Among religious minorities

This will be different from anything else I’ve written here. You may find it emotionally heavy and difficult to process, as I did and still do. You may not believe a word of it. You may think me nuts for believing anything of the sort, let alone declaring that I do on a publicly accessible platform. I’ll be fine with that. I’m not writing any of this in an effort to make myself look good. If I make myself look like a fool or a lunatic instead, all I’ll conclude is that my audience disagreed with me and disbelieved my story. I swear I won’t take it personally. I can’t imagine taking it personally in this case, to be honest. People disbelieve all sorts of stories about everything under the sun all the time. Some of these stories turn out to be true, as I think this one is. Disbelief in them doesn’t make them false.

A friend told me the other night that a cat gave her life for him some years ago. She brushed against him three times, took a cancer out of his body, eliminating his pain at once, became ill the next week, and died from the cancer at the age of five another two weeks later. This friend told me that years before the cat martyred herself by taking his cancer, a psychic had prophesied to him that a cat would come into his house one day and save his life. He thought little of it until after the cat had died. A veterinarian had told him that the tumor had been found in the middle of a fat layer, in a location completely unknown in the literature.

For a number of reasons that I can hardly articulate even to myself, I believe this story. This friend seems to operate at a spiritual level that I can, at best, pass through or peer into fleetingly from time to time. I’ve known a number of soi-disant deep spiritualists who appeared to be hysterics, easily buffaloed authoritarian personalities, or charlatans. This friend of mine is none of the three. He’s uncommonly socially astute and something close to a genius. It’s become almost routine for him to tell me stories of his encounters with the paranormal that I probably wouldn’t believe coming from most people. Again, although I can’t exactly articulate why, I believe him. Occam’s Razor gives them the ring of truth, since they’d be some of the craziest, most inconceivable stories to fabricate from scratch, and he admits that they’d be taken by the spiritually skeptical as objects of ridicule or bewildered disbelief, so it’s a fool’s errand to even try to relate them to such audiences. He’ll still tell some of these stories as asides in spiritually mixed company before moving on to any number of other subjects, the latter likely as not completely frivolous. We’re both surrounded in our social circles by atheists with advanced clinical or scientific degrees. They aren’t interested in humoring an RN’s story about how his cat magically conjured a tumor out of his body in accordance with a psychic’s prophecy. That’s basically like saying that Radovan Karadzic was a competent psychiatrist; it ignores the fact that he was still Radovan Karadzic. Proud rationalists with antireligious streaks don’t want a colleague receiving credence for telling people that he was cured of his cancer by a cat who martyred herself to save him. No clinical expertise or bedside manner can make up for that degree of superstition and backwardness. Science one fucking loves, and three brushes from a self-sacrificial housecat effecting the transference of a fatal tumor ain’t science. It’s like Ben Carson, Holy Moses, and the Grand Granaries of the Lower Nile.

Except it isn’t. You can believe all you want that Carson and the nurse are both battier than the Cubs dugout on game day, or that Dennis Geyer is hardly a greater embarrassment to neurosurgery, the goddamn Army, and the South Sound. Truth is not established by belief. It stands alone, sometimes very alone, whether it has its witnesses or not. I know, Wow Much insights Many deepthink Omg beth ruyak Very amaze. On second thought, I should stipulate that belief may be able to affect truth in mysterious ways that I can vaguely imagine, but not disbelief after the fact in something that has already happened. If the cat gave her life to cure the nurse of his cancer, this has already happened, and you can’t go back in time to unhappen it. You might as well try to kill the baby Hitler, or go back to this past winter and try to shame some sense into the Republican Party’s presidential field about what it considered a reputable thing to publicly discuss and ask of its rivals. It’s the current year, unfortunately, and that, as they say, was a thing. If she did it, she did it, and if she dindu nuffin, she didn’t. Omg beth ruyak Very explain, I guess. Your thoughts on what happened or didn’t and $2.50 will get you on the light rail.

When we think of this story as one of a close encounter with God or a religious testament to an act of sacrificial holiness, then, we shouldn’t think of it in the traditionally religious terms used by major religions in their campaigns of conversion by the sword or, pursuant to Clausewitz’s war by other means, conversion by the unceasingly loud mouth. We’ll stumble into category errors and get bogged down if we do. The difference could hardly be starker or more revealing. Religious factionalism has been used as a justification for war, thievery, rape, and butchery throughout the West and the Middle East for most of the last millennium and more, to an extent that well-meaning secular governments have had great difficulty suppressing with their peace talks and international military interventions. The resulting conflicts would have been crude ethnic or internal factional bloodbaths without the gloss of religion; instead, we have been treated to butchery in the name of kicking the papist James off the Throne of England, punishing Henry and the Heretics, righteously evangelizing the Mohamedans, putting infidels to the sword b’ismallah errahman errahim, and so forth, all of it disgraceful in the eyes of decent religious people. It’s almost always some sleazy hustle for lebensraum and treasure, anyway, so doing it in God’s name just makes it sleazier and amps up the profanity. Each of the offensive forces in these wars was a genuine Free Shit Army, not a haphazardly organized peacetime welfare constituency back home. When religion has not been in active use to justify this medley of atrocities, it’s been used widely, if in different forms, to justify the terrorization and extortion of the gullible faithful by a rogue’s gallery of bullies, nuts, hustlers, and frauds who swaddle themselves in the cloth. This is how the United States and a number of culturally compatible second- and third-world countries with even worse governments have ended up with so many prosperity gospel shysters. The same blame foolishness miscategorized as due reverence allows Dave Ramsey to operate under the auspices of Christianity without being ridiculed to his face every time he opens his mouth in public. It encourages obscure preachers angling for a windfall to spend the next afternoon with their publishing agents whenever one of their precious young children has spent a premature afternoon with God in the midst of a hospitalization. During the False Dawn of Aquarius, a number of Eastern religions and variations of them were similarly exploited by greasy hairballs who spied opportunities to fleece the hippie flock in a manifestation of Ephesians 3:20 for me but not for thee. As the Illimitable Man put it, a nigga’s gotta eat.

Anything falling under the auspices of religion has a risk of being tarnished by association with some variety of these scandalous perversions. It’s unfortunate, but no shit, Cronkite, it’s the way it is. Religion has always been all too tempting a target for commercialization. In any society with businesses and markets, religious devotion is irresistible to the unscrupulous, and to the merely desperately broke, as a marketing ploy. The Roman Catholic Church lost some big chunks of Northern Europe by peddling salvation certificates as construction bonds to too many Germans and convincing Luther, to his confessors’ quiet relief, that he had given his last confession. That was embarrassing. So was the couple in Oregon (where else?*) who exploited their young son’s death from some chronic medical tragedy by declaring him their god and then trying to claim a religious exemption to land use laws so that they could build a for-profit events venue next to their house. (*I hate to say it, but California. This is why I lives here; can I come in to dilute this electorate?)

Genuine ministry gets swamped by all this horseshit. Even the Passion tends to get overshadowed by the Resurrection among the sincerely faithful. We all know how that story ends, so we forget how bad the bad parts of it are. Good Friday? The poor guy had a pretty rough weekend, but it didn’t end too shabbily. Gethsemane and Calvary covered, like, half a week two millennia ago, making for a pretty quick and neat linear progression to enduring triumph and glory. For those with Manichean preoccupations, the pilgrimage to Hell can always be leavened with punchouts of demons and shit. Winners don’t like losers, son, so yes, there’s an iconography for that. I was once accosted in Center City Philadelphia by a bum who shouted, “Believe it or not, he IS my fucking savior! Don’t test HIM, pussy!” Not a reference to the Buddha, I’m guessing. I also know people who traffic icons of the Virgin Mary punching Satan in the face on Facebook (heh) and that kind of thing. Don’t talk to me or my son ever again, etc.

These are difficult social environments for the practice of quiet religious faiths, let alone quests of religious discernment and pleading plagued by excruciating doubt. The story of that cat’s sacrifice broke my heart. I could tell immediately that it would be a difficult thing to process, and I’ve already been in tears several times over it. I’ve been praying to her, and I’ve been praying for her. How the hell would I explain any of this in a dominant culture that celebrates the likes of Dave Ramsey (yuck) and Joel Osteen (much yuck)? Or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, for that matter? It’s all just chemical reactions substituting for other chemical reactions, and we’d have flying cars by now if we weren’t so fixated on nonsense like football. I have heresy, humility, confusion, and doubt on my side, not things that any sensible American wants on his side. I know that the cat did something powerful and that I needed to hear about it, painful though it is, but I also know that I can’t figure the whole story out right away, and I don’t know that I’ll ever have a full grasp of it. I’m trying to discern what I can and what I must about this tragedy in the midst of a culture that celebrates both Richard Dawkins for his fifty-grit public atheism and Pat Robertson for his televised Pig Hebrew. No joke, I find it comforting that Robertson is reputed not to believe a word of his own tongues; as appalling as it is to know that he’s driving old ladies on modest pensions into penury to capitalize his blood diamond mines, at least I have the feeling that the old sleaze might pivot like a weathervane and start telling something like the truth if he detected a net profit in doing so. (You’re so vane, you probably think this….)

Probably a good quarter of the religious leadership in the Anglo-American sphere of influence, and a noisy quarter at that, is a collection of coarse, self-dealing profanities, and here I am testifying that I’ve been praying to and also praying for a dead cat. Ours is a powerfully antipagan society, one that doesn’t even like to take its Catholicism without a stiff dose of hard monotheistic orthodoxy, and I’m confessing to the next thing to a preoccupation with a friend’s cat that I suspect was the holiest being ever to come into my life or the life of anyone close to me. I’m admitting to putting full stock in this outlandish hearsay story about a paranormal miracle performed by an animal I don’t recall ever having met, that this story caused me to get religion in a way that I’ve hardly ever gotten it before and approach this dead cat with a trembling reverence that I, religious for almost my entire adult life, hardly ever feel in a church. I’m saying that I know someone who I believe was saved by an act of true holiness, that it’s the kind of thing I’d sooner have expected to hear about on a back episode of Unsolved Mysteries, probably between segments about a different cat that somehow found its way from Bakersfield to its owner in Kansas City and an old drunkard who swears he was abducted by Roswell saucer aliens with an interest in proctology, and that I swear I may need the same cat who saved this friend’s life to save me from God only knows what someday, maybe soon.

You have to figure that I’m not in it to boost my own credibility. In a culture driven by a viciously monotheistic default spirituality and awash in cheap expressions of piety, this is about as bad as personal branding can get. We eradicated cat worship long ago, or so we assume. We got rid of that ancient Egyptian shit where everyone was scribbling pictures of scarabs on the nearest scrap of clay and fancying cats to the point that, sure, no reason a cat might not work such a miracle if a person conjured the right magic. We rose above all that. Ptah is a fringe candidate for the city council, the Milton Street of Late Aquarian Palo Alto. If you know what’s best for you, you won’t go around telling the normies about any of this.

None of this trash talk matters to me. I’ve been called to understand the cat and her works the best that I can. If others consider this nuts, that’s their problem. I can’t let a peanut gallery of doubting Thomases veto my answering this call that I’ve received to prayer and discernment. I can’t even obey any condemnations from clergy or theologians under circumstances like these. On a handful of occasions, I’ve had to defy similar religious bullying as a basic matter of conscience. Not long after the Space Shuttle exploded on reentry in 2003, when I was in the orbit (heh) of a batshit crazy cradle Catholic with a doctorate in Reform theology and a couple of extremely Protestant preaching gigs, I determined that I could no longer obey anyone who told me not to pray for the dead. Within the following year, I determined that I could not seek the favor of a God that condemned anyone to hell for mere disbelief. The same Reform godbotherer drove me into RCIA around this time by trying to summarily baptize me in his bathtub during a party at his house; I had already been hanging out with a number of Catholics and RCIA types at various stages of initiation and pre-initiation, and I took great comfort in the likelihood that a Catholic priest would be defrocked for trying to summarily baptize a healthy young adult, even one who got anxious enough about his own salvation to pester him for an immediate and full plunge.

I’m not out to scandalize anyone with this story. It’s the sort of thing that would scandalize the religiously straightlaced, but that’s irrelevant. If they object, so be it. The same is true of the IFLS Dawkinsbots, who would find it absolutely fucking ridiculous. There are quite few people, I assume, who would not look at me askance for admitting to any of this, certainly few Americans.

Yet I’ve seen threads tying the testimony I’ve been relating into other semioccult Catholic spiritual traditions. I can’t very well tell how they all fit together, but they seem to be part of the same fabric. A friend who was a year ahead of me in RCIA, and whose initiation into the Catholic Church strongly encouraged my own, once told a group of us at some religious extracurricular meeting (it must have been either Intervarsity or Newman Club, but I can’t recall which), “I don’t care what anyone says. Dogs have souls.” Another time, he told me that one of the experiences that drew him into the Catholic Church was a funeral mass for a friend’s father, who had committed suicide, in particular the prayers for his salvation.

In the years since our confirmations, we’ve witnessed the resignation of a pope who had been promoted from the Inquisition and the inauguration of his Jesuit successor in the name of the funny Italian country preacher who used to talk to the animals. St. Francis of Assisi was basically everyone’s confirmed bachelor uncle who always had too many cats. High Church Anglican elements have inevitably construed his ministry as a blessing for excessive church-themed fawning over a parish’s pets, and his papal namesake has gotten an ecumenical assortment of Armageddon kooks into a lather over the appearance of the Antichrist on the Throne of St. Peter (including old-time religion Protestant and nondenominational elements who say the same thing about all popes), but the dude tamed wolves and shit.

There’s a lack of ass-whupping majesty to these Francises (Franceschi?), a lack that bothers the hell out of certain church elements that tend to have poor volume control. Meanwhile I’m pushing three thousand words already and still have top billing on Google for Dubai Porta Potty, which is why most of you are here in the first place. Why should I cast the first clump of wet litter at the authoritarian personalities? Honestly, though, I haven’t told anyone in meatspace any of what I was told about the cat. The one other person I’ve seen since I learned of the cat who would have given this story a sympathetic hearing told us at dinner tonight about her own heartbreaking paranormal experiences with her own beloved cat, both when she first brought her into her home and in the week after she died, and she came close to tears in the course of telling us her own story, so the time wasn’t right to swap cat kook stories with her. It’s been over two decades since I badly missed a cat who had died, and even so I found it heartbreaking to learn about the main story I’ve been retelling here. It’s confusing enough just to stumble into a headspace in which it feels more normal and healthy to have several bouts of private crying a day than to become inured to all the pain after hearing a very different but equally poignant story about a separate paranormal experience that a different person had with a different cat. Don’t worry, it’s no more coherent in my own mind than it’s coming out in these pages. Tell me, Bareilles, how you feel watching me let THESE words fall out. It’s probably less trouble to deal with Walter Katz after all, and I’m proud to say that I still haven’t quite done Google-fu on “Walter Cats,” although I came dangerously close a few months ago. I did just take a look at DuckDuckGo’s results on paranormal cats, which look like a Rule 34 rabbit hole deep enough to make a sensible interloper climb right back out in search of XHamster filth.

No, I don’t really know where I’m going with any of this. All I know is that I have to see what I can find and keep searching in the hope that it’s out there waiting to be discovered. I must sound like a preoccupied mess through some of what I’m scribbling here. I’ve had run into some crazy shit in the past few weeks, including the car crash, but when I was told the story about the cat and the cancer the other day, I had been in a reasonably stable baseline emotional state for several days, and I’ve generally stayed functional since then. Go find Ken White if you’re in the mood for one or two thousand words in a row about depression and nothing but depression; all I feel like saying about it right now is that I’ve had a number of bad episodes, some of them debilitating, and that had I learned about the cat during one of these episodes I would have been devastated and barely able to function for days. As George H. W. Bush said, don’t feel sorry for–don’t cry for me, Argentina. Page Dr. Hasan to see someone else. If you’re interested in things worse than a mostly quiescent case of bipolar disorder, try psychotherapy; I did.

So as tangled and emotionally volatile as all of this may sound, I’ve been through much worse. I’m not here to *VERY VA OUTPATIENT VOICE* let me TELL you about my trauma. Sure, this is a Story Whore project, but I don’t have the list of symptoms folded up in the breast pocket of my overalls, and not to put too fine a point on it, I’m doing all right. One way to look at this is that I heard a poor kitty story and had a sad. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s enough if the spiritually disbelieving want a summary. A cat came into a friend’s house in order to truly be Christ to him in a time of need, but those who disbelieve in Christ aren’t likely to change their minds just because an RCIA alumnus suddenly got a bee in his bonnet about a magical cat’s self-sacrifice as the minister of a healing miracle. All I can figure is that those who need to hear about the cat will find their way over here in due course of time, or else that they’ll find their way into some other corner of the internet’s heaping pile of paranormal cat stuff.

There might not be a dozen people on earth who need to hear this story, and those of them yet to hear it might be too severely disturbed to properly care for themselves. That this might look questionable doesn’t bother me. Jesus didn’t devote his ministry to the fashionable and the comfortable, either. Any spiritual tradition that a ruling establishment dislikes or distrusts can conveniently be smeared as low-class. This has been done to the pro-life movement, snake-handling country Baptists, and UFO spotters who swap sightings on Coast to Coast AM, mainly because the optics look favorable to the ruling class in the short term. Being on the receiving end of one of these smear campaigns can be politically disadvantageous, but I’m not pursuing a political angle here. The miracle that the cat performed for our friend was far too concrete to be a mere sacrament. She didn’t come here on a mission to be honored; she came to serve. She didn’t come here to damn the disbelieving; she came to save a man who had no idea what she had done for him until afterwards and is still hesitant to discuss his salvation promiscuously lest he stir up nothing but ridicule.

When I admit that this cat has inspired my religious reverence, it’s important to keep in mind that this entire situation is antithetical to practically the entirety of mainstream American religion today. It’s a quiet, private religion, one defended vigilantly against the faintest sign of commercialization not only out of reverence but also to keep profiteering shysters from trying to move in and colonize it, destroying it in the same fashion that they’ve destroyed large swathes of Christianity. At the same time, the point of its private nature isn’t to lord it over anyone or exclude anyone who might need its guidance or whatever ministries it might yield.

I have no idea how many other animals have performed similar ministries, but I suspect that they’re much more numerous than is generally imagined. Until it happened, I didn’t imagine that I’d be initiated into any sort of occult oral tradition about an animal’s Christian self-sacrifice. It’s an incredible honor and also a burden, but not one that I dare throw off. I believe I’ve just been given co-stewardship over powers far beyond my grasp, ones that I’m afraid to approach directly or with any confidence. It scares and saddens me to consider that I might fuck it up somehow. What I know is that I’ve been given responsibilities that I don’t adequately understand under the auspices of a mystery that I wasn’t looking to explore. My reactions are inevitably incoherent; I must pray that they are nevertheless utterly sincere.

An anecdote from a priest I knew years ago has come back to me vividly over the past couple of days. The oldest seminarian in his class was a man in his fifties who had spent years bugging his home diocese for a seminary admission, to no avail, before finally being admitted under a different diocese’s sponsorship. Within a few days of his ordination, before he could take office in a parish assignment, he died suddenly. The priest who told us about this, a man twenty years the dead priest’s junior and five or ten years older than me, was haunted by his classmate’s untimely death and asked us, with tears in his eyes, to pray for his classmate’s salvation.

If I understood this priest correctly, he was asking us to pray for a friend he had already been petitioning for intercession. There’s no way to cohere that into a straightforward, neat narrative. It’s a fucking mess by its very nature. But that’s exactly the desperate confusion that so many of us face when those dear to us take sick or die. We don’t really know what’s on the other side of the veil. At its root, this priest’s fear was that his friend from the seminary was still carrying some terrible pain, and his hope was that we would help him release it.

There are men who never recovered from the trauma they sustained in the Bataan Death March, which had no purpose but the sheer evil subjugation of a military enemy. The cat’s self-sacrifice shouldn’t be more painful to contemplate because it served a higher purpose, but sometimes it is. It’s impossible to fully understand the reasons for these things. What I can’t bear sometimes is the thought that the cat may still be carrying the pain of the cancer that she took into herself years after she died from it, just as the priest couldn’t bear the thought that his friend from seminary might still be carrying pain to which he only vaguely alluded in his comments to us. We can only guess at the timelines and the mechanisms that are at play in these situations, and we can only pray that they be merciful. We can only pray that we might receive the mercy that we need as we come to need it and do the best we can to show the same mercy to others as they need it. It’s surreal to try to show this mercy by reaching haphazardly across the veil in a desperate effort to comfort a cat that deliberately left this world with cancer in its body, and to feel that this is the only discernible way to reach out to any good end. It’s daunting to consider what I might have to do concretely to lead a life holy enough to be worthy of a measure of the cat’s mercy and assistance, which I fear I may need.

That was probably deeper than you were planning to go. It’s definitely deeper than I was planning to go. But sometimes these things appear in ways that they cannot be ignored.

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