In moments of feminine exasperation I have been known to comment that my domestic life is overwhelmed by males. I live in a household with one husband, two sons, and three male (well, technically male) cats.
The senior cat is a nine-year-old patriarch who adopted us as a stray kitten. The other two are year-old litter mates whose mother died three weeks after their birth. Our boys took them in, fed them by hand, and named them Calvin and Hobbes (after the comic strip characters, not our theology).
There are certainly more expensive pets to own. But the annual cost of feeding, vaccinating, and sometimes transporting three cats is still not trivial. I once heard someone assert that it was immoral for Christians to lavish food and care on pets when so many human beings were physically and emotionally starved. The speaker was an art historian whose house was filled with lovely paintings and woodcuts. Apparently he believed, with Hans Rook-maaker, that art needs no justification. But in his thinking, none could be found for having pets.
C. S. Lewis would have disagreed. He was certain that animals have more than just a utilitarian function for people. For one thing, they remind us of our creatureliness and give us needed relief from the burden of being flawed stewards of creation. “We all at times feel our human isolation from the subhuman world,” he wrote in The Four Loves. “The atrophy of instinct which our intelligence entails, our excessive self-consciousness, the innumerable complexities of our situation, our inability to live in the present. If only we could shuffle it all off! We must not—and cannot—become beasts. But we can be with a beast.… It has three legs in nature’s world and one in ours. It is a link, an ambassador. Man with dog [or cat] closes a gap in the universe.”
But we stand in ambiguous relation to the animal world—part of it, yet transcending it. So Lewis also saw humans as “priests of the animals.” Just as Christ, being both human and divine, is our link to God, so human beings—creatures, yet uniquely in God’s image—are animals’ link to transcendence. Lewis summarized this two-way relationship—animals as our bridge with creation, we as their bridge to transcendence—in his poem “Eden’s Courtesy:”
Such natural love twixt beast and man we find
That children all desire an animal book,
And all brutes, not perverted from their kind,
Woo us with whinny, tongue, tail, song, or look
So much of Eden’s courtesy yet remains.
My own conclusions from a lifetime lived with cats are somewhat less exalted, but here they are:
• Cats are cheaper than psychotherapy. I have watched them jump onto the laps of cranky children or depressed adults and lift their spirits with a mere 30 seconds of nuzzling and purring.
• Cats give practical lessons in nurturing. Although we now realize that men as well as women need to be nurturantly involved with children, we still have few ways for boys to feel comfortable learning to care for babies. But studies show that boys and girls take equal responsibility for pets. And pets are a lot more realistic than inanimate dolls for teaching what it means to care for a baby.
• Cats have a lilies-of-the-field quality that turns them into metaphors of God’s grace. On days when I’m stressed to the point of forgetting that God is still in charge, I can walk into the house, see a cat curled up on a chair, and marvel over its naïve confidence that it will always be fed, sheltered, and stroked. Then I’m brought back to Jesus’ words: “Will God not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”
As I finish this column, one of our own feline “lilies” is draped across my desk. This one has been known to leave cryptic messages on my computer screen. I do not know whether he uses the one paw that is in my world, or the three that are in his own. But I’m glad he wants to communicate, and grateful to his Creator for the lessons I’ve learned from his species.
MARY STEWART VAN LEEUWEN
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