Pet Grief Pt. 2

Last year I wrote about the death of our cat Millie (Is there art in heaven?) and today we buried Tom beside her.

Yesterday I saw a friend who said that she thought that people are too sentimental about cats in this country – that they care more for them than they do people, often giving more money to animal charities like the RSPCA and Guide Dogs than to charities for people in poverty. Of course, she has a point – there is something wrong in this.

I remember picking up Tom from the vets where he had been treated for acute constipation (a symptom of the chronic kidney disease that eventually killed him). As I started the car the radio announced that ‘50% of people in India have no access to toilet facilities’. That would be the poorest 50% of course. The irony was not lost on me, as I had just paid over £300 so that our cat could go to the toilet. Were we wrong to spend this money on our cat instead of giving it to, say, Water Aid?

And as I was digging Tom’s grave in the garden at the back of our flats, our downstairs neighbour told me how his cat brings home a mouse a day, and I thought of the irony of the RSPCA keeping cats alive, when they are collectively responsible for the deaths of 275 million other creatures every year in the UK, including 55 million birds. (Not Tom, though – he lived indoors, so never killed anything but time…)

At one level, it’s impossible to deny that cats are less important than people, so therefore we shouldn’t spend money on them when people are in need. But the fact remains, I loved Tom. I can’t justify that love, in relation to the needs of the world, and so I guess my friend is right (although I happen to know that, while she doesn’t spend money on cats, she does have a rather expensive perfume habit).

But there is another way of looking at this. The world needs more than money, it needs love. I am not trying to justify poverty by saying this – it is clearly not loving to allow people to suffer when there is money around to alleviate that suffering. But this means we need to love people more, not cats (or perfume) less.

When I wrote about Millie, I quoted Jesus’ saying that ‘not one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight’, in the hope that this means Millie too will be remembered, and continue to live in God’s sight. And Jesus’ saying went on, ‘But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ So there is some kind of hierarchy of value here, at least in God’s sight. But before we translate this vision into a book of rules that will tell us how to judge the rights and wrongs of any situation – or, more likely, make us feel guilty about ourselves, and/or self-righteous about others – we need to think a bit more about what scale of value we talking about here. And it is not a human scale – it’s off that scale – it’s the infinite mercy of God.

Whenever we try and deal with problems of value, we end up having to make moral or ethical judgements – who is more deserving, for example, or what is the greater good. But that is not how it is in God’s sight, ‘for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ (Matt. 5.45)

This does not mean that God does not distinguish between good and evil. This is not some kind of dispassionate mechanism, like our current method of leaving it to ‘the market’ (formerly known as Mammon).

To put it in the terms of our present discussion, God values – loves – every cat, and every person, because they (we) are God’s creation. So when we say that people are more important than animals, we are perhaps missing the point, which is not of relative value, but absolute value. That is, the question is not ‘are cats more or less important than people’, but rather, ‘do we value cats, or people, as God values them’.

Here is the equation:

God values sparrows more than we value people (because we cannot say that ‘not one person is forgotten in our sight’)

God values people more than sparrows (because Jesus says ‘you are of more value than many sparrows’)

Therefore, God values the least more than we value the most – in other words, God’s level of value is off our scale.

So, here is the question: how are we qualified to judge questions of value, when we know so little of love?

Yes, I need to be more charitable to people – that is, to love them more. But while I am learning to do this, I can still love my cat – and when I do so, that is not taking away from the total amount of love there is in the world. God is love (1 John 4:8) and that love is infinite. When I experience love I encounter God. Even in the love of cats.

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.
For this is done by wreathing his body
Seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he knows that God is his saviour.
For God has bless’d him
In the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeter
Than his peace when at rest.

For I am possessed of a cat,
Surpassing in beauty,
From whom I take occasion
To bless Almighty God.

from Rejoice in the Lamb

ps I suppose for the purposes of this blog chapbook, I should attempt to relate this argument to the value of art… but I’m not in the mood, and in any case I’m not sure that I could. The poem (by Christopher “Kitty” Smart) is good, and the Radio Dept. song is nice enough, but I’d still rather have Tom back with us. Often art is just a way of dealing with absence.