Sisters, Cats and Contemplation

My cat Tiger Lily died on Valentine’s Day. She was 18 and asleep on the sofa. She appeared to have a fierce dream -- I joked she was chasing real tigers. Then she was still, and after a bit we realized she had died.

Many years ago, before I had cats, I’d considered “Do animals go to heaven” a child’s question. Then I got to know Loretto Sr. Rose Alice Clarke. She was recording secretary of a French group devoted to developing a theology of the animal soul. “Of course animals go to heaven,” she said. “They have souls, don’t they?”

Rose Alice delighted in her dog whose name was Gigi, but Rose Alice’s intellectually vigorous discourse on the spiritual life of animals blew me away. She’d been a member of the French society for decades, translated their materials, and attended their meetings in Paris whenever she could.

At the other end of the spectrum was Sr. Albina Martowlos, who lived at our motherhouse in central Kentucky and protected all the cats and some dogs, ducks, and chicks that came within an acre or two of Loretto. It wasn’t animals’ souls that mattered so much to Albina as their lives in present moment. But when I told her about Rose Alice’s beliefs she said, “Well, of course,” and went on with whatever work I’d interrupted.

I bring up Rose Alice and Albina because my cats, Tiger Lily and Sweet William, turned out to have a decidedly church-going bent. Cats are contemplative by nature, self-contained and given to staring off into space. Will, black and white, is playful and ready to explore; Lily had a tortoise shell silky coat, swirled orange, black, white, and grey; she looked like a thick carpet. In St. Louis she laid all day on my bed as if planning to read trashy romance novels in French while eating chocolates. But I took the cats with me to a job in New York and we all lived in a convent that had a full chapel on the second floor. That became both cats’ favorite room. Often I came home from work or errands to find one of them sitting next to a prie dieu, looking intently at the altar.

Yes, the chapel was sunny and carpeted, but so were other rooms -- that also had comfy sofas. This room, with Jesus present in the tabernacle, had undeniable attractions to my cats, and I’m tempted, based on what I’ve learned from Rose Alice and Albina, to say the chief attraction was Jesus; that’s what they might say, and why not?

My own theology has changed in the past 20 years. Whatever happens after death, I think Albina had it right that now is the important moment. Back in St. Louis, our house is chilly and chapel-less, and when I’m home these days, in winter, my cats’ preferred space is my lap. It’s a wondrous thing to have a small, warm, furry being asleep on your lap. Lily rubbed her ears on the edge of my laptop computer and then stretched full-length across my legs while I balanced the computer on the arm of the chair. Will curls up more tidily, but he is more demanding, wanting me to scratch his ears.

What am I to learn from my cats’ behavior? I often imitate them; taken aback by their stillness, I too become still. I watch quietly, just breathing, appreciating the moment, appreciating the quiet of the presence of God.

I don’t know what Lily’s death means. I never had much taste for theology. And I am definitely “low” church. So, it seems, are my cats. They would surely run and hide from candles and incense. What happens after death doesn’t occur to them and it matters less and less to me. I’m grateful for now, the quiet of the moment, the quiet of Lily’s life and the quiet of her death. But it sure would be fun to see her again, young and silky, running through the fields of heaven and then sitting still, contemplating God.

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