My wife didn’t intend to be a cat person. Like so much in life, it just happened.
When we moved to Boston, Mass. 20 years ago, I agreed that we (actually, she) could get a dog. But when a co-worker brought a kitten to her work, Sharilyn knew that cat was the pet I wanted as a child, but never had. So we became owners of/owned by a longhaired Maine Coon mix. And even though I found myself slightly allergic to her dander, I soon realized that the improvement in my state of mind was worth it.
Our Bridgit was with us for 17 years. Like any pet, she gave us many gifts. She was a friendly presence in an otherwise empty house. She was a warm, fuzzy being to snuggle with on a cold night. She was the four-legged, furry alarm clock who pawed Sharilyn’s face every morning at 5:30 a.m., demanding her breakfast. And she forced us to take time out to play. In fact, when I trained Bridgit to play fetch, I soon realized that if I wanted her to stay trained, I needed to play on her schedule! Once I had trained her to return an object, I realized that every ball, wad of paper, crumpled chocolate truffle wrapper or rubber band dropped at my feet was an invitation. It was no longer clear which of us was the trainer, and which the trainee.
My cats have also been spiritual teachers. They have taught me that like them, God/Higher Power is wild — impossible to control and frequently surprising. They teach me humility; they remind me that I am not the center of the universe, not even the center of their universe. They teach me transparency, by modeling it; unlike humans, cats and dogs are incapable of duplicity. What you see is what you get!
Science has proved it: our pets are good for our physical, spiritual and mental health! According to the Centers for Disease Control, pets can help decrease our blood pressure, our cholesterol, our triglycerides and our feelings of loneliness. For those of us who are LGBTQ and allies, they also fill a critical need; they give us affection and unconditional acceptance. Most, if not all, of us face daily micro-aggressions. Some of us face outright hostility, threats, even violence. As a result, whether we are out or closeted, we risk depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. We can ward off these conditions by acknowledging the stress and getting regular doses of affirmation. Whether it is through the eager, tail-wagging welcome of a dog or the subtle touch of a cat rubbing against a leg, our companion animals remind us that we belong to them. We belong with them. We are family. No questions asked.
Sharilyn and I are again owned by a cat, this one adopted as an adult from the Blue Ridge Humane Society in Hendersonville (blueridgehumane.org). We are on a familiar, yet new, spiritual path: learning to be gentle (because this cat is easily spooked), learning to be trustworthy (serving meals on time and keeping her “bathroom” clean), learning all over again to respect this kitty’s boundaries and to accept affection on her terms, not ours. It may not be a traditional spiritual practice, but it is effective, and it is a blessing.
For all the animals who are our companions, I give thanks! May all of us, and all of our pets, be well and be happy as we grow on our interconnected spiritual journeys.
info: Rev. Dr. Joan Saniuk is the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church Sacred Journey in Hendersonville, N.C.