a meditation on tenderness


When I arrived home from Prague a few months ago, Kai greeted me after that trip the way he always does after a long trip which is the same way he treats me after a shot trip or even a brief errand to the trash can: he smiles, wags his tail, circles twice and jumps up to offer a canine encounter of the lab-kind.

When I arrived after the trip however I was wounded and frightened and I guess I was looking for something more from my welcome from Kai. A banner. A small parade. The keys to the city.  A Levenger gift card.  But he did nothing special when I arrived home from the airport.  My friend Rebecca had fetched me at the airport gate, complete with a white hard-had from the Diocesan Staff – all of whom had written a message of love and concern in a rainbow of colors all over the hat.  I will cherish it forever.  I guess I sort of wanted something like that from my canine companion – something different to mark returning home… well… alive.

But Kai just wagged, circled and went to get his leash which he unceremoniously dumped at my feet.  It reminded me of returning to the monastery from having worked as the chaplain to the DMRT morgue at Katrina in Louisiana. I put my suitcase down to adjust my habit and was told by a brother-monk that I was on “dishes 2” duty for dinner that night.

However, later that night with Kai, on my arrival home with 8 post cards, three souvenirs, two subdural hematoma and a splitting headache – I climbed into bed.  Climbing into one’s own bed is a delicious thing after an ordeal and a long voyage.  The sheets felt wonderful and the silence was intoxicating.  Kai did what he always does at night.  He jumped up on the bed and began to circle as he found his sweet-spot..but then he stopped.  He looked at me for a rather disconcertingly long time in the darkness. We looked at each other. He padded over to my pillows. He sat down on the other pillow, lowered his front legs, placed one paw on my pillow and the other on my neck and began to lick my skull. Slowly.  Carefully.  Tenderly like a surgeon or a midwife.

Did he know it was split apart into three chunks?  Did he know it had had an encounter with a train windshield? Did he know I was scared and vulnerable?

He licked and licked and licked my skull.  It took 30 minutes for him to finish his blessing.  My head was wet with saliva and I felt somehow healed. Somehow anointed.  Somehow understood not by Kai but by God.

I do not know how prayer works.  I do not know how knowledge transmits from sentient beings.  I do not know how Kai knew that his blessing was important that night.  I do not know how he knew what he seemed to know.  But the same feeling happened last night as we went to bed.  The lights were not off for long when a big, black, hairy mass crept up to the pillows from the foot of my bed, inching his body along on his belly as if employing the stealth of a marine on a rescue mission-  and began, again, methodically, one inch at a time, to lick my skull.  It only took 10 minutes this time, so I guess I am getting better.

The art of living is not to build a life in which nothing can harm us, no one can leave us, no person can manipulate or deceive us.  The art of living is being vulnerable to all of that – vulnerable the way God became vulnerable by His ill-advised choice in taking the form of a tiny baby, a little boy, an awkward adolescent, a young man and, finally, a man-victim.  The art of living is to live, take the hits, and keep an eye out for the ways in which God takes various and unexpected forms, and heals us.  They may be in the form of a glorious liturgy – controlled, managed, tightly scripted. Or they may be in the form of a friend’s spontaneous call.  Or they may be in the form of a slobbery, massive pink tongue from a black lab whose discernment is better and more highly refined than that of most people I know. Including me.

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