From time to time I am compelled to give you all a report on Leo, the scaredy-cat of the Rectory. Leo was brought to me about six years ago as a terrified kitten who’d been found by someone, shivering behind a dumpster, apparently abandoned by his mother. He has lived these past six years in fear and isolation in the Rectory. Change of any kind is a terror to him. Visitors send him into quick flight. One dog was bad enough, but when the second dog entered the equation four years ago, Leo probably should have been medicated or sought therapy. Fortunately the Rectory is large, and over these six years Leo has claimed refugee status in one room or another, finding various sofas to live behind, beds to quiver under, and closets to hide out in.
Leo has become to me an icon of hopelessness and fear. I can only conclude that he is a deeply un-Christian cat (sweet though his disposition has always been). He stands in stark contrast to the two Labradors who live in the Rectory with me in a state of profound hope: constantly expectant that someone is coming to visit them, that they may be taken out for a walk, that they may find a morsel of food on the ground, that they may find a puddle to play in, a fountain to frolic in, a stream to swim in. To the Labradors, treasures lie all around, and they give their hearts easily to each and every one of them. Their lamps are lit, so to speak; they are dressed for action. The little domes of their heads can sometimes be spotted in the windows of my office, as they wait for their Master (or anyone at all, really) to return, fasten his belt, and have them sit down to eat.
But Leo cowers in fear, (who knows where?): terrified of what the next footfall might bring. No treasure possesses his heart, so it thumps hopelessly, nervously, ironically in his little leonine chest.
For some weeks I have been preparing to bring you sad news about Leo – uncertain about just how to do so. Six weeks ago when I was traveling abroad, I emailed Kent John and asked him to check on Leo. His reply brought concern: no sign that Leo was eating his food or using his litter box. Some weeks previously the room Leo had been hiding out in for the past several years had been invaded by painters. This incursion sent the cat in flight to the fourth floor, taking refuge in the old chapel up there, behind a pew. But now, no sign of him was to be found.
On my return home, I searched the house: looking especially carefully in the basement, where I found a dead rat, but no Leo, and no sign that the carnage was his work. I put food in his bowl in the chapel on the fourth floor, I went around opening closet doors to make sure he had not been shut in. I returned again and again to the basement, calling his name, looking behind boxes, but still no sign of the cat. I checked the fourth floor, too, but nothing.
After a month I was worried. After five weeks, despairing. And by the sixth week I had given up hope, and have been wondering how to break the news to you that Leo is gone. Who knows where? Did he flee out the back door between someone’s feet in a state of terror? Did he slink out the front door while workmen were coming and going? Might he come home again? After all these weeks?
Of course I felt guilty. I felt I have been a poor steward of one of God’s creatures – one who needed me more than most. But I consoled myself with the reassurance that really it was Leo’s own issues that got the better of him, not my neglect. It was his inability to adjust to the world around him – a world in which he was loved and cared for (even the Labradors would have liked to befriend him). But he could find no hope, no treasure in which to place the trust of his heart. “Do not be afraid” – the scriptures say, but these words would be an idle insult to a cat whose life was defined by fear and the avoidance of nearly anything that would get too close, anything or anyone who might protect him and care for him. Leo’s disappearance was nobody’s fault but Leo’s, who chose his own fate when he walked out of the sanctuary of his Master’s house.
But still, a sense of sadness and responsibility rested heavily on my shoulders as I began to accept that Leo was gone, and hoped that you all would forgive me for not taking better care of him.
On Thursday I had not yet determined to share this news with you when I walked into the Rectory after Morning Prayer. As soon as the door was shut behind me I heard a little squeak of some kind. I stopped to listen. Yes, it was either a squeak or a peep. In fact, it sounded familiar. I opened the door to the basement. “Leo?” I called out.
And in reply came not a squeak or a peep, but a cry, a plaintive wail that I know well.
“Leo!” I shouted, as I skipped down the stairs, turned on the light and stooped under the ductwork. His loud squawking moan wouldn’t stop now – calling to me out of equal parts fear and need.
There was a wadded up sheet of plastic – a drop cloth the painters left behind – stuffed behind an old, immovable iron safe. No movement there, but unquestionably the location of the cat. I brushed aside the plastic sheet, and there was Leo! He darted behind the safe, and continued to cry.
I raced up the stairs to the fourth floor to get his food and water bowl and his litter box. I danced down the stairs to bring them to him, I was singing his name out in reassurance: “Leo! Leo! Leo!” I placed his food down, and his water, and put his litter box nearby. And my heart raced with joy.
He crept out from beside the safe far enough to allow me to scratch him behind the ears. I dared not pick him up yet, since he doesn’t much like being held in the best of circumstances.
And I rejoiced to have found the lost cat, to know he was safe and alive, to be able to feed him, and do what I could to care for him.
I have to report to you that at the moment, Leo is still making his home in the basement. I suspect he will stay there for a long time. Maybe it’s the best place for him. He can hide as much as he wants, and steal upstairs to patrol the rest of the house under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night if he so desires.
And so, although once he was lost, but now he’s found, Leo will probably remain an icon of hopelessness and fear. His six-week sojourn in darkness and his miraculous return do not seem to have put a treasure in his heart; he shows no signs of desiring to move upstairs and live among the hopeful creatures of the household.
And, of course, this story would be only mildly amusing if not for the sad reality that so many people live their lives the way Leo does: captives of hopelessness and fear. For some it is self-pity, or jealousy; for others it’s the result of addiction or co-dependence; for others it grief they cannot let go of; for others it’s the constant worry of scarcity in a world that has never provided them with anything other than plenty; for some it’s self-loathing, for others silly pride; for some it is greed of one kind or another. There are a host of reasons to decide to live in fear and hopelessness – to live, as it were, under the bed, behind the sofa, deep in a closet, or in the darkest recesses of the basement – even if you have friends and family who love you and care for you and would do what they could to help you. To live this way is to live without a treasure to trust your heart to.
And the truth of the matter is that there is only one Treasure worth entrusting your heart to. There is only one Master worth waiting up for till he comes. There is only one Light who will conquer the darkness. There is only one Spirit to fill you with hope.
Most of us have our moments when we flee to the basement, and cower there in fear. But the lesson of Leo is this: if you must hide in the basement, at least do not run for the door. Do not take flight through the back door, or slink out the front when no one is watching. At least stay in the basement till you find some way to overcome your fear and you are brave enough to squeak or to peep: to make the first sounds of a prayer.
Listen for footfalls on the floor above you as you hear the door creak open. And do not be afraid to call out when your Master is looking for you – as he always is.
Do not be afraid, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom – yes, not just the basement, but the entire kingdom!
So open your mouth and wail, open your heart and cry out, reach out your paws and embrace the One for whom you have been waiting, although you did not know it.
Blessed are you when he comes and finds you, and rescues you from your fear and your hopelessness, which at least kept you awake for this moment.
And for God’s sake, remember that you are not cat! So when you have found this treasure worth giving your heart to, for the love of God, come on up out of the basement, and live! For in him is treasure worth an entire kingdom, and it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Claim him, and him alone, as your treasure – who calls you out of darkness into his marvelous light – for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
11 August 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia