“The Lord be with you.” The service was led by a white-haired skeleton, profoundly old and happy, a long-retired priest who laboured over the prayerbook, scrupulously working at each syllable and then looking up and beaming deafly at the congregation whenever we replied. “And also with you!”
When we all came forward for Holy Communion I noticed a man I had not seen before. He stepped out from the pew right at the back. He was wearing sunglasses, which would have been strange enough in church, and he had with him a dog, a labrador, who led the man into the line and brought him step by step towards the altar. When they reached the front, the dog sat down and faced the altar while the priest put bread into the man’s hand and raised the cup for him to drink. As soon as the cup withdrew, the faithful dog was on his feet again, gravely leading his master back to the pew. He was a good dog, anyone could see that. He behaved with all the ceremony and propriety that you could ask of someone who has to go to church wearing a collar. He was not himself a believer, not exactly, but he respected the thing for what it was and loved it because he knew, by an unerring instinct, that his master loved it.
After church I met the blind man outside and asked about the dog. He loved the dog and told me how they went to church together every week. For ten years the dog had led him and they never missed a Sunday.
I told him how impressed I was by the dog’s behaviour at Holy Communion. “I have a labrador,” I said, “and he would never have the discretion to wait facing the altar while I took the bread. He would sit there, sure enough, but he would turn his face towards me and his eyes would silently implore me for a crumb of consecrated bread, and then, when I refused, his hopeful eyes would brim with mourning.”
“They are good dogs,” the man agreed. “Their respect for food is very deep. That is why he understands the eucharist. He grasps it not as an idea but in its real depths. It is food. He knows that.”
“Ten years,” I said. “That is five hundred times he has gone with you to the altar.”
“Sometimes,” the blind man said, “I have felt his hunger. There is a holiness in all God’s creatures. The bread is offered in thanksgiving for all that lives.”
I said, “Perhaps in heaven there will be a eucharist for him.”
But the man said, “No, I don’t believe it. There will be no eucharist on the other side, no church or priest, no bread or wine. We have these things now because we need them. But on that day, need will be no more. There will be no sun because the Lamb will be our light. No eucharist, because everything will be thanksgiving.”
Morning found its way belatedly through the trees and we stood there transfigured in the sunlight. The ducks went by again; the dog watched them coolly, with studied indifference. The old deaf priest shuffled up and greeted us one last time and went inside to close the church.
“Besides,” the blind man said as I turned to go. “He has gone five hundred times to church already. He is a working dog. It is the same with him as with a priest: church is work. Whatever else heaven might be for him, it will not be anything that includes spending another solitary second inside a church!”
Maybe he was right, I don’t know. There is no use dwelling on it now. All this was years ago. By now the dog will have retired from active life. By now he will have died. What God thinks of him, no one can say. But I will always remember the way he sat and waited, lovingly facing the altar, while beside him the one he loved stood blessed under the name of God and ate the world’s redemption.