The “Abbey” Story

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This is the story of a stray dog adopted by monks of Mepkin Abbey written by the Director of the St. Francis Retreat Center. A client brought "Abbey's" story to our attention when she was looking for advice on flea control. We gladly donated 6 months of Frontline Plus and were compelled to share her tale...enjoy!

In the summer of 2014, a stray dog started hanging around our new retreat center at Mepkin Abbey. Although she had beautiful features, she was terribly emaciated, had obviously been abused and still had a piece of the chain she had freed herself from attached to her collar. As the director of the retreat center, I become concerned about the safety of our retreatants. We called the local animal shelter, which offered to come and get her when we caught her. They came and set a cage for that purpose.

One day Br. John came around the corner at the store, greeted by intense barking and presumed we had caught her, only to find out that we had caught a raccoon and she was barking at the raccoon. It was only months later that I learned that, from the day she appeared, she was seen as special. Those who do our laundry started dropping off food for her from day one. One of our tour docents was putting food outside the cage so she wouldn’t be tempted to go inside.

As diligently as some tried, we could not catch her. Meanwhile one group of retreatants after another started falling in love with this dog. They would sneak her food from the dining room. Then, they started taking up a collection to buy her dog food and gave her the name Abbey. She gradually and gingerly began to allow folks to get close enough to pet her. I knew then there must be plans other than the shelter for this dog. I stood back in amazement when, at the end of a three-day retreat, I heard big burly men say, “I’m going to miss Abbey.” Some women would shed tears and Abbey began to whimper herself.

To this day, Abbey gets more tips than I do. It is not uncommon to get a $50 check or home-made dog biscuits in the mail for her. She occasionally gets prayed for at worship or mentioned in the preacher’s homily. Not being a real dog lover myself, I began to realize that there was another world out there that I wasn’t a part of.

About that time someone introduced me to Dr. Linda Bender’s book, Animal Wisdom: Learning from the Spiritual Lives of Animals. There is a line in that book that reached me, one about how stray dogs and cats appear and attach themselves to those who do not want a relationship with an animal, but need one. Abbey must have intuited that because she has been my shadow ever since.

This canine presence that we tried to move on has moved in to become a significant staff presence at the retreat center. I now call her our “spiritual therapy” dog.  She gently and unobstrusively greets people when they arrive and escorts them to their rooms and is right there at their heels when they venture out for a walk. She has a way of letting everyone who comes here know that they are loved.

Dr. Bender states in her book, “Among animals, as among humans, there exist saints and bodhisattvas: individuals who have outstripped their fellows in spiritual development.” She goes on to say, “the presence of animal bodhisattvas reminds us that altruism isn’t unique to humans. All living creatures possess the capacity to feel and act out of selfless love.” We could not have ordered a dog more suited to a monastery retreat center.

As retreatants leave our monastery, we ask them to give us feedback on what has contributed the most to making their retreat experience with us beneficial. I’m no longer surprised at the number of people who mention Abbey as a key factor in the experience. I continue to be amazed at the spiritual language they use to describe the benefit. Here are some verbatim quotes taken from those feedback sheets.

“The sweet little dog named ‘Abbey’ with the spirit of a shepherd has been a joy as I watched her ‘shepherd’ individuals to and from activities.”

“Abbey is a furry-faced Guardian Angel and should be treated as a therapy dog for weary guests.”

“Even our canine retreatant showed up this week. May she learn to trust kindness and heal from that which she fled.”

“Abbey, the retreat center mascot, is absolutely an angel in a funny ‘disguise.’ She is the most intelligent and kind creature I have ever met.”

“Walking the grounds with Abbey and spending time with the trees and river put the whole experience over the top! She really is the most wonderful animal, and I have loved a lot of dogs. May she help to heal and calm and guide retreatants, brothers and friends as long as she lives!”

“Abbey has almost a mystical presence and is very egalitarian in her approach to guests.” 

“Abbey, the dog, created a truly healing time for me. This was such a gift!”

“She represents what I feel to be true about this place—all are welcome!”

A few months ago a couple of friends came to Mepkin for a retreat. As one of them was sitting in the guest dining room for supper one evening at 5:10 p.m., she realized that her friend was still over in the Luce Garden about a half mile away. She knew that if the friend didn’t get there by 5:30 she would miss supper. So, she said, “I said a little prayer that Abbey, who was lying outside the dining room door, would go get her friend.” She thought nothing more of it. Her friend did make it for supper. But after supper her friend said to her, “I would have never made if Abbey had not come and gotten me.”

What followed this story was a wonderful conversation about this woman’s experience with newborns who are so sensitive to energy because their minds are not filled with knowledge. They can be very calm and peaceful but, when they feel negative energy, they start fussing. We spoke of the similarities with animals as well. This made me wonder what further ways Abbey may help us gain insight into our own spiritual lives. For that reason I have chosen to make this the first of what I hope may be many “Abbey Stories.” I see this story as the beginning of an open book. Anyone who feels that Abbey has helped them gain spiritual insight and would like to write a poem or story about it can submit it to the editorial committee to be considered as an addition to this book.

Fr. Guerric Heckel, ocso

Director, St. Francis Retreat Center

January 24, 2015