The Bible doesn’t take sides in the age-old choice of cats versus dogs. In fact, to the first approximation, it doesn’t address the ideas of pets at all. Ancient Hebrew culture, though favors the ideal of big cats, that is, the motif of the lion over that of dogs. As hard as it may be to believe, the latter were generally regarded as undesirable scavengers by the ancient world. The word dog, was a common insult back then as it sometimes remains today. Still, the early Israelite warrior, spy and tribal leader, Caleb, whose name is often translated as dog, did well enough.
There are congregations where your dog will be welcome, but there’s only one small Spanish-language church in Galveston that has full-time resident cats — at least as far as we know. More about that below. To learn more about the concept of cats and church together, we then must turn to experts like Richard Surman, a British photographer who has published a raft of books filled with cats, churches and short stories about their intersections.
“There is a cacophony of cats at Canterbury Cathedral,” Surman writes in his book Cathedral Cats (Harper Collins, available at Amazon.com). “Choir cats, school cats, canonical cats and visiting cats. Such a vigorous feline population is hardly out of character for a place that has always been a hive of activity.”
Surman told Our Faith that it is his affection for felines along with an interest in historical church architecture that led to the mashup of cats and churches.
“I had been invited to provide all the photography for a massive fundraising campaign on behalf of the Westminster Abbey Restoration Trust — a fantastic opportunity to have the unfettered run of one of London’s most iconic churches. Much of the initial work was up high, clambering through roof spaces and outside on the towers, taking pictures of the ravages of time and the effects of pollution on stonework,” he said. “While I was in the 14th century cloisters a very large and confident tabby cat took me on a walk through the abbey. He walked imperiously through the throngs of visitors, going up and down the aisles and eventually settling down on a seat in the choir. This cat seemed to own the place.”
So are the cats in residence there to worship, be worshiped? Or is there some more mysterious and obscure reason? We wanted to know.
“As to whether they have a sense of the Divine, I wouldn’t care to say one way or the other, but judging by the Portsmouth Cathedral organist’s cat’s efforts to play the organ, perhaps the answer is yes,” Surman speculated. “Are cats existential? Well, judging from their fastidious cleanliness, their ability to find warmth and comfort, again I’d be tempted to say yes. But the overriding impression I got from these cats in such wonderful surroundings was the pleasure that they gave their owners, the communities that care for them, parishioners and randomly selected visitors. That perhaps is the secret of the cat — independent, sometimes inscrutable, but also companionable and comforting. Their movements are gracious and elegant, echoing the beauty of the churches, cathedrals, convents and monasteries in which they live.”
Like most of us who take photos professionally, Surman had heard the offered adage that photographers should avoid working with either children or animals, though both are parts of God’s creation.
“Of all the animals, the cat can be the least biddable,” he said. In additional to great patience he also recommended the use of smoked salmon for those who’d attempt to reproduce these animal-in-church portraits.
Surman has been a cat owner and thus knows something of both St. Francis and his charges and the unearned love that cats either require or demand of their owners, or perhaps, as they see it, their staff.
“As to my own cats — yes, two much-loved brown Burmese cats named after cartoon characters,” he said. “They now lie in peace in the pet cemetery in my London garden.”
What else did he learn from his photo safaris?
“Working on these books had an unsuspected effect on my future work, re-igniting in me a passion for the wonderful heritage of religious architecture embedded in town and country,” he said. “I now write about and photograph many thousands of churches, large and small, modest and famous. I am awed at the testament to faith that they embody and the boldness and imagination of those who conceived and built them.”
Back to our island where there is one church that has a resident cat congregation. In the northeast corner of their sanctuary, there’s an open niche in the stonework which leads to the outside. There, a family of feral cats can come and go for services, though it remains unclear if the bilingual sermons have had any impact on the kittens raised during services.
Do you know of another local congregation that boasts a cat?
Next week in Our Faith: Would E.T. matter to your faith? As NASA searches for alien intelligences, theologians wrestle with the consequences of not being alone in creation vast.