I sneak into my office at 4:30 am, so as not to awaken Ben the Cat, who considers himself invited to sit on my lap when I'm trying to write. He has programmed himself to respond, even in his sleep, to the sound of keystrokes, and soon he appears. He stares fixedly at my lap and gathers himself for a leap; as always, I am in awe of a creature who can jump vertically, straight up to a place three times as high as he is.
That's a good pair of back legs you've got there, I tell him, and he gives me a contented quack in return. Ben is the only one of our cats who speaks no English, although he seems to understand it well enough. It's a little odd, since he rehearses all the time, stringing his meows together into diphthongs and consonant pairs: he has mastered "ng" and "ny" and "er" and "oh" and "oer" and a bunch of others I can't recall. But he does it like an opera singer, working toward the proper sound; Ben seems not to have made the connection between this oral activity and conversation. For that, he still just quacks. Not that the others are exactly Laurence Olivier; like most animals, cats speak English telepathically. When they do it at all.
Since he is a member of my household, I feel responsible for Ben's spiritual formation. Ben's religious devotions in the morning are the same as the ones we use in the evening: he sits on my lap while I say the Daily Office in English, and then we do a bilingual recitation of the Three Pillars of Right Behavior for a Good Cat:
What are the three pillars of right behavior?
The first pillar is: meow just a little bit.
The second pillar is: no jumping on the girl cats.
The third pillar is: no eating plants.
These are the three pillars of right behavior.
I have complete confidence in the power of this oral recitation to change Ben's life. I think that he will hear me saying them every day and will become accustomed to the words -- already he quacks a response at each semicolon! And then I think that the words will seep into his cat brain and that, in time, he will come to embody their truth.
Of course, I also think professional wrestling is real.
But really: is it not possible that a cat can learn to pray? That anyone can? That training ourselves with our bodies and our voices and our thoughts changes our spirits, over time? That's how change and growth happens in every other part of life, from learning to speak French to increasing the amount of weight we can bench press. Why would our spirits be different?
After our morning recitation of the Three Pillars, I bury my face in Ben's beautiful black fur and purr with him a little. My love for him grows each day: my delight in his silliness, his beauty, his open longing for a cuddle. Prayer changes us, I think as I feel his softness against my face, all of us, matter what kind of prayer it is. And no matter who we are.
Today, Thursday, Feb 1: The Geranium Journeys continue, this one to St. Peter's, Bay Shore, LI at noon. Bring a bag lunch for meditation and discussion with Barbara Crafton and an interfaith host of fine folks, ordained and lay. An easy train ride from New York Penn Station. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details and directions.
This weekend, Feb 2-4: St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Horseheads, NY. Barbara Crafton is retreat leader. For information and directions, email Kitty Rolfe at mailto:email@example.com.
And this Sunday at 5:15, A Closer Walk with God begins at St. Bart's, NYC. Email St.Barts Central at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 212-378-0222
Long Island, North Carolina, Connecticut, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and more -- check out Barbara Crafton's schedule of classes and retreats for the coming months for one near where you live. http://www.geraniumfarm.org/news.cfm
Come for a three day silent Lenten Retreat at wonderful Trinity Conference Center, West Cornwall, CT, Friday evening, March 9 through Sunday noon, March 11. The Rev. Barbara Crafton will be presenting five meditations entitled "Death: The Lighter Side." Cost: $300/person for a double room; $350 for a single room. Two nights, and six of the best meals you will ever eat. To reserve a space contact Carol Rice at 203-322-6390 or email@example.com. Don't delay, this retreat is filling up quickly!