Tiny sparkles of frost on the sage brush were all I could see. I smelled the icy dryness of the Utah desert. After hours of driving from Orange County I found a place to rest. I made some space in the back of the truck loaded with boxes. The bold move from the Ocean to the peaks of Montana kept me awake. I remembered the hauntingly beautiful words of Charles de Foucauld: "I came to the vast and majestic stillness of the Sahara to understand the mystery of my restlessness." My big dog Cleo was sleeping peacefully. Each other was all we had on that cold November night. Each other, she knew, was all we needed.
Almost 11 years before, I had read a remarkable biography of the last Pharaoh, arguably the most fascinating woman in antiquity. During the siege of Alexandria (47BC), Cleopatra had herself smuggled into the Roman military camp. The mighty Julius Caesar promptly succumbed to her charm and their encounter transformed history. Then one day, a female English mastiff puppy looked at me with big, black eyes and I was conquered with equal ease. So, I named the puppy Cleopatra.
Cleo and I lived in Sunset Beach and Huntington Beach in Southern California. To me she was a dog version of the California beach girl. To my neighbors she was more like a gentle lioness. When it was time to transition to Montana, she left the palm trees, the ocean waves and the daily beach walks to discover another kind of majesty: frozen and wild and still.
She adjusted remarkably well. Home was not the beach after all but where we were together.
When the Diocese of Helena was considering me for priestly service, I made it perfectly clear that Cleo had to be part of the deal. I was going nowhere without her. Bishop Thomas agreed with great kindness and understanding.
18 months ago, old age started to dramatically limit her mobility. Steps became barriers. She was only able to reach a small room in the basement of the large historic rectory. Immediately it also became my room. Cleo taught me the fulfilling beauty of loyalty. From her I learned other wisdom: the liberating value of expecting less and appreciating more, the treasure in small things, the serenity of living in the present moment. She had an exquisite ability to remind me to cherish life.
Very peacefully, on Tuesday of last week, with me at her side she left this life. She was almost 14, a unique age for a 200 pound dog. In my heart, she left a hole wide, deep and cold. The sadness is great. The gratitude is even greater for all the immense and undeserved joys I experienced because of her.
In his sublime Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the large crowd: "Blessed are they who mourn". These are among his most tender and consoling words. He embraces those who grieve. It is not possible to capture the power of the Gospel outside of this context of compassion. But you only mourn the ones you have loved. Those who mourn are also blessed by their ability to love. And they are especially blessed by the gift of having had someone worthy of their love.
Blessed are they who love. Cleo was my blessing.
Recently, Denise Flaim, publisher of Modern Molosser, a New York-based dog magazine, did a feature on my dogs. She asked me: "Do dogs go to Heaven? " I answered that I did not know beyond the biblical revelation that God loves all of his creation. But I find it difficult to conceive of heaven without Cleo. Since the evening she died, I daydream that my fiercely protective English mastiff is up there, still watching over me. I know of no better hope with which to say farewell to my unforgettable friend.