Tertullian and our dog Seymour
All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.
What more need be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and glory forever.From the Treatise on Prayer by Tertullian
Last Thursday’s Office of Readings contained this segment written by the ancient Carthaginian Roman priest, Tertullian. The passage I quoted ends the treatise. Although the reading was one for a week ago Thursday, I have bookmarked it because his words incited my curiosity sufficiently to buy an E-Book on his ethical writings. And evoked a long-ago memory which makes me think of our dog Seymour.
Isn’t it odd how a gospel passage or familiar reading will seem to shout? I suspect I’ve read this passage for each of the eighteen years that I have prayed the Divine Office. And yet never before have the words so captured my attention.
Born in Carthage, North Africa, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus lived during the second century A.D. A member of the privileged and educated class, Tertullian’s pre-conversion life was similar to my own: godless, amoral and caught up in the hedonism of the times. Living during times not all that different from our own, he would have enjoyed the homo and heterosexual license enjoyed by the majority of Roman men. And most likely, he attended the circuses to watch gladiators kill each other and view foolish Christian men and women be eaten alive. Isn’t it all a mere matter of degree, after all?
My own experience teaches me that there is little difference in the reality of any religious conversion. Differences of century or individual natures at first appear primary but upon reflection, they disappear entirely. The reality is the same. We become wholly new...our former selves disappear. We no longer live for ourselves but abruptly know we belong. Perhaps for the very first time.
The one-time Roman enemy of the early Christian church begins his treatise on prayer with this sentence: “Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old.” And later in the same treatise, Tertullian writes boldly: “Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God.”
“Lin, look up at that tree.”
Startled, I obeyed the voice just in time to see an owl fly away, startled by my presence. I had been pondering just why we needed to pray, if God were omniscient, then He knew our thoughts so why did we need to pray to Him?
The bird was huge- at least three feet tall- and the wingspan vast. For a few moments, I stood and watched in awe as this stunningly majestic creature flew off toward the rising sun.
“That bird is being who and what I made him to be…but you and all humans must choose…”
Reading Tertullian’s words bring me back to the sound of the voice of the Lord in my head as clearly as that of my husband John’s when I returned home, breathlessly to tell him about my ‘conversation.’
And I think of why I have always loved animals, especially dogs…they are true to the nature given them by our Creator. Even during Seymour’s high-pitched and annoying barking, I love him-maybe not liking him, but aware that he is simply being Seymour.
The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.