A Cat, a Piano, and the Living Fire of Praise
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | November 23, 2017Hi friends, I wrote a few weeks ago about the turtleness of turtles. Today, I am quite surprised to say I feel called to reflect on the catness of cats and what catness might have to teach us.
I say I’m “surprised” because I am not a cat person. Don’t get me wrong: I have a healthy respect for cats, and if I lived on a farm or on several acres of land I would want at least one around to fulfill the cattish duty of striking terror into troublesome varmints like rats and mice—but lauding the virtues of catness does not come as naturally to me as enjoying the dogness of dogs or horseness of horses does. But choosing to praise a creature I’d rather keep at arm’s length is perhaps part of my point: to praise is a natural inclination of the soul, but it’s also one we have to practice.
What’s so special about cats? To be a cat means to purr one’s contentment. Have you ever noticed how utterly unselfconscious cats are in letting you know when they’re happy? When a cat is content in its body in the world, whether because of a scratch behind the ears or a quiet moment in the sunshine on the back of your couch, it broadcasts its satisfaction. It’s as though the breath of life given to it by God is just idling away like an engine at rest: “Yes, here I am, God’s elegant creature. It is well with my soul.”
A cat purrs because its animal life instinctively recognizes that a world in which to live has been given to it. A cat purrs its enjoyment of the given world, a world built for catness, filled with food, affection, aluminum foil balls to bat about the kitchen.
I read a poem the other day by a man named Edward Hirsch. The poem is called “Wild Gratitude.” It’s a poem about kneeling down to play with his cat. The poem ends with these lines:
And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.
I like that idea, that when we praise we are wreathed in living fire. This is what cats have to teach us: when we receive something good and enjoy it without embarrassment and without too much concern over what people might think, we are praising God. We are praising God because we are living our gratitude, receiving the world as a gift, which I think is how God intends us to receive it.
Here’s what I mean: if you got your friend a piano for her birthday, she would likely write you a thank you note for the piano to express her gratitude. That’s great, and that’s as it should be. (Thank you notes are good!) But let’s say that at some point over the next year, you’re over at her house for a dinner party, and after dinner she just slips away to the piano in the next room. You hear her around the corner, starting in on a Chopin nocturne. You move quietly to the doorway to watch, and you see that her eyes are closed, and that she’s swaying a little to the music, and that she’s positively wreathed in the living fire of what she’s playing—that might make you weep knowing you had given someone a gift they loved so deeply. That would be your friend’s living gratitude—the strongest form of praise.
I think God watches us from the world’s doorway like that, hoping we’ll get lost in making the world’s music. Hoping we’ll purr in all the diverse ways that people purr, wreathing ourselves in the living fire of praise.
This Thanksgiving, whatever gifts come your way—a good meal, a football game, time on the couch with all your cousins or grandkids or that novel you’ve not had time to read, or just a few minutes on the phone with that step-brother you never see—whatever it is, I pray you’ll receive the full weight of that goodness. Laugh, cry, wash the dishes in amused silence, watch the slow sink of the sun behind the trees at evening. However you respond, remember that real enjoyment and contentment are ways we “show forth our praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives” (BCP, 101).
This Thanksgiving, I pray you have occasion to purr. And even if you’re mostly around creatures you’d rather keep at arm’s length, perhaps practice praising anyway. It might come more naturally than you think.