Photo credit to www.mercrgov.org
by Sister Edith Bogue firstname.lastname@example.org
"Do the Sisters have pets? Are you allowed to have pets?" asked Charlie.
"Should I paint a pleasant picture," I thought, "or reveal the truth?" This is a tough topic. Every monastic community I know has disputes about pets. Some sisters are unhappy about a big dog or prowling cat, others that none are allowed. Some of my own sisters may take issue with what I write here. Emotions run strong.
Monasteries aren't alone in this; families argue about pets too. Kids beg for a dog; their parents think they won't care for it. The kids may not even agree with each other. An initial "no" leads to weeks of pleading until Mom or Dad finally says "yes." More choices ensue: dog, cat, snake or hamster?
The monastery multiplies those discussions by dozens of sisters. Who would feed, walk and clean up after Fido or Fluffy? Who fills in when Sister Walker is away or gets sick? Who is afraid or has an allergy? What if Lady Bird's squawking keeps people up at night? Does someone have to move her room elsewhere? Which sister moves: Lady Bird's owner or the one who can't sleep?
Community living piles on the questions. Should pets be limited to able-bodied sisters who could care for them? The infirm sisters might benefit from a therapy dog - maybe they should have pets even if others don't. Why should there be a wholesale decision about fish, lizards, gerbils or ant farms: caged pets that don't make noise? Are they really a community question at all?
Bingo! That names the central issue: community. Whether a monastery does or does not have pets is not as important as the impact of the decision on our monastic way of life. St. Benedict tells his followers to be ready to refrain even from good actions for the benefit of those who might be troubled. Conversely, he also urges us to accept even those community decisions we find difficult or impossible. Benedictines try to prepare themselves to forego or accept pets - or any other desired good - with calm hearts and peaceful spirits.
We can recognize signs of healthy community life in the universal tug-of-war over pets. The squabbles are negotiations to find a variety of options. Sisters living in houses away from the monastery may receive approval for a dog or cat. One prioress allowed a cockatiel experiment within the monastery. I've heard rumors of approved clandestine pets in special circumstances. One rogue sister even urged me to sneak a leopard gecko into my room. I was tempted, until I imagined my neighbor's face when Sparky inevitably escaped and scurried under her door.
"Community" only becomes real - in monastery, family, job or dorm - when the entire group takes up St Benedict's precept that "No one is to pursue what she judges better for herself, but instead, what she judges better for someone else" (Chapter 73). We need the skirmishes about Fido, Fluffy, Lady Bird and Sparky: they give us the opportunity to learn community in a deeper way.