My sister and I recently got a dog. Well, to be quite honest, we did not so much get a dog as “borrow” our parent’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy at the beginning of quarantine. We thought Copper Penny would offer temporary therapy—just as we thought quarantine would be temporary. But here we are in January, 10 months into pandemic living and 10 months into dog ownership. I don’t think either is leaving any time soon.
The gift that Copper offers—the main reason my parents don’t mind his permanent stay—is the joy he brings. That dog is the reason my sister/roommate and I still talk to each other after months in seclusion. There’s something healing in how he sleeps with his toes over his nose, how he serenely watches butterflies, how he will drop anything to cuddle with you in his favorite couch spot, how he bounces around at the dog park.
Copper reminds me that God is good, and God is present in this world. In the face of a pandemic, unparalleled natural disasters, an election cycle full of fearmongering and coded language, the seemingly endless fight for racial justice, the continued violence against people of color, and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, I need that. I need to know, to feel that God is here in the suffering, that God meets me in my material body through the ordinary made extraordinary.
We learn different names for this goodness in seminary: realized eschatology, the transcendent, a sacrament, the transfiguration. While naming something does give it power, it can also relativize it. As a result, it becomes easy to box up God’s eternal presence entering time into an academic idea and to slide it onto the theological shelves of our brains. The transcendent can feel abstract, especially as we are facing a world frothing in chaos.
As theologically trained helpers, we see someone hurting and we want to fix it. We know that faithful, sacrificial action is needed in the world. And we believe it is the call of Jesus, as he reminds us in Matthew 25, to offer care to those whom society designates as the “least of these.”
However, I am constantly learning that there is a difference between acting because I am needed to fix the problem and acting with an eye out for the transcendent—for how God is already at work. Because it’s the divine mystery of God entering time that gives the people of God hope and sets us apart in our action.
As Emmanuel Y. Lartey writes in his book In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, recognizing the transcendental in life is essential in “[distinguishing] a pastoral caregiver from other careers.” Pastoral caregiving necessitates keeping our eyes open for the transcendent. Or, as Lartey would say, “The pastoral healer listens deeply to the sighs and groans of humans in distress . . . and is sensitive and open to the transcendent in whatever form or shape, knowing that the transcendent mediates love, support, and help.”
Consequently, there is a connection—growing in my mind, at least—between the sacramental nature of life, caregiving, and justice work. For, as practical theologian James N. Poling suggests in the introduction to Lartey’s book, “care is an issue of power, that is, the development and distribution of resources for persons who need care to live a safe and prosperous life.” Therefore, pastoral caregiving is justice work and pastoral caregiving cannot be separated from God’s presence in time. As with most theological thinking, digging deeper merely reveals a more intricate web of interconnectivity.
This connection, while vast, does help me speak more certainly about the nature of my education. As trained theological thinkers, we are baptized (and, in some cases, ordained) to face a chaotic world not only with sensitivity, not only with a mind toward justice, but with an eye out for the transcendent.
In what ways is God already at work in the world, in your life? Perhaps it is the small things—like a dog waking you up with kisses—that give you the strength to go on into another day.
Rose Schrott is a third-year Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A child of Pittsburgh, she is interested in the intersection between writing, spiritual formation, and theology. On any given day, you will find her reading, writing, or cuddling her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Copper.