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The Guru’s cat

guruscatThe story of the Guru’s cat is worth repeating:

When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.

After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.

Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.

From Anthony De Mello, The Song of the Bird

This post is not about getting rid of everything that leaders in a community do not understand. If that were the case, those leaders with little to no liturgical formation, training, and study would get rid of pretty much everything…

This post is about reflecting on practices that once may have had meaning and purpose in one context, that now in our current context – no longer make sense, and in fact distract from the purpose and flow of contemporary liturgy.

Something that made sense when the altar was like a sideboard against the East wall, may actually no longer make any sense with a square altar set in the midst of the community… burse and veil…a dismissal and then staying in the same place…

The presider standing at the north side of the altar made sense when the altar stood between the choir stalls – but standing on the north side of the altar by the east wall makes no sense whatsoever – it is a guru’s cat…

Proclaiming the gospel to the heathens in the north (Wellington? Auckland?…)…

The story of the guru’s cat is an encouragement (challenge) to review our worship carefully and deeply. Why do we do that? Why do we say this? Why do we use that? If we don’t know the origin of a practice, research. Is this still appropriate today? Is this achieving what it was originally introduced to do? Or is it another distraction, clutter, confusion,… another guru’s cat…

ps. I once made a retreat led by Fr Tony De Mello.

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9 thoughts on “The Guru’s cat”

  1. I love the story of the Guru’s Cat. I often use it when lecturing, to illustrate my contention, made to shock the students, that “Liturgy is people doing things for which they have forgotten the reasons.” But what we do with that information depends on what we think needs to be changed: the liturgy, or ourselves.

    Here is a transcript of a bit of dialogue between the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse out for one of their weekly walks together (their only opportunity for conversation), captured in Philip Groening’s stunning film “Into Deep Silence”. The monks are discussing the vestigial washing of hands (under a tiny stream of water) that has been retained before common meals in the refectory:

    “In Sélignac they have not been washing their hands before the refectory for twenty years now.”
    “Do you think we should stop washing our hands?”
    “No, but it wouldn’t be a big deal to get rid of something useless.”
    “Our entire life, the whole liturgy, and everything ceremonial are symbols.”
    “If you tear down the symbols, then you tear down the walls of your own house.”
    “In the monastery in Pavia, instead of one wash-basin they have six. There you can wash your hands properly.”
    “Yes, they’re also Trappists.”
    “When we abolish the signs, we lose our orientation. Instead, we should search for their meaning.”
    “But one should unfold the core of the symbols.”
    “The signs are not to be questioned, we are.”
    “I’m not against hand washing. I just forget to dirty my hands first.”
    “The error is not to be found in hand washing, the error is in our mind.”

  2. I can’t believe that I’ve never heard this story! But I have to admit—it brings up an important point that I think a lot of ministers and church leaders need to understand. Sometimes, we don’t fully understand the church’s traditions or why things are done a certain way…but it’s important to know that there is a method to the madness most of the time!

    1. My liturgy professor was Dr. Marjorie Proctor-Smith. She taught me that if liturgy needs to be explained, then it isn’t good liturgy. So it would seem to me that if we don’t fully understand the church’s traditions or why things are done a certain way, then perhaps we ought not be doing them at all, it’s not good liturgy.

      A second thing that she taught me was that during the liturgical renewal among many main stream churches following Vatican II, most of the “stuff” that had been valued most in liturgy was discovered to be gingerbread that had been clumped onto the ancient liturgies in succeeding centuries.

      1. I’m sure you and I totally agree on your comment, Brother David. But I’m going to add one caution, which was alluded to in my post. I will do so by way of one example – many others spring to mind:

        The liturgy has a greeting and a response. These, in some/many communities, are done in such a perfunctory manner that some/many begin a service with a “real” greeting to the community followed by the “liturgical greeting” addressed to books or bits of paper or screens – this “greeting” is used solely “because it is there”/”because it is required”. In such a context the written text is understood as prescriptive, not descriptive (this is how Christians greet each other as we begin worship). The temptation of the poorly formed is to toss out the inherited tradition of Christian greeting – rather than my hope: that the inherited Christian greeting be renewed and used as a real greeting.


  3. “A dismissal and staying in the same place”: add to that starting with an announcement and a hymn and *then* having a liturgical greeting and a collect asking that we could worship well …

  4. I’d agree with Bosco’s last remark. I have tried to use ‘The Lord be with you’ as part of a regular and normal greeting in liturgies and sometimes in classroom situations. Sometimes “Good morning. The Lord be with you …” and then ask them to pray the collect for purity with me, before we do anything else. The point is to make it live rather than just being a ‘formality’. I also agree that if you have to explain it, then it is no longer semiotics ‘understanded of the people’ (I’m Anglican and that phrase is important for us). This would go, also, imho, for things like liturgical colours too.

    1. Thanks, Andii.

      I distinguish between a “sign” and a “symbol” – the latter needing no explanation. A stole, for example, is a sign. Generally, liturgical colours are signs. I would not do away with all signs.


  5. I guess the point is that signs still sit within a signifying system, and unless the signs are motivated signs they share the arbitrariness of the vast majority of signs.

    In semiotic terms, my point is that if one is using a sign system which is substantially different from the surrounding ‘host’ culture, then it will need explaining in a way that a sign system that draws substantially from host system will not. This need to explain is a (motivated!) sign that one is in effect teaching a new langugage.

    I think that, theologicall, my contention might be that we need to be aware that teaching people a largely new language (including one involving signs *and* symbols) in order to access Christian faith is counter-dynamic to the missional imperative of the incarnation and as such, somewhat suspect.

    Now, it will be the case that some things have to be taught and learned -the analogy could be specialist terms and systems in a new job- but there comes a point when the amount of learning becomes burdensome and off-putting in regard to the level of access required. I think that a lot of ecclesiastical sign systems are in that position: they have become too detached from host-culture and so need reviewing for accessibility.

    Reviewing signs and symbols for accessibility would be a similar issue as for wheelchair access and language translation issues in Bible versions and written liturgy.

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