17 February 2011

The Duchess: Life in the Moment

It is Thursday late morning. Following my years-long pattern, the bed is made, kitchen clean and another cup of coffee made. It is my "day off" (yet to be really defined in parish ministry). After some thought, I decide to settle into the chair in our master bedroom, computer comfortably placed on a pad and resting on my lap, and the chair swiveled to face the large window that looks into the southeast portion of our backyard.

My ears catch the faint sound of a "tinkle" and soft padding. Our 13 year old Schnoodle (Schnauzer/Poodle mix), Duchess is easing into the room. We have had her as part of our family since she was about six weeks old...born on 6 November 1997. She was a Christmas gift for our girls....especially our, then, ten year old daughter, Madeline. Madeline, therefore, got the honor of naming our newest family member. Thus Duchess Magnolia Mann was grafted into our household. Very quickly, due to her personality and wonderful character, she became known to us as "The Duchess." "Anybody seen where The Duchess is hiding out this morning?" would be a good example of how any dialogue about her would begin. "Did The Duchess do this?" as a tipped trash can would be found with contents strewn about. Chances were better than 95% that she had, in fact, committed the crime.

At thirteen years old, The Duchess still commands the domestic scene. She has energy, presence and a hugely engaging kind of personality...eyes bright, tail constantly wagging, and body always poised for whatever action may take place. The only notice we have of her being a "senior dog" (as our Vet calls her) is that she takes a few more naps during the day. She has always been able to sleep the instant she lies down (a trait I envy in her). However, she is never so asleep that she can't rise to a moment of human movement, an outdoor sound or some change in the environment imperceivable to the rest of us. In fact, she has been known to emit a low, gutteral growl even before she opens her eyes and lifts her ears. Make no mistake: with an almost blurring speed, she can go from dead sleep in our master bedroom suite to the front door, at the other end of the house... full run and husky bark (for her size)...completely on the job.

Back to the moment. I am settled in my chair in our master bedroom...laptop keys quietly tapping...and I catch the tinkling of her collar "bling" (two tags) and the padding of her paws on the carpet...as she makes her way into the room. Her goal is always to be where either Denise or I have come to rest. After some sniffing about, she springs lightly up on our bed and begins a methodical searching about. There is The One spot that will be perfect for settling down. It turns out to be the corner nearest to where I am sitting in the chair.

This is not quite enough. Remember, I have long since made the bed. Some of my military training remains with me (actually more than some I think). A bed is not simply "made." A bed is "triced up." It's a Navy term for a very tightly made bed that will defy coming apart in rough seas. It's not that bad now, but there are no wrinkles in a bed that I have made. Just trust me on this.

This effort is of no matter to The Duchess. Finding her spot for a nap, she begins a methodical pawing at the comforter until she has created what amounts to a nesting area. After one final inspection of the wad of material now assembled at the corner of the bed, she literally plops the 21 pounds of her royal pulchritude into the midst of this crafted area of our bed. She looks at me non-chalantly but with a glimmer in her eye; yawns widely; tucks up her legs; puts down her head; and, within the space of two of my breaths, she is breathing the deep breaths of a dog asleep.

I continue my quiet typing. I am never quite still. For most of my adult life, I have had a benign form of myositis. It is simply a neurological state of muscles getting restless due to unnecessary nerve activity. Simply, I change positions often. As I shift my body, while continuing to type, the chair makes a slight creaking sound. True to form, The Duchess opens the one eye that can look directly at me. Observing my continued presence, she is almost instantly back in sleep mode. This probably happens about every five minutes. She doesn't miss a cue. Then, for no reason I have perceived, she raises her head suddenly, ears up and forward, eyes wide and focused. She stairs out the window or toward the door for up to a minute. Satisfied that all is as it should be, she yawns, makes several mouth sounds, puts her head down and is instantly asleep. In some of those "come alert" moments, I will speak to her. "Everything okay old girl?" I will softly question. She gives me a reassuring look and a quick wag of her tail and moves back toward an effortless sleep.

For The Duchess, life is lived not observed. She is usually in the bedroom while I make our bed before leaving for work. Observation has been made. But it is also a comfortable place for Herself to take a nap. Naps mean creating comfortable accomodations. For The Duchess, a tight, wrinkless comforter is not accomodating. She wants ridges.

She does not reflect the attitude we often take as we grow older: I've done my bit, I am retired. There is no complaining or blaming or justifying. When the need is there, she responds with all the gusto she has. She is a creature of community. When Denise and I are in separate parts of our home (there are three finished levels of our house), The Duchess believes her job is to insure we get back together. She is a born hunter and herder. She will make all kinds of very obvious and persistent attempts to get us to go with her to where the other of us happens to be.

The Duchess does not take herself too seriously. In fact, she doesn't take herself seriously at all. One great example happened this past summer. Denise and I were taking Duchess on one of our early evening, long walks. We have a pleasant 2 mile circuit that goes through our fairly large neighborhood (Canterbury Estates...fitting for an Episcopal Priest, eh?) and includes a large park and two ponds. The Duchess is in dog heaven...sights, smells and sounds engage every moment of her steady, energetic jaunt as she keeps her retractable lead line at its full extension ahead of us. She gives regular, over-the-shoulder glances to make sure we are still connected and responds readily to one of us saying "this way," when we are making a turn down another street. As I mentioned, her breed is hunting stock. Her nose is always near the ground and piloting her is like flying a kite at zero altitude....constant back and forth movements, as her olfactory radar analyzes the ever-changing spaces around her.

We were about a block from our house this summer evening mentioned above. It was near the end of our long amble. One of our neighbors on the street behind us had moved a Mexican clay oven from his back patio to the front of his house. It stood on its short iron stand in front of the support column that separates his two car garage bay doors. In the gathering dusk, it did look a bit like a short, pot-bellied human. Our neighbor had placed what looked like a pan on top of the chimney, which could have resembled a hat I suspect.

Duchess was busy analyzing the ground ahead of her. As we were navigating the sidewalk in front of that driveway, The Duchess suddenly looked up and directly at the Mexican clay oven. Immediately, she tensed and let out several sharp barks...communicating surprise, alert and something like, "I've got you covered mom and dad." Just as suddenly as she had gone into fight mode, she realized that it was not a person and, in fact, it was not alive at all. There was a split second of what we might call embarassment at making such an error. That disappeared immediately, and The Duchess simply ambled on, with her nose back to the business of taking in her environment. It was what it was. Nothing more.

Our pets do, indeed, reflect God's Love and Grace. They can also be true "sacramental moments," if we are but willing participants. What traits have been reinforced for me by The Duchess? Life is to be lived, not observed. Don't be afraid to get comfortable in your space. Rest well, but have a sense of your surroundings. Be present to your environment, because so much more is going on than meets the eye or ear. Never, never take yourself too seriously. If possible, don't take yourself seriously at all. When a mistake happens, a simple "oops" or apology will suffice, then move on without taking it with you. Live life fully...doing what you do best...and doing it with passion and gusto. Retirement? We don't need no stinkin' retirement. For us, it is a change in life and, hopefully, earned retirement income. But much more life needs to be lived. Get to it. Play hard and often. Above all, be your true self. It is, after all, who God created you to be. Sleep is good. Sleep unfettered by pre-occupation is even better.

Oops, The Duchess just jumped off her nesting area on the bed and has headed out of our bedroom. I know this signal. Time to go outside. After all, a girl dog has to do what a girl dog has to do. Gotta run.....

Love in Christ Jesus,

Fr. Fred+

12 February 2011


I truly love history. Different periods of human history attract me at different times. Currently, it is Native American and American westward expansion that holds my attention. History is a type of remembering. On more than one occasion, I have been asked if such an avocation is but a waste of energy...because it keeps one from living in the present or being focused on the future.

The answer to that inquiry could be a resounding "yes," if that is what one was inclined to do. However, such remembering quickly becomes either maudlin or, at best, emotionally stunting to one's growth. One does not study history for history's sake. Here is where an exploration of definition is important.

Our current definition of "remember" generally means something like, "to think back on" or "to reflect." It is a worthy definition, if the intention is to do just that. I like to think back on moments of raising our two daughters; or a vacation experience; or a conversation with a dear friend. It helps to keep a repertoire of mental images that connect the dots of our growth and change. Our daughters are now adults, and it is a joy to behold what they have become in light of those early images of them as infants, toddlers, etc. Those vacations inspired and shaped new ways of experiencing the world. Conversations have created new knowledge and deeper understanding of the world around me. But, wouldn't you know it, there is more (always).

The ancient Greek word "anamnesis" (an-nahm-nee-sis) appears in a variety of places, but most often in the New Testament (original language was Koine Greek...a common version of classical Greek). The word is translated "remember," but its literal meaning is "to make present again." In essence it is a present perfect tense signifying a coming together again of that event or moment. This introduces a mystery.

In considering a past event or an historic person, how might such a coming together again take place? Part of the answer can be found in the study of history itself. My experience of Gettysburg Battlefield (Civil War, June 30 - July 3, 1863) is perhaps unique. Not only have I read accounts from both sides of the battle, but I have read biographies and autobiographies of those who fought there. I have made five visits to the battlefield and walked its entire massive range from early in the morning until after sunset. But, it isn't the facts or data that affect me the most. It is the sense of what happened to the thousands of lives forever lost and changed in that place. Something forever changed about who we are now as a result of those four days. Abraham Lincoln captured it magnificently in his short, but never to be forgotten address a few months later. To go there is to have something come together again.

I have had similar experiences while walking portions of the Oregon/California Trail and while doing Vision Quest in the center of the Black Hills. I have "bumped" into presence while climbing Bear Butte or hiking around ancient ruins in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. I have come away changed. My perspective is altered, and I have a deeper sense of direction and purpose. It's an amazing experience.

On Sunday mornings, I generally can be found at the Altar of my parish church. I am either presiding directly (the priest "making" Eucharist via the prayer of consecration) or am near one of my Associates who is presiding. The part of the Eucharistic Prayer known as the "Institution Narrative" is a summary of what we call the Last Supper of Jesus and begins, "....On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread...." In taking both the bread and the cup, Jesus tells his disciples, "Do this in remembrance of me." It is that word "anamnesis" that is used in the biblical narrative. Jesus is telling those gathered that, when they do this action, he will be present to them again. Do we get it? Not if we are looking for a biological entity.

Soldiers don't return to the battlefield. Monks do not return to the abbey ruins. Settlers do not reappear on the westward wagon trails. And the thousands of those who "cried for a vision" in the Black Hills do not corporally return. But there IS a presence of character, struggle, prayer and the lasting effects of those moments that somehow linger....to speak if we can listen and teach if we are open. It is a presence that shapes our understanding of the present and potential for the future.

With as much theology as I have learned and used (and continue to learn), I cannot tell you how; but I know that the promise of Jesus is accomplished when we respond to, "...whenever you do this, do so in remembrance of me..." Following these Words of Institution is a portion of the prayer known in Greek as the "epiclesis" (epi-clee-sis). It literally means "to call down." It is also known as the invocation of the Holy Spirit. At those words, we become intensely aware that the promise has been fulfilled and that Jesus is present to us in this sacrament. I have never not had that sensation of something transforming and engaging in that prayer. I am awed by the intensity of that mystery.

Next time you are in the act of remembering, ask yourself: Are you connecting dots as you assemble elements of life or experience; or are you re-assembling so as to encounter transformative experience? These are not just questions of theology or mystical prayer. It is seminal to the psychodynamics of our being and the shape of our character.


Fr. Fred+