When I say that the kittens are in formation to become cats, by that I mean that they are in training to be hunters, carnivorous predators. What I may delight in as their seemingly silly playfulness is really dress rehearsal for becoming skilled hunters. That awareness may take some of the fun out of the kittens’ cuteness. When the cats, for example, chase each other around the house, literally bouncing off the walls in very athletic ways, they are honing their skills as predators for adeptly chasing prey. Play, after all, is rehearsal for real, adult life, even for us humans.
When the cats wrestle each other, as they often do (it’s kind of like TV’s All-Star Wrestling on the oriental rug in the parsonage living room), it is genuinely play. I’ve seen cats actually fight each other – that is not a pretty sight, nor does it come with delightful sounds. No, these cats wrestle each other rather gently, exercising restraint, but again, it’s rehearsal for what happens when the hunter cat catches its prey.
One of the things that I find compelling about felines is that they have been domesticated for a significantly shorter period of our history than dogs. Thus, our domestic cats bring more of the wild of nature to us as they claim our domiciles as homes. Which is to say that cat owners are more cat-owned than we might like to admit. When I was a child, I was scared of cats’ apparent wild unpredictability, not to mention their sharp claws. As an adult, I’ve grown to be fascinated by the wild animal instincts which inhabit our furry friends.
And yet with cats, all is not reduced merely to instinct. I have had cats for most of my adult life. But I’ve never had litter mates, and I have never had cats so young (they were a mere three months old when Nathan and I adopted them from a shelter last summer). Ben and Benny are almost identical twins. I can tell them apart visually now only because one has a bushier tail than the other. They have spent their whole lives together. They have never known life apart from each other. Some of this may pass once they become fully grown, but these two are inseparable. What one does, the other will end up doing. If one is in my lap, the other will inevitably jump up, too, so that I delight in a pile of cat, listening to stereophonic purring.
Sometimes I wonder if I have one cat in two bodies. Contrary to the view that cats are solitary creatures, these two are very social with each other and with me. They seem to adore each other, often grooming and licking each other, a little love fest that will sometimes turn into a wrestling match. At feeding time – and like monks, they live according to a strict schedule and routine – when I make a move toward their food dishes, they run together, side by side, with their tails entwined with each other as if they are two excited children running arm in arm. This is too cute for words.
While Ben and Benny look very much alike, and do things together, their personalities could not be more different. Ben, the bushier tailed one, is laid back, relaxed, calm. Benny is more wary, hesitant, and high-strung. Ben will lounge about on his back, his tummy exposed, which I can pet like a dog endlessly. This willingness is unusual in my experience of cats, since they experience stomach contact as a threat, as it’s a vulnerable part of the body to be exposed. While Benny loves to be petted, more in keeping with usual feline behavior, if I try to pet his stomach, he will try to bite me or escape my hands. They are like Frick and Frack, Thing One and Thing Two – or like the Odd Couple in the old TV sitcom, housemates where one is easy going and a bit sloppy and the other fastidious. How can two cats who are essentially twins and have only known life with each other have such different personalities? It’s a wonder to behold, revealing the complexity of these creatures and the mysteries they hold.
Which is to say, I make these observations to inspire a sense of wonder at nature, at God’s good creation – even indoors. Two beautiful creatures who, while on the one hand are wild animals driven by all manner of basic instincts to become hunters, on the other hand offer nuance and rich textures of personality and behavior that reveal their intelligence and uniqueness also as individuals.
I also learn from Ben and Benny. They have their active periods of hunting and exploration, to be sure, but they also, like all cats, enjoy long periods of rest and sleep. Cats sleep an average of about fifteen hours a day. I love to watch cats at rest, because they inspire my own stillness, my own capacities to slow down and just be. I am otherwise prone to be more like a hamster on a treadmill sometimes, overly active for no obvious good effect or outcome. Gazing at a sleeping cat is an incarnate, visual reminder of what I need constantly to tell myself concerning my own spiritual life: slow down, breathe, be still, listen. Resting cats invite a more contemplative way.
In this season of pandemic-induced gravitas, which reveals dangerous intersections between humanity and pathogens, another feature of nature and creation, it’s compelling and important for the sake of balance also to experience nature’s delights – even at home during the wintertime when our experience of the natural world may be truncated by this season of winter dormancy and inclement weather.
All of this again is to inspire a sense of wonder and awe at what God has done in setting into motion creative forces which have evolved over millennia into incredible, beautiful biodiversity. My teenage felines clearly embody natural wonders and invite sacred awe. If you have pets of whatever species, I hope that my musings here inspire your own awe at the wonder of nature indoors in the uniqueness of the creatures that make a home with you.
A final word by way of exhortation: Ben and Benny’s presence in the world also invites me, and indeed all of us, to redouble our efforts at creation care in this time of the Anthropocene period of earth’s history, when human impact on ecosystems and climate are having profound and gravely ill effects on God’s creation and God’s creatures. May a spirit of awe and wonder lead to our better stewardship as a species of God’s good creation. In this New Year, may we resolve, among many other things, to attend more proactively to themes of creation care.
Prayerfully in Christ with a sense of wonder,
Pastor Jonathan Linman