As a VA hospital chaplain, I begin most weekday mornings by visiting patients with critical diagnoses such as cancer, cardiac problems or liver failure. However, a nurse recently stopped me outside a patient’s room with a critical prayer request of her own.
“Do you pray for animals?” she asked.
My eyes swirled with hesitant patterns. I couldn’t help but think of my dog, Toby. He’s 2 years old and 28 pounds of mixed ancestry that gives him the long hair of the Lhasa apso and the excitable temperament of the Jack Russell. I’m pretty fond of him, but the only time he’s ever caused me to pray was when he peed on our futon, and I prayed my wife would spare his life.
“It’s OK,” the nurse said. “Maybe it’s a bit frivolous to pray for animals.”
I had to admit it did feel frivolous when compared with the concerns of our patients. However, it’s not as if God rations our prayer requests. He’s not some kind of genie who grants only three wishes to the bumbling nincompoop who uncovers a buried lantern.
When I noticed her moistened eyes, I asked her to tell me more. “My cat is in the ICU at the animal hospital,” she said. She blew into her handkerchief and then added more details. “Missy has cancer, and the vet says he doesn’t expect her to make it.”
I recognized the pained look in her eyes as the one I saw in my children’s eyes five years ago when I had to put down our 14-year-old schnauzer after she’d had a series of seizures.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d be glad to pray for Missy.”
We joined hands on the quiet end of a busy hospital hallway and I voiced a prayer not unlike the ones I say with the family members of our patients. I asked God to comfort the nurse and help her make the best decisions about Missy’s care.
The nurse thanked me and I returned to visiting the vets in our ICU. I didn’t think of her prayer again until a few days later when I began my monthly weekend with the Air National Guard.
My chaplain assistant greeted me with a similar request. “I need your help writing an animal eulogy,” he said. When I asked him to tell me more, he told me that his newlywed wife lost her 14-year-old Aussie shepherd, named Sydney.
Well, I thought, I’ve never eulogized a dog, but I’d never prayed for a sick cat until I’d prayed for Missy. I suppose that God’s calling offers many lanes of ministry, so I offered a few suggestions about coming to closure after loss.
Please know, dear reader, that I didn’t offer reincarnation stories from other religions. Nor did I argue Christian theology which some say teaches that animals are without a soul and therefore inadmissible into heaven. I don’t try to speculate on the eternal destination of anyone, much less an animal, but knowing that the human soul grieves all loss, I offered condolences to my chaplain assistant and his wife.
The best guidance I could offer the nurse or my assistant came from Christian scripture, which says, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
The verse, nor any other I know of, has nothing to say about animal afterlife, but I do believe it indicates that God cares for animals and looks for us to do likewise. And sometimes prayer becomes the best care we can offer.