LINCROFT, NJ - “Getting a dog was, perhaps, an unusual choice of activity for my sabbatical time. It was new to me, for sure. When you are given such an amazing gift of 3 months to lay down your usual set of responsibilities and to chart a new course for that time, it can be overwhelming. In so many ways, our days and lives are defined by those regular responsibilities. Today represents a stream of choices and circumstances that all made sense at one time or another. To set them aside can make no sense at all!”

Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County is speaking about her recent three month sabbatical, some of which she shared with her new puppy whom she has named Sabbath Jane.

“I imagined that her presence would create that much needed Sabbath time, time away, a healthy distraction from the everyday, another focus separate from the responsibilities of ministry. I’m here to report that she was successful in many ways! Sabbath Jane is indeed a masterful distraction. Her presence in my life sets another pattern to my days. Her need for me to walk and play with her, train her, feed her and give her the affection she demands, allows me the space to be something other than a minister with more responsibility than power to fix all the brokenness set before me. This other kind of focus used to be held by my family when my children were younger but has naturally dissipated as they have grown up and become independent. Recently that gap in my heart started to hurt. I was needing that animal closeness...to feel more whole and connected.”

On August 16, Rev. Jarocha-Ernst returned to the congregation and gave a sermon that illuminated our need for breaks from routine and also the need for connection to both our animal and human spirits. Sabbath Jane and the Reverend spent the month of April in pre-tourist season Acadia National Park.

“So what was that trip to Maine with Jane really like? What did we learn? I learned that having a dog along on a hike is awesome! She motivates me to keep moving, and to go the distance no matter how hard it is. She always has more energy than I do. After a six mile slog through ice- and snow-covered trails, she is ready to go back and do it all over again.

We rarely parted company for those four weeks, but when I needed to run into the grocery store, she would take up her place behind the wheel of the car and wait for me, watching intently until I returned and shooed her to the back to where she belonged. Her enthusiasm for the adventure was infectious. She was always ready for a drive, for sightseeing and hiking. The only time she chose to stay indoors was when a nor’easter blew in. That is when staying by the fire was preferable.

I have always been willing and able to enjoy solitude. This was not the first time I’ve taken myself to the mountains or the sea without human companionship. It is important to note that a dog is not a human. It is not healthy to project human qualities on them. The conversations are certainly not the same. To Jane I am the pack leader and a best person, but in many ways our relationship is different from a human to human one. I find relief and good company in that difference!

It is a relief to step away from human expectations into animal ones, to be fulfilled by simple care for basic life necessities, food, shelter, exercise and discipline, all of which is surrounded by affection. Charlie Brown got it right when he said that “Happiness is a warm puppy.” The physical closeness, the activity and play, and the long naps are just what a human body on sabbatical needs to heal and find its center again.”

Rev. Virginia, as she is called by the congregation, continued to speak of the boundaries she felt she needed to maintain between the many issues and events going on in the Monmouth County congregation, although she did spend time reviewing ministerial journal articles about growing a congregation. The result of her reading was some non-productive anxiety but also a realization:

“Because the truth is that we do this thing called ‘congregation’ or ‘church’ pretty darn well week after week and day after day. The challenge of it is not for everyone. Any group of people who commit to such an endeavor will encounter conflict. We will meet people we may not always like or who do not share our perspective. Conflicts, when handled well, are learning opportunities. They can be transformed into deeper understanding if we are willing to stick with the process of getting through them. Difficult issues and conversations can open us to connection, holiness and wholeness. They can be transformed from fear to love, but it takes some work on ourselves and with others.”

Jarocha-Ernst concluded her sermon by speaking about the congregation’s “Coming of Age” service which she had attended before officially being back.

“It took just a few minutes, and I was collecting hugs and holding a baby. As the service began and familiar faces took charge of the service, my heart felt some things it had been yearning for. We rose in body and spirit and sang familiar songs together. We listened to our youth stake their claim to Unitarian Universalism and to their own voices. The offerings of music and poetry and fully thought-out words were a blessing to my lonely heart in exile. The feel of human community, the gathering of the beloved, the welcoming into that space created for all of us - was a truth I had forgotten that I needed. It was a human animal moment when the pack surrounded me and I knew I had a place in this world, that the choir of human voices was not complete until I gave mine to it.”

Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion that encourages each person to articulate their own faith and to listen deeply to what calls them to life. It asks only that you believe what you have to believe based on your own experience, that you respect the authenticity of others’ beliefs and that we can indeed come together in love.  In order to expand accessibility, the Congregation offers two services on Sunday at 9 and 11:00. UUCMC is a welcoming congregation. You do not have to be a member to attend. For further information, call the UUCMC at 732-747-0707.