My Friend, Fr. Bill

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Being bonded with others is a frequent enough experience in daily life. Especially in families, the notion of bonding with other family members is nothing new, and occurs so frequently and regularly that it seems hardly worthwhile calling others’ attention to it.  Twins are a special instances of this.

It also occurs outside of family relationships. Bonding between and among friends is a commonplace occurrence, especially if engaged in similar enterprises, like members on the same baseball or dance team. Bonding can also occur among those involved in a similar program or project, such as scientists collaborating on a space venture, or attorneys working on an important fraud case.

The bonding that occurs in these relationships varies in degree, of course. At times it can be quite intense, at other times not so. But a common denominator among all these various types and kinds is that people are “in touch” with each other in a way that surpasses in intensity what occurs between or among other relationships. People have a “sense” of where others are “at”, without communicating this in so many words. For instance, one can sense what another is thinking, or how he or she feels about a particular situation, without having this spelled out.

Poets and artists in general have the ability to apprehend a segment of reality engulfing us all, but eluding most of us. An impending sense of doom (a premonition?) about an imminent crisis or disaster can be expressed by certain gifted people, while the rest of us remain in the dark about what is “is at hand”.

It has been said of certain saints or holy people that they seem to be in touch with the things of God, or spiritual realities, while the rest of us do not. Could it be a sixth sense some enjoy, enriching them with a perceptive power the rest of us do not have?

And this gift, for such it seems to be, is not confined just to us humans and the relationships bonding us. It can also extend to other dimensions of the “sentient” world that we share with the extended animal world around us: mostly, the four-footed kind treading mother earth as we do, but also with our two-footed friends, the birds of the air. And we are told even certain creatures of the seas, such as dolphins, enjoy a certain perceptive sensitivity in areas that largely escapes us.

Most familiar among this non-human but sentient part of our world is the canine family. Dogs seem to enjoy a certain bonding with us that surpasses that enjoyed by other four-footed animals. We are likely familiar with their remarkable powers, at times, of perceiving our human moods, our needs and our troubles, even physical ones, such as a cancer growing within us. This they can do before even we ourselves becoming aware of this, in our own bodies.

There was a priest in our community, a Fr. Bill Steil, who ministered as a chaplain for many years at Dunning, a hospital caring for mentally disturbed patients. He led a simple, highly regimented life, returning to the monastery each evening after a day at the hospital. Except for one or two trips to South Bend each fall to attend a Notre Dame football game, he had no other extracurricular activity except caring for two formidable-looking Doberman Pinschers, magnificent looking animals completely devoted to him, as he was to them. They controlled and patrolled the back yard of the monastery behind a seven foot high wire fence, affording the rest of us protection. It was unwise for anyone other than Fr. Bill to enter their territory. That was their world which they never left except for the times when Fr. Bill took them out for an auto drive.

An occasion arose when he became quite ill and was being cared for in the infirmary attached to the monastery. He began to fail and appeared to be dying. I visited him in the infirmary early one morning, only to learn he had died minutes before my arrival. With the ambulance on its way, I went outside awaiting its arrival, walking on the street running alongside our property with its yard where the dogs were kept. As I crossed the street, I came upon a large dog lying in the street against the curb, bleeding severely. Apparently it had just been struck by a car. The dog was dead. As I looked at it, I recognized it as one of the Dobermans. It had leapt over the seven foot fence—something it never did—and dashed madly out toward the street, having never before experienced moving traffic. This happened at approximately the same time Fr. Bill expired. The dog, having intuited his dying moment, reacted in this way.

This exemplifies the bonding that can develop between the animal and the human world. Some remarkable sensitivity alerted the dog to the tragic event about to happen to its master, and it bolted in reaction, as if planning its own demise at practically the same time Fr. Bill died. This was sensitivity’s finest hour, at least within the animal world. It witnesses to a thread of continuity among us all, a vital lifeline that unites us all in a web of interconnection and linkage in a bonding together.

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Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

One thought on “My Friend, Fr. Bill”

  1. Nice article Father. I’ve read and seen other published instances where animals have “sensed” impending death or other events of humans.

    Like

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