Of lost dogs and unconditional love

In recent months, I have noticed with increasing frequency signs that have been placed at intersections along the road. The signs, usually drawn by a child’s hand, say pretty much the same thing: “Lost Dog.” With this heartbreaking inscription usually is a photograph of the dog, along with its name, description and a phone number to call if it were to be found.

Perhaps I am just more aware of my surroundings than in the past or perhaps there are more dogs around to be lost. Is this a trend?  I never see a sign for “lost cat,” presumably because cats never really get lost, rarely desire to be found and the effort required to find them would be questionable at best. Dogs, however, get lost. They wander away, or get confused, or stupidly run after a car and soon they find themselves away from home. Alone, afraid and misunderstood.

Dog, as I am reliably told, is God spelled backwards. So many of us love dogs because of the seeming unconditional love that they express to others. And it is this love which, in a small but real way, reflects the love that God has for us. Yes, God is just crazy about us! He loves us because he loves us because he loves us. Not because of anything that we do, but because of who he is. And so, I wonder: When we get lost, what kind of sign does God make? When we stop praying, when we cease going to Mass, when we abandon the practice of our Catholic faith or live seriously wicked and sinful lives, what is written on God’s sign? How does he go about looking for us?

Of course, God knows everything. He already knows where we are — even when we stray. But he never violates our free will, never forces us to come back. But he does place signs along the road showing us the way back home; many, many, many signs. Perhaps the sign might be a memory of praying with our grandmother when we were very young. How kind she was! Maybe the sign pointing the way back home is a reminder we receive of an experience we had in Catholic school where the Mass and daily prayer were part of our daily life. How peaceful we felt when we were there! Or the sign might be something the priest said recently when we made that difficult, yet honest confession. Or, the firm advice of a trusted friend. All of these things are signs, showing us the way back home again. Do we follow these signs or do we keep running? And where exactly are we running to?

Yes, sometimes the signs that God gives us come in the form of great suffering in our lives. When we hit rock bottom from an addiction or because of an abusive relationship, through the mist and confusion and pain we see God’s sign to come home again. Often God uses beauty — in art, film, literature, music or nature — as a great big sign pointing towards his presence in our lives. Do we see it or do we miss it along the way?

There is an old phrase which states, “You can never go home again.” Perhaps. But with God, we can always go home again! And when we run away or stray, the signs that God puts up with our face and his contact information is not for others to see, but for us to notice. Even if we give up on God, he never gives up on us! He points the way back home through his grace and mercy. And there will be much rejoicing in heaven over the one lost sheep who has returned. Jesus is in the saving business and he never, never, ever gives up on us!

Many years ago, my family dog ran away. I remember the agony of trying to find Billy the Basenji. For hours my family and I searched the city streets and asked for St. Anthony’s prayers. Eventually, at dusk, we found him two miles away being walked by strangers who gave the distinct impression of wanting to keep him. The worry, angst and unknown were terrible — something I would never want to repeat again. But we all repeat it sometimes. Why do we put ourselves through this same ordeal? Let us follow the signs and return home to our Father’s house and be at peace.

Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”