I KNEW it was coming. The metaphorical batteries on my Jack Russell, Betty, had been running down for a while.
But, suddenly, her demise accelerated, and one morning her back legs gave way as she walked slowly down the hallway, and it was time. Unable to get up, she looked pleadingly at me with her big brown eyes; so, saying morning prayer went on hold as I scooped her up in my arms and phoned the vet.
I was barely able to speak, but my vet knew what I was asking. And, though it was heart-breaking, I was able to do for Betty what countless humans wish someone could do for them when their health and quality of life fails. The following evening she died peacefully in my arms, wrapped in a blue bone-patterned blanket and covered in kisses.
SHE was a peculiar little thing: the most undemonstrative of dogs, but incredibly pretty. Almost 17, she had been in my life for nine years since I collected her from Battersea Dogs’ Home.
I have lost not just a pet, but a creature who, for those years, played the various parts of partner, child, and pastoral assistant. When I moved to my parish, nearly eight years ago, she was instantly my greatest asset — far more useful in mission and ministry than anything I learned at theological college.
Betty outed me to the parish before I had even been inducted. “Accompanied by a bandy-legged Jack Russell” was the most obvious, give-away feature in the description of me by the Archdeacon. From then on, she ensured that I was visible in the parish every day: wandering the streets at just the right pace for a dog with six-inch legs and for humans who — for a variety of reasons — wanted to catch up with a man in a dog collar.
Thanks to her, even before breakfast I would have spoken to parents and children on their way to the school’s breakfast club; sundry builders; shopkeepers; a postman who subsequently started coming to morning prayer; the NCP attendant who then turned up for the Good Friday liturgy, head to toe in hi-vis; Big Issue sellers; and people camped in theatre doorways — along with traders setting up their market stalls, neighbours, and road sweepers.
Betty was the one who caught their eye. I was merely her domicile, but she repeatedly broke the ice and enabled conversations with random strangers to happen. In a world in which people frequently avoid eye contact with other humans, she grabbed their attention and led people to me — and, sometimes, literally, to church.
Of course, children would come running to pet her; but she exercised a particular pastoral ministry with old ladies. Hearts melted at the sight of her tiny form tottering along the corridor of an old people’s home, where she would rest on laps, in arms, and (don’t tell) on beds, providing physical contact and warmth with no hidden agenda other than, perhaps, the unarticulated hope of a biscuit.
Beside a dying parishioner when an exchange of words had become impossible, the touch of Betty’s velvet ears to 98-year-old Mary’s hand brought the most beautiful smile, though her eyes remained shut. Betty brought comfort and a sense of presence when neither the requested can of Guinness that I had brought, nor the sacrament in my bag, could be received.
I KNEW I would feel bereft without her. Her needs punctuated my day just as the hours for prayer give rhythm to the life of a convent. But I was unprepared for the level of sadness which has been felt by others. People have commented: “I feel like we’ve lost a member of the congregation”; “She was a much-loved member of our church family”; and “She was part of you.”
I don’t know what happens to the pets we have loved (or the chickens we may have eaten, for that matter) after death. The 1989 animated film All Dogs Go to Heaven may have been wishful-thinkingly titled. Aquinas was clear that animals did not go to heaven, not being gifted with an immortal soul, their purpose and destiny being complete on earth; and scripture offers no certainty on the matter.
But I find it a persuasive thought that those creatures that have become part of us leave more than just an imprint on our hearts, and that, as C. S. Lewis mused, they might share in the immortality of their masters who named and loved them. In some way. where we go, there they will also be.
Whatever the future holds in heaven, what I had on earth was certainly not “just a dog”, but truly a blessing.
The Revd Simon Buckley is the Rector of St Anne’s, Soho, in London.