Going to the cats

By Father Joseph Breighner 
As I go through the process of grieving the loss of my sister, Helen, and all of the other various challenges of day-to-day life, I find one place always comforting. I always feel peaceful sitting on the floor and schmoozing with about 20 cats at Animal Rescue in Pennsylvania, along with my friend, Jane.
I hesitate to write again about the cats. I received a message from one lady, telling me how much she enjoys all of my columns – except the ones about cats!
So I need to preface this column with the kind of warning I often see in the media: “The following column contains references to naked cats and graphic meowing. Reader discretion is advised.”
As I’ve explained before, dogs were my first love. And I still get my dog “fix” as I go through the gates of Animal Rescue. Invariably I am surrounded by dogs who escort me to the building where the cats are housed. So I get a chance to pet, romp and play with about six to eight dogs each week.
The dogs, however, seem to be “not amused” that I’m going to visit the cats. The cats don’t seem to enjoy the fact that I smell like dogs.
Once inside the building where the cats are housed, I sit on the floor and  am quickly covered with cats. It’s a love fest. They love the petting and so do I. For me it’s impossible to pet an animal and feel bad at the same time.
I love to watch the cats interact with each other. Some are private and keep their distance. Others like to play with toys. Others are incredibly loving. There’s a long-haired black cat with only three legs and a stump. Having been traumatized in some way, you would expect this cat to be wary and aloof. Instead, she is the most loving animal I’ve ever seen. She is always licking the other cats, offering them love and comfort.
Upstairs in this same building are housed what I call the “psychotic cats.” These are cats whose life traumas have made them unadoptable. I have been clawed and bitten more times than I care to mention. I have been encouraged to stay downstairs. But I love the unlovable, and have found that week by week, hour by hour, as I sit with them, they learn to trust me. Cats that once clawed me now sit on my lap and purr. They’ve learned to trust another human. And I try to live my mantra: “Every cat deserves a lap.” Love does conquer all.
As a child, my favorite saint was St. Francis of Assisi. While I couldn’t identify with his holiness, I could identify with his love of animals. 
Recently, I’ve discovered another saint from the Orthodox Church – St. Issac the Syrian. Writing long ago, he said: “What is a charitable heart? It is a heart that is burning with love for the whole of creation, for humans, for the birds, for the beasts, for the  demons – for all creatures. The one who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion that seizes his or her heart, a heart that is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain, being inflicted upon a creature. That is why such a person never ceases to pray also for the animals; for the enemies of Truth; and even for those who do him evil that they may be preserved and purified. He will even pray for the reptiles moved by the infinite pity that reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united to God.”
I can’t pretend personally to have achieved such an exulted level of love. But I’m doing OK with the dogs and cats. Love is not only where you find it. Love is where you bring it.

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The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.