Spiritual Counsel Part 1: Barking Dogs

“It’s good that you see spiritual direction in terms of a dog, instead of only as a matter of prayer methods.” This was my spiritual director’s response when, early in our twenty-five years together, I told him about a neighbor’s dog barking all night, keeping me awake. I’d been agonizing over my soul’s relation to this constant distress. How could I accept this trial in grace?

“You’re not meant to simply accept it,” Bill said. (Bill was Fr. William Shannon. Previously I wrote about how I started going to him, and the soul friendship we developed. “Your neighbor is being inconsiderate by leaving his dog outside all night. You must talk to him about it: tell him the barking is keeping you from sleeping.”

Wow, I thought, such utterly practical advice. So this wasn’t a matter of my spiritual inadequacies after all.

Over the twenty-five years of monthly meetings with Bill, this kind of experience would recur. (I’m a slow learner, I guess.) I’d come to him with a trial that was distressing me, assuming that my spiritual immaturity was the problem. Bill would respond by asking lots of practical questions about the issue.

There was, for instance, the issue of our backyard fence, also in the early years of my monthly sessions seeking Bill’s counsel.

My husband and I live in a city neighborhood, where houses are close together. Our backyard patio is six feet from our property line; on the other side of the line is the neighboring house’s fifty-foot back yard. That house has changed owners often in the thirty-five years that we’ve lived here, but at the time of this incident we were close friends with the owners.

We enjoyed their company, but we also wanted to be able to sit and read alone on our patio sometimes, without socializing. So we had a contractor design a Japanese-style wooden fence as a privacy backdrop to our patio: about five feet high and eighteen feet long. The fence followed the edge of our patio, so it was several feet from the property line.

We loved the fence design, and happily showed it to these neighbors. To our shock, they balked. They objected that it would block their extended view through our property into our Japanese garden.

I agonized over their objections, feeling that as a Christian I was supposed to put others’ needs before my own. I eagerly, anxiously, awaited my monthly meeting with Bill, so that I could ask for his spiritual direction on this excruciating matter.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal after that meeting:

Yesterday I dumped all of the above on Bill. His response, as often, pleasantly surprised me. He took careful note of all the landscaping details, studied the picture I drew of our backyards, then said thoughtfully: “You shouldn’t bring the subject up again with your neighbors. Your structure—and call it an ‘enclosure,’ not a ‘fence’—will be far enough from the property line not to hurt their plantings, and anyway that’s a lesser need than the important need for privacy for you and George.”

I mentioned the confusion of reading Meister Eckhart (for instance) on “detachment” while feeling attached to my privacy and my fencing. Bill smiled as we chatted about Eckhart’s “radical” ways of talking about our relation to God but said that Eckhart isn’t talking there about our relations to everyday things. An “attachment” isn’t necessarily bad. It can be, as in the case of George’s and my wanting privacy to sit and read in our backyard, a reasonable legitimate need—a good for us. We owe it to ourselves to use our property for our good, as long as it doesn’t harm others.

What a relief I felt! At that stage, I’d never have been able to sort out these distinctions for myself.

Nearly a decade later, after absorbing Bill’s counsel for years, I did a bit better—though I still needed his perspective on my fussings over practical matters. My husband and I were planning a trip to visit friends in Columbia, where we’d be traveling through the country and sometimes sleeping in the same room with them. Since I’m a light sleeper, I always turn on a white noise machine at night. But I was embarrassed to be bringing this machine on the trip.

When I came to Bill with this anxiety and asked, “Do I need a little spiritual fine-tuning?” he said, “No, this problem is your psychology. Your anxious temperament is your Cross.” But then he took a practical turn: “Why not bring a small travel fan? It looks less weird than a white-noise machine.”

I’d actually thought of this option myself earlier that very day. So when I got home from seeing him, I wrote in my journal: “It’s characteristic of Bill to see my problems in terms of concrete fix-its. And I’m encouraged that I’d pretty much come up with the same approach as he had—of course because he has helped me distinguish, over these ten years or so, between psychological and spiritual problems.”

Not that I don’t have plenty of spiritual faults. And plenty of need for prayer. But Bill’s counsel on that will wait for tomorrow’s post.

 

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times(Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

  • Maureen

    Peggy, I love your Spiritual Counsel posts, and how Fr. Bill’s wisdom has rubbed off on you. What a wonderful teacher!

  • Steve Olson

    Lovely post though I think one may legitimately take issue with the rational for keeping the fence. I’m reading Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation and have read Meister Eckhart and I do not believe either advocated an accomodation for the things of this world. The desire is to unite with the Divine and any accomodation to “fences’ is nothing more than an accomodation to the self. All that aside we are imperfect humans and we make necessary accomodations all day long. We ought to be honest with our inability to release “things” rather than bending Truth to fit our needs.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Steve, thanks for this thoughtful and forthright comment. I agree that our human imperfection leads us to “accommodate” very, very often to our need for “things.” Merton & Eckhart are great spiritual teachers on this subject.

  • V. Bocassi

    How soon after you erected your patio “enclosure” did those neighbors move?

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      They were quickly reconciled to our enclosure… because we’d already been good friends. They did move after about 5 years, but because one of them got a job in a another city.
      (Fun pix: I can assure you our Japanese fence doesn’t look like this!)

      • V. Bocassi

        Happy ending, then! It attests to the power of genuine friendship in smoothing over potential conflicts. However, I still believe you received the wrong counsel in this matter. If you made it clear that you were approaching your neighbors for their assent about a decision you had made that affected their property as well as your own, it would be fair to go ahead with your plans in the absence of that assent. But as you describe the situation, you went to them for their consent, and when you failed to obtain it, you ignored them. I would argue that by doing so you turned your ostensibly considerate and courteous actions into an empty gesture. Furthermore, in balancing your desires for an addition to your property against their wish to maintain the status quo for their own, I would say that their position should take precedence, since they might have every expectation that the open space and its attendant view–a very basic set of components for their choosing to live there, I gather–would continue into the future once they acquired their property, while you’re alteration of that constant openness and visual perspective is largely motivated by an envisioned activity that you decided upon after you moved in to your own property and one that is far more narrow in scope, the occasional opportunity to read outdoors without having to be bothered by prying eyes or even neighborly chitchat. Nonetheless, I am genuinely pleased to learn that you were able to do what you wanted without any serious repercussions. (And I’m glad you enjoyed my little illustration of the prickly point I wanted to make, possibly as a visual echo of Robert Frost.)

      • V. Bocassi

        Does it look like this?


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