would get so excited and sit by the window waiting to see us come up into the driveway. When he was put to sleep the whole family was grieving for awhile. We still talk about all our wonderful memories with that dog.

  7. Rusty on August 11, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    Beautiful post, Wilfried. Thank you.

    Our ward currently has a dog. The owner is an older man who had a stroke and is prone to siezures. The dog is always with him and can sense one coming on. Lambo is fully accepted as a member of the ward (though holds no callings) and nobody bats an eye when he barks in sacrament meeting (though when it does happen I always like to get a peek at the new members’ reactions).

  8. Tanya S. on August 11, 2005 at 1:42 pm

    I love your posts. Always interesting and moving. I echo Steve Evans – you are indeed a gifted storyteller.

  9. Jim F. on August 11, 2005 at 4:27 pm

    Wilfried, your gift from story-tellling is inseparable from the spirituality of your life. Thank you.

  10. b bell on August 11, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Wilfried,

    You need to write a book about your experiences. Based on your quality writing it would be very well worth buying and reading.

  11. Kingsley on August 11, 2005 at 5:29 pm

    Wilfried,

    You’re better ‘n Steinbeck.

  12. Kirsten M. Christensen on August 11, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    Wilfried – I echo all these comments of thanks for the beautiful post.

    And, at the risk of threadjacking, I’m curious about the church’s official policy on non-members partaking of the sacrament. My sense is that most don’t want to anyway, but I’ve known others who did — who saw it as the same thing as communion in their own congregation. I understand that it is a renewal of the baptismal covenant, which is not possible if one hasn’t yet been baptized. Of course, if we held to that, little children should also not partake. But the sacrament is also a reminder of a sacrifice performed for everyone, so it’s always seemed right to me to offer it to anyone who wants to partake. Or rather, it seems wrong to forbid it to anyone. I’m guessing others might have strong feelings in the other direction…

    Some years ago I lived for a month in a convent outside of Antwerp (in the village of Ranst) while doing dissertation research. The sisters in the small community there were kind enough to invite me to their mass. There was such a tiny group of them that they all just stood in a circle as
    communion was passed around. I don’t know what official Catholic policy is, but they knew I was not Catholic and passed it to me nonetheless. I have been to other services where I could not partake by simply not going up to the front, but this was a different set-up. Whatever we believe about the efficacy of that sacrament, it was nonetheless a very beautiful experience to share in the worship with these sisters who loved and served Christ with such joy.

  13. JKS on August 11, 2005 at 7:01 pm

    I am guessing that the official policy is that it is for members but there is no harm if a non-member goes ahead and partakes.
    So, if you invite a non member you can let them know they can just pass the tray along, if a non-member asks you you can tell them to pass the tray along, but if they go ahead and partake, no one should be diving to knock the tray out of their hands, or feel uncomfortable/upset afterwards if they went ahead and took the sacrament.

  14. JKS on August 11, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    Oh-oh, I’m participating in the threadjacking. What we really need is an official policy about children and the sacrament. What to do if:
    1. Your child grabs several breads. Do you let him eat them? Do you eat them so you don’t reward their greedy hunger? Do you put some in the baby bag to throw away?
    2. What to do if your child sneezes on the bread or water tray.

  15. JKS on August 11, 2005 at 7:06 pm

    Wilfried,
    You really should write a book with a collection of your stories. They are wonderful!

  16. annegb on August 11, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Wonderful post, Wilfried.

  17. Wilfried on August 12, 2005 at 3:08 am

    Thank you all. Sorry I did not respond sooner. I’m in Belgium now, different time zone. I do appreciate your kind comments.

    The discussion on how to react to visitors in relation to the sacrament is certainly not a threadjack and I welcome the exchange. I understand the official policy is that the sacrament is indeed to remember our covenants, but that non-members are welcome to partake though the meaning would be different for them. We would say to an investigator something like: “The sacrament is for the members to remember their baptism covenants, but you are welcome to take from it if you want to”. My experience is that if they partake they feel more part of the group and that helps them towards joining the Church. Please share your experiences with non-members and the sacrament.

    Kirsten, that was a beautiful addition. I know well what it means, as a Mormon, to participate in the Catholic communion or not. Normally, as far as I understand, Catholic communion is only for baptized and believing Catholics. The nature of the Sacrament as they view it would require it (I’d have to look up the official standpoint). Since Vatican II a lot more leniency had entered the practice in local parishes and groups, and your story shows it. But sometimes it still creates embarrassing and difficult situations, like when, in the mission field, Mormons attend the funeral mass of a close relative who is Catholic, e.g. their own father or mother. When the audience knows they are Mormon, some may find it totally inappropriate for such “heretics” to go to communion. But at the same time it would be a sign of disrespect not to participate, when you sit on the first row and the priest invites the family to step forward… I have vivid memories of the quandary at such funerals. Perhaps material for another story…

  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 12, 2005 at 9:15 am

    Read it again and still think it is a wonderful post.

  19. Crystal on August 12, 2005 at 10:52 am

    A non-Catholic recieving Communion at a Catholic Mass is somewhat akin to a non-member entering a temple.

    Catholics view the Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Christ and to partake of it unworthily is considered to be a profanity.

    Much like we can’t enter a temple without a valid reccommend, Catholics who have not previously confessed all mortal sin and have been absolved by a priest cannot rightly recieve Communion.

    And on the actual subject of the post Ü,

    Thank you so much! It’s beautiful.

  20. Daniel on August 12, 2005 at 3:55 pm

    Wilfried,
    Thanks for the post. We also had a dog attend regularly in one of my areas in Central America on my mission. We made similar jokes about the dog’s activity level in church as compared to some members. He came alone and somewhat regularly, and though we tried to shoo him, usually just settled down on the tile floor between the two sets of chairs and smack in front of the podium sprawled out on the cool of the tile floor in an obscene manner. This made and still makes me chuckle.

    My companion and I blinked a little, but most of the members just took it with a grain of salt and didn’t give it a second thought. And why should they? Animals obey God’s every word. I’m not sure we humans have as good a track record. Thanks for the powerful story. Reminds me of the story Elder Packer told in General Conference about the little, dirty child wandering into a nighttime meeting from the streets of Peru(?) or another South American country and coming trustingly up to the stand to settle into his lap for part of the meeting. Still remains one of my favorite stories from Conference. I believe Elder Packer’s comment was something to the effect that he held the future of that country in his arms that night. I think God blesses old men and women, children and animals, for these seem to truly be the meek of the earth.

  21. jeanette palmer on August 13, 2005 at 12:37 am

    You are a gifted story teller, and I am touched at the spirit in your part of the world. I shudder to think what my affluent suburban “judge you by what you look like” ward would have said to this man, the humblest of Gods creatures, and our brother. Maybe he will remember the peace he felt at your meeting. Who knows. thanks for the beauty-jp in lv, nv

  22. Wilfried on August 13, 2005 at 11:51 am

    Thank you so much, Jeanette. Your reading into my post is the one I appreciate most. Others have expressed related thoughts and added to the message from own memories and experiences. And, yes, I admit my post was also a small, unassuming attempt to counterbalance some comments in the Fashion thread…

  23. jeanette palmer on August 14, 2005 at 12:37 am

    you are very welcome!–:)

  24. Jack on August 14, 2005 at 2:00 am

    Wilfried,

    You have a wonderful way of reminding us of what our religion should be. And your manner of reminding us is always in the spirit of that religion.

  25. Landon Magnusson on October 21, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    Une autre histoire bien racontee. Merci, Dr. Decoo.

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