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15 March 2013

By John Wall


I HAVE recently become the increasingly doting owner of a Labrador puppy, Sophie. She is black; so her dog-hairs do not show up on the clerical cassock. She is, at the time of writing, just over 12 weeks old, and is, by popular assent, completely adorable.

My old dog, Dilly (the Archangel Raphael in dog form), had to be put down about a year and a half ago. After the desolation of losing her, I had sunk into a slough of indecision over a new dog, until two friends sat me down and told me it was high time to embark on renewed doggy ownership.

They had themselves taken on a Labrador puppy, and, assuring me how easy they are (the jury is still out), they kindly bought one for me. So here I am, with a bundle of love playing rapturously with a squeaky pig around my feet as I type. Originally, I had settled on the name Cassie (short for Cassandra), but when I picked her up from her breeder, I discovered that her Kennel Club name was High Flying Wisdom; and, "wisdom" being Sophia in Greek, Sophie she became.

Watching her experience new things, seeing her learn and grow, and helping her through the tortuous process of toilet training, I wonder if this is how it feels for God, house-training us with care, frustration, humour, and love.

MY LAST three dogs came from rescue organisations, and were generally wary of humans. So it is a real delight that, for Sophie, the world is a place of wonder and new experiences, and, as far as she is concerned, all people are here simply to say hello and make a fuss of her.

As a seasoned clergyman, I am used to a variety of responses to my clerical collar as I wander around the parish. Children from Moulsecoomb Primary School, where I am a governor, generally call out "Hi, Fr John!" and wave. Other people smile and say "hello"; a large number look blank; and others just look bewildered, and avoid eye contact.

But walking round with a puppy, it's a different ball- (or should that be dog-collar?) game. The most unlikely people go all gooey: "Can I say hello to your puppy? How old is she?" has been the start of many an encounter with parishioners and others. In short, Sophie is an invaluable pastoral tool, and at least two baptism enquiries and a possible wedding have so far been the fruit.

When I was first ordained, the Bible Society sent me and all my contemporaries a Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, which has been invaluable to this day. Maybe some enterprising animal charity could similarly dispense Labrador puppies to new clergy: they would be a huge help in bedding a newly hatched curate into the heart of a receiving community. They could even be house-trained together.

"IS THAT Fr John?" the voice on the phone said. "It's about George. It's his end-of-life plan: can you come and see him?" It was one of our care homes, enquiring on behalf of a resident.

I am glad that we are part of the support that they offer when someone is dying; and, although the term "end-of-life plan" sounds a bit clinical, it is meant to allow the administering of loving, respectful care at the end of all things. Having been trained to know that the dying take precedence over everything, I soon found myself talking quietly and praying by George's bedside, where he lay unconscious and peaceful.

He had been in the Alzheimer's unit for some 13 years - the longest time of all the home's residents. For the seven years that I had been going, he had been one of the most regular attenders at the monthly eucharist. Always dressed in collar and tie, and sitting ramrod straight in his chair, with eyes firmly shut, he had never, in all the time that I had seen him, responded or uttered a word.

It was with some surprise that by his bed, and dominating the room where he was dying, was a large picture of the Sacred Heart.

I QUIETLY sang evening prayer with George, and then sat by his bedside for half an hour or so. I looked around the room: against the neutral institutional magnolia of the walls were family photos and watercolours, as well as the large image of Christ. All the colours were muted and sober, except for a vase by the bed, in which was a blaze of bright-yellow daffodils in full bloom.

From the corridor outside, the sounds of everyday life carried on: the staff talked and laughed; a resident called out. The radio was playing, of all things, "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues, with its words: "Breathe deep the gathering gloom, Watch lights fade from every room." The plangent, soaring chorus sounded distant and lost through the closed door: "'Cos I love you, yes I love you, Oh how I love you." I looked at the image of the Sacred Heart by the bed, and gently said to George: "God loves you."

In the hamster wheel of parish life, with its action-team meetings, inclusion projects, community pubs, governors' meetings, supervisions, reference-writing, committees, PCC meetings, and all the rest of it, at that moment I felt that I was in the right place, at the right time, saying the only thing that ultimately really mattered.

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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