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June 12, 2008
Petey turns around once and then stretches out in his accustomed spot: along the chapel wall right by the entrance, where he can monitor attendance. He is the convent dog; as such, he dresses more or less as the sisters do, in black with a white collar. He seems never to miss a service. A most devout dog, Petey.

At meals he works the room, strolling from diner to diner to collect neck rubs and chin strokes. He would dearly love to collect a bite of everyone's dinner on these forays, but all are strictly enjoined never to feed Petey from the table. The kitchen trash can is hard to find here, until somebody points silently to it, stationed high up on a shelf and whispers "The Dog." Oh, you nod. Understood. Petey simply cannot be trusted.

I'm a regular churchgoer who cannot be trusted, too, I guess. Certainly I attend plenty of church services. Certainly I pray and ponder and try enough, but somehow I always fall back into the very things from which I pray release. My strange combination of workaholism and sloth. My irrational gluttony -- not that there's any other kind of gluttony, I suppose: you wouldn't have rational gluttony. So aware that a power greater than myself can and must deliver me from these demons -- if I am to be delivered at all -- I seem unable, again and again, to allow it to do so. I cling instead to behaviors that have proven disastrous many times in my past.

Petey manages his willfulness by surrounding himself with structures that don't allow it to have its way with him. Well, he doesn't do it on his own, of course; his sisters do it for him, putting the trash can up high where he can't reach it, offering a pat instead of a nibble. They are willing to deny him a momentary kindness in order to give him a long life, a gift I have a hard time giving myself.

A retreat is a time when a person can afford to think of such things. Can't afford not to, maybe. Even if one is leading the retreat, there are still long stretches of silence in which there is nobody to confront but oneself. Whatever it takes to begin a painful conversation with the self -- however many times it has happened before -- is a good thing indeed. And having failed before, however many times, is absolutely no reason not to try again.
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