Process theologians seek a different kind of world: a transformation from a human-centered world to an eco-centered world, and from life-denying spiritualities to life-affirming spiritualities. The two go together. An eco-centered world is one in which people love and take care of another and enjoy rich connections with the more than human world: hills, rivers, trees, stars, and, yes, cats.
In process philosophy cats are not simply objects for humans to enjoy, they are also subjects of their own lives. They have relations with the Spirit independently of their relations with us, and yet we can have I-Thou relations with them. They can be our spiritual teachers; we can discover the Spirit through them.
What is this Spirit? At least two things. The Spirit is a spirit of creative transformation in the world, dwelling within each person and the whole of life a lure toward life and health relative to the circumstances; and the Spirit is an eternal companion to each and every living being, sharing in its experiences like a cosmic Bodhisattva. It is a womb-like love, an infinite wisdom and compassion, that includes everything but is more than everything.
The Spirit can be named in many ways: God, Allah, Adonai, Krishna, Christ, Beauty, Truth, Wisdom. The names people use will depend on the context and what makes sense to them. The Spirit can be active in a person's life without that person have any name at all. But what is clear is that, for many people, the Spirit is found through their relations with other living beings: with cats, for example. This page is devoted to people who find the Spirit in cats.
Sarah and Whiskers Cats as Agents of Creative Transformation
Sarah struggled with addiction, feeling trapped and powerless. She had hurt the people she loved most and had failed multiple times to get clean, leaving those around her skeptical that she could ever change. But one day, she adopted a cat named Whiskers, who quickly became her constant companion. She found hope in the independence of Whiskers and how he seemed to always know what he wanted and needed.
As Sarah spent time with Whiskers, she began to understand that the spirit of creative transformation was in the world, and that this same spirit was in her too. She realized that just as Whiskers was free to be himself and do what he wanted, she too could be free from her addiction.
But it wasn't easy. Sarah had her doubts and fears, and the memories of her past mistakes lingered. She often felt alone and hopeless, unsure if she would ever truly change. Even those around her were skeptical, having been let down by her multiple times before.
But Whiskers was always there for her. As she watched him play and explore, she found inspiration and hope. She saw that just as Whiskers was constantly growing and changing, so too could she transform her life. She realized that even though she had made mistakes, she was not defined by them. She had the power to change and become a better person.
With Whiskers by her side, Sarah began to take steps toward a new life. She joined a support group and began to work on herself. She knew that it wouldn't be easy, but she felt confident that with the help of the spirit of creative transformation, she could overcome her addiction. As she continued on her journey, Sarah found that her relationships with those around her began to change. Though some still doubted her, others began to see the progress she was making and offered their support. She knew that it wouldn't be easy to regain their trust, but she was willing to do whatever it took to make things right. One day, as Sarah and Whiskers sat in the sun, she thought about how far she had come. She looked at Whiskers and saw the spirit of creative transformation within him, reminding her of the same spirit within herself. She knew that hope was not something that came from the approval of others, but rather from within. She had the power to transform her life and become the person she wanted to be.
As Sarah watched Whiskers play and explore, she felt a renewed sense of hope. She saw that just as Whiskers was independent and free, she too could be free from addiction. She knew that it wouldn't be easy, but she also knew that with the help of the spirit of creative transformation, anything was possible.
Sarah had discovered that her relationship with Whiskers had opened up a new understanding of God and spirituality for her. Just as the spirit of creative transformation was present in her cat, so too was it present in her life. She saw that God was not a distant force, but rather a loving presence that was intimately connected to her life. And as she looked at Whiskers, she knew that anything was possible if she believed in herself and the spirit of creative transformation within her.
- Jay McDaniel and ChatGPT
Sit in the Sun
And Other Lessons in the Spiritual Wisdom of Cats
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.
Charles Takes Care of Himself
"But one day I really watched him. He was chewing on a piece of grass. He gave his full attention to that single blade. His body was still, his fur soft in the sun. And then I started noticing other things about Charles. He goes out in the rain and doesn't get wet. He takes care of himself, He is a survivor. In recent months I've learned to meditate. I open a window, even in winter, and sit in a black medal chair. Charles sometimes joins me. We listen and hold tight to every one of our nine lives."
Thanks to Anne Aronson for the video, thanks to the Center for Digital Storytelling for making it possible, and thanks to Charles the Cat for providing inspiration.
Three Cheers for the Ego...Sometimes
We process theologians believe that the lure of God within each heart is a lure to live and to live well. This is true of human hearts and also of feline hearts. This inwardly felt lure is a lure to survive with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. We need to stay out of the rain and sometimes we may even have to engage in battle. At least this is the case with Charles.
But in truth it is the case with us, too. Some people present "spirituality" as if it is always about caring for others, but never caring for ourselves. They reduce the whole of spirituality to transcending the ego, as if having an ego is always a bad thing. But there are many people, in many circumstances of life, whose deepest need is to be less dependent on others, to take care of themselves, and to grow in a sense of positive self-regard. They need to be able to say "I am Somebody."
Is this a sin? The world's religions do a tremendous disservice to people when they overemphasize dependence on others or, for that matter, dependence on God, at the expense of recognizing the value of self-dependence. It's a balancing act, but sometimes having an ego is very, very important. But if we don't love ourselves, we have no selves to give others.
God's call is always contextual. For people with too much ego, it is a call to let go. For people with too little ego, it is a call to hold on. In the house of spirituality there is room for self-dependence, for a healthy relationship with your own life, however many lives you are lucky enough to have. Even nine of them.
Zen Buddhism is known as a religion of self-power, and it is often distinguished from Pure Land Buddhism, which is known as a tradition of other-power. Zen Buddhists emphasis depending on your own efforts and Pure Land Buddhists emphasize depending on a heavenly Bodhisattva, Amida Buddha.
This could suggest that cats are Zen Buddhists but dogs are Pure Land Buddhists, but my sons, Jason and Matthew, saw things differently. . All dogs are Christian, all cats are Buddhist.
When our sons were young, they had the unique experience of getting to know a Zen Master from Japan: the Reverend Keido Fukushima from Tofukuji Monastery in Kyoto.
He would visit us every year to give a lecture at the college where I teach, and he shaped my own life deeply. You can learn a little about him in the article: "Can a Christian Be a Buddhist, Too."
During his trip to the city where I live, he would also visit my home and eat dinner with my family, getting on the floor and playing with my sons during their very early years. They grew up thinking that Zen Masters are joyful, playful, and at home in the world.
When Roshi Fukushima was with us, we always sensed that he was with us. He was not distracted, not thinking about other things, not preoccupied. One of his secrets was years upon years of Zen meditation. He had learned to concentrate his mind and be in the moment. Being in the moment did not mean, for him, neglecting time. He could anticipate the future and remember the past like the rest of us. When he was with us in our home, he knew when it was time to leave so the kids could go to bed. But he was in the moment in the sense of being present, being here, like a cat.
He taught my family how to meditate, too. I remember it well. There we were -- my wife Kathy and me, and my two sons, then ages 7 and 9 -- sitting in our living room in the half-lotus position, trying to be here and now by counting our breaths. It was hard for us, and it still is. We are distracted like the rest of us. But I think we are all grateful for learning how to do it.
We are an animal-loving family, and we have always had dogs and cats as companions in our home. One time my youngest son, Matthew, noted that Roshi's presence was like that of our cats. "He can be focused; he can pay attention. Maybe all Zen masters were cats in previous lifetimes."
My other son, Jason, felt the same way. He was trying to figure out differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and he jokingly said: "I think all dogs are Christian and all cats are Buddhist." He said this because we were church-goers, and relations between Christianity and Buddhism were on our minds. We laughed but knew what he meant. "Many Christians are gregarious and outreaching. They want to lick your face. Cats are quieter and more collected. They wanted to sit still and look." He had been hanging around some evangelicals.
In truth I think Roshi was both Buddhist and Christian. He could sit still and look, but he sure liked to play on the floor. One time and he and I were driving down the street and he saw a Labrador Retriever with a huge bone in his mouth, walking across a lawn to a place where he could bury it. The dog was as focused as any good cat in the task at hand. Roshi turned to me and said: "See that dog running across the yard?" I said yes, and he responded: "That's a Zen Master."