In Praise of a Cat

I even praise the cat,
Its savage patience and quick paws
            Stephen Dobyns

My mother was an intuitive, a kind of white witch, close to the earth; and, like all good seers, she always had a cat, black with one white patch – a spot on the breast, or paw.

My mother’s cat had nothing to do with other members of the family. She held allegiance only for Mummy. She was often seen (when she was seen at all, for she was a retiring, modest, rather introverted, and noise-averse animal) cleansing herself daintily beside my mother’s chair. The remarkable thing is that when one cat died of old age, my mother never replaced her. She didn’t need to. In a few weeks a little black kitten would walk, mewing out of the woods, wrap herself around my mother’s feet, and boldly enter the house, to replace the one just lost.

When Mummy died at the youthful age of 68 of lung cancer, the cat, who slept at the foot of her bed, vanished. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. It would not surprise me to discover (when I pass over myself) that she had found a way to join my mother behind that Impenetrable Wall. That’s the love of a cat.

Now here is something curious. No cat is mentioned in the Bible. No cat leapt onto Jesus’ lap. Or arched its sinuous back for the stroking fingers of King David. No Mary or Moses bent to feed a plaintive mew. Yet cats have lived with humans for 9000 years. Today 90 million domesticated cats live in 34% of homes in the United States; they are the most popular pet. Cats hear in the ultrasonic range, and with low-light vision, they see in the dark. They can spring many times their height. They like to perch on high places. The purring of a cat rumbles at the same frequency that your doctor will use to send electrical current into a fractured bone. Cats are known (like dogs, I admit it) to travel hundreds of miles to find their way home.

In ancient Egypt the cat was considered the incarnation of the Goddess Bast, and when one man killed (by accident?) a cat in Alexandria, the angry mob tore him limb from limb.

Why is no cat mentioned in the Bible? Cattle, sheep, donkeys are reported, even pigs. (Remember Christ sending a demon into a herd of 100 pigs? They launched themselves off a cliff—and you can bet the owner of those pigs was mad!). But no cats.

Six hundred years later, a cat was the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite animal, and he extolled his followers to love cats and treat them well, as they are “of those who go around among us.” It is said that because the Prophet Muhammad loved cats, they have four stripes, the marks of his fingers stroking their heads. So beloved was his cat, Muezza, that seeing the animal lying one morning on his cloak at the call to prayer, and not wanting to disturb the beautiful creature, he carefully cut off the sleeve, and put it on, minus a sleeve, to perform his prayers.

           During the last illness of Jalaluddin Rumi, the famous poet, his cat kept vigil outside the cell, and when he died, his cat walked with all the mourners in the funeral procession, following him to the grave. Later, it sat at the threshold of Rumi’s meditation cell, refused to eat or drink and did not survive its master by more tLOVE, ALBAhan a week. Rumi’s daughter wrapped the cat in a winding sheet and buried it beside the saint.

            Modern day Sufis, like the Hindu Jains, take great care not to tread on an ant or caterpillar or to kill a fly or bee or spider.

So why is no cat mentioned in the Hebrew Bible? Why none in the New Testament? It grieves me. Even dogs are mentioned (though derisively—as in, the dogs ate the body of Jezebel). Is it because the cat was considered a goblin?

In one Buddhist story, the cat rebelled against the Lord Buddha and did not receive his blessing. But I have a book at my bedside, The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth, winner of a Newbery Medal award. In this Japanese tale the impoverished artist is commissioned to paint the Compassionate One, together with a parade of all the animals he has loved or whose incarnations he lived—the snail, the swan, the horse, the dog, the tiger, the elephant. Only the proud and self-reliant little house cat (thought to be a goblin) is purposely left out of the painting. But the artist has a cat, which sits watching him at work, and finally with his heart breaking, knowing he will lose his commission, the artist paints, the last in the parade, a cat. I won’t tell you the ending. Buy the book. I defy you to read it without tears pricking your eyes.

Cats love our prayers. Cats wallow in the energy of Reiki, and whenever I gave Reiki or taught Reiki, my cat would lie nearby, rolling onto her back in ecstasy. (The dog would have to leave the room, panting, unable to bear the excess of energy.) You can see why the Egyptians might elevate a cat to the level of a goddess.

You can also see that I love cats and why I chose a cat to narrate my latest novel,d LOVE, ALBA. If this blog is about wisdom, surely it must bow before the beauty and wisdom of a cat. Even though no one thought to write about it, I like to think that Jesus bent to scratch the ears of a cat or heal its hurt paw, that his Mother let her cat sit on her lap, purring, while she sewed.

Here are three old books about cats, each still worth reading:

The Personality of the Cat: its many-sided nature as revealed in stories, pictures and poetry, edited by Brandt Aymar.. Bonanza Books, 1958.

The Cat Who Walked by Himself, and other stories, by Rudyard Kipling.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, Aladdin Books, 1958.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of a Cat

  1. I heard the tale that a mother cat left her kittens to cuddle the infant Jesus and purr him to sleep. An exhausted Mary was so grateful, she traced her initial on the cat’s forehead, and that is why all tabby cats have an “M” marking on their foreheads.

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