Thursday, March 31, 2011

REDUX: The Cat Tied to the Altar

I published this post on 29 June 2007:
This tale came into my repertoire of sermon stories more than twenty years ago, while I was still a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. It is from a book (sorry—I can’t remember which one) by a Jesuit priest named Father Anthony de Mello, who was, until his untimely death in 1987, the director of the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling near Poona, India. I met Father de Mello at a conference in St. Louis a year or two before he died.
I have used the story of The Cat Tied to the Altar both in sermons I have preached and in classes I have taught. Thus, I tell it in my words, which as not necessarily the words of Father de Mello. Of course, that is the way of the oral tradition from which we get most of our good tales.
Many centuries ago there lived a holy man who became famous for his wisdom and mystical teachings. Students and spiritual seekers gathered around him, forming a community of disciples. Eventually they built a monasterial center where the community lived, studied, and worshiped.
Part of the center was a sanctuary where the holy man led worship each day. His students and disciples would gather there and their master would stand before the central altar from which he led the liturgical ritual.
Now the holy man owned a cat to whom he was greatly attached—possibly in the manner I am attached to Alex. Unfortunately, the holy man’s cat, being a cat, was self-serving and, much as with Alex, beyond anyone’s control. Thus, when the community gathered for worship, the cat would meander around the sanctuary, greatly disturbing the mediation and spiritual disciplines of the worshipers.
The holy man did not know what to do, especially since he had no influence on his cat’s behavior—just as I have no influence on Alex’s behavior. He did not want to put the cat out of the sanctuary because, being a cat, he would wail and meow and screech and scratch, thus being even more disturbing of the mediation and spiritual disciplines of the worshipers.
Finally, mediating with all of the wisdom and sagely expertise he possessed, the holy man came upon a solution. Before the next gathering of the community for worship, the holy man attached a rope to the cat’s collar and tied it securely around one of the legs of the altar. At first the cat cried and tested the rope. However, finally he accepted his karma and, with his master standing beside the altar, the cat simply curled up and napped throughout the service, which is as normal for cats when they are bored as it is for people. This worked well and the holy man continued to lead worship services with his beloved cat napping beside him, tied to the altar.
Several years later the holy man died a peaceful death. And the community elected a new holy man to lead and teach them. Then the cat died. And the community found a new cat to tie to the altar. And through the centuries prayers were developed to pray to the cat tied to the altar. And thousands of the pages of theological books were written explaining the significance and sacred meaning of having a cat tied to the altar.
And that’s the way it is with all religions. The original import and purpose of an act or belief become lost and redefined through the generations. And what was clear and simple becomes complex; the cat tied to the altar becomes what the act never was: sacred, ritual, and, eventually, dogma.
Let those who have ears to hear, hear.


  1. A woman, everytime she bought a roast, cut one end off and threw it away before she cooked it.

    Her daughter grew up, married, and started cooking roasts of her own; painstakingly cutting off the end of each.

    Finally an aunt saw her preparing the meal and asked why she was doing it.

    Because mother always did it that way.

    Dear, the aunt said, your mother never had a pan large enough to fit the roast.

    I'm not sure if I'm telling that perfectly but you get the idea.

  2. Just goes to show how a perfectly sensible solution can become a perfectly sacred ritual. I must admit when I saw the title about the cat being tied to the altar, I wondered what I was going to read...I should have known better...sorry Nick.

  3. That story tells an important truth.

  4. its ridiculous that dogma is founded in such fashion.

    it should have been cat-ma

    Thanks for the wise words as usual.

  5. Very interesting Nick, as usual.


  6. Good story. That gives me ideas about why people of the same religion fight each other so much.

  7. Wow! Now I understand why there are church things that don't make sense.

  8. We humans. We don't think. We just follow. No wonder we are where we are...