Global News, the news and current affairs division of the Global Television Network of Vancouver, B.C., reported in 2020: “One of Canterbury Cathedral’s cats, Tiger, helped itself to some milk during a morning message from Dean Robert Willis on July 6.”
Brought together by serendipity — a lovely, do-able brief explanation of my favorite Jesuit exercise (which I need to get back to doing it more often); an equally lovely photobomb (also one of my favorites) perpetrated by a cathedral cat; and a homily on the imminence of the kingdom of God, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Especially in a pandemic. And they all fit together. Well, kinda together. No, really they do.
Let’s start with the Jesuit exercise. It’s daily prayer called the Examen, one of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I learned about it when I was taking spiritual direction with a Dominican sister, and when the pandemic first overtook us and utterly changed our lives, I blogged about it it HERE as I tried to adjust my daily life to the emergency, combining it with a scaled-down version of Martin Luther’s morning prayer and an ecumenical prayer for “good courage” in uncertain times. I came back to it HERE and later took notes about it HERE, with good intentions of getting back to it.
But as the pandemic wore on and my sense of immediate crisis ebbed, so did my daily spiritual practice.
I guess it’s true what they say, that there aren’t any atheists in foxholes. I’ve blogged about that, too, HERE and HERE. The same thing seems to be true for emergency rooms, too, and I’ve called it “ER spirituality,” But once you get out of the foxhole, or the ER, it’s hard to sustain a sense of urgency. So the other day when I noticed a little post on Facebook by the Most Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, I took it as a gentle nudge — not quite a sign but something close to it — reminding me to do better. It went like this:
One of St. Ignatius’ greatest gifts to the church is the Examen, a simple but profound practice which helps us see God’s presence in every aspect of our lives. Why not try it this evening?
1. Become aware of God’s loving presence and thank Him for it.
2. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where God is at work in your life.
3. Look back on your day: remember what you did and how you felt.
4. Are there lessons to learn or gifts to receive?
5. How might you serve Jesus in new ways tomorrow?
There are so many ways to pray. God hears them all. The most important thing is that we spend time with Him and allow ourselves to be changed by His love and grace.
Exactly what I needed to see! Done properly, praying the Examen is a rigorous exercise of self-examination and discernment, but the archbishop’s summar is so down-to-earth and do-able, I decided to share it to the blog so I can come back to it.
And here’s where the serendipity — and the cat video — came in.
When I was checking background information on the archbishop, I remembered another official associated with Canterbury cathedral, the Very Rev. Robert Willis, dean of the cathedral. (I love the titles in the Church of England!) Last year about this time, a video went viral that showed him preaching on a text in the daily office — morning prayer — while one of the cathedral cats hopped up on the table next to him and dipped milk out of a cream pitcher. It was a lovely moment, and it got me interested in Willis’ morning homilies. At least since the pandemic and its attendant lockdowns set in, he’s been livestreaming them outdoors, in the cathedral’s deanery garden, competing for viewers’ attention with chickens, ducks and guinea fowl, or breakfasting cathedral pigs on Easter Monday. I came for the cat picture, in other words, and stayed for the homily.
(Which might suggest a way for parish churches, if zoning ordinances allow chickens and pigs in town, to boost audience share for their livestream services while the pandemic lingers. Feel free to contact me for more evangelism tips.)
In the video clip that went viral, Willis is reminiscing about a hymn he wrote for the C of E’s Hymns Ancient and Modern, The Kingdom is Upon You, when the cat — named Tiger — hops up on the table and proceeds to steal milk while he explains he took the first line of the hymn from a passage in St. Mark’s gospel.
“As Jesus was coming into Galilee, in his ministry, for the first time, he said, ‘The kingdom is upon you; repent and believe the gospel,” says Willis. At this point he looks over and notices the cat, who doesn’t appear to be the least bit repentant and continues to dip his paw into the cream pitcher.
“Sorry, we’ve acquired a friend this morning,” Willis says, petting the cat, and returns to the homily. I won’t try to paraphrase it — it’s about the immediacy of of the gospel Jesus preached in Galilee. “The present moment is everything,” he says. “Heaven’s message, heaven’s voice, heaven’s plan for you can come suddenly.”
As an example, Willis cites the suddenness with which the Covid-19 pandemic descended on England, still a painfully fresh memory in July 2020.
One day we were in the ordinary rhythmic life of the cathedral. The next, there were no people there, and we were streaming live our services. And the next, we were locked out. And on the 25th of March, the Feast of the Annunciation when the angel came to Mary, we found ourselves here in the garden improvising worship in this way. And that’s three months ago. …
In the end, he brings it back around around to the gospel of Mark and the imminence of the kingdom. Which isn’t hard to do in Mark, I remember, because everything happens immediately — εὐθὺς, euthus in the Greek and “straightaway” in the King James version — from the very beginning. Jesus immediately comes out of the water, he immediately goes into the wilderness. He calls Simon Peter and Andrew fishing at Capernaum, and straightway they forsake their nets and follow him.
And that, says Dean Willis of Canterbury cathedral while Tiger the cat dips milk out of his cream pitcher, is how Jesus preaches the kingdom. It’s how the kingdom of heaven comes to us today:
Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God being there for us, now, in all its freshness, now. And then he begins to talk about the sense of everyday life going on, a beautiful description of life. And he searches back in the scriptures to the days of Noah and the days of Lot. He could have gone anywhere, but he describes the rhythmic quality of ordinary life, and people when they’re in the middle of it expect it to go on forever, not expecting at any moment, that something very different might happen and call them into a completely different vocation.
All of which reminds me it’s high time for me to start praying the Examen again. Straightaway.
“The Daily Examen,” IgnatianSpirituality.com, Loyola Press, Chicago https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/
“Purrs and prayers: a year of video sermons and cat mischief at cathedral,” Irish News, March 4, 2021 https://www.irishnews.com/magazine/daily/2021/03/04/news/purrs-and-prayers-a-year-of-video-sermons-and-cat-mischief-at-cathedral-2244126/.
[Aug. 5, 2021]