I’d wanted to purchase a little sailor suit for him to wear to church, because unlike most cats, mine is relaxed enough to be carried around in my arms. In the car, through crowds, among dogs, he lounges with perfect equanimity. He has rarely transformed himself into a furious, scowling, arching puffball. He is happiest perched upon a shoulder, rubbing his face insistently against a human chin and cheek, poking his nose into a human ear. With some pride I noted that he was the only cat in church not in a crate. When it was time to exchange the peace, strangers flocked to me to praise his beauty and calm demeanor, and to rub his head. It was better, I decided, that I hadn’t bought the sailor suit. He was clothed in fur, and splendid just as he was. He needed no covering.
Also, while I will not judge you for buying your pets a Halloween costume, after living for several years in one of the poorest countries on earth, I find it difficult to purchase things like clothes for a cat. It’s like I can feel Dorothy Day glaring at me from heaven, disapprovingly.
In poor countries, like the one where I lived, animals are all around, much as they would have been during Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Animals are a valuable commodity when you’re a subsistence-level farmer and worker, so you keep them close. It was entirely normal to hear a rooster during church in Malawi, or see a man riding his bicycle, carrying several live chickens upside down in one hand. Sometimes you’d see women with live chickens in a plastic grocery bag, heads poking out, placid and blank-eyed.
The animals that came to church on Sunday to be blessed were worlds away from those chickens, of course, and from whatever creatures may have attended the infant Jesus’ crib. None of them, so far as I could tell, were working animals of any kind. Percy, my floppy, docile beanbag of a cat seems to be a creature of little to no purpose; confronted, once, with a live mouse in the living room, he lifted his head and gazed with mild interest, then curled up again and went back to sleep.But as I sang and knelt and prayed in church, with Percy in my arms, as I looked around at my fellow worshipers, headed to the altar with silly little dogs and limping old dogs and rowdy family dogs, I thought, this is exactly right. Most of the time, the joy we take in our companion animals is private. It feels silly, indulgent, even. Yet we love them, and they depend on us, and it is right and good that we should bring them into our sacred spaces now and then. As we sang hymns, the dogs moaned and howled their responses. I laughed well past the point of tears. Dogs and cats with us in church: we not so different from they, blending our voices in a rowdy hymn to the delightfully unnecessary.
For what, finally, did God make the world, make us, and our fellow creatures, if not delight? I would carry my cat everywhere, if I could, including to church, because his perfect trust and calm calms me; teaches me something about how to be at peace, and to be myself, with God and with others, wherever I happen to be.
Rachel Marie Stone teaches English at The Stony Brook School in New York, and is the author of several books, including Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, and, most recently, the 40th anniversary edition of the More-With-Less cookbook, just out from Herald Press.
(Her humanitarian service includes creating the No. 1 trending hashtag #AddAWordRuinAChristianBook. Do yourself a favor and search some of the results. –Ed.)