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Hallo again to all.

It is the first Sunday after Christmas. And I have lost a cat.'I will consider my cat'

In that second sentence above, an unspoken rule of Anglicans Online has straightaway been broken. We try very hard to write with a collective editorial voice, not as 'I', for AO isn't a blog, it's a website with a letter as its front door. And these front-page letters, which have made their way to your screen hebdomadally since 1997, should resemble (if we do our job right) a personal essay rather than a blog entry. So it's been 'we' for a long time. But here I am, one of your editors, outing myself. It's been a hard sort of year*, and this reflection seems unwilling to be written in the nominative plural. I'll blame it on my cat.

Some seventeen years old and in my happy custody for all those years, my cat on Christmas Eve, for reasons best known to herself, wandered off and looks likely not to return. In the face of all the human tragedies besetting our world — the continuing grinding poverty that affects so many; the brutal repression of human rights, so common and so cruel; the wars, rebellions, and riots that darken so much of this earth — well, for heaven's sake, what's the loss of a damned cat? What indeed! And yet, and yet, this business of sadness and loss of companionship, whether human or animal, comes appropriately in this season of Christmastide. I'll blame it on the Incarnation.

With these 'brother asses', as Saint Francis called our bodies, with which we're blessed from our first squalling arrival, we taste, sniff, feel, see, and hear, playing on these five glorious, if limited, senses. But with these asses often come illness and pain, sometimes in unfair heaps it seems, overwhelming the joyous and the carefree. As saints and mystics have shown us all down the ages, we can indeed rise above and, in some way, beyond our bodies, remaining serene and hopeful in the face of suffering, accepting and graceful in grief. But it's a hard-won victory. Serenity doesn't banish suffering, it simply puts it into perspective. As Martin Wroe put it in his astonishing meditation, Flesh of My Flesh, addressed to 'Baby J':

and when you were tired, when it all was going wrong
when your friends misunderstood, lost interest, wandered off
did you think
what did I get into this body business for
swapping omnipresence for being somewhere in particular
did you feel trapped in that body
or didn't you know what it had been like before you became body
when you were in-carnate
could you know what it was like out-carnate
flesh can't be in more than one place at a time
flesh is limited
flesh is awkward
you must have wondered at the restrictions of the corporeal
did you ever notice, could you tell the difference?

But then there is this, as well, which Wroe goes on to ask of Our Lord:

and did the flesh also exhilarate you, excite you
did you run and laugh and kiss
did you sweat and wrestle and argue
and if you longed to be more ... were you grateful to have lived
on earth
a human
in flesh
to have become one of us

The fact that I enjoyed my sweet cat's company for so long and the fact that I miss her so sharply can't be separated. A cat's disappearance, a loved one's cancer, a loss of any kind — all of it comes with the territory of brother ass. Longing to live entirely dispassionately and serenely above the flesh is alluring at times. But most of us can only manage it for a few minutes at best. Surveying Christian history leads one to conclude that dividing the body and the soul has led to dreadful theology and often grievous heresies. Most of us do best when we keep brother ass labouring in tune with our mind and heart. So in a distinctly painful and uncomfortable way, I'm grateful this Christmastide for the chance to miss my sweet feline companion and to say goodbye. Loss is a good teacher, albeit a high, demanding, and awful one. Picture of the cover of the Oxford Book of English Verse

Years ago when I was a girl, I spent more time with the Oxford Book of English Verse (1924, India paper edition) than I do now. I was struck then at the solemn anonymous† poem that finished up the long roll call of poetic honour. 'This poem must mean something particularly important', I said to myself (or something very like that, in the words of a ten-year-old). If Arthur Quiller-Couch, the great and good editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse, chose this poem to close the volume, the least I could do, I reasoned, was memorise it. At those times when loss and sadness seem to squash much of the joy from life, its simple quatrains have helped.

Dominus Illuminatio Mea

In the hour of death, after this life's whim,
When the heart beats low, and the eyes grow dim,
And pain has exhausted every limb —
The lover of the Lord shall trust in Him.

When the will has forgotten the lifelong aim,
And the mind can only disgrace its fame,
And a man is uncertain of his own name —
The power of the Lord shall fill this frame.

When the last sigh is heaved, and the last tear shed,
And the coffin is waiting beside the bed,
And the widow and child forsake the dead —
The angel of the Lord shall lift this head.

For even the purest delight may pall,
And power must fail, and the pride must fall,
And the love of the dearest friends grow small —
But the glory of the Lord is all in all.

After everything is stripped away, love remains.

We wish a Happy Christmastide to all our friends round the world: love, light, grace, and peace to each of you as you celebrate — for twelve days, mind! — the nativity of our Saviour.

See you next week.

Our signature
Cynthia McFarland and all of us at Anglicans Online

Last updated: 28 December 2008


*Our dear Frederic McFarland died in March 2008 and starting in May 2008 I grappled for several months with an apparent return of lymphoma, which had been successfully quashed in 2006. (It turns out to be blessedly quiescent.)

†Now attributed to Richard Doddridge Blackmore

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