A New Kind of Guide Dog
by Jeff Cuiule
Sometimes a great spiritual teacher takes the form of a holy man on a mountaintop. Sometimes she takes the form of a poet. Sometimes a carpenter's son. And sometimes a great spiritual teacher arrives on four legs, sporting a fur coat and holding a squeaky toy.
The spiritual guide of whom I write is named Lucy, a truly amazing German Shepherd sent to us at a time when we least expected an awakening.
Eight years ago my wife Audrey and I were frantically toiling away in Manhattan when an unexpected blip appeared on our radar. One day, a friend of the family, who rescues animals as an avocation, gave a call to Audrey. A very uncommon and miraculous animal needed a home.
We often mused about getting a dog one day, but usually avoided the commitment, for one reason or another (actually, the resistance was nearly always mine). Was the city the best place to raise a dog? Would the dog ever see us, given our heavy workloads? How would we get away for vacations? All those wonderful rationalizations that prevent us from following our hearts' desires.
Now, suddenly, someone was forcing the issue. Ordinarily, I would have reacted with the standard, "Now's really not the best time in my life" routine. But this puppy-on-the-doorstep story was different -- almost, unfathomably different. In fact, I needed the story repeated to me a number of times before I could actually believe it.
The dog was a German Shepherd - a beautiful white shepherd - from rural Pennsylvania. While chained in a back yard, the dog and her entire litter of puppies was set on fire and left for dead. Even more gruesomely, this atrocity had been committed by her "owner" -- an act of vengeance in a domestic dispute between husband and wife.
Two days had passed before a vet in a nearby town received a phone call. It was from a woman who said she had left home after a fight with her husband and returned to find the horrible aftermath described above. She asked the vet to put this dog, who would not die, to rest. The vet arrived on the scene immediately, shocked at the carnage she found. She then made the very difficult decision to reconstruct the body of an animal whose soul was quite clearly struggling to survive.
With third degree burns covering nearly half of the dog's body and her spine exposed, the initial operation took 12 hours to complete. Weeks of intensive care followed and gradually this miraculous being began coming back to life. After several months she was well enough to find a new home - the country doctor had done all she could amidst the flurry of her practice and the menagerie of animals she was constantly taking in.
To make a full recovery and resume a normal life, she would need individual attention and constant care. Why she and the vet decided to take their chances with the two of us (a couple of self-absorbed workaholics who got squeamish around paper cuts) is still somewhat of a mystery - or was it?
Although we were anxious about our ability to adequately cope with her condition, Audrey and I decided that the city's cutting-edge medical facilities and our ample financial resources would at least afford her a chance for recovery. We took the plunge and journeyed out to Pennsylvania to meet our new friend.
That first encounter proved to be a shocker. Her injuries were far worse than we imagined. When the dog bounded forward to greet us we saw blood, and sinew and a concave body. But we also saw in her a spirit as cheerful and enthusiastic and loving as any dog or any living being. With that in mind we named her Lucy, a name that just seemed to fit her surprisingly joyous personality.
During the next year, she would undergo a regimen of rehabilitation that would stymie even the most stoic athlete. Week after week, she endured daily dressings and cleansing of her burns without flinching, numerous operations designed to stretch and stitch her healthy skin and fur together, even shrieks of alarm from anxious parents who reined in their children as she passed by.
None of this, miraculously, seemed to faze her very much. She continued to romp and play like any other dog, always eager to make a new friend (be it two or four-legged) and demonstrate how much she loved being alive. And little by little an amazing thing happened. To the astonishment of her doctors, our neighbors (even to us!), she got better. Her wounds healed, her fur grew back and she regained her full faculties: she could run and jump and just be a dog.
But the fact is, she came to be much more than JUST a dog. Gradually, we grew to view Lucy for what she truly was: a vitally important spiritual guide in our lives. She has taught us the value of never looking back and living for the moment. She has showed us the ability of the heart to endure and overcome even the most horrifying experiences. And by her example, we have learned the value of compassion, commitment, courage and ultimately forgiveness. We also learned to put aside our careers and our indulgences, and devote ourselves to work that truly mattered; in fact, without Lucy, it's quite possible Audrey and I may have never come to own Mirabai.
So the next time you feel a bit lost and journey out in search of a teacher, remember that the most profound and blessed of spiritual escorts may very well be seated right beside you - just like ours is right now.