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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

02 June 2017

Malcolm Guite considers his cat Buster

I HAD an interesting encounter this evening with our college cat. A strong, self-possessed stray, Buster, like one or two students I have known, sauntered into college one day as if he already owned the place, and simply allowed us to adopt him.

He is, of course, a fixture now, and so won the heart of the previous Mistress that she had his portrait painted when she left, and gave it to the college as a leaving present. Now his image adorns the corridors alongside the great and the good — doubtless, from his point of view, raising the tone.

He is usually curled up comfortably near the Porters’ Lodge or in some corridor, conde­scending to be admired by a new circle of students; but this evening he attended chapel. Our preacher at evensong was in the midst of a very eloquent sermon whose nub and pith was that no human eloquence was adequate to the mystery of God.

Indeed, mystery was his theme: we begin and end in mystery, we are a mystery even to our­selves, and, if no words or music can ever sum or define the mystery of even one person, then how much less the mystery of God.

He was just adducing the undoubted author­ity of Aquinas on this point when I became aware, amid the gravity of the subject, of a strange levity in the choir. Smiles and a little wave of suppressed giggles passed along the front row.

And then I caught sight of Buster, who had made his way up into the sanctuary and was now elegantly disporting himself, just behind the preacher.

I remembered that only last term I had read from that pulpit verses from Christopher Smart’s beautiful Jubilate Agno:


For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.


Perhaps rumours of that reading had reached Buster.

The preacher, too, became aware that something was afoot, and at that moment Buster came round into his field of vision. He paused in his preaching, and then he did a beautiful thing. He smiled, and with his own elegant gesture and light touch, he acknowledged the mystery cat.

Thereafter, the sermon, no less learned, had a lightness to its depth, and perhaps we better apprehended its conclusion: that life itself, and all things worth having, are given, not striven for, are never fully predicted or understood, but appear unexpectedly as graces to be apprehended, mysteries to be acknowledged.

Buster seemed satisfied that he had achieved what he came for; for he wandered down to my stall, and, seeing beside me a vacant chair, upholstered in a beautiful red velvet that very fetchingly set off his own more restrained collegiate black and white, he hopped neatly up and made himself comfortable. It had but recently been vacated and was, indeed, still warm; for it was, as surely Buster knew, the visiting preacher’s stall.

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