She appeared out of the bushes one day. Frail. Hungry. Frightened. As if she needed a friend. She was Little Black Kitty.
“A divine visitor,” I thought. “I should make an offering.” I pulled a can of tuna from the pantry, spooned it into a bowl and placed it on the ground. “There you go, Little Black Kitty.”
She looked interested, but hesitant. I stepped back a few feet, a respectful distance. “Cats like their space,” I reminded myself. She eyed the bowl and carefully surveyed the area. Coyotes do roam the neighborhood. The coast was clear, and she padded up to the bowl and sniffed. After a few seconds, she dove in with delicate vigor. And, then, without a glance more or “thank you,” she turned on her paws and disappeared back into the bushes.
I was a bit stunned by her sudden appearance in my life, even though I’d prayed for just this. “Please bring me a kitty,” I said to the Universe a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to buy a kitty. I wanted a kitty to “show up” – and she did.
But, to tell the truth, I hadn’t wanted a black cat. Supplications to Divinity are different than ordering dinner at a restaurant. The cook really should make you the dish you order. But, with prayer, you don’t always get what you ask for. “God always answers prayer,” said my teacher, “but the answer may look different than what you expect.”
I got exactly what was needed. It was precisely the blackness of the creature that endowed its appearance with potency. I grew up with the superstition, “If a black cat walks in front of you, it’s a bad omen.” Intellectually, I know better than to believe in superstition. But the collective unconscious is more powerful than the rational mind. I couldn’t help that the black cat evoked a primordial archetype of the “witchy” feminine.
She is the rejected shadow of Western society—the earthy, natural, nonconforming, magical side of us.
The cat archetype stands for the side of our consciousness that will not be leashed up and made to serve a master. It is the potent and independent feminine. The cat rubs against our leg when she feels like it. Yet the female cat is not cut-off from love. She is, for example, an outstanding mother. She is not wishy-washy in the loving and protection of her own vulnerable young, and she has been documented to extend her maternal love to the newborns of other species: puppies, baby squirrels, baby rabbits, and even baby mice. She loves and protects at the same time as she remains a fiercely independent force of nature. She does not obey just because they said so. This kind of instinctual wisdom is our salvation in the face of totalitarian group think. To love beyond our own tribe, and to refuse whatever doesn’t feel right.
Cats can see in the dark. They pounce on a rodent lurking in the shadows before we even know it’s there. The Egyptian “Cat Goddess” was Bastet, daughter of Isis and Osiris. Her music-filled celebrations were joyous and free-spirited, like kitty play. Bastet also had the cat ability to eliminate rodent-like energies in our psyche that prey on us when we are not aware. Without this keen catness, energies of guilt, shame, resentment, and despair nibble away at our inner life. Bastet means to “see,” congruent with persistent folklore belief that the ashes of the black cat heal blindness. Even today, “cat’s milk” is a homeopathic remedy for eye pain.
Why does the black cat trigger fear? We humans often twist something that carries spiritual power into an “evil” force. The number “13.” Sexuality. Menstruation. Tobacco. The snake. Humans are terrified of spiritual power. We behead the mystics, massacre the Indigenous, burn the witches.
In the Middle Ages, the “hammer” of the male clergy came down on non-conforming women. The Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”) was the legal, theological handbook on witchcraft, written by two scholars from University of Cologne and University of Salzburg (1486). For 400 years, it was the diagnostic manual used in the witch craze, accepted by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike as an authoritative source. It led to the execution of tens of thousands of “witches” and cats. The cats were burned alive in public spectacles, hung, throats slit, buried in mass graves.
The Malleus Maleficarum claimed that witches shape-shifted into black cats and carried out the devil’s malevolence. This was a Christian distortion of the Greco-Roman Goddess Artemis/Diana who was a commanding feminine associated with fertility, nature, and women. Her statue at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. She was believed to change into the form of a cat.
The cat has a will of its own. No wonder it became associated with “heretics” and “witches.” Groups considered “heretical” by the Catholic Church—Cathars, Waldensians, Templars—were all associated with cats. Cats were the prefect symbol for religious proclivities that threatened the established order.
The communities of medieval Europe, after the witch craze, paid a heavy price for their slaughter of the cats: the proliferation of rodents spread the Plague, killing thousands upon thousands of inhabitants. Rejection of our shadow, the inner power, never ends well. Better to face our fear, welcome the black cat energy, nourish her, study her, contemplate the vital role she has in our psyche and civilization.
These realizations about the black cat came later. On that first day, all I could say to myself was, “This is not the ‘right’ kitty. It was supposed to be a calico!” Years previous, a little calico kitty had appeared in the garden. She eventually joined the family as a happy house cat named Kitty Grace. I missed this little calico and was hoping for another “just like her.” Such a wanting always ends in disappointment, for nothing is “just like” anything else.
The next day, in spite of my misgivings about her, Little Black Kitty came again. This time I was better prepared for the hesitant creature: “Fancy Feast – Seafood Medley”! She seemed to enjoy this meal even more than the tuna served at her inaugural visit. I sprinkled catnip on the ground, to give a fragrant welcome. Scents are “good sense.” Frankincense, I hear, is used to dispel the negative and welcome the angelic. Maybe catnip has the same function in the kitty world.
Little Black Kitty came every morning like clockwork. Each time, the same ritual: appearance – processional – offering – recessional. On day three, she lingered longer and moved closer. Within a week, she came right onto my doorstep and spent much of the day in the garden. I looked forward to seeing her and having her near.
And, then, the inevitable happened. I fell in love with Little Black Kitty.
I began to have fantasies of a long-term relationship. I imagined that Little Black Kitty would move in with me. She would take naps in the window, warmed by the morning sun. She would sip from a fountain of flowing water. She would curl up in my lap when I did my morning meditation. She would run across the rug in kitty sprints, then jump up the ladder to the loft—her room—whenever she needed space.
Except that she didn’t run much. And jumping? Not at all. I was accustomed to cats running up trees and jumping up on everything. Only in my fantasy did Little Black Kitty run or jump. I kept expecting that she would, one day, run, jump, and play. I thought it odd that she showed no interest in the finches flocking at the bird feeders on the fig tree. I thought all cats liked to poise underneath a bird feeder, cast their spell on a bird, and wait for the chance to pounce.
I bought a cat toy; I was determined to entice her to play. “This is our most popular toy for kitties,” said the clerk at the PAWS store. I brought it home, excited. When I pulled into the driveway, Little Black Kitty was sitting there, under the pink heather plants. I bounded out of the car and unfurled the cat toy—a long fluorescent string with feathers on the end. “Very enticing,” I thought. “How she can resist it?!”
Kitties live the “play instinct.” They remind us that mere existence is enough. We humans put too much importance on “doingness” and miss the sheer beauty of being. One time, sitting with my teacher, his three kitties went berserk over a toy that rotated with bouncing little balls at the end of long antennas. They pounced on the bouncy balls over and over again, dipping and diving over each other. We watched them with great amusement. My teacher said, “Kitties don’t think. They just are. That’s how love is.” I began to refer to these moments with my teacher as “kitty satsangs.” He said: “The kitty doesn’t ask himself, ‘Do I enjoy playing with this ball?’ He just knocks it across the room and plays with it!” I’m sure my teacher was giving me a message about “just be natural, just be free, just be!” For I can be quite serious about my “spiritual practice.” What an irony that we humans need spiritual “practices” to return to our “real nature.” Whereas the kitty just is, we have to “practice” being spontaneous, natural, free, present in the moment.
Little Black Kitty, however, was not impressed with the cat toy. She looked at me blankly when I presented it to her. I used all of my kitty-know-how to move the feather across the ground in an irresistibly mousy way. Hide and seek around corners. Very s-l-o-w-l-y across the ground and then a little wiggle and hop. But, she was not amused. She had no interest in games. It was no fun playing alone, so I finally put the cat toy away. She was never in the mood to play.
The black cat. She gave the gift of redeeming a lost “shadow” part of myself. No wonder she didn’t want to play around. She was a life-or-death messenger telling me to recover my own “witchy” side that will know instinctively how to love what needs loving and to refuse what needs refusing.
Welcoming the black cat healed a divide. To love a being that has been despised and rejected is to reclaim a part of God’s creation back into the whole. It is to redeem a part of myself that I rejected, what C.G. Jung called “the shadow.” For me, as a woman brought up to conform, to obey, to please, to play a role of ‘nice’ whether I liked it or not, Little Black Kitty represented the “witchy” part of me. She was independent, fierce, intuitive, free, and natural. At seventeen, I joined a church that silenced women, and I lost touch with the “black cat” part of myself. Though I had been a soloist and a public speaker, I suddenly became too petrified to open my mouth. “Women keep silence in the church” was the Bible verse cited by the church elders. I believed and obeyed them for nearly twenty years. It has been a long journey to recover my voice, my instinct, my intuition, my inner cat that says, “I don’t want to stay here.” Little Black Kitty showed up on the cusp of my fiftieth birthday. No time to waste. At fifty, a woman really should be clear about what she likes and doesn’t like. Speak her truth. Move from her soul. Love whom she loves.
I could accept that Little Black Kitty didn’t like to play. Still, I hoped for more of something.
I left the door to the house cracked open and put catnip just inside, to entice her. She came over the threshold and stepped inside. She looked around a bit, but she didn’t stay. She liked being outside. I kept the door cracked open, but she rarely walked through. Love, to be love, has to be freely chosen. I had to let go trying to manipulate her into a relationship on my terms.
One morning, she didn’t seem hungry. I knelt down next to her and held out my hand. She nuzzled her head, and then her whole body, into my hand so that every inch was petted. She was so thin! I could feel her bones. Her fur was mangy and matted. Cats are known for their cleanliness, which accounts for their association to widowed and single women with brooms (“witches on broomsticks”). Little Black Kitty was, to my surprise, not clean. She was grungy and boney.
For the first time, it dawned on me. “She is very sick.”
When gave up my fantasy of how I wanted her to be, I could begin to love her as she really was. I noticed she meowed all the time, as if in pain. I watched her more closely as she ate. She labored to swallow. As the days passed, she ate less and less. She had no interest in “cat treats.” Finally, it seemed to hurt her to eat anything.
I wondered: “Should I take her to the vet?” I tried to imagine the scenario: I would layer a kitty crate with some leaves from her hovel in the bushes, sprinkle them with catnip. The next time she came close for me to pet her, I would scoop her up and put her into the crate. That was my imagined plan. Few cats go willingly into a crate, and she was a feral cat! I was fairly sure I’d lose a piece of my arm in the process.
Assuming I would be able to scoop her up and get her into a crate, would it help her or hurt her? This was my dilemma.
For the purely selfish, there is no such dilemma. They lose no sleep over the suffering of others. They don’t even notice.
For the purely un-selfish, there is no dilemma either. They move swiftly with purity of love to effectuate the perfect response in the perfect measure. They are capable even of saving others by doing nothing. “The sage does nothing yet everything is accomplished,” the Dao De Jing says.
But for those of us who hang in the balance between the “sinner” and the “saint,” we notice the suffering and wish to alleviate it, yet we may waver as to the best means of compassion. “Let nature take its course” or “It’s their karma” can be a pathway of the deepest surrender, or it can be a platitude to excuse indifference. “I’ll do whatever I can to help” can be the prayer of a true servant, or the inflation of a self-appointed savior. Sometimes “rushing in to help” makes the suffering worse.
“Sleeping on it” is my discernment practice when faced with this dilemma. It was Saturday. I said to myself, “I will take her to the vet on Monday.”
Little Black Kitty ate nothing on Saturday or Sunday. She wanted affection, not food. I suppose all living things need the nourishment of pure affection. Food alone is not enough. She rubbed against my leg and my hand so that every inch of her was petted. She hung very close to me much of the day. Her raw need for love and my raw need to give it became indistinguishable. In the reality of love, what does it matter who “gives” and who “receives”?
On Monday morning, you can probably guess, Little Black Kitty was nowhere to be seen. I called her name, for by then, she knew my voice and would usually come trotting up from the bushes. Not this time. I called and called. There was no Little Black Kitty.
I looked in all of her favorite places, but there was no black cat. No eerie yellow eyes peering out from the dark corners of the yard. No “M-e-e-e-o-w” coming from the bushes.
I put out her favorite food anyway—just in case.
All day, off and on, I looked out the window into the yard. Is she there? No. Little Black Kitty was nowhere to be seen.
“She left without saying good-bye.” I cried. “I will take her to the vet if she comes back,” I promised the Universe. All kinds of feelings are normal in the face of loss: grief, anger, guilt, fear of being alone. But Mother Nature knows what we do not. Little Black Kitty had gone to where she needed to go. Which wasn’t to the vet in a crate.
I sprinkled catnip in the place where we had been. I said “Thank you” for the love we had shared, for the revelation she had been. And I cried. I will miss my friend.
On Tuesday, I woke up with this dream:
Little Black Kitty isn’t dead after all! She has come back to life and is on my doorstep. She has been washed clean, groomed and cared for. I say, “Oh Little Black Kitty that’s why you’ve been gone. Someone took you away to be groomed! Washed and cleaned! You look so much better!” Her fur is soft and clean. All the mangy and tangled and dirty parts are gone. She is sitting there on my doorstep, eager and full of energy for life. I can almost swear that she is smiling. I feel super delighted to see her. I can’t believe how well and happy she looks!
I do not know if my love for Little Black Kitty was pure. I can’t help but wonder, “Did I miss a chance for true compassion by not taking her to the vet as soon as I thought of it?” All that can be said is that I loved her the best way I could, with the little bit of light I had at the time. No doubt: the love we shared increased that light.
Fran Grace, Ph.D., serves as director of Inner Pathway, a 501(c)3 organization to inspire and educate on the inner qualities of love, joy, compassion, forgiveness, beauty, and humor. For more, see the book: The Power of Love.