Sunday, December 25, 2016

Rejoice in the Lamb, Christopher Smart's Cat, and My Dog

Christmas Eve, finding no script at the lectern where I stood to lead the Prayers of the People, I improvised to fill the blank in the Prayer Book's petition, "I ask your thanksgiving for ___."   For my dog Mia came to mind before I resorted to phrases more appropriate to the occasion.

That first thought shows how my personal faith was shaped by composer Benjamin Britten's choral cantata Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), setting portions from Christopher Smart's book-length poem Jubilate Agno (ca. 1760).  I first heard it at age 16, when I was emerging from scornful teenage atheism.  Through decades of Bible study, theology books, services and sermons, my inner principle for discerning among doctrines, unconscious before now, has always been, "Does it go with Smart?"

My favorite portion begins:
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.
Britten gives these lines to a boy soprano, the voice written to sound in rapt wonderment over the organ's impression of a cat's capricious movements, darting about, stretching, and circling a string of rapid notes "seven times round".

Smart begins every line the same way, purposefully invoking Biblical poetry. About Jeoffry, he continues:
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
So Smart suggests by these lines, and others that follow, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present and active in all of creation, and that salvation can happen apart from Creeds or Sacraments of the Church. In my evangelical phase, I'd have derided that as borderline pantheism, or "sloppy agape"; but my bedrock experience told me that Smart is right, and all the judgmental doctrines I'd accepted from teen Bible studies smashed to pieces on Smart's view.  Yes, he was put away for religious mania, calling to people in the street to kneel in prayer with him, but, as Dr. Johnson remarked, "I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else" (quoted in Karina Williamson, "Christopher Smart," at

Now, on the matter of God and pets, I find little in scripture.  Cats don't turn up in the Bible, to my knowledge, aside from some lions and tigers.  Dogs, when I find them, skulk around unpleasant things -- Jezebel's gruesome death, prophecies of doom, and Jesus's harsh response to the Samaritan woman (but see my reflection Jesus and Dogs).

C. S. Lewis once responded seriously to the question, "Do our pets go to Heaven?"  It's been thirty-five years since I read his essays in God in the Dock, but I recall the gist of his answer as, "I can't say for sure, but I cannot imagine a Heaven without them." Amen.

Writing these thoughts in bed on Christmas morning, Mia beside me asleep, lightly kicking me with her back paws in pursuit of some dream squirrel, I re-read Smart's line, "For there is nothing sweeter than [Jeoffry's] peace when at rest."  I appropriate Smart's feline thanksgiving for my dog Mia, pictured in many moods at left:  "For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God."

You may be interested in my earlier reflections connecting dog with God: Blessing of the Animals (Oct. 11, 2014), and, Dogs are Poetry (January 4, 2010).

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