Monday, July 10, 2017


Monks, nuns, and sisters in Orders that practice the Benedictine way of life are noted for hospitality when newcomers knock on their monastery or convent doors. The Anglican sisters in the Community of St. Mary, a Benedictine Order, carry on this tradition here at Sewanee, Tennessee. As an associate of CSM, I’ve met a diverse group of pilgrims who come here on individual and group retreats, as well as regulars who attend services at the convent and share breakfast with the sisters after weekday and Sunday Eucharists.

Last week Deb Gerace, an overnight guest from Kennesaw, Georgia, sat next to me at breakfast in the refectory, and I learned that she was only here for an 'overnight' —“just to step back for a little while,” she said. I asked her if she was a priest on retreat.

“No, a chaplain and therapy dog handler.” She laughed, assuming that I’d think this a strange vocation.

“At a church?”

“Everywhere. My husband Mike and I, and our two former rescue dogs who have become therapy dogs — Sammy and Babycakes — minister to homebound at our own church in Kennesaw, Georgia, to people in nursing homes, rehab centers, and schools…wherever we’re needed.”

Gerace has told the story of training two dogs (who have their own disabilities) for this ministry in Paw Prints on my Soul, describing the dogs as having good dispositions, energy, loyalty, and a willingness to please. Two initial “gigs” for which the dogs trained were at Christ Episcopal Church Gerace attends, the church’s pre-school and in a visit with a cancer patient. On another occasion, they dressed in costumes while Gerace, also a singer/guitarist, gave a music performance and Sammy entertained with a learned wolf howl at a special Halloween show.

Lap sitting, bed sitting, performing to music, the dogs became the inspiration and therapy for the sick and dying, “often triggering a stream of consciousness from somewhere deep inside the jumbled memories of bed-ridden people,” Gerace writes. She and her husband Mike later joined a Chaplain Crises Training group so that they could visit post-disaster areas and share Sammy and Babycakes with traumatized survivors.

St. Mary’s Convent already has its special healing dog, Penny, an adopted part pit bull, part Labrador retriever who has never had any training in healing or crises intervention, but she’s the Convent’s hospitality hostess and has her own “pew” in the chapel — a basket lined with blankets right behind Prioress Madeleine Mary’s chair. This gentle, calm canine attends all the Chapel services and knows when to settle in for the prayers and when to get up at the dismissal. Sister Elizabeth says that Penny has tended several sisters when they were ill, not by invitation but by intuiting that she’s needed, sleeping in their rooms until they recover. I’m allergic to animal dander, particularly cat dander, but I can now be near Penny without suffering allergic reactions. I’ve never heard Penny bark! Sister Madeleine Mary relates that she’s known Penny to growl at strangers they encounter on walks near the Convent because she knows they aren’t sisters or associates, but she isn’t the kind of dog to greet people with aggressive behavior; in contrast, she runs up to greet Convent visitors, gently brushes up against them, receives a few pats on her head, then goes her way. All of us associated with St. Mary’s Convent know that Penny joins the healer dogs, Sammy and Babycakes, in being a creature that leaves paw prints on others’ souls.

While doing research recently, I read a book entitled Mystical Dogs by Jean Houston that described the mystical qualities of dogs and the comfort they provide during dark nights a human may experience. She tells the story of a prison pet partnership program in which inmates train dogs to serve the physically disabled, the elderly, and the blind. “…Our present day canine friends inspire and support us through that stage of the mystic path known in some traditions as ‘the dark night of the soul…over and over again throughout my lifetime, with its share of personal dark nights, my dogs have known not only what my soul has needed, but also that I would survive, even when I felt that I would have a hard time doing so…they have known how to supply the faith, the warmth, the rapt attention, and the bodily presence that human friends and helpers cannot always provide…”

Houston believes that animals aren’t afraid of the darker aspects of life and are happy with us even when we feel broken, explaining that they like nothing better than searching for lost things, whether it’s a buried bone or a missing part of a human soul.

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