I discovered his name in 2008. I wish I could say that it came to me in a dream or vision, but in fact it came to me in one of those terrible mothering moments you probably should not admit to in public. I was dying to have a dog. I have been a dog person for as long as I can remember and I waited until my children were of the age which I could be assured that they had sufficient conscience that they would not ride him like a horse or maul him like a UFC fighter. Canon Law says that seven is the age of reason. I prudently waited one more year until my youngest was eight (just in case Canon Law was wrong) and then I went full-blown dog wild. 

So the bad mothering bit is this: my son was then nine and was dead-set against the idea. He had never been around dogs much; perhaps he was afraid of them, but by the time we met our new puppy, he was having none of it.  On the ride home he wailed, “I don’t want a dog.”  I reasoned. I bribed. And then I pulled this one from my maternal arsenal: “But, Honey, YOU get to name the dog!” And so, our tiny Lhasa Apso, the one I wanted to baptize with a dignified and weighty name (like Augustin or Anselme), received the cliché appellation of countless canines of yesteryear, Scruffy. 

But Scruffy grew into his name. And his name grew into him. He was the Alpha and the Omega of Scruffies. Although technically a toy dog, this guy would never submit himself to a decent grooming. His hair was matted before he left the groomer’s. His pronounced underbite was so lopsided that only one lower canine stuck menacingly out. And he was tough. He would try to take on all manner of enemies: plumbers, annoying houseguests, German Shepherds, slippers. There wasn’t one tree that that little dog didn’t feel obligated to mark.  He was Scruffy. 

Scruffy soon became for me the name of Dog.   He would appear in countless sermons, in lecture illustrations; his image was sprinkled like stardust on all my social media. And soon just saying my Beloved’s name became half-summons, half-song of praise. I would say it over and over again to him because he loved to hear his name (who doesn’t?) and because his name said over and over again was, for me, an Alleluia Chorus. 

Almost eleven joy-filled years after that car-ride, Scruffy began to decline. His liver was badly diseased. He became allergic to everything and was losing weight and muscle mass at an alarming rate. His back legs refused to cooperate until he could no longer climb stairs or walk more than a few steps.  When I called his name he eventually ceased to come. The sing-song “Scruf-feeeeeee” now caught in my throat, and, as the final days approached, I could barely release it from my lips. I held him in my arms as he lay dying at the vet’s, with my now-adult daughter and son by my side.  And I sang to him and I whispered his name to him one final time, “Go with Jesus, Scruffy.”

In the days that passed since his death, I find myself in an empty house rendered painfully silent by the ceasing of click-clack paws . I already strain to recall his hoarse bark.  And in a futile effort to recreate just a few moments of the joy I once had, I tried to sing his name again, “Scruf-feeeeeeee,” but my voice sounded strange; I could no longer find the right note. I realize I will never say his name rightly again; that his proper name must now become silence, because to speak it now as I did back then is to ring hollow and false. 

This is a terribly depressing realization… unless we think of the hair’s breadth that exists between silence and prayer. Pseudo-Dionysius reminds us of the impossibility of calling noisily or confidently to the Beloved, not because of his absence (or our despair), but because of God’s very transcendence, a transcendence that begets the praise of silence:

How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all things while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding?
How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?

—Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” 593 A-B

There are certain names—like God and Dog and Love and Death–that are too high for us; we cannot attain them. In such cases, the best form of speech is, in fact, silence—the stopping of our busy and noisy human words.  For far beyond words–and even our most love-laden names–there exists a grace, which embraces and anticipates all things. 

I like to think that this dog has entered into that nameless and encompassing grace. 



23 thoughts

  1. Such a lovely paean to the ineffable sweetness our beloveds, God and Dog. Grief is love’s greatest tribute.

  2. I grew up with a Lhasa apsi and he looks like scruffy! Greatest joy of my childhood. Loved reading this article. So sorry for your loss.

  3. As I am not a dog person, I did not expect to be so moved by this. I also found it to be profound and intellectually rich. I will be chewing on this for awhile. Thank you.

  4. This is really, really good and well written. I need a little help, I’m trying to understand Pseudo-Dionysius view point. Essentially he’s saying loved ones reach a certain level that silence is more valuable, as the deceased have transcended a level beyond human understanding and calling their name renders useless. I think is such a cool viewpoint, I just wanted to grasp it completely.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for the question, Chris. Yes–I think you are right.
      But not so much that calling their name is useless so much as it is no longer appropriate–no longer the right note.

      I think that Pseudo-Dionysius is saying that God is beyond all names and all concepts. I am agreeing with this, and also saying that love and death (and especially a loved one’s death) are also mysterious and beyond words. Because death separates us so fully from our loved ones, their name becomes impossible to speak rightly, because when we spoke to them before, their presence rounded out our words, gave them context and meaning, and most of all, a lived response. I believe that there is, however, a language beyond words and concepts which better communicates our love and devotion to them now that they are gone– and that is silence. Silence is not absence of words; it is a language or a prayer beyond words. Pseudo-Dionysius writes:

      For the higher we soar in contemplation the more limited become our expressions of that which is purely intelligible; even as now, when plunging into the Darkness that is above the intellect, we pass not merely into brevity of speech, but even into absolute silence of thoughts and of words.

      The mystics often speak of God’s hiddenness. I think P-D is seeking out the hidden God by entering more deeply into the mystery, more deeply into the darkness, and the silence.

      On a personal note, the mystery of Scruffy’s death (and indeed the mystery of an animal’s inner life more generally) made me embrace silence because it seemed to require something quieter and less conceptual than my noisy voice, words, and concepts.

      And one last note. Apart from all the boisterous play I wrote about, one of the greatest gifts of a dog is being able to be perfectly silent together, especially on walks. I have yet to meet a human who can sustain deep and loving silence the way a dog can.

      1. So awesome! Such an incredible response! Thank you for providing such a deeper understanding.

  5. “Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.” – Agnes Sligh Turnbull
    That was a beautiful eulogy for a beautiful friend. You were each lucky to have the other for the time allotted you.

  6. I’ve always had dogs. The dogs came before the kids, so the kids grew up with three of them. When the last of that canine family ended I was going to be dog=free, get out and about, not worry when I had a late meeting at work… I lasted three months before I was at the RSPCA rehoming centre.
    We lost a dog last November after a prolonged fit. She was small white and scruffy – a cross between Jack Russell, Border terrier and Chinese crested, with a lot of fur, an underbite and a feisty character. She would have been four in January; she should have been with us for years.
    Our other dog is an old Staffie who will be 16 this year. I have to go away for a couple of months; I hope she lasts out till I get home. Then we’ll find her a new housemate but, left to himself, my husband would have the newcomer sleeping on the bed and fat as Humpty Dumpty by my return.

  7. My faithful companion and friend died last year. Though “only” a feline, that loss brought me more pain than I could easily hold within… And still does, whenever I think of it.
    I am sorry for your loss.
    On another level, I find your post very interesting: do animals have souls? I happen to believe so, but I am reasonably sure that this is still a point of contention within official Christendom (to whatever extent that actually exists, these day)?
    And the Greeks, it seems, went even further with that – I read a blog the other day which referred to Aristotle, who posited that there were three distinct levels of souls … https://lucid-being.com/2019/04/24/aristotles-human-soul/
    Still pondering that one …

  8. Oh boy. Such hard questions. If by soul we mean a life sanctified and blessed by God (as opposed to an internal and eternal property within the self), then I believe dogs and cats indeed have souls, as does the entire created world, which teems with God’s good purposes.

    I am so sorry for the loss of your cat.

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