My mother possessed the gift of hospitality. All who knew her marveled at her remarkable ability to charm people with spontaneous generosity and kindness.
But her benevolence wasn't limited to humans. She had the greatest affection for animals too, especially the many dogs that inhabited our home over the years. She raised fox terriers, and they were as much part of the family as any of us. So too was our only cat, who outlived many of the dogs and, for that matter, quite a few neighbors as well.
Throughout her life, Mom remained utterly convinced that she would one day be reunited with her earthly menagerie in heaven. With the hint of a smile on her face, and just a faint mist in her eyes, she would remind us every so often to include a box of dog treats in her final resting place. She said it was essential to be equipped with the dogs' favorite snacks when she was reunited with her departed canine friends.
But not everyone would share my mother's conviction on the fate of animals. In fact, it's an issue that biblical scholars have long debated: do animals go to heaven? Such disputes often lead to scripture-slinging, with both sides plucking corroborating verses from the bible to support their views.
Perhaps wise, old Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 4:16, best summed up the uncertainty with a question: "Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"
The existence of a heavenly zoo can be summed up by these basic questions: Will dogs (and presumably cats, too) sprout wings and fly off into the afterlife? What fate awaits pet rabbits and hamsters - equally beloved by their owners? Suppose all animals make it to the Promised Land. Does this mean we can look forward to an eternity with roaches, mosquitoes and flies? As if dying wasn't bad enough, you'd think we could at least get a reprieve from pests on the other side - it could hardly be called Paradise if bugs came along as well.
The preachers tell us that the key to unlocking the Pearly Gates is redemption. But unlike us humans, who are apparently awash with wickedness, animals have never sinned. (Note that being a "naughty boy" on grandma's priceless, antique Persian rug does not constituent a biblical sin.) So the question of redemption - and being judged accordingly - simply does not seem to apply to animals.
Along these lines, many theologians would argue that because animals lack a rational soul, this separates them (the animals, not the theologians) from humans, and they are therefore destined to be left behind as mere earthly memories. Moreover, there appears to be no significant biblical reference to animals having a spirit which will exist beyond physical life.
My mother, of course, entertained none of "that nonsense," as she called it. She was utterly convinced that all her dogs would enter a kingdom that would be free from fleas, worms, baths, thunderstorms, and vets. And, she would say, if any creatures were deserving of a special place of eternal peace and comfort, after giving a lifetime of unconditional devotion and affection, it would be her beloved dogs.
Mom left us several years ago. It comforted her to believe that a canine welcoming committee would be waiting patiently to greet her, to experience her hospitality one more time.
Nick Thomas has written for more than 180 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,