Tuesday, December 13, 2011


The following tale is my Christmas gift to kith an kin, including children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends. If any enemies happen upon it, be merry!

A Christmas Tail for Heathen Times

It was December 12, the morning of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. As usual, I was talking to my cat Luthien. We were standing in front of my statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe which I had decked with Christmas lights to honor her and to astound my Baptist neighbors.

“It was cold then, too, in the mountains,” I said, “that is why the blooming of the roses was such a miracle.”

“What blooming miracle?” Luthien said. She has a touch of limey on her Tolkienish side.

“When Juan Diego of Mexico saw the Blessed Virgin on Tepyac mountain above Mexico City she gave him the roses in his tilma to show to the Bishop, who had demanded a sign that Juan Diego was not another Aztec fruitcake. When Juan carried the roses to the Bishop, the Bishop knelt in wonder as he beheld the image of Mary as a young Aztec woman somehow emblazoned into the tilma, a very humble cloak made of cactus fiber. Though these tilmas usually decay into dust within twenty years, this one, dear furry friend, is still in perfect condition after six hundred years or so, and no scientist can understand what the colors are made of or how the tilma resists decay. ‘Who painted it?’ So the bewildered Hilary Clinton asked a priest. “God,” the priest answered to her bewilderment. Or, for that matter, how this image converted a million Aztecs and, later, won the battle of Lepanto, but those are stories you don’t want to hear. . . . though you could read about them in the book in the house called God-Sent: A History of the Accredited Apparitions of Mary.”

I paused, suddenly aware that I was probably talking to myself, an affliction of the aged. But I heard a feline yawn.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Cats normally have an attention span of about thirteen nanoseconds, so I was surprised to see Luthien listening and raising one paw in question.

“Books, those things that get in my way when I want to find a nice nook to curl in?”

“That’s all you have to say? I figured—”

Luthien questions me

“No, wait a minute, I have some questions. All this talk of miracles and Christmas.”

“Yes, must be a puzzle to a mere cat.”

“Don’t be insulting, I am not a Meerkat. My honest line of domestic cathood runs back to Egypt and Babylon.”

“I’ll try to ignore the fact that I am talking with a cat and chalk it up to lonely hermit visions, but for the sake of . . .”

“Of St. Alzheimer, no doubt.”

“No, for the sake of wonder, the seed ground of faith, I’ll hear you out.”

Luthien leapt up on the bannister. “Not until we go inside where it’s warm.”

I knew an old ploy when I saw one, but it was a feast day and I was shivering too.

Inside I had to wait for her to go through her seemingly endless ablutions—cats make Muslims look like pikers— before she consented to go on.

“A cold coming we had of it,” she started.

“That’s from T.S. Eliot’s 'Journey of the Magi,' the lines he appropriated from Lancelot Andrewes. Stop playing around.”

“You are missing it. You humans have no patience. That was my purr-lude.”

“Go on, I’m trying to pay attention.”

“Okay, you think I don’t attend, but I do. All this purring sound is really a different level of perception; we cats kind of hum into knowledge. Now, you have this silly Mexican statue you bought from Wal-Mart, if truth be told, but some of your neighbors have manger scenes in their front yards, right?”

“I didn’t know you observed anything but squirrels and birds.”

“I’ll let that pass as a specie-ist insult. If you were as observant as I am, you would notice that in Eliot’s poem and in all these manger scenes, there are camels and oxen and sheep and even horses, but not a single cat. Not one. Not ever."

“Well, Saint Luke only mentions flocks of sheep, so . . .”

“My point exactly. All the rest about oxen and camels is ex-trope-olation by tradition, eh?”

“That’s extrapolation . . .”

“Not very wise in Scripture study are you? A trope is . . .”

“All right, I get it. The animals kneeling, as in Hardy’s poem, are poetic tropes invented by Christian tradition.”

“And if that’s so, there’s my species-ism proof, your whole Christian culture leaves out cats, creatures of God, but not only are they left out of manger scenes, there’s not a single cat in all of Scripture. One stinking dog in the Book of Tobit—and that’s left out of the Protestant Bible—but not a single—”

“Stinking cat?”

“We are superbly clean, cleaner than thou, you . . .”

“Mangy hermit?”

“Thou hast said it, not me.”

“So what do you want to do about it?”

“I have purr-poses you have not even begun to guess, white boy.”

“But I am about to learn, I suppose.”

“Furs-t, you have to suspend your disbelief a bit. I have a true story.”

“You’re not about to try to add to Scripture, are you?”

“Well, think a minute, what temperature was it on the night Christ was born and what were the constellations in the sky?”


“Exactly, but if astronomers and other scientists could tell us those things, would that detract from the Sacred Book? Neither will what I have to tell you, not one whisker.”

“And the source of your story?”

“At last, we’re getting to the tail I have to tell.”


“In your lingua franca, not my Cat-alonese.”

By this time I was lying on my back with a cup of cocoa by my side and approaching the region some romantic poets must have visited after a good puff on the pipe. But no matter, I had the secret of true culture—leisure, which means time that is like sleeping and love: “the leisure of man includes within itself a celebratory, approving, lingering gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation,” as philosopher Josef Pieper puts it in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the wisest and most illuminating little book of the whole twentieth century.

Outside my window cars were rushing past, cars full of frenetic Christmas shoppers desperate for sales and purchases and mad with the peculiar madness of capitalist activism. I was in the proper mood to hear a story, even one from Luthien, a story in which I could wander and know as one knows from true stories.

“This story is a secret story handed down in my cat family—

“There was a cat and he had a boy. . .”

“Don’t you have that backwards? A case of puss-lexia?”

“No, it’s you that have it backwards. Think outside your human box for a minute, and no more interruptions!”

“So this cat, followed by his boy, was on his way up a road in Judea to a town called Beth-le-hem, when he heard angels singing--I said don’t interrupt! Cats can hear things you can’t—as a matter of fact, we hear them singing all the time, not just then. Why do you think we sleep so happily while you are grumbling and grousing around?

The boy, of course, heard nothing, he just followed my great-great-great-great(x times 2,642) great-grandfather Judah Ben-jamin Cat—”

“Hold on a minute, this cat was a Jew? You’re really spinning a yarn, Luthien—”

Judah Ben-Jamin Cat

“I told you, we are very, very clean. Where do you think we got that? Okay, now we have to do a flashback. If you can lie still for it. Though cats are not mentioned in the Bible, that is because they were originally pagans in Egypt. They were even worshipped and mummified, you know, there were festivals in their honor and temples and all kinds of federal entitlements. It was high times in Egypt, I tell you, the cats thought it was the promised land. Then the Jews came in. For a while that was good too, they had their fleshpots and the pickin’s were easy in their camps. Cats everywhere, stealing everything, and nobody allowed to touch a hair on their sacred heads. So you wonder why the Jews weren’t too hot on cats when they wrote all their histories and stuff?

An Egyptian cat . . .

. . . and an Egyptian cat god.

“But then these Jews refused to worship any of the Egyptian gods, including us, and wanted their own religious ceremonies, which really riled the Pharoah, or the Fur-oh, as we called him then. Fur-oh, he say stop all that Jew stuff! But they had stiff necks, same as you got some days, and they wouldn’t bend. Then this guy named Moses and his sidekick Aaron got feisty and told Fur-oh, let my peoples go home! Fur-oh, he would say yes, then he would say no, and every time he said no, bad stuff happened. Locusts and hail and pesty things striking the crops and cattle and frogs getting in the food bowls and lice in our fur and all the fish stinking dead in the river and even the children falling down dead. Down at ground level, things were bad for the cats, nothing to eat and nothing to steal and the Gyp-shuns stopped putting sacrifice food in the cat temples. Entitlements dried up and you couldn’t find a dog-fly to snack on. Most of the rats all died and the mice too and the kitties were lean as Somalis. It was hard times in the cotton fields. So our great (all the greats x 3765) ancestor cat, Al-Furry-oh , called all the cats together and jammed about this.

“’Hissss!’ he said. ‘Fur-oh’s wise guys have lost all their mojo, so it would appear, and these Jew guys going out of here to a land of milk and honey AND looks like the rats and mice that are left goin’ with ‘em too. It’s time to fish or cut bait and we don’ have no fish and no bait nuther.’

“Well, to make a long story short—”

“Puh-lease, Luthien—”

“They went with the Jews into the desert and griped a lot along with the Jews and ate the hard tack and listened to a lot of hard talk, but they survived and came into the Promised Land.”

“So why aren’t there any cats in the Jewish scriptures then?”

“I didn’t say they loved us. They have long memories and no patience with fur-i-ners. But we stuck in, and even today—”

“Yes, I fed bits of my Argentine steak to kitties under my table in an outdoor Jerusalem restaurant—”

“You never gave me anything like that to eat—”

“Let’s not get off on that. So finish the story—”

“Huffffggghhh. There you go again, away from the contemplative mode of catness, back into demanding quickie results and rushing to conclusions, the whole protestant work ethic and spirit of capitalism. I’m purring contemplation here, beholding, not snacking. The picture of the cat and his boy walking toward Beth-le-hem upon a midnight clear is a picture worthy of the master painters and hours of simple beholding. But in de-fur-ence to your sick impatience, I will go on.

“It was a cold night and everyone on the road was rushing to find a meal and a bed in the crowded town. There was this census thing on and all the Jews who were of that city had to register or get in trouble with the Roman feds, who wanted total control over the peoples they ruled. Fortunately, there was no rule on cats, so my great (X 2642) grandfather Judah Ben Cat sniffed opportunity—all those people, all that food—and went straight for the inn, which was packed. His boy, a very poor fellow without a name even, who wandered the roads of Rome looking for food himself, trotted behind him. Then they heard—

’Please, sir, my wife is about to give birth, if you could find a place for us. I am a carpenter, tomorrow in payment I could fix something for you.’

‘Do you have a reservation?’

‘No, I am a simple man seeking a place where my wife can give birth, we are on the road because of the census, please for the love of Yahweh, do not turn us away.’

‘I’ve already told you, all our rooms are full and besides, we don’t take barter, only Roman Express cards. Now for the last time, scat.’

“Being told to scat,” Luthien continued, “well, that’s talk Judah Ben Cat had heard before from every people on the planet. And being without a place to stay, Judah knew what that meant, though he prided himself on being homeless and beholden to no man.

‘I saw a bunch of shepherds outside town,’ the boy suddenly said to the man, who said his name was Joseph and he was of the House of David.

‘No house of David here, sir,’ the boy said, ‘just this Holy Day Inn, but it’s packed with rich merchants who can pay the high price. But maybe the shepherds outside town might know a place, maybe a cave.’

“This Joseph went back to his wife, Miriam I think she was called, and held her in his arms. It was clear she was having birth pains every few minutes.”

‘There is no time, we must do something now. The baby is coming fast,’ Joseph told the boy.

“Then,” Luthien said, “Judah Ben Cat saw Joseph kneel down in the street and lift up his hands in prayer and ask his Father God for help. All his ancestors that had come through the desert knew this strange behavior and respected it because it often brought food and with the food, which fell out of the sky, tasty mice and rats.”

“Typical cat thinking,” I interrupted,” always the food.”

“Did you not know that smells and food and eating are important in the Divine Plan? Judah Ben Cat and the homeless of the earth know that God relates to food more than you can know. But that’s a secret that comes later, a very big secret.

“Anyway, Judah’s boy saved the day. ‘Sir Yusef, quick, there is a stable behind the Inn where we can at least find some shelter and straw.'

"Actually he knew this because he had seen Judah Ben Cat disappear around the corner in that direction, but humans always fail to credit the wisdom of cats. Straw? Stable? That’s cat heaven.

“Imagine the place, a crowded dirty stable, half shed, half cave, noisy with the honking of camels and the noise making of horses and donkeys and geese and chickens cackling in cages, and the animals crowding around the food troughs—mangers, you know—and poor Joseph and Miriam looking around for a place. Finally the boy and Joseph pulled one of the troughs to a corner and put as fresh straw as they could find in it. When the baby came, Miriam wrapped it in some clean rags and laid it in the rough straw. About that time the shepherds showed up and knelt as if this baby were God Almighty and Judah Ben Cat knew that something big was happening, something very, very big, and he heard Miriam and Yusef discussing the name for the baby, which was to be JESUS, a name they said had been given by an angel when the baby was conceived.

“The word that has come down to us from Judah Ben Cat is that that is a name at which every knee should bend, and so, when all the other animals knelt on the stable floor, Judah knelt too, even though, as he said, he didn’t quite understand the why or wherefore. It’s something deep, he said, very deep in all creation, that all animals know, even the mice and rats and stupid dogs. Judah’s great grandson followed this family to Nazareth and back into Egypt when the baby-killers came after JESUS and spread the word to his kin that were still there. Something big had happened, so big the baby-killers wanted it stamped out, but wouldn’t you know it, this big new thing in the world traveled by word of mouth among exiles and homeless and back streets and prisoners and the poor and some soldiers, not by billboards or proclamations in the street.

“Later, my kin tell me, that baby grew up and preached the Truth and got killed for what He said. There were cats at the foot of the cross, weeping. For they had heard JESUS say to his followers, ‘Go forth and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ That is our faith, and we do not know how it will work out for us when the kingdom He promised comes, but we cannot believe we will be left behind, for we too are followers, as best as we can be.”

“And now,” I said to Luthien, who had now perched on my couch with one closed eye, “I suppose you will tell me you are a Christian cat?”

“A Cat-lic Christian, not baptized of course, but blessed and touched by the Spirit. That is why when you play music in the house, if it’s liturgical, I purr along, but if it’s not religious, it sounds like cats yowling and I demand to go out. Especially if it’s that Muslim, Cat Stevens, the horror! But mostly, as you know, we prefer silence; some of my fur-bears were Desert Fur-thurs, keeping the mice out of hermit caves and such.

“In the Divine Economy we keep to our place and our own purr-ishes, we preach without words but show necessary disapprobation with flicks of our tails, we mind our own business but we will cuddle anyone who needs warmth, and we mew our thanks to the baby who is God, to whom our fur-bears knelt in the straw. We keep the Occupiers—infidos and hare-e-tics—out of the gardens. And we honor all the feast days by feasting! And when the fasts come, we beg in the streets like the saints. And oh yes, we have a patron saint, St. Gertrude, the patroness of cats . . .”

“Forgive me, Luthien, if I find all of this a bit hard to take, some of it seems so comic, cats in the stable, cats following Moses into the desert—”

“Hufff! All good Christian stories are comic in nature, just as comic to me as you standing there and thinking you own me. Ever read the comic exchanges between Our Lord and the Pharisees? And think back to poor Juan Diego and Our Lady on the mountain. There he was trying to get back from the Bishop to take care of his sick uncle and he was afraid that the mysterious Lady would snag him again, so he went around the other side of the mountain hoping she wouldn’t. Like all true comedies, it’s Divine, even cats know that, and you, sir, are a very funny fellow with strange views. As for comic, have you ever looked at a camel? The missionary who would preach to that creature must be a case for the books.”

My cocoa was in need of replenishment, and it was time to turn on the lights I had strung around Mother Mary, time to open the door and let Luthien go on her mysterious missions, time to rejoice and strain my ears to hear the angels singing. Purr-haps if I would raise my old paws in prayer . . .