I once had a cat named Brother Vinny. He was a six-week old kitten when we first met one late-October day. I was visiting the bookstore of Holy Cross Abbey, in Berryville, VA, something I somehow manage to do annually, a sort of unintentional pilgrimage, if there is such a thing. Let me explain.
I'd been called to do the funeral for a dear friend, Mr. Ed Myers (aka "Bumps"), who passed away on October 21, 2014, at age 82. I'd known Ed and his wife, Bobbie, for about 20 years, mostly through serving together on a number of annual mission trips to West Virginia. When I received the call, I had no idea what I would say, but I knew exactly the tenor I wanted to set for the service. Ed's spirit was very down-to-earth and honest. Casual. He tried to stay open to whatever the day might bring. And if he knew you had a need, especially if it involved automotive repair, he was your man. So, instead of scripting his funeral, I sought to be open and present to wherever the Spirit led. Celtic Christians often liken God's Spirit to a wild goose. I was about to learn why.
Part of this prompting can be traced to a new way of living that I've intentionally pursued over the past decade or so, one that seeks to fuse the means by which I pursue something with the end I'm seeking. I don't always succeed, but I'm convinced that how we live is decisive, that the process of living becomes the one life we live. So here was a perfect chance to practice this approach with Ed's funeral and committal services. But intuiting my way through this proved no mean feat. In fact, I'd say it was both more nerve-wracking and heart-freeing than putting pen to paper could ever aspire. I let go of my usually careful, often over-prepared approach. There would be no manuscript. Just a few notes as I sought to sketch the winged migration of the Holy Ghost, wherever and however it manifested itself as the creative interplay of the divine Spirit and spirits: the creative Wild Goose sweeping through Ed's spirit and throughout the other grieving, groaning, grateful spirits of friends and family gathered in their shared loss to remember him.
As I packed for the drive from St. Louis to Leesburg, VA, Ed's hometown and final resting place, the Wild Goose first led my thoughts to my cat, Cattin. She's a Calico kitten we found curled up in the straw with our hens one harsh winter. Feral, she gradually warmed up to my wife's wooing, as Sandy fed and talked softly to her each day. Months later, spayed and vaccinated and well-fed, Cattin came to live in our backyard with a shepherd's eye on our flock of chickens. Wherever they were, she'd go too, keeping watch at a distance. She came to let us pet her, and would even approach and meow for such affection, but whenever we tried to pick her up, she'd skirt away. She's just not one to be held.
I knew I was thinking of Cattin because I was grieving Ed. I'd found his spirit: warm, approachable, skittish. He asked good, hard questions. He scratched his head and chewed on my responses. But if I got too close, he'd vamoose. There was many a time in West Virginia, usually after lunch, when we'd look around and he would be nowhere to be found, only to reappear later like Houdini. Ed craved friendship, but something in him, and, surely, in most all of us, feared intimacy. Especially intimacy with God. He'd let himself get only so close, maybe even be fed a little, but if things got too personally vulnerable, say, to the point of allowing others or God to "hold" or "carry" him, he'd skedaddle. Who knows? Maybe he needed to mull things over by himself like a good introvert. Or maybe the kitchen of intimacy was just too hot. But he always returned for more--and was a loyal friend.
The Wild Goose chase continued. I was then led from Cattin to Julian of Norwich. Julian lived during the 14th century, a time when the whole world, not unlike today, seemed to be breaking apart at the seams: endless warfare waged (the Hundred Years' War was fought from 1337 - 1453); the bubonic plague, or Black Death, would kill a third of Europe's population in just five years; social and economic upheaval; clerical scandal and corruption--Julian's days, much like Job's days, had gone to the dogs. So Julian chose the life of an anchoress, one who was "set apart" to live in prayerful solitude and provide spiritual direction. They built a little room for her, attached to the church of St. Julian at Conisford in Norwich. From here she lived alone, prayed, and from her curtained window offered spiritual counsel to any who approached.
Julian is known for a series of visions she had on her deathbed at the age of 30, called Showings. When she recovered, Julian wrote down a quick description of what she'd seen. Then 15-20 years later, she wrote a much longer version of these visions. In one of these visions the crucified Christ comes to her and holds out his hand. In it lies something as tiny as a hazelnut. She understood this to be everything that was ever created. That God made it, God loves it, and God preserves it. We are small, yes, but never contemptibly small--not in the eyes of the One who holds us through thick and thin. It is this Christ who says emphatically to all her questions and doubts, "I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well." God's love holds us, enfolds us, and, in offering us to the world, unfolds us as the gifts we're meant to be.
I was convinced I was drawn to Julian because of Ed's allergy to being "held." I figured if Julian could hold to such a hopeful vision of God during one of the darkest periods of history, then maybe we could to.
Before I left for Virginia, my friend Belden Lane and I were visiting over coffee. I had mentioned how I was drawn to Julian as I thought of Ed's funeral. We both imagined the unimaginable: saw Julian sitting and praying, at her window offering spiritual consolation as best she could, while the plague-ravaged bodies of her beloved Norwich neighbors were being piled and burned in the streets. We grew quiet. Since there was nowhere further to go with that, I tried to move on to another topic, when Belden said something I missed. "What's that?" I asked. He replied, "I said, 'Julian and her cat.'" I had completely forgotten about her cat! Cats were the one pet allowed in monastic life because they helped get rid of vermin, and Julian was known to be be quite fond of her cat. Some even consider her the Patron Saint of Cats. Julian and her cat tilled the Light as the whole world turned dark. I had not yet left St. Louis, but already the Spirit had led me on a wild goose chase from Ed to Cattin, to Julian, to Julian's cat. You can't make this stuff up.
l could go on for awhile about the way time and space and heart converged to make Ed's memorial and graveside services gifts in keeping with his life and the God who loved him through and through. The humor and lightheartedness, the myriad stories, coincidences, the geese veeing south in the sky above the cemetery as Ed's cremains were interred. But you have a life to live, so I'll save that for the next time we visit. As it turned out, I never mentioned being drawn to Julian of Norwich, her cat, or Cattin in any of my comments.
But I will mention this. While in Virginia, my gracious host and friend Meredith and I visited the bookstore and gift shop at Holy Cross Abbey. As we drove up, we startled several stray cats, all mommas--three gray tabbies, a Calico, and a one-eyed Persian. They had been lolling about with their saggy bellies draped over the warm concrete of the front porch. Once I pulled in, they ducked out, deep into the dark hedgerow.
I'd come to expect and welcome such a sight from previous visits to the monastery. Brother Vincent, the overseer of the bookstore, never met a stray cat he didn't love--and feed. Which begat more and more kittens for him to "adopt out." Inside the shop, Brother Vincent had a panther-black Bombay kitten darting to a laser light dot thrown among the shelves that once held only books. Increasingly, the indigenous tomes on prayer and spirituality were being colonized and displaced by small stacked pucks of Little Whiskas and bags of Purina donated by the faithful.
The upshot is that Brother Vincent discerned soon enough that it was the Lord's Will that this kitten's new home be mine. The Lord's Will. So what could I do? I left with more books, six flavors of creamed honey, a cellophaned box of of dark-chocolate bark, and his namesake kitten: Brother Vinny. The two of us drove back to St. Louis on a mission from God. He wouldn't share the driving, but he rode well, snug in my lap.
My wife and I never had a question but that God gifted us with Brother Vinny. Just as we had no answer for the undiagnosed virus that took him from us so quickly. No words for how he purred and kneaded his way in and made us all his. No words for watching him curl up on the corner of the bed that always received morning's first light, for how the warm white patch on his chest proved to be his purr-button.
Brother Vinny's strange virus took us first to a vet at Pet Smart, then to a local animal hospital. Lots of tests and procedures and head-scratching. The last day Sandy and I visited him (yes, the place had "visiting hours"), the nurse almost forgot about us. We, too, forgot the time, lost in this sad goodbye. We held and rubbed on Brother Vinny for a couple of hours before finally handing him back to the nurse. She wrapped him in a little red blanket, then followed us out. As the automatic door opened, we heard some of the attendants oohing and aahing behind us. Then one said, "He's watching them leave." We turned around, and there was Brother Vinny in her arms, looking straight at us, wrapped in the blanket. For all the world, he appeared to be wearing a monk's cowl.
Now, I'm a grown man--better yet, I've had almost 60 years on this good earth to grow up. I drive a pickup. But the hospital had to call and leave messages for months while I put off picking up Brother Vinny's cremains. Until an unguarded moment: "Yes, I'm sorry. I'll be by today. Yes, tomorrow at the latest." So, sheepish, I go in. Get handed a sheet of paper heavy as lead with the names of deceased pets and living owners. I initial and receive a small cardboard box, heavier still, and walk out. Back in my truck, the box holds me, still and stunned. I idle between the yellow lines where I'm parked. I stare out at spring's sway in May. I can see Brother Vinny in that bright patch of first light at the foot of the bed. I weather the ache of having been taken in again. Mazzy Starr's "Into Dust" plays on the radio.
You can't make this up.