“Your walks feel like a second childhood, when you ran the woods with a pack of dogs and belonged in a way you can’t with humans.” —Rachel Lyons, Becoming a Dog Person
My dog and I rise every morning before the sun, 4:30 a.m. to be exact. I put on my shoes quietly so as to not wake the household and buckle the collar around his neck, asking him to sit briefly as I do so. I quickly press start on the coffeemaker and we head out.
The walk is the same every morning. We breeze down the steps and head around the corner to begin our mile-long loop around the neighborhood. It’s early—no one is awake except for the lone rabbit that hops away quietly as we pass by—but that’s the way I like it.
It takes only moments in the quiet dawn, our six feet hitting the pavement at a steady pace, for my body to rest and my mind to slow. Out here in the early morning my dog, Jack, and I are one with each other and with the earth. It’s in this connection, between human and animal and nature, that I most clearly see and connect with God.
Prayer is not always easy or obvious. For me it felt like a chore for a long time. In my mind, prayer had always been a practice on your knees, hands folded together, head bowed in reverence for the Lord. I could not see past praying in the pew, so I often let it slip from my life. It was only recently, on one of these walks with Jack, that I realized I was praying each time we were out.
My dog’s leisurely pace is a welcomed pause to take in all of God’s goodness. St. Francis, paraphrasing Job 12:7, said, “Ask the beasts and they will teach you the beauty of this earth.” Watching Jack interact with all creation is quite a sight. He takes in every bit of earth. But his incessant sniffing does nothing to quell our meditation. Rather it is a part of the practice itself. Sniff, sniff, stop and appreciate the blooming flowers, the towering old trees in my Chicago neighborhood.
Call it what you will—divine intervention, the saintly influence of an animal, or maybe just introspection—but over time I began to be more conscious about slipping into prayer during these morning walks. It feels natural and absolutely needed.
Walking with Jack is my own version of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, which Benedictine Sister Anita Louise Lowe says “can pull us out of concern only for ourselves . . . and [connect] us to all of the church and all of the world.” Walking Jack creates that same sense of connectedness for me. I am pulled out of my daily focus on my own needs and desires to focus instead on those of another living creature. I wake up at the crack of dawn not because I like to get up before the sun has a chance to rise but because Jack needs the exercise. His presence brings me into a deeper relationship with my faith. Even in those early hours when I’m most exhausted, I still find myself centered in prayer as soon as my feet hit the pavement. In devoting myself to this animal I am devoting myself to God, because Jack is a living embodiment of God’s goodness.
Dominican Sister Rhonda Miska describes the daily office as “hinges as the day begins and ends.” That is precisely what our purposeful outings are. Each walk is a bookend to the day.
The morning excursion opens my mind and heart and allows for a chance to focus on the new day. I thank God for my life with its many blessings, noticing changes to the neighborhood and relishing in familiar sights. With no one around and the sun slowly rising, it is much easier to lose myself in the beauty that surrounds me. There are no distractions in the early morning, just the stillness of fresh air as Jack and I trudge on. This is our opening prayer, Jack and my personalized lauds, one that consists of sniffs and silence rather than psalms and canticles.
The other bookend of the day is our evening walk, our vespers. This walk is different yet also unchanging. We head in the opposite direction of our earlier journey, appreciating new sights and—for Jack—smells that were not explored during the dawn. While St. Benedict implies that vespers should take place before any artificial lighting is needed, our lighting depends on the time of year. In the harsh winters we are enveloped in darkness while in summer the sun is only beginning to set. Instead of looking forward to the next day, I take the time to look back on the events of the day past. I make a mental list of my positive experiences over the past 12 hours, noting what I am grateful for and what I can work on to better myself.
In these quiet reflective moments I find it easier to focus inward. As I am a generally anxious person, my mind rarely slows down. I have always been a bad sleeper, because I find it difficult to quiet my own thoughts. But while walking Jack I understand what St. Ignatius means when he writes, “For it is not knowing much, but realizing and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”
Jack shows me God’s presence in the natural world. His needs have created the prayer life I was missing and so desperately needed. Through our walks together I am more centered and less antsy over little problems. I finally feel connected to my faith.
Some may find their prayer life fulfilled under the magnificent roof of an old cathedral, others may find it singing and dancing or silently meditating in a dark room. For me, however, it will always be leisurely walks in the very young hours of the morning with Jack and methodical saunters in the evening, breathing in the fresh air and walking as one.
You might say my prayer life has gone to the dogs—but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This article also appears in the October 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 9, pages 45–46).
Image: Shanna Johnson