Dog Sledding and the Soul: Faith, Hope, and Love in the Spiritual Journey

I want to write a little on how the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love elevate the soul’s human nature as she journeys homeward toward Heaven. To do this, I shall use the example of dog sledding. 

The musher is the driver, the one who dictates where and when the sled goes and at what pace. He makes the decision. But it’s the dogs that propel him so he can get there. And he needs a lantern to see at night. These represent the three faculties of the soul: the will, the passions or emotions, and the intellect. The will is the part of the soul that chooses the good—which is what morality consists of—which is the end of man in order to be happy. Happiness is the attainment of the good. But to propel one toward the good and away from evil, one needs the passions: love, hate, desire, aversion, joy, pain, hope, despair, fear, daring, and anger. And to perceive the good that will make one happy, one needs the intellect. However, because of sin, our passions have become disordered, our intellect darkened, and our will weak. The lantern glows dimly, and proves even more useless when there’s a storm; the sled dogs are disordered, pulling in different directions, or else one or two take over and drag the others and the whole sled and musher to boot off to who knows where; and the musher is timid, or overly confident of where he’s headed, and cannot direct the sled the right way even if he does see it. When these things all function as they ought to, the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance show forth. But to ascend from the baseness of sin to the glory of Heaven for which we are made, we need the theological virtues which, along with the other virtues, grant the musher the ability to reach the end of the race: Heaven, eternal and perfect happiness forever. 

As the body needs food, so the soul needs nourishment. And the three faculties of the soul—will, intellect, and passions—receive nourishment in the form of goodness, truth, and beauty. Faith is the theological virtue that corresponds especially to the intellect, granting the soul the ability to perceive divinely revealed truth. It perceives what cannot be seen, reveals the truth of Christ so that the soul can choose friendship with Him, which is what Heaven is. Faith not only perceives, but believes the truth. Faith is the fire that lights the lamp of the sled so that the musher can see where to go. Without faith, the musher could not hope to attain happiness in Heaven, for he is blind without it, and he would ramble about on the lower parts of the mountain till he died of exhaustion and cold. 

Hope is the desire for happiness in God and trust in the Holy Spirit’s help to attain it. Hope is what keeps the musher going when the going gets tough, strengthening the lead husky Fortitude and his teammate Temperance so they won’t grow timid in the face of adversity, or let the other dogs go off in different directions. Hope keeps the dogs from running off wildly or getting distracted, and it keeps them from growing tired, lethargic, or indifferent. It corresponds to temperance, by which the passions are kept in check—neither too wild nor too timid. Hope doesn’t keep the dog Anger from running: It keeps him set on the goal without running too fast or too slow, which is done through meekness. To ‘meek a river’ meant to direct its power and flow without damming it up or letting it overflow. Without hope, the soul develops acedia, or sloth, which is is the aversion to one’s potential greatness, a rejection of the joy of Heaven. Sloth includes business and distractions through work, Netflix, social media, the news, drugs and alcohol, etc. Through temperance and hope, the sled dogs are kept in line, focussing all their attention on what the lantern light of faith shows the musher to be the greatest good he can have. 

Love is the virtue by which the musher wills or chooses good for another. Love desires to make others happy and to make God happy. Love responds to the One who first loved us. It receives, lets itself be filled, and overflows with love. Love is the form of faith and hope—for if we really believe, and if we truly desire Heaven, we will live as if we believed and wanted it, and this way of life is love. Love is an emotion, but it is also more than an emotion. Love is the act of giving up oneself for the good of another. Love is willing to suffer and sacrifice itself, and these are the main ways one loves. Love is what motivates, moves the musher. If the musher does not receive this greatest gift of love, then his lantern will go out, and even if it does not then he will not feel the need to go where it shines. He will think he has a better idea of how to get there, for he has not believed he is truly loved, that God wants his utmost happiness. Without love he will not have real hope, for the mountain top will just seem pointless to him. Why go up? What is there for me? I’m sure there’s something just as good for me down here, maybe even better. If he does not receive love, know Love, and offer back love, he will not have the strength to persevere, to point and drive the sled dogs through the strong wind, the sting of bitter cold, and the dark night. Love strengthens the soul to love in return. As one without hope despairs of his own happiness, he who does not love despairs of happiness for others and for God. Why would such a person choose Heaven, which is eternal friendship with others and with God? 

The musher must keep this in mind: To get to the mountain top, all that is required of him is to want it, to desire it. Because he does not kindle the lantern—his own light is hardly a glow—and it is the Holy Spirit who gives light, hope, and strength. Moreover, the light given is sufficient, but does not light the whole way to the top. It’s just enough for what’s needed in the moment. And the dogs are not perfectly trained yet. They won’t be till he reaches the top. And the musher is himself incapable of making his own light or managing the dogs perfectly. If he tries, he will become lost in the dark, tossed about by his dogs which have proven more powerful than he. Worse, he may even think he’s on the right track, and going there very fast—but the speed is the wildness of the dogs and the slope downhill, not uphill. This is why faith entails accepting all that Jesus teaches through written Tradition (Scripture), oral Tradition, and the magisterium of the Church. And it’s why hope involves detachment from all lesser goods so the soul is free to ascend. As St. John of the Cross said, whether it is a chain or a small string, if it anchors the bird, then she cannot fly away. But all that is required of the musher is to choose the good, to choose that which the Light reveals, to desire God. God will provide what is needed. God may even, to test the musher’s love, permit the lantern to be utterly darkened, and the dogs to become unruly. The musher must trust that, though he cannot see or sense it, he is being led on the right path, and will arrive safely, not because of himself, but because God is good and faithful. These tests may come to prove the will of the musher, to see if he is relying on his own sight or on the Giver of Light, on his own strength or on the Comforter. But if he desires happiness with God, then he will seek, and he will find. 

So onward, friends in Christ! Further up, and further in! Ours is a journey fraught with hardship. But be not afraid: We follow in the tracks of One who went before us, Who trod the same paths, Who overcame the same obstacles, Who is with us always. He is the Light of men, the hope of sinners, the Lover of souls. 

‘Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’~ John 16:32-33 

‘Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.’~ Hebrews 12:1-3 

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