BEFORE the latest lockdown started, I made the occasional pilgrimage to Southwark to visit the cathedral cat, Doorkins Magnificat. She was lovely, even when she remained fast asleep — she’d done the same thing when the Queen visited her; so I was in good company. At least she hadn’t cleaned herself in a most indelicate fashion in the presence of Her Majesty, which she had done when Bishop Michael Curry came to preach at the cathedral.
In some ways, cats have been the stars of this gruesome lockdown. Cat videos get millions of views; and those of us who have cats can attest to how calming and funny they are — every day. But it is more than just cats’ being nature’s comedians: they also — at least it seems to me — point us in the direction of the God who made the universe and everything in it. When God came up with the blueprint for the domestic cat, it was a very good day.
THIS brings me to Hodge, who has taken over from Doorkins (who has sadly died) as Southwark Cathedral’s cat in residence. Hodge is black and white — a tuxedo cat — and insiders report that he is a big, friendly old sausage. He already has nearly 7000 followers on Twitter, and the story of his rescue, redemption, and being made safe is charming.
Hodge was rescued by Cat Cuddles — an amazing cat-rescue charity — on the mean streets of south London. He was a sorry sight, his face disfigured by an unsightly growth. Once that had been operated on, he gained strength and started life as the cathedral cat — prowling around, catching mice, and rolling over for a tummy tickle (an important part of many cats’ schedules).
The Dean of Southwark has pointed out that Hodge has “a voracious appetite both for food and love”, which is a good qualification for the new job he has — especially when the cathedral is once again packed with visitors.
OTHER cats have also helped to keep us sane during Lockdown. Larry, the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office and Number 10 Downing Street’s Mouser-in-Chief, hunted down and then magnanimously released a pigeon in front of the world’s media. It was a master stroke. Larry, btw, also has a Twitter account on which he shares his rather acidic views of his “owner” and that dog.
Cats have much to teach us: they know how to rest and sleep; they are always ready to be distracted, or curl up in an empty box, or chase a piece of fluff. If I believed in reincarnation, I’d come back as a whopping great cat who never demeaned himself by catching real mice and rats.
Hodge has a very illustrious predecessor. Samuel Johnson, that most famous man of letters, also had a Hodge cat, although his was probably all black. Dr Johnson loved that cat, and it lifted him out of his many depressions. He bought oysters for his cat friend, and cherished the little creature. There is a beautiful statue of Hodge outside Johnson’s old house in the City with the epitaph “A very fine cat indeed”, which is what Johnson called him.
ANIMALS and pets, it seems to me, are a clear route to the divine: a sign of the wonder, awe, and creativity of God. Their beauty, grace, modesty, and love are a comfort to us. Cats also, of course, add to the jollity of life — snuggling into cardboard boxes, or stretching out in the sun. On yet another day stuck indoors on my own, it’s the cat that brings a smile to my face. Oddly, she always sits next to me when I pray.
It was D. H. Lawrence who, in his poem “Pax”, really got to the heart of the way in which the humble cat can lead us to a greater faith. He begins by saying that all that matters is to be at one with the living God, “to be a creature in the house of the God of life”. The poet points out that we need to recognise our need for safety and peace and our creatureliness. And how do we picture this, or understand it? Lawrence says that the very best image of this trust in God and sense of deep peace is the cat, asleep on a chair or yawning by the fire, fully at home. The cat he says, feels “the presence of the living God like a great reassurance, a deep calm in the heart”.
OVER the past year, many of us have spent a lot of time at home with a pet. I find myself even more grateful than I was for my little cat friend. The cat has never got on my nerves, as some of the humans who share my home have. Cats somehow help us to focus on priorities, and offer a glimpse of what it is really to enjoy the life in front of us — which brings me back to Southwark Cathedral and dear old Hodge.
He has big paws to fill, but he will be fine; he’s made for the job. In that grand and magnificent cathedral, the little stray cat with the disfigured face, who found safety in the church and then brings happiness to all around, is a true godsend, and a modern parable of the lost being found and the last being first.
The Revd Steve Morris is the Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, in the diocese of London and author of Our Precious Lives: How hearing and telling stories can save the Church (Authentic Media, £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.19)).