Notes on...

The holy pedigree of cats

20 April 2019

9:00 AM

20 April 2019

9:00 AM

It is claimed that the prophet Muhammad loved cats. His favourite was called Muezza and he would do without his cloak on a cold day rather than disturb his sleeping pet.

Muhammad was not alone in finding these creatures beguiling. Indeed, despite there being no mention of them in the Bible, cats have a prestigious holy pedigree in Christianity too.

The medieval mystic St Julian of Norwich locked herself away in a room attached to a church, dispensing prayer and advice to those who passed. It was a tough calling for she was alone, anchored to the church — which was why she was known as an anchoress. Her one companion was her tabby who would sit with her while she prayed with the lonely, the desperate and the conscience-struck.

Then there’s the old legend about the new-born Jesus in his crib. A local tabby, having given itself a good wash, instinctively jumped in and laid down next to the Lord. The cat’s warmth and comforting purr helped the saviour of the world get a good night’s sleep — and anyone who lets their cat into the bedroom know the sleep-inducing properties of both these things.

C.S. Lewis also loved cats. He referred to the Siamese owned by his wife Joy as his ‘step-cat’, and took in a stray tom of his own, which he treated with great affection. Each day he would doff his hat to the cat and say a sonorous ‘Good morning’. When advised by the vet that the old fella needed putting down Lewis refused to give up on his friend. For years afterwards, he fed him a special diet of cooked fish and nursed him through a well-earned retirement.

The Celts both loved and feared our feline friends. Which may not be a bad insurance policy. The subject of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Esther’s Tomcat’ is both serene — ‘stretched flat/ As an old rough mat’ — and a ruthless killer, well able to bring down a fully-armoured knight from his horse with a swipe of the claws.

The most beautiful poem about the strange divine nature of cats is by the 18th-century high-church Anglican Christopher Smart. ‘Jubilate Agno’ features a moving tribute to his cat Jeoffry. Smart was later to be confined to an asylum suffering from ‘religious mania’ but his poem makes a point a lot of people have felt — that these magnificent little creatures have a way of helping us see the wonder at the heart of creation.

Smart begins by asserting that Jeoffry is ‘the servant of the living God’ — which may be pushing it for some. But for Smart, the very cattiness of a cat ‘wreathing’ its body is itself a kind of prayer. He takes delight in Jeoffry’s ‘mixture of gravity and waggery’ and suggests something that many of us cat-lovers would echo: every house is empty without a feline.

When Smart’s contemporary Dr Johnson lost his cat Hodge, he was awash with grief. During my training to be a parish priest, a wizened old vicar once told me how best to respond if any parishioners asked whether their cats and dogs were going to heaven: ‘Just say yes, whatever you believe. It will make your life easier.’ I actually say ‘yes’ these days not for an easy life, but because I think they are. It wouldn’t be heaven without them, would it?

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