A Theology of Cats
The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. —Psalm 104:21
Benjamin Britten was born in Suffolk County of the United Kingdom on November 22, 1913, which is of course St. Cecilia’s Day, and she is the patron saint of music, which was a genuine portent, because Benjamin Britten was to become the most accomplished composer of his generation.
Maybe you know his operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. Some musical scholars think they are the finest operas in the language since Henry Purcell 300 years before.
Rejoice in the Lamb was written in 1943 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton, and is based on the poem Jubilate Agno, which of course is Latin for “Rejoice in the Lamb,” by the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart, who in this poem gives voice to his sense of wonder at the presence of God among life’s simplest blessings. He turns his cat Jeoffry’s feline escapades into a hymn of praise to the Creator who brought him into being:
For I will consider my cat Jeoffry
for he is a servant of the Living God,
duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God
in the east he worships in his way.
For he knows that God is his Savior.
For I am possessed of a cat,
surpassing in beauty,
from whom I take occasion
to bless Almighty God.
Katie inspired me with her brilliant Confirmation sermon last week called, improbably, A Theology of Frogs. I’ve talked to you more than once about A Theology of Dogs. Cats deserve equal time. This morning, A Theology of Cats.
You probably already knew this but maybe you need a reminder: the cat is the only common animal that is never mentioned in the Bible. The big cats are there of course, lions and leopards, as you heard from the exquisite Psalm 104, but no domestic cats, no felis catus.
Nobody knows why cats are missing from the Bible, but sometimes scholars speculate that the Hebrews left cats out of their Bible because the Egyptians loved cats so much, and the Hebrews for obvious reasons, loathed the Egyptians.
Cats were sacred in ancient Egypt and it was forbidden to kill or harm them. When a cat died her owners would mourn by shaving their eyebrows, and then embalm the remains, and deposit them in sacred cemeteries.
Human beings started domesticating cats almost 10,000 years ago; cats were integral to the food supply because they guarded the grain reserves from mice and rats; cats were the original Rose Pest Solutions. There are more cats than dogs in America, although it’s close—95 million cats and 90 million dogs; cats are second to fish as the most popular pet.
I love another line about cats from Mr. Smart’s original poem which didn’t make it into Britten’s later version: “For my cat is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence on.” Have you ever thought of your dog or your cat as one of the tools with which God teaches the children the arts of compassion and kindness?
Maestro Britten’s music honors the rustic, eccentric elegance of Smart’s unconventional little poem. One musical interpreter suggested that the organ line attached to the Jeoffry passage expresses a “feline compound of grace and guile.” I like that.
It’s a quirky little piece of writing, this poem about the brave mouse challenging the cat to a duel if only the cat will let his mate go, and all this talk about the letters of the alphabet being God. Perhaps that’s because Christopher Smart’s contemporaries thought him to be quite mad.
Jubilate Agno was written while Mr. Smart was incarcerated in an asylum for the insane. He’d been thrown there for the curious habit of stopping total strangers on the street and inviting them to kneel on the pavement to pray with him. The good citizens of London couldn’t take too much of that. Praying on a public street was evidence of lunacy.
I love that section where Poet Smart and then Maestro Britten after him find solace and comfort from their Savior in the midst of their afflictions.
For I am under the same accusation
with my Savior—
For they said, he is beside himself.
For the officers of the peace
are at variance with me,
and the watchman smites me with his staff.
For Silly Fellow! Silly Fellow!
is against me and belongeth neither to me
nor to my family.
For I am in twelve hardships,
but he that was born of a virgin
shall deliver me out of all.
They thought Jesus was crazy too. “Silly fellow! Silly fellow!” is what they said of him too.
It’s not hard to see why this text meant so much to Benjamin Britten as well. He also considered himself to be an outsider among his own contemporaries, and endured a good bit of mockery from them, like Mr. Smart and Jesus of Nazareth before him.
For one thing Mr. Britten was a conscientious objector during World War II, and suffered accusations of treason, cowardice, and betrayal from his fellow Englishmen. Further still, he was a homosexual, and about as far out of the closet as it was possible to be in the England of the 1940's and 1950's. He lived in a committed relationship for over 30 years with the well-known British tenor Peter Pears, a relationship which scandalized many. Perhaps this text about the silly fellow they nailed to a cross was particularly meaningful to him.
Henry James had some advice for novelists and poets and composers. He said, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” I like that line. I think that both Christopher Smart and Benjamin Britten were men on whom nothing was lost, not the cat, not the mouse, not the letters of the alphabet, not the feline compound of grace and guile in the organ accompaniment, not even their own sufferings, for these silly fellows used them to connect to their Savior.
So I invite you to enter into this lovely text and music, and to open your eyes to the glory of God in the commonest things. Was it Walt Whitman who said that “even a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels”?
Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” Longman's Magazine 4 (September 1884).
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Part 31.