Lessons from a Canine Spiritual Master

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Blogs, Religious Life, Spirituality

. . . Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells . . .
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his . . .
– “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame,”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

Canela, a female, one-year-old, tawny brown mut, showed up one day unexpectedly, like God has a habit of doing, and simply refused to leave, recognizing that if she stuck around, there would be plenty of work for her to do. Maybe you think it’s a stretch to imply that her arrival had anything to do with God, and you might be right. However, Canela, it seems to me, is a spiritual master and a great teacher. Some religious communities are blessed with great, living examples for other members to follow, often called a “living rule.” These community members exemplify a holy life following the rules of their religious tradition and are examples to be emulated for those seeking to grow in the spiritual life. Canela could be seen as a living rule. Here are a few of the lessons she is trying to teach me. 

A trash can of food scraps, right at nose level, is an irresistible opportunity for any dog, even one as spiritually attuned as Canela. No matter how well the trash can is closed, she frequently manages to get inside. Coffee grounds, banana peels and wilting lettuce can’t stop Canela from getting to the good stuff—the bacon grease, grated cheese, and chicken bones buried inside. Her ability to recognize that glorious things that can be found in garbage, if you’re willing to dig past some unappetizing junk, is one of the most important reminders Canela gives me. As I have written before , sometimes, all I need to find the beauty in a difficult situation, is an about face, a change of perspective. Glorious things could be waiting right behind me, or just under that pile of eggshells, I just need to look.

I have terrible tunnel vision. I tend to focus on what I find right in front of me. And, if that thing is painful, if it’s something I don’t want to do, it tends to be the only thing I see. When I focus solely on the negative in front of me, it can be easy to miss the blessings all around me. Canela’s reminder to dig past the junk, to get to the good stuff, is a prompt I need every day. Canela reminds me that, if I’m willing to look, there could be gold in that garbage.

A second equally important lesson that I’m learning from my canine teacher is how to be present. Canela has an annoying talent of wanting to play at the worst moment, usually when I’m running late. She does this by launching herself at my shoes. To make sure she has your full attention, she will bite the front and back of whatever shoes you happen to be wearing as you try to run up and down the stairs. Collecting a backpack, finding your keys, and running to the printer all become more difficult while dragging a 50 pound dog.

I’m easily frustrated when running late for some “important” activity and, I’m not proud to say, that I often snap at Canela to try to get her to stop. When I do, she simply looks up at me, expecting me to play and reminding me to be present where I am instead of worrying about where I need to be. Her stare is a reminder to put first things first, to give priority to what’s important: the people I’m with, the task I’m completing now, and to enjoy being with those I care about. Canela is a living example of this presence. It’s hard to know exactly what Canela understands about schedules. She certainly knows when it’s time to eat, but I’m pretty sure that she doesn’t spend much time worrying about what she should be doing, running through an endless to-do list in her head. When I find myself rushing through life, trying to get to the next item on my list, Canela’s annoying invitation to play reminds me that life is happening now and that God is found here, not at the end of a to-do list. 

A third lesson that Canela is trying, unsuccessfully, to teach me is acceptance. Life can be difficult for a dog. There are places you can’t go, rules you don’t understand and sometimes people leave for hours or even days and you don’t know why. Yet Canela doesn’t seem to worry about what may happen, she just enjoys what is. An open car door, the doorbell, or an empty bed, are all opportunities for Canela. When unloading the groceries, Canela will climb up into the car and wait patiently for someone to leave the house. Sometimes her waiting is rewarded with a joyride, and sometimes she’s lifted out of the car as it’s locked behind her. But Canela doesn’t seem to pout when no road trip materializes, she rushes off to the kitchen to inspect the groceries or to bring her ball for someone to throw. Canela doesn’t seem to get frustrated when things don’t go her way, she just moves on, looking for the next opportunity.

This reminder to accept life the way it is, and not cling to the way I want it to be, has been especially important for me. I don’t like it when things go according to other’s plans, I prefer, instead, that they go according to my plan. I really like to have control. This, however, rarely happens and my experience is that things usually don’t work out according to my plans and that life has been much better because of this. Canela’s acceptance of what is, rather than what she wants, is the reminder I need to stay open to opportunities and blessings I may not see coming. Canela reminds me that God is found here, now, in this moment, whether it’s the one I wanted or not. And if I’m constantly frustrated, wishing that things were different, I miss the blessings that are here, now.

In Prehispanic Mexican culture, dogs were believed to be spirit guides who helped their human friends along the road of life and even after death. Canela’s playful and faithful nature belies a spiritual depth that has much to offer me, her student. Canela has become a spiritual guide in my life, helping me to be more present and compassionate to those I love and to be more accepting of what is. I keep thinking Canela will get tired of my inability to learn what she’s trying to show me, but she hasn’t yet. I’m sure if I ever learn these lessons there will be more to come. The way she scratches my door in the morning to get me out of bed makes me think she has a lot more to teach. 


Brett Helbling, SJ

bhelblingsj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Brett