“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
Often attributed to the Buddha
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
After Jon M. Sweeney’s more than 40 books on faith and spirituality, his readers around the world have noticed a curious twist: Five of his most recent books are about cats—and, now, it’s a total of six with the April 2023 release of what amounts to his Tour de Feline, a book called Sit in the Sun, And Other Lessons in the Spiritual Wisdom of Cats.
The book is dedicated to the nine cats who have shaped his life, to date. In the course of 17 chapters, we meet these furry gurus along with more than 50 other human saints and sages.
As a well-known journalist, author and teacher about his Catholic faith, Sweeney takes seriously the concept of “vocation,” a term that comes from the Latin “to call” or “to summon.” (For more on vocation, you may want to look back at last week’s cover story about Father Ed Dowling, who helped to shape the AA movement and who also believed strongly in identifying one’s vocation.) You can learn more about Jon Sweeney’s vocation in his new book that has taken this surprising turn: After dozens of more sober books about saints, theology and other spiritual themes—Jon finally felt his life-long feline companions “summoning” him.
Jon first answered this call with a fanciful children’s book about a Roman street cat named Margaret who finds a home at the Vatican. Then, he kept that popular series rolling through five volumes until he concluded that series in 2021 with a prequel to the Margaret saga, titled Before Margaret Met the Pope, a Conclave Story. Then, inspired by the warm reader response to those books—and suddenly finding himself isolated with his cats by the pandemic—he launched into his Magnum Felis Catus aimed at bringing adults along for the ride in his cat’s eye spiritual adventures.
Cats Crossing a Line?
In our interview this week about his new book, Jon said, “I think I crossed a line with the Pope’s Cat series—and maybe it was just a line I crossed in my own imagination—but I think in some real sense I discovered that I was willing to do work that some of my readers might think is—well—” and Jon paused as he searched for the right word before settling on—”well, some of my readers of the earlier books might think these books about cats are frivolous.”
“They’re playful. They’re humorous. They’re wise and winsome,” I countered. “But they’re not frivolous.”
“I like the words ‘playful’ and ‘humorous,’ and that’s why this transition was kind of a big deal for me as a writer and editor. I’m human like everybody else and I consider what people are thinking about me. I’m a writer with an audience I care about serving. For a lot of years, readers followed me through books that are serious—sometimes spiritually earnest and sometimes scholarly rigorous—so when I decided to write the first in what became the Pope’s Cat series, I realized that I was throwing that reputation for seriousness to the wind to some extent. Then, after I had crossed the line with that series, and seeing the response I was getting, I was able to cross another line into writing Sit in the Sun.”
I said, “That’s certainly true. You’ve crossed the line into some truly playful suggestions to your readers. For example, I don’t think readers can try your Chapter 2 spiritual suggestion to actually purr like a cat while praying and not chuckle—or at least smile.”
Breaking Down Barriers in Meditation
In Sit in the Sun, Sweeney wants readers to fully embrace what may seem more like a Buddhist approach to breaking down barriers in our daily meditations by not taking oneself too seriously. In Chapter 4, he urges readers to embrace a cat-like freedom to sometimes look foolish.
He calls this Chapter 4 advice: “A Cat Practice.” That page begins: “Be foolish, just a little bit. You can do it. Practice foolishness. Maybe for you that means walking backwards down your sidewalk, around your block. The practice is not meant to be an exercise in feeling insecure or unsafe, but, rather, a way of discovering a new vision. … Or try this—a practice that has helped me over the years. Mess up your hair and then leave it that way for at least an hour. … How do you feel when something about you is a little unkempt, playful, wild?” (Again, if you’ve read last week’s story about Father Ed Dowling, you’ll see a connection here about appearance and deeper truths.)
If you are curious to know more about what “a Buddhist approach to breaking down barriers” means: In preparing for this cover story about Sweeney’s new book, I pulled off my shelf two of Buddhist writer Geri Larkin’s best sellers: Close to the Ground and The Chocolate Cake Sutra. To appreciate another dimension of Jon’s new book, readers could embark on a parallel reading with either of those books by Geri. The journeys lead to many similar spiritual adventures.
The Consensus of the Commonplace
There also is a clear consensus in comparing Geri’s and Jon’s writing—and a third new spiritual memoir we recently wrote about by Barbara Mahany, The Book of Nature. In our cover story about Barbara’s book, Barbara and I talked about the centuries-old tradition of the “commonplace” or we might say the spiritual practice of “commonplacing.” For Barbara, that amounts to literally copying and assembling memorable citations, valuable bits of wisdom, until they begin to form a community of insights she can share in a book like her new The Book of Nature.
For Jon Sweeney, that “commonplacing” dwells more in his library and his expansive memory from decades of research, writing and teaching.
In our interview, I said, “I actually made a chart on a legal pad of everyone readers will meet between the covers of your book and I think the total is 53 or 54, depending on whether you count E.B. White and his Stuart Little as 1 or 2 folks.”
“Is it that many? Fifty-four?” Jon said. “I hadn’t counted but I made those connections as I wrote intentionally to lead readers toward other sources.” His helpfulness extends to the final 24 pages of this book, which suggest additional books and ways to delve into many of the references within these chapters. Like Jon and his beloved cats—this is a very friendly book.
In our interview, I described it as “a very helpful book. I turned down the corners of dozens of pages where I want to dig deeper in my own future reading. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of folks you drew on for illustrations. Like the window that lets in the sunlight, this book really is a gateway.”
Who are some of the people we can meet through Jon’s gateway? Standing in this book’s “great cloud of witnesses,” we might say, are the Sufi poet Hafez, science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, novelist Iris Murdoch, Benedictine teacher Christine Valters Paintner, the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, sculptor Candice Lin, the beloved Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and Native American sage Nicholas Black Elk, whose life Jon explored in a 2020 biography.
Jon said, “Most of the 50-or-so people you can meet in this book are an integral part of my own life, like Nicholas Black Elk, who I wrote about for Liturgical Press’s People of God biography series. When I draw from the Quran in this book, that’s a part of my life, too. I’m in the middle of a monthly series of meetings with a Muslim refugee to learn more about the Quran. When I draw from Judaism, I’m married to a rabbi so we’re involved in Judaism all the time. The way this book is written really is an expression of my life.”
And Finally: Facing the Francis Problem
“Because I love your new book, I’m not sure if I should bring up the one problem you’ve encountered since writing about cats,” I said, trying to soften my question even as I posed it.
I could see Jon already nodding on the Zoom video.
“Of course, this is the Francis question,” I said. “Or maybe the double-Francis question.”
Readers familiar with Catholic tradition and Vatican news will recognize that both the world-famous St. Francis of Assisi and his contemporary namesake Pope Francis are not fans of domesticated animal companions. Even though St. Francis is famous for finding wisdom among wild animals, he did not want his own friars to live with domesticated animal companions. And the saint’s current namesake at the Vatican does not have animal companions. Moreover, Pope Francis has publicly warned Catholics against showering excessive care on animals at the expense of care for the millions of needy humans around our planet.
Jon said, “The first thing I need to say is: I didn’t know anything about real cats at the Vatican, except that so many cats live in Rome. It was only after I published the first Pope’s Cat that I began hearing from readers, ‘Oh, this is about Pope Benedict and his cat!’ I honestly did not even know that Benedict had a cat. So, I have to keep telling readers: This pope series is fiction. It’s a cat’s-eye view of life at the Vatican, like other writers have imagined animals’ perspectives on life.”
“Like Robert Lawson’s children’s classic, Ben and Me, which imagines a mouse’s view of Benjamin Franklin’s life,” I said.
“That’s the idea,” he said. “Those Margaret stories are fiction. And, I had to be careful as the Margaret series continued because there were at least a few illustrations that I saw pre-publication that were looking too much like the current pope and we had to make sure we weren’t being that literal.”
“I do think that your approach to carefully observing animal behavior—in this case the behavior of cats—does have an echo of St. Francis’s approach to observing animals,” I said.
“Yes, I understand why Francis didn’t want his friars to keep cats or other animals as a part of their daily lives, because Francis really wanted to free his friars from daily domestic duties that come along with animal care. He wanted his friars to be freely active in the world. He was resistant of contemplative tendencies early in his movement,” Jon said. “And I also can understand what Pope Francis meant when he warned people about going nuts over their animals while they may be ignoring the human needs around him. I’m well aware of these concerns.”
‘Appreciating what is right in front of us’
The last question in author interviews is always: “How do you hope readers will be changed by reading your book? What new awareness do you hope your book will spark?”
“I hope that readers will come away with a richer understanding of their ordinary domestic lives. We all could use a lot more of that awareness,” Jon said. “Especially those of us who are involved in religious life find ourselves devoting a lot of time to texts, a lot of time to listening to spoken words, a lot of time traveling to places that are supposed to be religious.
“We don’t spend enough time appreciating what is right in front of us,” he said. “And, if you do live with cats as I do—that includes appreciating the wisdom of your cats.”
Care to Learn More?
GET THE BOOKS:
- Here’s a link to the Amazon page for the first volume in the Margaret series: The Pope’s Cat.
- Then, here’s a link to the new Sit in the Sun.
CONNECT WITH JON: Buy his new book and you’ll find links to his social media. Although he is a well-known author and sought-after speaker, he’s easy to find online.
RESOURCES from SPIRITUALITY AND PRACTICE: Our longtime friends Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, cofounders of the online hub Spirituality & Practice, were supportive of Jon’s new book even before he finished writing it. Early in his writing, Jon taught an online Spirituality & Practice course that’s now available “on demand.” Then, closer to the release of his final book, the Brussats also posted a review of his book.