If you’ve been around Sacred Pilgrim for a while, you might be aware that my husband and I adopted a second puppy upon moving to Kansas and named her Eleven after the character in the TV show Stranger Things. Like her namesake, our little weirdo has a history of neglect and abuse in her first short months of life before we adopted her. Ele, along with her older sister Starbuck (so named for the rambunctious and rebellious yet tender-hearted character in the TV show Battlestar Galactica), is learning to hold space with me both in spiritual direction sessions and when recording new episodes of the Daily Lectio Divina podcast. (You may hear them in the background of the recordings from time to time, sniffing and sighing, as they learn along with us what it is to attend patiently to the presence of the Holy in each sacred and ordinary moment.) I am often led during these times to reflect on the unexpected ways these sweet, energetic puppies draw my attention to or mirror or even teach me about something in my own spiritual journey.
When we first met her in her foster-mom’s living room, Ele was a tiny, terrified, frozen-pup. She would not let us touch her. She would not let us sit near her. So, of course, we just had to take her home. Four months later, Ele is an entirely different dog. She is unfailingly happy and playful, hopping spasticly all over the place and entertaining us with her helicopter-wagging tail. She has learned that when we leave we always come back. She knows we are her family and that this is her home.
There is trust, but it is incomplete. There is still work to be done.
Starbuck is an infinitely friendly and social puppy who loves attention and always wants to touch some part of her body to some part of ours–a head on the knee, a paw on the foot, her entire body strewn across a lap–when she naps. Ele, on the other hand, wants to be close but struggles to drop her defenses. Although she initiates closeness with us, she discovers that the feeling of being close triggers resistance and fear that overwhelm her. Ele sees by Starbuck’s example that we can be trusted, but she is still learning what experiencing trust feels like.
These days, Ele likes to slowly inch her way across the couch until eventually her head and front paws are resting in my lap while the rest of her body is next to me. She will curl up in the crook of my arm where she can rest against me without being in my lap. She will look up at me with her sweet puppy face and lick my chin before resting hers on my arm. If I move toward her to pull her closer, she hops away with great haste, but then she creeps back.
Sometimes we let her run away and just wait for her to come back and try again to be close. Letting her back away and then decide to come back teaches her that she has a choice and that, no matter what she decides, we will not behave any differently toward her. Other times we force her to tolerate being held when she wants to run away; we ignore her wiggling until she finally gives up and goes to sleep. This teaches her that when we do choose to hold her, she has to accept our decision, which allows us to keep her safe when circumstances require it. Both ways of relating to Ele foster trust between us and help her establish a healthy understanding of her role in our “pack.” Both ways teach her that she is safe and that we will keep her safe, whether she is physically near to us or not.
How like Ele I feel when I draw close to God. I long to be close–but not too close! Sometimes I dictate the terms of our relationship, and God patiently waits for me as I back away and then try again and again to come back. Other times, I am overwhelmed by God’s closeness and struggle to let go of the resistance and learn to rest in God’s presence that is stubbornly with and within me–impossible to escape!
As Ele is learning to trust us and to find her safe place in our family, so I am still on the journey toward trusting God and finding my safe place in God’s family. I am learning to notice and name the resistance and the fear as they arise within me. I am learning to identify what I am holding onto that I am being invited to release. I am learning to lean in and to rest even when I want to back away.
There is no safer place for Ele than in my presence and in my arms. There is no safer place for me than in the presence and arms of the One who will never let me go.
The name of the Lord is a strong tower;
The righteous run to it and are safe. – Proverbs 18:10
What characters in your life’s story might God be using to teach you something about yourself and your relationship to God? How might God be inviting you to experience closeness and safety for just this moment?