Walter Brueggemann: Ode to Sammy

Sammy, our cat, came to us by way of rescue. He was a handsome, silky, loud-purring tabby. He was gregarious and mostly stayed in rooms where we were. At night he liked close bodily contact while he purred into deep peaceable sleep. He died much too soon; and we are left with treasured memories and lingering sadness. I mention Sammy by way of introducing two pieces I have read lately concerning cats.

Quite by happenstance I have lately read How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (New York: Other Press, 2010). The book is an introduction to and reflection upon the writing of the famous French essayist of the sixteenth century, Michael de Montaigne. Bakewell takes up Montaigne’s essays concerning twenty answers she proposes to his governing question, “How to Live?” His essays are disciplined reflections and meditations on the specific quotidian reality of life all around him. He eschews speculative or abstract questions, including theological speculation.

Among his many whimsical investigations he considered the life of a cat (and a puppy!) that he considered in detail. He considered how the world looked to his cat and what his cat saw when it looked at him. He became aware that he and the cat had so much in common as each looked on the other and on the world. He also considered that he and the cat were very different, because one can never know what another sees or notices. Thus he took his cat to be a partner in the act of specific observation of the world from a very specific perspective. Bakewell summarizes:

When you look at a puppy held over a bucket of water, or even at a cat in the mood for play, you are looking at a creature who looks back at you. No abstract principles are involved; there are only two individuals, face to face, hoping for the best from one another (327).

Montaigne sees how much the two of them share and have in common. The stark difference between them that he also notices is not only of difference of species and genre. The difference is that each individual sees and notices differently.

They looked at each other, and just for a moment, he leaped across the gap in order to see himself through her eyes. Out of that moment — and countless others like it — came his whole philosophy (328).

This is indeed the specificity of creation and of creatureliness taken with utmost seriousness, refusing to be drawn away from its demanding immediacy. Montaigne found the specificity of life embodied in his cat to be overwhelming in its wonder, its otherness, and it commonality. He wanted nothing more revelatory than that which was concretely in front of him. In it he found answers to the question, “How to Live?” The answer: “Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.”

It is worth noting that Montaigne (1533-1592) did his work in the generation just preceding the birth of René Descartes (1596-1650). Even though Descartes arrives just as Montaigne leaves the world, the two of them are huge worlds apart. As it happened, dominant thought and reasoning in the West has chosen to follow Descartes in his pursuit of certainty through abstraction. He certainly would have had no interest in the presence or perspective of a particular cat, not even one belonging to Montaigne! That pursuit of certainty via abstraction has resulted in what we call the modern world. It is mind-boggling (and perhaps a yearning) to consider what might have eventuated if the thought and reasoning of the West had chosen instead, to pursue Montaigne’s practice of the specific and the quotidian. That, however, never happened; for that reason we now are in a world propelled by ever-new technologies of anxiety, fear, violence and, consequently, greed.

When I read these words concerning Montaigne and his cat, I recalled that Martin Buber (I and Thou, T. & T. Clark) had in 1937 written of his cat in a not dissimilar fashion. (It is not clear whether Buber knew of Montaigne’s essay but it seems likely he might have). Quite abruptly Buber introduces the thought:

An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language … The eyes express the mystery in its natural prison, the anxiety of becoming (96).

But then he becomes more specific:

Sometimes I look into a cat’s eyes. The domesticated animal has not as it were received from us (as we sometimes imagine) the gift of the truly “speaking” glance, but only … to turn its glance to us prodigious beings. But with this capacity there enters the glance, in its dawning and continuing in it rising, a quality of amazement and of inquiry that is wholly lacking in the original glance with all its anxiety (97).

Now the cat has moved, in Buber’s calculation, beyond “the anxiety of becoming” to be fully present in a glance:

The beginning of this cat’s glance, lighting up under the touch of my glance, indisputably questioned me: “Is it possible that you think of me? Do you really not just want me to have fun? Do I concern you? Do I exist in your sight? Do I really exist? What is it that comes from you? What is it that surrounds me? What is it that comes to me? What is it?”

Buber’s verdict on this momentary encounter concerns the “Thou” of the cat:

The world of It surrounded the animal and myself, for the space of a glance the world of Thou had shone out from the depths, to be at once extinguished and put back into the world of It.

Thus Buber brings to this brief encounter all of his mystical anticipation and his readiness for the prospect of a “thou.”

It is clear that Montaigne and Buber bring very different perspectives and expectations to their cats. Montaigne is thoroughly practical, secular, and this-worldly, with no hint of the religious. Buber by contrast is wholly religious and mystical. And yet the commonality between them is that both find their interactions with their cats to be illuminating and dialogical. For both of them the cat is a real, bodily, significant other who summons and addressed the alert human partner.

Beyond noting the parallels and the differences between Montaigne and Buber, it is most important that they shared wonder. What these two reports yield on the one hand is a full engagement with another member of the animal world. In that process there is a ready affirmation of the commonality between human creatures and these other creatures. On the other hand, the two reports indicate the hidden reality of the other, so that even in a dialogic transaction there remains an obscurity that allows for wonder and that features respect for the other who remains not decoded in its difference.

Because our reflection on these cat encounters culminates in wonder, I may suggest one other aspect of this dialogic reality, namely, the ultimacy of glad, self-yielding praise. Of course “praise” is a symbolic act freighted with ultimacy that runs beyond Montaigne’s strict this-world accent. But as Bakewell recounts (pp. 323-326), even Montaigne was subjected to religious rites at the end of his life. His engagement with these religious rites would have been devoid of every sectarian specificity; but perhaps he would not have denied the evocation of wonder, even for his this-worldly existence. That, I suggest, is sufficient ground for judging that it is not inappropriate, at the end, to be left in “wonder, love, and praise.”

On that basis I make reference to the avalanche of praise in Psalm 147 that mobilizes all of creation to refer beyond itself to the creator.

That praise, until the final verse, is devoid of specificity; it settles for the sweep of wonder and awe as it summons all creatures to refer beyond themselves to the creator:

Praise the Lord from the earth,
You sea monsters and all deeps,
Fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds (vv. 7-10)!

One can imagine all of these creatures (and others to be named later) joining in glad, grateful self-surrender to holiness beyond themselves. We might even add a few lines to the Psalm:

Praise you domesticated pets,
raise the creator, you cats along with dogs,
praise you French secular cats,
praise you Jewish mystical cats,
praise you beautiful tabby cats from the Midwest.
Let all cats declare their glad creatureliness in praise.

And a final line:

Praise, you glad, furry, loud-purring well-beloved Sammy!

God’s first, best, most-spoken language is Hebrew. That is why, when God looked upon the wonder of creation, God saw that it was tov me’od (“very good”). When God speaks cat-ese, I imagine that God may say of creation, “It is purr-fect!”


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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