Spiritual Wisdom from Cats

Spiritual Wisdom from Cats


Our animal chaplain shares some potent spiritual lessons from a little black cat.

“Deacon got outside!” I exclaimed. I looked over my shoulder to ensure that the front door was closed—it was. Whew. And yet, a doppelganger of my feline roommate was creeping across our backyard, crouching slowly through piles of leaves, clearly up to something that field mice would not appreciate.

Like every morning, I had been watching the warblers and sparrows twitter among the branches of the black walnut tree outside the window and the eastern gray squirrels pop across the field while I drank my tea, a practice I call “Good Morning, Habitat!”

There is a regularity to my practice. I know which beings will show up and am familiar with their typical paths across the grass. With delight, I can recognize the songs of the birds and often find myself chittering back at them. I know where the squirrels have placed their dreys. (One is very easily identifiable—the squirrels dragged a set of my prayer flags from Tibet up there for building material!) In these ways, my “Good Morning, Habitat!” practice is grounding precisely due to its unremarkable-ness. It orients me to my world.

Learning from Animals … Respectfully

Yet, I now sat spellbound, watching the slow, methodical progression of a previously unknown black cat across the land, unable to pull my eyes away. It’s a darn good thing I don’t live in the 13th century when Pope Gregory IX was around. In his effort to punish nonbelievers, he issued the Vox in Rama, implicating cats as an incarnation of Satan. To this day, some people still believe that black cats are bad luck, but not me. I adore them, and I sensed there was something I needed to learn from this specific creature.

Now, I’m quick to avoid suggesting that animals come here to teach me lessons. I’m not that arrogant to think that their lives are merely in service to mine. Paradoxically, I’ll confess I’ve got stacks of animal wisdom card decks and books suggesting what it means when a cardinal flies past or I glimpse a bear. At the same time, I realize viewing animals in this way is unabashedly anthropocentric and problematic because it can minimize their life. I cannot believe a cardinal’s life purpose is to fly around past my window, delivering messages to me from my deceased father. And yet, when I see a cardinal, I may cast my eyes to the sky and offer, “Hey, Pop. I miss you.”

I think the contradictions oozing through the paragraph above are common for those of us who have strong connections to animals. As a compromise, I try to see creatures not as here for me so much as inspiring something within me.

Learning from Cats

While staring at the little cat, I took an accounting of my inner state. Or, more accurately, I looked down at the to-do list beside me; it read more than 30 items I planned on accomplishing that weekend. I thought, “Learn from the cat. Go slowly. Pick one target. Remain focused. Slow down.”

Auspiciously, in my to-read pile was Sit in the Sun: And Other Lessons in the Spiritual Wisdom of Cats by Jon M. Sweeney. Like me, the author is acutely interested in what can be learned from animals; he is particularly interested in spiritual practices inspired by cats. So, I settled in on the sofa for a good slow read. Afterwards, I reached out to Sweeney with some of my most curious questions about what he thinks we might be able to learn from our feline housemates—and perhaps even those outside our windows.

Bowen: Sit in the Sun includes 17 lessons inspired by your life with cats. Which was the most difficult lesson for you to embrace?

Sweeney: It is difficult to choose only one. There are ways in which my felines suit my already-decent disciplines of “keeping to a schedule” and “quieting yourself” because some disciplines and practices simply fit our personalities—you know what I mean? Those practices come rather easily or naturally to me. But I would say that, among those that don’t at all come naturally, and one that Martin and Rosa teach me daily is: “Don’t take embarrassment seriously.” Martin amazes me in his ability to attempt something daring, fail miserably, and then shake it off easily. It is a gift that I hope he’ll eventually impart to me.

Each chapter in the book ends in a “Human Practice” or “Practice for Cats and Humans” that the reader can try. Which practice is most precious to you and why?

Again, this is tough! There are many spiritual practices that I value and that I do every day and every week. I try to purr, for example, in my prayer. I practice sitting in the dark and focusing on what I see and what I don’t see.

But if I’m choosing just one as precious, I’d say it is the practice “Refuse to Be Tamed.” This one helps us unlearn unhealthy, unthinking obedience. I even suggest that St. Francis of Assisi—patron saint of non-human animals and creatures everywhere—would have understood this practice, along with Martin and Rosa. It is a contemplative exercise that helps us discern when we should have said no instead of yes and helps us revalue some of those hardwired ways in which we go through life thinking, erroneously, that saying no is wrong, when it isn’t.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing cats (as a species) today?

I talk in my book about the mystery of house cats, about their eyes in particular, and the inscrutableness of felines to human beings. I think this is the biggest challenge cats face: the threat of human violence and neglect because humans are very often afraid of what we cannot understand and what we cannot control. I ask my readers (who are surely cat lovers already) to help others understand that all of the ways cats elude our grasp and understanding are, in fact, what makes them beautiful, valuable, and our teachers.

Pondering "Cat-ness"

After finishing Sweeney’s book, I began to ponder the little black cat in the back field again, and what lessons I might learn from the encounter. Beyond noticing I needed to slow down, I also had an opportunity to consider the cat’s “cat-ness.” I noticed how comfortable the collarless cat was out there hunting, perfectly attuned to the out-of-doors. I resisted my urge to drag the animal inside for domestication in order to feel the sense of love that can come from being in a relationship with a cat. (I also made a note to check our town’s online listings for missing cats in case I was off in my assessment of his free-living nature.)

With tension, I also noted my concern for whether the cat was okay. And I pondered how it felt to know that this magnificent little creature’s “cat-ness” may negatively impact the other beings in the habitat in which I live. I offered my own short spiritual practice, a blessing inspired by the messiness of interspecies living: “Good luck, birds and squirrels. May you be safe. And at the same time, dear little cat, may you be nourished and sustained.”

Want more feline inspiration? Read “Helping At-Risk Cats—and Incarcerated People.”

Spiritual Wisdom from Cats

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