In the spring of 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, we adopted two kittens and named them Rumi and Shams. At the same time, Jon Sweeney, Spirituality & Practice’s Contributing Editor for Books and New Media, also adopted kittens. His had been named by their foster mother -- Martin after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa after Rosa Parks. Since we had named our kittens after spiritual teachers and exemplars, it’s not surprising that soon we and Jon were trading stories about our kittens’ spiritual behaviors. Little observations soon convinced us that we were dealing with very special little beings -- so we were delighted when Jon approached us about S&P offering an e-course on “The Spirituality of Cats.” We and about 200 other people compared notes with Jon about the spiritual lessons we were learning from living with cats.
For Sit in the Sun Sweeney has taken a deeper dive into how our cats can be our spiritual teachers. Some of the chapter titles will give you an idea of what he has learned from Martin and Rosa and the other cats he’s lived with: Find the Love Inside You. Be Aware of the Love Around You. Eat Regularly and Well. Voice Your Opinion. Keep to a Schedule. Be Persistent and Thankful. Pounce Frequently.
Reinforcing cats’ position as authentic teachers, Sweeney notes how what cats do are similar to what spiritual adepts and saints have done through the ages. For example, when his cats yawn and stretch after a good meal, then relax their bodies and lie down in the middle of the floor, they are surrendering. This is the same thing that Sufi mystics mean when they encourage us to “die before you die,” giving up ego and relaxing into the love of God.
Another way to experience God’s love is to sit in the warmth of the sun. As he does often throughout the book, Sweeney quotes one of the saints to make a connection between his cats’ activities and a spiritual teaching. Here’s Teresa of Avila: “The soul is capable of much more than we imagine, and the sun that is in this royal chamber shines in all parts.” The Holy One, she writes, lights up the soul like the sun. In the same vein but from a different tradition, Sweeney finds how warmth is connected to the spiritual life in the sweat lodges of the Indigenous and First Nation peoples of the Great Plains.
Talking about how cats “play joyfully” and “refuse to be tamed,” Sweeney points to the example of St. Francis of Assisi (Sweeney has written many books about Francis). The early Franciscans were sometimes called holy fools because they were unconcerned with image. Francis himself was known for his respect for wild animals – he preached to birds and fed a wolf – and although he founded an order, he did not join a monastery. He was catlike in that he found his own path. This surprised some of his contemporaries, just as how our cats relate to the world is often a mystery to us.
Sweeney admits that cats and dogs are different from each other, but he disputes the assumptions that dogs are loyal to their owners while cats are selfish, or that because dogs are obedient and cats are more independent, dogs are righteous and cats are evil. This is nonsense, of course, but it also misses some important aspects of faith and spirituality. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all argued with God at one point or another. Faith does not mean being obedient. Dog-like obedience in humans is not Christian or Jewish. The faithful life often means disobedience and protests against society’s ways. Sweeney observes: “Martin and Rosa don’t fight for human rights, but they demonstrate with their lives how not to have their lives ordered around my expectations. They are great companions in my home, but they also show how being good and doing good is not always the same as being well-behaved.”
If you live with cats, you are sure to find many similarities between your cats and Sweeney’s cats. And to reinforce these discoveries, Sweeney offers a spiritual practice at the end of every chapter to help you embody these feline lessons. Try purring (“Listen to the sound that you make and begin to try to hear it as the sound of what is holy inside you.”). Practice foolishness (“How do you feel when something about you is a little unkempt, playful, wild?”). Sit in the dark and see what you can and cannot see. Practice saying “No.” And this is our favorite:
“If possible, lay on the floor today. Roll slowly onto your back. Look up. Rock gently from side to side. Keep looking up. Smile.”
Regular visitors to Spirituality & Practice know that our favorite practice in the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy is Reverence. We have devoted a whole project to it and we have written about our own practice of reverence when living with 10 rescue cats. We found that same reverence for cats in Sit in the Sun, and you will too.