Dum esset Rex


This was an old joke, referring to an antiphon of the Vespers of Our Lady, between a liturgically articulate friend and myself when talking about my dog Rex. Dum esset rex in accubitu suo, nardus mea dedit odorem suavitatis. We were once singing these Vespers together and the dog was lying on the carpet in the chapel. He raised his head and pricked up his ears on hearing his name when the Latin word for King was pronounced.

Rex was a boisterous crossbreed between the Doberman and the Labrador, for whom life was one big game of running after cats and enjoying the great outdoors. He had had a cancerous tumour in the left eye for more than a year and his hips were getting worse and worse. We finally had him put down by our vet today and he is buried in our garden next to Frimousse, one of our cats who died back in 2007. He was thirteen years old.

It was in February 2001 when I decided to get a dog, and went to the animal shelter. They are grim places full of abandoned dogs, two to a cage, row after row. I had set out to find a Labrador or Border Collie puppy or a near mongrel equivalent, but animal shelters don’t work like that. Different dogs react in different ways as you approach their enclosure – some hurl themselves at the bars in a frenzy of defensive aggression, and others see their visitor with curiosity and hope. You offer the back of the hand for the dog to take a sniff. They either like the smell or they don’t. I must have walked around the place at least three times, each time passing in front of the cage containing Rex and some little spaniel-type dog. The word Doberman put me off, making me think of the old Nazi concentration camp guards and their dogs as sinister as electric fences with 50,000 volts! Later research would show that this breed, invented for attack and aggression, had progressively degraded into a much gentler and playful dog. The Army and Police no longer use them – Belgian and German Shepherds do the job much better! But Rex was a mutt with a docked tail, but fortunately with his natural floppy ears, a beau bâtard as our dog training instructor once said to me.

rex1I think Rex chose me rather than I him. I adopted him and took him to the vet for a good check-over. He was eight months old and had apparently never been trained, apart from being clean at home. That was already something! He was a hard so-and-so, and pulled on the lead like a shire horse! He once pulled me off my feet and dragged me on the ground as he saw a rabbit and the chase instinct clicked in. Obedience classes were a must! Rex was a long and hard walker, tireless, as he and I would walk entire beach-lengths on the Atlantic coast of the Vendée. His favourite walks were in forests. It is just as well both he and I were in love with the great outdoors. He has shared our life, year after year, often irritating with his incessant barking in the garden. He was never much of an eater, and never so much as threatened a person. He was great with children. His objective in life was to chase other animals and enjoy himself at play. Dogs’ minds are as simple as our human minds are complicated!

On our return from the vet (he died in his basket in the back of my van parked just outside the veterinary surgery), I buried him in the garden wrapped in an old sheet and emptied a bag of quicklime over the body (eliminates the smell and stops foxes digging up the body). It was very hard to take the decision to have him put down, but it was the only thing for him. I am inclined to believe in the survival of animal souls like those of us humans, especially pets that have shared life with humans. They are outside the “economy” of Christian salvation, but the liturgy speaks in many places of beings other than human praising God in their own way. Whatever happened to this dog after the two chemical substances snuffed out his life, I ask your prayers for those of us who miss him. We humans become attached to our pets, and it is always a trying moment – after the sheer will of doing one’s duty in the old-fashioned English way.

Rex is at peace wherever his spirit is, and life has to go on.

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10 Responses to Dum esset Rex

  1. Warwickensis says:

    So sorry to hear this, Father. I think it perfectly consistent with Franciscan spirituality to think of Brother Dog and Sister Cat. You have my sympathies. Dum transisset Rex….

    • Thank you, Deacon Jonathan. We did the right thing, so said my good father, a retired vet and who only has memories of my mother and our family dogs. This has been a hard day for me! There is killing and killing. Having a dog put down to bring an end to sufferings caused by old age and disease is perfectly just morally and rationally, but hard to do emotionally. But, life has to continue. The absence is a gaping hole – pet dog or a beloved human – but life has to continue.

      We still have two dogs (much smaller and easier to take places) and two adorable cats. Everything is so different!

  2. Rdr. James Morgan says:

    Our big dog Buster was originally named Rex! But we had to change his name when we got him from the shelter, as he certainly is not kingly (except when guarding the sacred dog dish from our two other dogs!) And I think I know how you feel, as we had our lovely black lab Alice die of cancer many years ago (we buried her in the yard) and had to have two other dogs put down because of age and canine Alzheimers. It’s sad to have to do this but merciful for the dogs, I think.
    My condolences. And I’m sure he’s resting in peace…

  3. Ad Orientem says:

    I am very sorry to hear of your loss. The death of a beloved pet can hurt as much as losing a family member.

  4. Andrew Jordan says:

    Rest in peace, Rex. Our pets will be with us in heaven, theologians be damned!

    • MP says:

      A bit harsh on theologians…. although I admit to sharing the sentiment.

      I often reflect my dog is a living sermon–loving, loyal, patient, long-suffering.

      I’m sorry you lost your dog, Father.

      • Indeed, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Theology maintains that a human soul cannot go to heaven unless the person was baptised and was a card-carrying Christian. We may have our doubts about mediums and spiritualism, but there have been apparitions of one kind or another that are difficult to refute as “diabolical”: souls of human persons who were not explicitly Christian and familiar sounds of pet animals.

        Christian “salvation”, deification or whatever seems to be situated at another level. If we follow certain theological ideas, we could reasonably believe that Christ redeemed the whole of creation including all species of animals, plants and inanimate things.

        We will never know with certitude, but I believe that we will see our pets again, and perhaps all the animals we have eaten!

  5. Francis says:

    Sorry for your loss. Dogs (and cats, notwithstanding Churchill’s dictum) are great companions and friends.

    • Thank you. I saw an article about Churchill having a cat that once chased a big dog out of the Admiralty during World War II. Thereupon, the cat was named Nelson, after our great Admiral who gave the French a good hiding at Trafalgar (though he did not survive the battle). Churchill had to be very clever and hide the fact of giving Nelson pieces of salmon (it was wartime) from Mrs Churchill!

      With Rex gone, we still have two dogs and two cats.

      • Francis says:

        Haha! I did not know the story. Thank you. One can imagine the smugness of Nelson purring in the purlieus of an embattled Whitehall after a feast of salmon from the very hands of the bulldog!

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