Saturday, January 28, 2012

Baxter's Winter Interlude

I notice that Baxter, like many of us, gets a bit lethargic in the winter. He stares out the window, but without any high alert signals set off. There are no stimuli for the hunting instinct, no birds, rabbits, squirrels, other cats to get the juices running for a fantasy hunt. On grey days, Baxter settles into one of his many nap spots and stays put for long stretches. As he has gotten older, he now hugs the heat registers on especially cold days, snuggling the warm air so tightly that I sometimes worry about his catching himself on fire. Winter is a season when he slows down, draws in and hopes for the best. He sometimes cries at the garage door to be let out, but as soon as I open the door and he feels the cold air, he turns and runs. A garage adventure can wait until spring.

Winter affects us in similar ways. We stay indoors much more. We do what we need to do to keep life going — work, grocery shopping, transporting the kids, shoveling snow — but we often pull back, settle in and snuggle in the cocoons we create to feel secure. We want to be safe and warm when the climate gets cold and threatening, and we do little to break out of this survival mode. We look for how we can exercise the least effort to get by and conserve our energy. There is often little to excite us in this season. It’s a waiting game until spring.

Shakespeare wrote about the winter of our discontent when intrigue and sinister human motives darken every encounter between persons. Much of the human drama hinges on this mood. Wintry moments even find a place in the Gospel story. Recall the controversies with the religious officials, the plot to betray Jesus involving one of His own disciples, and the hopelessness of Calvary and its aftermath. Whatever the climate was at those times, the human temperature was cold and dark towards the Son of God. It was a spiritual winter for many, and they were freezing out the love of God incarnate in their midst.

Does this kind of winter get inside of us as well? Do we just refuse to look for a bright side to life rooted in the God who loves us? Do we pull into ourselves for security and warmth and refuse to confront the cold in ourselves and others? If we do, then we cannot grow spiritually. In winter, life goes dormant. It stops expanding, reproducing and bearing fruit. It sleeps, waiting for a better time, and if that time does not come, it may remain sterile for the season or even die. The fruitful soul is a warm one, no matter what the temperature is around it. It takes in the love of God however it appears from whomever it is offered. It refuses to accept the cold environment of human sinfulness but instead creates a climate of forgiveness, acceptance and hospitality for anyone who will receive it. This is the way Jesus transformed the winter of Calvary into the springtime of Easter, and He has empowered us to do the same.

So no excuses for the winter doldrums. Reach out and be about the task of letting the love of God work in and through you. It may not melt snow, but it can melt hard hearts, closed minds and selfish spirits, our own and others.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Baxter's Weak Spot

Baxter has a weak spot. All cats do. Well, maybe it is better termed a “sensitive area.” It’s the belly. Most cats will not expose their bellies to scratches and petting. I thought the reason was that it was too much of a “dog thing," and after all, they are not dogs. But I learned that biologically cats’ bellies are very sensitive for them, and they protect them aggressively.

Baxter was that way for a while but soon he changed. As I told you in a previous column, when I come home after a few hours away, he comes to the door, falls on the floor in front of me and rolls over to have his belly gently scratched. He waits for me to respond, and he starts to purr and purr when I do. It has become the normal greeting ritual we use to say, “Hello, I’m back home. I missed you.” After a half minute or so of that, he jumps up and runs either to his dish for a treat or to the spigot for a drink, depending upon his fancy. Life quickly resumes its normal routine.

Sometimes we need to show our soft underside to each other as well. The work-a-day world is fast-paced, aggressive, hard-nosed and demanding. We have to be alert and on guard to keep up with the competition and make a success of our lives. We show our strengths, and we try to hide our weaknesses for fear that someone will find them out and take advantage of us. We want to look good, speak properly, act professionally and impress those who can help us to get ahead. “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” We work out deals to our advantage, or at least, to our mutual benefit. We trade our strengths to win.

So is it any wonder we often don’t feel at home with each other and our world? Home is a safe place where we don’t have to worry about gaining advantage or getting ahead. When we feel at home with each other, we’re not worried about showing our soft under belly. We trust each other not to take advantage of our vulnerabilities, but to draw close around them as the glue that bonds us as family and friends. Home is where we can be our complete selves—intelligent, strong and competent, but also sensitive, weak and caring. We are accepted for all of it and loved because of it.

God makes a home for each of us this way. He wants us to use and develop our talents and gifts, but He also loves us in our weakness and sin. He knows we are not perfect, and it is precisely here that He shows His deepest love. As Paul writes, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” To open ourselves to God’s love and to love each other in God, we have to grow in our trust enough to admit and share our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, not to justify them, but to heal and save them.

Nothing in my estimation is as smoothing as a cat’s purr. It communicates a sense of well-being and peace that is deep and satisfying. Purrs happen when someone discovers how to touch gently the cat’s sensitive spots. A light scratch on Baxter’s belly and his purr tells me I’m home again. In a different but similar way, our patient understanding can help each other to feel God’s light touch on our vulnerable spots and know His healing presence. Then, instead of purring, maybe we can begin to feel at home again with each other.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Baxter's Misled Appetite

Baxter’s appetite is led by his nose. If it smells yummy to him, he wants it. If I am cooking something whose aroma catches his fancy, he will start crying for a taste before it is out of the oven or off the stove top. He sits in the kitchen with his nose in the air sniffing, hoping to catch a delectable whiff of something that he can con me into sharing. Usually, I am strong and refuse his groping paw or plaintive meows or begging eyes. However, once in a while I weaken and give into his beckoning. Generally, this is a mistake. Except for fish and a little chicken, Baxter’s stomach doesn’t take to table food very well, and the evidence to prove this point is normally brought up on the floor within a half hour of consumption. Still, the clockwork reaction doesn’t stop him the next time from sniffing the air for what he thinks is scrumptious and begging for a sample. His desires are stronger than the reasonable conclusions he or I should draw from previous experience. At times, we both ignore our better sense and give in to the desire of the moment. Then what we think will be a tasty pleasure, more often turns out to be a smelly mess on the floor.

Like Baxter, we too can get caught up in the appeal of earthly desires, and these reach beyond the craving for fattening foods. Our ambition can drive us to lose touch with friends and family and our values just to get ahead in life. Our greed can entice us to cut corners on ethical practices or risk our basic resources on a gamble to get rich quick. Our sexual passions can lead us to abandon life-long commitments to feel the fire again. Whatever is driving us can ruin us, if we do not channel our desires to purposes bigger than ourselves and the moment before us. We need to stop and think. What are we doing and does it make sense in the big picture of our life?

Our decisions have consequences beyond ourselves. It is not simply a matter of what “I” want, but what effect my desires if carried out will have on me, those I love, and the larger community where I live. We are not isolated atoms, orbiting alone around each year of our lives. We are part of a universe of persons whose lives intersect for good or ill according to the terms we draw for our relationships. If the only concern is me, me, me, then we may feel good in our moment of satisfaction, but we may end up sick and regretful when the full picture of damaged trust, betrayed loyalty and uncertain reliability is revealed. The mess of damaged relationships is far greater and more long-lasting than any physical discharge. It is a scarred soul and lost opportunities for grace and depth of meaning to life.

Baxter can’t help himself when it comes to tempting food aromas. His instincts kick in, and he is a slave to his passions. We have more with which to work. God gave us a mind to judge the reasonable course in facing a decision, and a heart to care for our commitments to each other. Head and heart together can guide our passions to drive us to a depth of meaning for our lives that is both mysterious and enlightening. Use your head. Respect your heart. Filled with faith, they will not let us down, but will lead us to a holy life.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Baxter's Pet Therapy

Baxter isn’t my first cat. He’s my third. The first one I had only for a few months. I was a summer graduate student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and this little kitten was left on the front steps of the building where I was living for the summer. Since I was headed back to the seminary that fall, I couldn’t keep “Xenobia” beyond the summer term. Thankfully, I was able to find her a good home before I departed.

My second cat was “Gatto”, and we fell into each other’s lives as well. I moved into a new residence, and the previous occupants left their cat behind. At first, Gatto and I had a stand off, testing each other’s stubbornness. She wouldn’t abandon the back porch where I always came into the house from the garage, and I wouldn’t pay any attention to her meows as I was unlocking the back door. Finally, after months of this game of chicken, who will blink first, I succumbed. It was a blustery, cold winter night, and I got home rather late. She was plaintively crying in her usual spot, and I just couldn’t close the door on her in that frigid environment. She walked into the kitchen, down to the basement, and, well, she never left until she went to cat heaven.

Baxter was my choice — sort of. After Gatto died I greatly missed having a pet, but with all the surplus critters in the world, I couldn’t bring myself to get a designer cat. So I went to the cat house at Westmoreland County humane shelter and viewed the population. There were many from which to choose. Big, adult ones and little kittens, males and females, long hair and short hair, every color variety you could think of, all were up for adoption to a good home. But again, I didn’t really choose Baxter, he chose me. When I entered the “kitten room” for a look around, ten critters must have come over to me, but only one crawled up my leg crying to be held. That was Baxter. (Actually, his shelter name was “Elmer”, but I knew that had to change. He was much too coy and charming for that handle.) After I went home for a day to think about it, I returned and the rest is history. Baxter and I have been together for over ten years.

Pets teach us so much about ourselves and what grounds our lives. They force us to be disciplined about their care. Keep the litter clean if you don’t want a problem. Feed them good food to stay healthy. Respect their routines and their space, and they will manage themselves well. Pay attention to them with play and conversation and show them affection, and they will become faithful companions and loving creatures. We shape our responses to each other. Training is a two way street where we teach each other how to get the best from each other by giving our best to each other. Patience and perseverance are the hallmarks of loving someone enough to help them learn how to live with us, and us with them. Baxter and I taught each other how to give in to the other’s preferences without losing our self-respect. For instance, he knows not to jump onto the counters or table, and I know to turn the spigot on for him to get a drink. We try to please each other because we care for each other.

I mention these rules of living with my pet, because when I thought about them, they work for living with other creatures as well. If we want to learn to love each other, we need to follow the same basic rules. Not that other persons are our pets. We certainly can grow into a deeper and more reciprocal relationship with our friends and family than with our pets. But this doesn’t happen in some kind of esoteric and disembodied way. Our love for each other needs to be disciplined, respectful of each other, mutually efficacious, accommodating to each other’s wishes without being subservient, and patient and persevering. These qualities don’t come easily in a relationship, but without them, our relationships are superficial and one-sided. We get lost in each other rather than freed to be ourselves due to the confidence that only genuine love can bestow.

Today, many programs use pet therapy to get people to engage in their lives again, to overcome depression, isolation or the lethargy that convalescence can breed. God can use pet therapy to teach us how He loves us and how to love each other in God. He chooses us but we have to respond. He won’t give up on us, but we can’t give up on Him either. It takes a disciplined regimen to learn how to love God as He first loves us, with mutual respect and freedom to be ourselves. But the sacrifices it takes to care about God in our life and our world contribute much more to our living than they demand of us. They give us a faithful, divine companion whose relationship provides a key to what is true, good and valuable among the many choices we face in life. This direction will never lead us astray, but rather keeps us safe in the loving home God provides for us when we learn how to live with Him.

Three cats have taught me some things about caring for other living creatures. Three persons in one God can teach all of us much more about living together as companions on a journey to eternal life. Take God home with you today and rescue a life — your own.