From The Vicarage . .
“IN NOMINE PATRIS ET FELIS”
– In the name of the Father and of the Cat……
In the March magazine our curate, Revd Julie, introduced us to one of the great joys of her life, her little white terrier Toby. After describing his antics she went on to ask: “Is it too much to consider that dogs might teach us something about God?” ‘Oh doggify the Lord with me’ I thought, as I read on with rather mixed emotions. It is difficult to suspend one’s sense of disbelief if one is a ‘cat person’. I tried to get the hang of ‘seeing the world through the eyes of a dog’ – well, almost. Hmm – obedience and unconditional love? I wasn’t always very good at those with humans! Faithfulness, loyalty and forgiveness? – perhaps this is why every dog is secretly called Fido. But the price of such devotion, was – I tried to push the thought away - slobbery hands. So horrible was the memory, I even went straight off to wash them.
As the weeks passed and Julie’s article stayed in my mind, I began to feel that somebody of importance (me) should redress the balance by extolling the Catty-ness of God. In our kitchen stands a small wooden oblong, on which are inscribed the words: ‘Three cats ago, I was normal’. Now on Cat No 5, I felt that Liz and I are more than imbued with all the wisdom of Solomon on the subject.
Like humans, cats have unique personalities: and this is certainly true of the two clergy of the parish who are currently employed by their cats: Stephen, our Vicar, and Graham our Hon Assistant Priest. Tommy (aka Tompkin) at the Vicarage and Joseph here at ‘Selkirk House’ in Heybridge are both the proud owners of Church of England clergy. Specially vetted for this task by the Diocesan Bishop, Graham and Stephen have passed examinations in “Abject Subjection at Food Time”, and “Involuntary Besottment”.
But when it comes to spiritual matters, can we say that the cat species is capable of reflecting God? Well, since Egyptian days, the answer would appear to be ‘yes’. The goddess Bast was herself a cat. Many homes today sport a bust of Bast (!) so Bast ain’t bust (unless you’ve dropped her). It seems we should never underestimate the spiritual power of the common homely mog.
Perhaps we should begin with what a cat is not. The ‘notness’ of the cat is theologically important. A cat is not always friendly, but aloof. A cat does not always come when called. A cat is not always there – it may be in hiding or have gone annoyingly missing. In these ways, cats can teach us a lot about prayer. When we pray it may seem as if God is not there, or is not listening, or has even scarpered (known in the trade as ‘Deus Absconditus’). All these aspects of God are alarming: but hey, we should not be surprised. For God invented the cat.
Conversely the recreational and companionable aspects of our puss show us the faithful comfort of a God who is close. The God who is with us in our cat’s purr, their rolling on the carpet, blissful snoozing on the duvet, or jumping about chasing cat-toys or real mice.
However, the most famous lines about how a cat can possibly serve God were penned by the poet Christopher Smart (1722-71) as part of a religious poem Jubilate Agno, ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’(circa 1759-64). Despite being written in the madhouse (the impecunious Smart could not cope with a young wife and children to provide for) the poem is remarkably lucid; the 74 lines which begin ‘For I will consider my cat Jeoffry’ (Smart’s sole companion in confinement) are amongst the greatest favourites with the British public. Smart also adds some unusual detail to the Bible: ‘For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt, for every family had at least one cat in the bag.’ Cool.
What delights Smart most is that Joeffry’s every move, habit and peculiarity all reflect God. Jeoffry knows that ‘God is his Saviour’ and that he comes from ‘the tribe of Tiger’. As if by prophecy Smart patriotically declares in these days of Brexit that ‘English cats are the best in Europe’. So in every respect Joeffry is a servant of the living God: ‘he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good cat’.
Smart has some wonderful phrases about him: “a mixture of gravity and waggery”, “he can spraggle and waggle”; and early C18 science even makes an appearance - ‘by stroking of him I have found out electricity.’ That same electricity Smart interprets as the life-force: ‘the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.’
It is well worth seeking out Smart’s remarkable poem. It can be easily found on the internet. Reading it makes us very aware of how Smart sees the divine spirit as sustaining Jeoffry as ‘complete cat’. Just as you are I are ‘complete human’ through God’s grace.
One of the great things about Smart’s poem is his painstaking observation. Every habit, every typical cat behaviour, glorifies God. So when your cat next comes and sits on your computer keyboard (!) , why not use those interrupted moments for ‘wonder, love and praise’? And puss will be happy!