I write this having undergone a considerable period of writers block and also having had some time to reflect upon the ongoing discernment process. The weekend at Worth North (15-16th March 2003) meant a return to my student stomping ground in sunny Wolverhamtpon. Amazingly, every retreat and pilgrimage I have ever gone on in my journey towards God has been accompanied by clear blue skies. Startling, given the fact that these have included visits to Ireland, Canada, France, Hungary as well as my native England. The weekend itself was loaded with significance. In addition, it was sandwiched mouth-wateringly between two EUFA Cup fixtures involving Liverpool and Glasgow Celtic, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Saint Patrick’s Day. Events that seemed to perfectly reflect my journey out of a large Irish family. As the Anderton household was full to brimming, I stayed with an old student friend in nearby Penn. Shortly after my arrival on Friday evening, myself, Leigh & Emma, plus Kayla (the dog) headed off to the local park for a stroll. At the park’s entrance, Kayla was set free to enjoy the evening sun amongst her friends. Now Kayla is of fine hunting pedigree. Strong race-like proportions and 7 ½ stone of pure muscle. Indeed, she would not have looked too out of place at Cheltenham! Kayla’s popularity has ensured that both Leigh & Emma have settled well into the local neighbourhood. As the evening progressed, dogs and owners started to emerge from all directions. Each of the characters seemed to play out some form of canine ritual. The most prominent character took the stage, in the wings of his owner, Ms X. In contrast to Kayla’s thoroughbred credentials, this dog was the scruffiest mutt imaginable. There were certainly no pretensions of grandeur. His name was…wait for it…Clive!? Not Bouncer, Muffin, Minxy or Flopsy (grand names is the dog’s world), but Clive. The resemblance between owner and dog was striking, both sporting wild and voluminous grey hair. They even shared a gregarious nature, though just stopping short of being on first-name terms. While Ms X gave us a detailed running commentary on the prevailing canine antics, it soon became clear that the human part in this ritual was secondary. Everything and everyone was in relation to the canine. I was no more than Kayla’s master’s friend. I was the man with no name. At this point, a reality-check kicked in of Anthony De Mello proportions. Words like bonkers sprang to mind. Poor old Saint Francis would have been turning in his grave. Mercifully, given the surreal nature of the proceedings, the spectacle was interrupted by one aloof owner and disinterested dog. Both of them managed to circumnavigate the crazy gang. They were bit–part players in this play, and I was a spectator. Eventually, the dogs ran out their legs. This was a blessing, as it seemed Ms X had small talk down to a fine art. We took the setting sun’s cue and hastened into the Wolverhampton sunset and back towards human society.
Saturday morning started soon enough, awoken by a bright spring sun. With time to spare before lunch at Worth North, the pooch posse re-assembled and converged on the park. Who appeared from nowhere but Clive and Ms X. They were joined by another dog called Linda and Mr X (Junior). The ritual duly commenced and dogs arrived from all directions. A stocky little black dog played fetch with Junior, or was it the other way round? Junior was the conductor of this unruly ensemble.
At this stage, I felt vicariously acquainted with half of Penn’s citizens, albeit through their respective dogs. It was one of those profound ‘Only in England’ moments. As time wore on, I developed a plausible conspiracy theory about Clive’s faction. I believed they were creatures of the park. They walked the neighbourhood only to create the pretence of normality amongst the dog-walking fraternity. My train of thought was now going like the proverbial clappers, faster and more efficient than GWR you might say. The next stop was the White House lawn in Washington DC. An image emerged of George W Bush and his trusty canine companion. Suddenly, the man that many have come to revile post Kyoto and 9/11 had a human face. Now GW Bush and I are a long way from being on backslapping terms, but the image prompted me to ponder the canine influence on human society. How often do dogs provide comfort to the sick, elderly and lonely? It reminded me of a quote I read somewhere recently. “To each dog, man is Napoleon, hence their eternal popularity”. However, we can also use dogs, coveting them to attract others. At the other extreme, they can become devices or barriers in the way people use cell phones, newspapers, books and computers to shield fear and insecurity. Devices that affect our capacity to form meaningful relationships, and ultimately, to reach intimacy.
So how does this comedy have any bearing on discernment within the Lay Community? Do we want our values to be God-centred, or dog-reversed? Do our four-legged friends have an inner life, surrounded by their kennel enclosure? A life that contrasts with their outer world, amongst their soul chums in the park. I wonder if their wilder cousins and ascendants retreat to the inner world. Is there a place under the stars where they can dream of suburban domestic bliss? Do their domestic cousins, by contrast, dream of freedom in a vast fertile wilderness? A place where each dog finds peace with their inner puppy. Where they can fulfil their dog-given potential. How I strive to be in Clive’s (not Wayne’s!) world. There is a certain darkness in this inner world, which can seduce you. The symptoms of which can lead to lethargy and introspection. My Celtic ascendants seemed to understand the contrast between these worlds very well. They become clearer in those beautiful places that enjoy the caress of pure blue skies. In places like Worth Abbey and Glendalough, these contrasts become manifest. The contrasts are acted out in each of our journeys, and are being played out dramatically during the Lay Community’s and my own discernment process.
Note: No animals or humans were hurt or offended during this production.