For the Revd Dr Johannes Arens, his relationship with Dolly the collie was vital in helping him face the challenges of lockdown! In this blog, Fr Johannes reflects upon living with Dolly and how such positive encounters can lead to thinking about wider animal issues.
During the first lockdown, Church of England churches were ordered to close not just for public worship, but also for the private prayers of clergy and any livestreaming of services. A lot of ink has been spilled over this decision and it is noteworthy that in the second lockdown in autumn the Church of England together with other Religion and Belief communities reacted very differently.
For me personally this meant that much of my daily structure disappeared or at least became restricted to my house rather than having fixed points during the day in my church, my office and the wider community. School happened online for my children in the dining room and my wife took over the living room as her home office. Zoom/Teams/Facetime/Skype meetings very quickly lost their novelty interest and became something which for me is clearly connected with work and not with my social life: I attend them when I am paid for them, and if I never had to remind anybody to be muted in my life I would not mind in the slightest. I attended one online church service during the past year because I felt I had to: the Diocesan Chrism Service. I did that because I realised I needed to be seen on this occasion, but I have learned to carefully avoid almost all online occasions I do not have to attend: they are useful work tools, but have very limited value spiritually and socially, at least for me personally.
The most important spiritual point during this enforced retreat at home has been for me to take much greater care with structuring the day. I usually get up at 5, which offers me about 90 minutes of solitude and silence in the morning. With the rest of the family mostly behind closed doors in home school and home office I had a lot more time during the day as I usually did not have more than 2 or 3 online meetings or phone calls to make. That meant I suddenly had time and space way beyond what I am used to, and it was less enjoyable than I expected because there was not much to do. I became a domestic goddess during the time and took over the cooking and the cleaning as I time to do this – which had the additional benefit of making me quite popular with the rest of the family. My day became again very regulated and structured, as I noticed very quickly that the Netflix subscription was fun if we wanted to watch something together in the evening, but detrimental to my well-being if I binged on it on my own.
In addition, I spent far more time with the 5th member of the family than ever before: Dolly the Collie. Like me she wasn’t really welcome in the various home school and home office rooms, so the two of us were locked down and locked out – and though she has been part of my life for 7 years, there has never been a consistent period like this where I have spent so much time with her. Before lockdown she usually stayed on her own at home for the morning and the afternoon – briefly interrupted by a little lunchtime walk with me.
In lockdown this changed: we both got up at 5 and went for a short walk. I then said my prayers, celebrated the Eucharist and made coffee. By the time the others were up the emails were done. An important feature of Dolly’s and my day became a daily long walk for about 2.5 hours – at pace (for me). Originally, I was creative in finding new routes, but soon we ended up walking the same walk every day: very few roads to cross, along the canal, through the park and back on a circular path. The dog knew the way, we started nodding to the same people most days, I went through several audiobooks on my headphones, I stayed reasonably fit and I noticed the incremental changes in nature more consciously than in the 30 years since I had been a temporary postman during university breaks. At a time when community life shrank to a small social bubble within the private house, I felt more connected to nature and reality. These walks kept me grounded in something real: one of the reasons why I find online meetings so draining is that they lack reality, I miss all the subtle body language, all the fun in the office kitchen disappears and at least for me it easily feels like losing touch with reality.
Dolly became my dog rather than the family dog between 5am and 5pm – and social distancing and social isolation made me realise just how much of a blessing this has been. Collies are both smart and social dogs and our intense time together reminded me again why I am a vegetarian: animals have feelings, they clearly experience fun and distress and I am very grateful for her enthusiastic company during an otherwise fairly lonely and boring time – and I am keenly aware how privileged I was during that period in terms of housing, employment, family life and company. Having had a furry ball of fun with me made a huge difference and helped me to notice things during our walks I would otherwise not have noticed. Changes to the park became very obvious going there every day. Dolly helped me to connect a bit with other walkers in real life in contrast to online engagements – everybody talks to you when you are with a collie. She also made sure that these walks were a daily feature, whatever I felt like.
I discovered how easy it is to pray whilst walking outside: thoughts come and go, steps and the breath offer a rhythm. One tangible change has happened beyond the lockdown: the dog now has a bed in the parish office.
My relationship with Dolly certainly stimulated my thinking on animal issues. I hope Sarx’s Lent guide will help others with companion animals to reflect theologically on their relationship with animals and with their responsibility for creation as a whole during this time of Lent. The Lent of lockdown with its lengthened days certainly had that effect on me.
The Revd Dr Johannes Arens is Anglican Chaplain to De Montfort University, Leicester & Parish Priest of St Andrew’s Church, Jarrom Street.