Good Dog!

A single lesson, in two parts.

The first part came last night on campus when I was leading a discussion on the medieval Christian tradition of meditation and contemplation, including that described in The Cloud of Unknowing, a late 14th-century Middle English treatise perhaps best-known today as the inspiration for the development of the practice of Centering Prayer. I had asked the participants in the discussion which of the contemplative methods we had looked at they felt most drawn to practice themselves, and one responded with concern, "But don't all of them take a long time to practice?"

"Aha," I replied, "yes and no. Yes, in that all of the methods would seem to require long preparation, but no, because God doesn't work like that. In fact, according to The Cloud author, it only takes an instant: 'This work asketh no long time or it be once truly done, as some men ween; for it is the shortest work of all that man may imagine. It is never longer, nor shorter, than is an atom: the which atom, by the definition of true philosophers in the science of astronomy, is the least part of time. And it is so little that for the littleness of it, it is indivisible and nearly incomprehensible.... For even so many willings or desirings, and no more nor no fewer, may be and are in one hour in thy will, as are atoms in one hour.'" Actually, our exchange last night was somewhat wittier than I seem to be able to recall here, but I hope you get the idea: however long we may spend preparing ourselves to turn to God, the actual turning--the stirring of our soul in love--takes literally no time at all, or so little as to make no difference. All we have to do, The Cloud author would seem to be suggesting, is glance--or, rather, not glance, but intend--to lift our hearts to God, and viola! we will be there (or not there) in the cloud of unknowing, thinking (or rather not thinking) only of God.

The second part came two nights ago, when I was sitting in yet again (at least for the first part) on the puppy obedience class in the basement of our church. (I actually had a committee meeting to attend, but I came early so as to get to visit the puppies.) The puppies were practicing (that is, they and their humans were) learning to look at their humans in the eye, but to do so, they first had to learn to look away from something that they found even more fascinating: a piece of food (a.k.a. "cookie"). To help their puppy practice, the humans would first hold the cookie up to the puppy's nose and then hold it up high away from their bodies, so that the puppy would look away from their face towards the hand with the cookie in it. Never have you seen such intense gazes upon a puppy face: cookies are way more interesting than anything one's human might be doing with his or her face. But here was the catch: the puppy would not get the cookie until he or she looked away from it, at which instant (and, typically, it was instantaneous, so brief was the puppy's glance) the human was supposed to say, "Good dog!" and give the puppy the cookie.

I am sure by now that you can see where I'm going with this. Just so do we spend our lives, our attention riveted on the cookies we so desperately desire when what God wants us to do is look away, just for an instant, towards Him, at which point we will be flooded with love. And yet, how hard it is to look away, so hard that (as The Cloud author would put it) it is impossible for us to do so without His help (a.k.a. grace). The humans were doing everything they could to encourage the puppies to look at them, most particularly by rewarding the puppies with the cookies as soon as the puppies looked away (timing is everything here), and yet, still the puppies would look first at the food, that is, at their thoughts about everything other than God. I was, as I am sure you can imagine, quite delighted with myself when this realization came to me during this evening's meditation--so delighted, in fact, that I spent I don't know how long mulling it over. Which is too bad because I know God was there, holding the cookie of this thought in His hand, just waiting for me to look away from it towards Him.


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