Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday & The Cat Tied to the Altar

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, dead, and buried;

~ The Apostles' Creed

In Christain tradition, today is known as Holy Saturday. The story is told each year in worship: Jesus died on Friday and rose from death on Sunday. In between there is Saturday. Nothing happened on Saturday, unless you consider the followers of Jesus fearing their own arrest and hiding out.
There is a traditional Holy Saturday worship service called the Paschal Vigil that begins around 11:00 p.m. and lasts past midnight into Easter Sunday. The first congregation that I pastored was theologically aware enough to celebrate this service; the last congregation wouldn't. The church council rationalized that no one (meaning them) would attend, so why waste electricity on it.
So, unless one is into celebrating the Paschal Vigil, in the liturgy of the church nothing happens today.
I was thinking about the last sentence this morning as a read Enemy of the Republic's last blog post, entitled Religious Holidays. In her response to my comment on the post, she wrote:

I was raised to celebrate every holiday, told to believe whatever it was supposed to represent and what I saw was that people like to cling to tradition, but they rarely think on what it means.

She is so right! So many folks go through the motions of a tradition without ever thinking of its meaning or what the tradition represents. Even more questionable, folks and religions create traditions by misinterpreting something and making it into something that it is not.
My train of thought led me to a story that I have told several times. And, since today is Holy Saturday and there ain't really nothing happening, I want to share that story with you.
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. The original import and purpose of an act or belief becomes lost and redefined through time. 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.

Have a blessed Holy Saturday.


  1. SSN, what a wonderful way to get to the point. Seems like they missed the mark with the real meaning.

    Happy Easter and blessings to you.

  2. Good story. I was just reading about traditions handed down from mother to daughter. One, it was the young brides first Thanksgiving, first turkey. She called her mother and said that the turkey turned out just wonderfully and it must've been because she remembered to put the "drainer over the turkey as it thawed." The mother, listened trying to figure out what the heck she was talking about when she said, "Honey, I put the dish drainer over the turkey because we had cats."

    Another called her Mom to thank her for the cake recipe and stated that it had turned out best because she remembered to put the pan of water in when baking the cake, just like Mom. It took a second but the mother realized the baking tip faux paux. She told her that the reason she put the pan of water in the over was only because her racks were uneven.

  3. Your story told perfectly the way things (not just religious)can lose their meaning - a bit like chinese whispers really. :0

  4. A great story, Nick.

    I'm reminded that in the days I was a practicing Lutheran, I loved the comfort of the liturgy. I was new at it, having been raised a Baptist, but looked forward to the rituals that helped me to put things into place. I learned a great deal from those acts. For me the ABC was exactly that, a guide to worship. I learned a lot from this, and I enjoyed knowing the reasons for the acts, the history, how it followed the footsteps of Christ.

    Over time, I came to realize that so many others followed the ritual in mind-numbing complacency, and it was saddening to see that the rich history was forgotten. But most unnerving to me was the resistance that I encountered when I asked about why some things were done, and no one knew (not the pastors, but the laymen). It is sad to miss out on the beauty of those acts, to go through them by rote, without understanding.

    A cat tied to the alter, indeed.

  5. I like that story, too. :)

    I had never really thought about the intervening Saturday. It must have been awful. A lot of times the day after a tragedy is harder to bear, as it all begins to sink in and weigh on your spirit.

  6. Oh Nick you have so hit the nail on the head! That is exactly it. What a wonderful illustration of a very pertinent point.

    Please do pop over to mine sometime. I'll resend the invite because I do not want to lose bloggers, just trolls. :)

  7. I love that story, Nick. It is so very true.

    Happy Easter to you and Alex!

  8. Dogma is one of my biggest problems with organized religion. Thanks for the great story.

  9. The cat tied to the altar...that gives a different slant on our need to worship the seen rather than have faith in the unseen.

    Happy Easter to you and Alex, Nick. I hope all is well with you at this time.

  10. Good story, Nick. Thanks!

    Your line, "And what was clear and simple becomes complex"... how common, how true.

  11. Well said, Reverend Saint!

  12. Well said indeed. Happy Easter Nick.