(RNS) — Like many people at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Jon M. Sweeney welcomed new pets into his home: two kittens named Martin and Rosa, after civil rights leaders the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Sweeney — who is Catholic and married to a rabbi — has also found new spiritual teachers during this time: Martin and Rosa … the cats.
Now the author and publisher of Paraclete Press is sharing the lessons he has learned from his cats in a new e-course called “The Spirituality of Cats” through the multifaith website Spirituality and Practice.
“As a spiritual pilgrim for more than half a century, I have practiced with teachers of many different traditions and paths,” he wrote in the first lesson, emailed to students on Jan. 18.
“With roots in my own religious tradition — which is Catholicism, with a monastic emphasis — I’ve also gone looking for wisdom, beauty, and truth wherever it can be found. And this past year I‘ve found myself learning most of all from my cats.”
Sweeney realized how much he was learning from his cats in quarantine as he tripped over them, stretched out in the middle of the floor in the busiest hallways of his family’s home.
In the “most stressful year of our lives,” he told Religion News Service, his cats still were able to relax and, more than that, surrender. He needed to learn the same.
“Relax into surrender” is the first of 12 lessons — don’t call it dogma — he covers in the online course, shared in thrice-weekly emails and discussed with participants in an online practice circle on the Spirituality and Practice website. The course will end in mid-February with a video call that, cat willing, will include appearances by Martin and Rosa.
Each lesson includes a spiritual practice as well as inspiration from human spiritual teachers, including Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Catholic priest the Rev. Henri Nouwen, Nuns on the Bus and T’ruah’s “Resisting tyrants since Pharoah” campaign.
“If you kind of immerse yourself in religious sources, it’s pretty natural to start making the connections,” Sweeney said.
In the first lesson, the author draws inspiration mostly from Sufism, an Islamic mystic tradition. He shares insights from Sufi poet Hafiz and Episcopal priest the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, as well as a meditation for students to practice from Sufi sheik Ihsan Alexander.
“Sufi sheiks remind us that the only way to truly know the love of God is to surrender to God,” he wrote in the lesson.
Other cat spirituality lessons he’s learned from Martin and Rosa: seek warm places, voice your opinion and play like it matters.
The latter, he said, was one he most needed to learn.
Sweeney’s writing tends toward the serious, he said. He’s authored books on such Christian luminaries as Nicholas Black Elk, Phyllis Tickle, Thomas Merton and the Virgin Mary. So as he thought about turning what he was learning from his cats into an e-course, he said, “I was a little sheepish about it thinking, ‘What are people going to think?’”
He ended up adopting the cattitude that he didn’t care.
It’s important to be able to play and to laugh, to find meaning and joy not just in the esoteric, but in the familiar.
“Spiritual practice is about cultivating things. It’s not necessarily about just doing all the stuff that comes naturally to you. I think it’s something that we all have needed in the last year,” he said.