Friday, September 28, 2012

Cat Eyes

Baxter sometimes has a very strange look. He stares either into empty space or at me seeming to see something that isn’t there. This “cat look” has often been off-putting to many people, and some have accused the species of sinister motives because of this mysterious stare.  Is it a curse they are imposing?  Is it black magic their stare conveys to unsuspecting victims? What does Baxter see when he enters into this Buddhist–like trance with his eyes wide open? The unusual look in his cat eyes raises my curiosity and suspicions.

I suppose that we will never know what is behind “the look” that cats give.  However, this feline fancy raises a second thought for our ordinary human vision. How do we look on life?  The “cat look” reminds us that there may be more to see than we usually take in. We see the problems we must solve—a leaking roof, peeling paint, potholes, torn clothing, a burnt meal, etc. We see the annoying things we do to each other—he grinds his teeth, she fingers her hair, etc. We see the threats in our world—drug deals on our streets, abused children, random violence in our neighborhoods and world terrorism. We see the dilemmas we face—empty checking accounts, home foreclosures, unemployment, rising gas prices. All of these empty our eyes of their spark and vitality. Our vision becomes clouded by the heaviness of life’s burdens, and we don’t notice anything bright when our souls grow cold in a spiritual winter.

The Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: “There is the dearest freshness deep down things”! If we are to refresh our souls, we need to look deeply at life. We need to get beyond the problems, annoyances and threats to the mystery that supersedes them all. This mystery ties together the particular moments, whether good or bad, by rooting them in eternity where the good points to still greater blessings, and the bad is redeemed in forgiveness and healing. This mystery probes our hearts to seize their desire to love and be loved by the satisfaction of an unconditional love that cannot end. This mystery expresses itself in sacramental signs where everything is more than it appears to be when God claims it as the vehicle of His grace. This mystery is our life blood, our life breath, our bread of life, the reason we live. The God revealed in Jesus and living with us in the Spirit is the mystery we encounter when we live deeply enough. So work on developing “the look”, not of cat’s eyes but of God’s eye envisioning a world where the divine mystery sparkles in every encounter.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bringing Baxter Home

I lost Baxter once. He was less than a year old, and I was living in a house that had a small deck off the back door of the second floor. Baxter loved to be out there on a sunny day, and this was early September, a perfect Sunday afternoon, warm, bright and with just a hint of Fall on the leaves’ edges.  I had been out with Baxter for a couple of hours on that deck, and now I wanted to come inside to watch the evening news on TV. Baxter didn’t want to come. Every time I went to grab him, he ran away.  Frustrated, I decided to leave him on the deck while I went downstairs to the television. I never thought anything would go wrong, but it did.

 I was watching the news less than five minutes when I heard this commotion upstairs. I ran up the steps just in time to see Baxter’s hind quarters disappear off the deck with a jump to the lawn, two stories below. Another full grown cat came onto the deck as soon as I left it, and Baxter knew he was outsized so he took the only exit available. I didn’t see where he went, but since there wasn’t a bundle of fur on the lawn below, I knew he survived the jump.

 I was panicked, and my mind was racing with worry. Where did he go and what happened to him? I decided to walk around the neighborhood to look for him. I went up and down the whole dead-end street calling his name. There wasn’t a clue to his whereabouts. Since there was an open, undeveloped area behind the houses on this street, I figured he could be long gone, and I feared for his safety. You see, Baxter never had to face the big, bad world. He came to me at four months and never had to develop street smarts to make it out there. I was at a loss what to do. I felt heartsick.

Then I remembered the routines Baxter learned. When I would come home, he would be at the door waiting for me because he heard the garage door opening. The sound of the garage door opening meant I was coming home, and my coming home meant Baxter would be fed. The other association he learned was the sound of the lid being removed from the catnip container. As soon as he heard the squeak, he would come running for a nip of pleasure from the contents. This gave me an idea.

 I went into the garage and opened the door. Then I stood outside on the driveway and opened the catnip jar. It worked. Baxter was hiding in the next door neighbor’s bushes, and he came running out of there and over to me in a split second.  It was a wonderful reunion for both of us. He was home again, safe and secure, and none the worse for wear after this frightening ordeal.

When we are afraid and hiding from God, we need to listen for familiar sounds that call us home.  Maybe it’s the prayers we learned as children. Maybe it’s the sound of church bells or a familiar hymn.  Maybe it’s the memory of something your parents or grandparents said about God and God’s ways.  Maybe it’s your children’s questions about church. Whatever it is that provokes our memory about Who God is and His presence to us is a call to come home. “Big Cats” in this world may have driven us away, but since God is everywhere, we are never far from His comforting welcome—if we listen and are ready to respond.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Baxter's Bad Moment

Baxter is generally a very mild mannered “gentlecat”. But once, he had a bad moment that showed another side of him.

I was in a hurry one evening to get back to the office for a meeting. I went home to grab a quick bite of left-over chicken for dinner, and in cleaning up afterwards, I put the chicken bones, skin and uneaten parts into a small garbage bag to throw into the outside garbage container. Getting ready to leave the house, I put this bag on a table near the door until I put on my coat and hat. Then the phone rang, and after I hung up, I was so distracted that I left the house with used chicken parts sitting in a plastic bag on the table near the door. It was too much temptation for Baxter.

When I returned a couple of hours later, I couldn’t find Baxter. I found a few chicken bones but no cat. I called his name, looked in all his usual hiding spots, and shook his treat container, but still no cat appeared.

Then I heard him. He was in the spare back room crying and hissing. When I got to the door, he was beside himself. He had found what was left of the chicken and tore open the bag to get at it. Somehow, he got the bag wrapped around his belly and it wouldn’t release. He hissed and howled and cried and glared at me. Whenever I would try to approach him, he became even more belligerent. He had worked himself into a frenzy over this bag that held him prisoner, and there was no soothing him. He was in a ridiculous predicament of his own making, and he wasn’t about to let anyone help or calm him.

I didn’t know what to do, so I just closed the door to the room where Baxter was. I decided to call the emergency vet for some help. That went nowhere as they offered me no advice except to bring him into the clinic. But that was my problem. He wouldn’t let me approach him, so how was I going to take him anywhere without becoming a scratched and bloody victim of his rage. Baxter ate the chicken, and I became chicken.

I decided that maybe “time out” was in order. I would just stay in the living room and watch television for a while. Give him time to settle down in the spare room. I quit calling him. I opened the door a crack, and I pretended he wasn’t around. I allowed him to settle down. It worked.

After about a half hour, Baxter came slowly out of the room with the plastic bag still wrapped around his belly. He sheepishly walked up to me and rolled on his back. I petted him gently for a few minutes. Then I got a pair of scissors and cut the bag away from his body. Shortly afterwards, he stood up, went to his water dish and drank a healthy portion. Aside from the chicken bones strewn around the house and a few towels and other clothes scattered about in his desperation to get free of the bag, nothing was the worst for wear. But we both learned a few things.

Baxter learned to stay away from what he couldn’t handle, even if the temptation seemed so good and enticing. He learned to stop fretting and fuming if he wanted to get over the incident. He learned to gear down and be quiet if he wanted to return to his old, affable self. He learned that “time out” isn’t just for kittens, but adult cats need to stop, take a deep breath, and let go of their anger, if life is to get back to normal again.

I learned that I can’t fix things as quickly and easily as I thought I could. I learned to allow Baxter his space to work out his feelings before he faced me again. I learned to speak softly when he is hissing and crying loudly. I learned to go slowly when he did return—pet him gently and calmly—then when he was ready, to cut loose the bag holding him bound. I learned to let him take care of himself once he was free, and to let him decide when he could come close again and sit on my lap. I learned to respect Baxter’s desires and disposition, and not force him to meet my desires and disposition all the time. I learned how not to own Baxter but to care for him.

A cat, chicken bones and an absent-minded cat lover--God uses the strangest things at times to teach us His ways and wisdom.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Baxter is Back

Summer is over, and the world is gearing up for the long haul until next June.  But before we forget about the months just passed, we need to take stock of their hidden lessons for us.  Baxter shows us how.

Baxter loves the summer.  He sits on the ledge of open windows.  Open windows offer so much more than closed and locked ones.  He smells the fresh air, hears the birds chirping, the dogs barking and the humans chattering.  He feels like the outside comes indoors when the breeze streams through the room and the sun shines brightly on the walls.  In the winter, Baxter protects himself from the elements of nature, but in the summer, he invites them into his living space to refresh and brighten it.  Baxter soaks in the summer, and I think its memory keeps him going through the cold, dark days of winter when he is confined to the artificially heated room behind closed and locked windows and doors.

Taking our cue from Baxter, the lessons of summer are many.  Lesson one:  living creatures thrive in light and air.  These elements lift our spirits; they make us look healthy; they even nourish us with Vitamin D and oxygen.  Lesson two:  hard work in cooperation with the natural environment yields a harvest that nourishes life.  August and early September are such bountiful months for fresh fruits and vegetables, and there is no substitute for the taste of locally grown foodstuffs.  Lesson three:  simple things make summer so rich.  An exotic vacation or an expensive purchase isn’t the usual hallmark of a great summer.  It’s the annual picnic or the still of a summer evening or the sound of a lawn mower or the visit to the soft-serve stand that distinguishes this season.  Simple things carry a weight of meaning that we learn through the years to appreciate.

For us as Christians, these lessons hold a spiritual message as well.  The fullness of human thriving comes in the light of Christ and the breath of His Spirit.  We seek this light deep in our hearts, and no artificial substitutes will satisfy us.  We need more than oxygen to sustain us.  We need the breath of God to keep us from smothering in the stale air of our own self-centeredness.  The fruits that will last are those generated by our efforts and God’s grace cooperating to make a better world for all peoples.  Grace tempers the tyranny of our human efforts to “do it my way”, yet our hard work makes concrete and tangible God’s hidden life and power in our midst.  Finally, God is simple, not in a simplistic or na├»ve sense, but in the sense of being true and self-evident.  Like the simple things that make up summer memories, there is no hidden agenda or dressed-up appearances with God.  He loves us without conditions, and this simple fact exposes our own truth and goodness that we often try to ignore or deny.

For Baxter and for all of us, summer is quickly passing, but its lessons can carry us through the colder seasons ahead.  Preserve a little of the nourishment grown in the summer, and take it from the shelf when you need it in a January time of life.  Hold on to the lessons of summer until it is warm and sunny again.  They keep all of us healthy and holy.