Being the Kind of Saint My Dog Already Knows Me to Be

“Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.” (CCC 2416)

(photo: ‘Pleple2000’, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A rabbi friend recently reminded me, "There are no coincidences." How could there be? Could God be asleep at the switch? That's silly. A Deity Who created atoms, butterflies, horses and entire galaxies and Who is Love Itself surely notices, understands and commands everything.

I call my friend "Rebbe" because Christ's disciples used that title when addressing Him.

My friend however prefers I call him, "Arthur."

Rebbe Arthur taught me that the Hebrew word for "heart" is lev (כ'ל.).

He also taught me the Hebrew word for "dog" is kelev (כלב.)  Ke (ב) means "similar to."

Thus, the word for dog in Hebrew is "like a heart" or "like unto a heart."

There are no coincidences.

My dog, Giulia, a 90-pound., female, ginger brindle ca de bou, also known as a Mallorquin Mastiff, died earlier this year.

She was a magnificent beast with a steely, unnerving stare that concealed a gentility one would normally associate with a tiny, pampered lapdog. Bad people naturally distrusted her. Good people lovingly stooped to take her proffered paw.

She loved children and they loved her in return. She had such a strong maternal feeling that she would pull me, forcibly, toward every puppy she saw. She even mistook and treated small breed dogs as puppies. All were welcome in her loving embrace.

When she encountered elderly persons using canes and walkers, she would, without any prompting from me, walk up to them, plop down beside them and glare defiantly and fearlessly at all who looked upon her as if saying, "This honored elder is now under my aegis—let this serve as your only warning."

It was as if she could detect frailty and sought to protect it.

She was born on St. Giulia of Corsica's feast day (May 24) and thus, according to the Italian tradition of naming human children, she was given that name. (The competing Italian naming tradition suggested naming her after my mother but she refused to have the dog named after her so we were stuck with the Corsican spitfire's saintly name.)

Every dog owner has that one canine that sets the standard by which all dogdom is judged—the loss of which is a devastating blow.

I've lost many dogs in the past. Good dogs. Smart dogs. Loyal dogs. Loving dogs.

Giulia was different—she was superlative in every way.

Whenever the doorbell rang, Giulia would dutifully take up her spot by the door awaiting the visitor on the other side.

If the gentleman at the door was delivering a parcel, Giulia deemed him not a threat.

However, should the gentleman be less than a gentleman, Giulia knew enough to take matters into her own paws.

You can easily imagine the look of surprise on the post deliverers' faces when the door opened to reveal me smiling and my dog sitting stock still sporting no discernible smile at all. She had such soulful eyes that those who were normally frightened of large breeds would find themselves, almost against their will, giving Giulia a vigorous backrub wondering all the while why they had ever been frightened of dogs.

I now have to consciously stop myself from making the fourth French toast slice or extra lamb chop. Giulia's stone-hard stare would always force me to accommodate her insatiable, seemingly bottomless stomach. She would impatiently call me to bed when I sat in front of my computer late at night. She would call me with a distinctive cross between a huff, a grunt and a snort coupling it with one of her penetrating glares as if to say, "OK! Enough work! I'm tired!" Then she would lead me to my bedroom where she'd snuggle with me pushing her cold nose under the small of my back or under my arm to keep it warm. I couldn't feel safer had my own guardian angel stood vigil at the foot of my bed with sword in hand.

But the worst of it all was explaining what happened to Giulia to the neighborhood children.

I would pull their parents aside to explain but very few of them chose to repeat what I told them to their children, preferring instead to tell them Giulia was living "elsewhere."

I judge myself to be, at least, a redeemable human being otherwise Giulia would never have had patience with me, let alone seek me out during thunderstorms. I was her protector. She was my friend. I've worked very hard in the 10 years I owned her to become the saint my dog already believed I was. Any man is at least theoretically salvageable if a good dog deems him to be one.

St. Rocco, also known as Roch, the Patron Saint of Dogs, was born to a wealthy family in AD 1340 in Montpellier, France. He was orphaned at a young age and raised by his uncle, the Duke of Montpellier. When he grew up, Rocco renounced his wealth and distributed his possessions to the poor. He took on the cloak and staff of a pilgrim and made his way to Rome.

While on his way there, he stopped at Aquapendente and devoted himself to helping those who were stricken by the plague curing them with prayer and the sign of the cross. He next visited Cesena and other cities en route to Rome. Each city in which he sojourned was cleansed of the plague.

Rocco was ultimately stricken with the disease and was banished from the city taking refuge in a nearby cave waiting for God to call him to Heaven. Though he had nothing to eat, a dog faithfully brought him bread daily and licked his wounds, healing them. The dog belonged to a nearby nobleman, Count Gothard Palastrelli, who was curious to know why his dog stole a loaf of bread and carried it off to the woods on a daily basis. The Count followed him and found Rocco. He took pity on the stricken saint and brought him to his castle to tend to his illness. Thus, we may all rest assured of Rocco's sanctity—he must have been a very good man indeed for a dog to have approved of him.

We tried everything to help Giulia but the cancer had spread through her muscular frame with lightning speed. She died with her head in my lap while I whispered her nickname over and over again into her ear. Why do small children suffer and die? Why do our puppies suffer the same fate? It’s a great mystery, but I know that God’s love for all His creatures is so inconceivably overwhelming that we would swoon insensate upon the ground if we understood even a fraction of it. Even a glimpse of that perfect love would prompt us all to dedicate ourselves to ever increasing examples of compassion to all around us.

I also know that dogs expand the lives of their owners. While in their presence, we feel comforted, safe, secure and loved. And, we, in turn, are given those beautiful, precious moments of God's overpowering grace with them to show we can love. In her simple state, my Giulia prompted me to remember to be kind, patient and generous to everyone. Sometimes we misbehave. Sometimes we're selfish. Sometimes we are perfectly frightful but, we are all God's creatures, two and four-legged alike.

In his On the Song of Songs, St. Bernard of Clairvaux admits to us, "I have seen a fraction of [God's] glory and it is awesome." Having had Giulia in my life, I can honestly say I've seen a fraction of God's love in her eyes. If God loves me with even a fraction of the love I have for my magnificent ca de bou, then I know I'm truly, completely and absolutely loved and I look forward to the End of Times, when my Creator enfolds me in His arms. And when I think the love and grace God has given me are complete, my Giulia will appear over the hill with her favorite tennis ball in her mouth, wagging her tail and looking up at me asking for a quick game of fetch.

As Rebbe Arthur taught me, my Giulia was "like unto my heart."

There are no coincidences.

Amy Coney Barrett in 2018

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