catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 2 :: 2006.01.27 — 2006.02.09


All creatures of our God

One of the reasons my wife and I thought it might be good to start a cat-sitting business was that doing manual labor would free up our minds to work on writing projects. I figured it should be easy to hang out with a cat in my lap and spend time at the keyboard, or at least to hash over ideas in my head as I go through the routines of feeding them. But what we’ve found is that pets are very good at drawing you into the moment with them. Pets don’t spend a lot of time looking toward the future, planning the day, or worrying about what’s ahead. They only know: Now I’m hungry. Now I want to play. Hey, that lap looks nice.

A friend of mine once told me he loved having a cat but refused to be the one to scoop the litter box, because he had to make sure the cat knew who was master. But in truth, as far as bosses go, cats are pretty easy. They don’t make unreasonable requests of you; they don’t hold mistakes against you. They simply ask you to pay attention to the moment, to be present with them. They can be great teachers of simplicity.

It’s easy to sentimentalize animals, and I’m not saying much by suggesting that hanging around with a pet can be good for the soul. What surprised me was how well I came to connect with other people’s pets, that they didn’t all just blur together into a generic feline hodgepodge. I know their names and faces, favorite toys and personalities. It’s like walking through the forest for years and only just seeing the individual trees for the first time. I get a small glimpse of what St. Francis’s outlook on life must have been, who talked to animals as brothers and sisters in God’s creation, who treated even fire and wind as siblings in this world. Everything was noticed; everything had value. If even the rocks and trees will cry out praises to God, how much more everything that has breath.

There are certain cats who are not particularly interested in our company, and sometimes we we’ve taken care of fish and birds who make no acknowledgment of our presence. It’s easier to move past these animals to my other priorities, but still, the invitation for presence is open. I think of recent documentaries I’ve seen like the undersea explorations Into the Deep and Aliens of the Deep, both of which reveal oceanic creatures that scientists never knew existed. As we get glimpses of these amazing, almost Dali-like creatures, I get overwhelmed with a sense of privilege at being able see a world that for eons no one knew of but God. Whereas humans have tended to make nature serve our purposes, these ecosystems have served no purpose but to bring God joy. Even in the depths of the ocean, God is there, present in their living and dying, in their beauty and motion. A goldfish, although more common, can also be a gateway for feeling more deeply God’s benevolence and imagining His joy as life-giver.

Maybe it is easier to lavish attention on that which is novel, to take an interest in what we encounter for only a short period of time. Actually owning a cat means that a great amount of the time I’m busy doing other things and am not wholly present with her at all times. Many clients joke that their cats prefer when they go on vacation because they get more playtime and care, and the same probably goes for our cat. The same probably goes for anyone we live with, work with, or see every day in class. Familiarity diffuses the spark of interest we feel when first getting to know someone, and after a while we stop listening and just assume we know what to expect. But the rewards of long-term friendships, marriages, church bodies, and even pet ownership can be immense if we learn to renew that presence again and again. Pets, I think, can help spur that attention; they get in your face when they need you but they don’t keep grudges when you don’t respond as they wish. That might not be a bad habit to emulate.

Before we got a cat I wondered about the wisdom of spending money and time on a pet when there are so many people in need in the world. The billions of dollars spent on food, doghouses, cat trees, and fish tanks surely seems extravagant, and when we adopted our cat we began sponsoring a second child through World Vision to exceed the ongoing food and care budget for the cat. We wanted to make sure that a pet didn’t decrease our investment in other people but increased it. Along the way, I’ve come to realize that paying for a pet is not a zero-sum proposition like purchasing a new stereo. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that heightens the quality of life for both sides. Pets get to avoid the natural order of becoming prey when they reach a certain age, and, according to studies, people with pets tend to live longer as well. Love prolongs life. Animals get to experience the care of the benefactor, and by being benefactors people are made more responsible, more aware, more open-hearted. If God cares about even the sparrow that falls to earth, we are perhaps even doing something of God’s work.

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