Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #14 - A Small- Sized Mystery — A New Year’s Eve meditation - A thought for the day

December 30, 2023 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 14
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #14 - A Small- Sized Mystery — A New Year’s Eve meditation - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation

Over the last week, thanks to the wonderful fact that the temporary manse on New Square has room enough to welcome guests, Susanna and I have had the pleasure of being able to host a family Christmas for the first time during the 23 years I’ve been the minister here. Susanna’s two children, Sara and Jim, their partners Eugene and Alba, and their respective children, Phoenix, aged 6, and Armando, aged 14 months, shared a Christmas Day lunch with us, and later on we were joined for a few hours by an old friend, Mohammad. Amazing; utterly exhausting, of course, but amazing nonetheless. So, a great thank you to the church committee for making this possible.

But, today, I don’t want so much to concentrate on the human side of these very pleasurable few days but, instead, on something else that was revealed during Christmas thanks to two other guests who were staying with us, namely, her daughter Sara’s two cats, Kitty and Arlo. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and, firstly, I need to return to the conversations that unfolded around the kitchen table on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the days that followed.

In amidst all the genuinely fun stuff that was happening, at times, we inevitably touched upon the pretty grim reality of the world at the moment, both at home and abroad. we talked about the phenomenally increased cost of the food and drink we were sharing, the unseasonably warm weather and the disturbing associated question of the deepening climate emergency, the parlous state of the National Health Service and social care, the lack of affordable and decent housing, the disturbingly right-wing drift of the current UK government, the post-Brexit issue connected with the right of partners from countries other than the UK to stay together — Alba is an Italian national who has lived here for 11 years — the ongoing war in Ukraine, the horrific and genocidal violence displayed by both Hamas and the Israeli government and the Israel Defence Force — a subject only made more painful and real because Mohammad is a Palestinian refugee — and more grim subjects besides including, of course, the threat of AI and the forthcoming US election. So let’s be completely honest about it, none of these things point to next year being a good one. But as I often mention, I’m a great believer in F. H. Bradley’s maxims that where everything is bad it must be good to know the worst, and where all is rotten it is our work to cry stinking fish (F. H. Bradley, Preface to  “Appearance and Reality”, 1893, p. xv). And I do not think it is right — nor indeed sensible — to enter into the coming year without a frank acknowledgement of just how bad things are, and how a great deal worse they could very easily become.

But this grim litany serves to bring me back to the aforementioned cats, Kitty and Arlo, because this year they helped me see something fundamental about the world that, if we are to stand any chance of getting through the coming years in a way that doesn’t utterly break our spirits, we really do need to acknowledge and foreground.

As most of you will know, the thing about cats is that they do their own cat-type things, regardless of the conversation going on at the kitchen table or the events in the wider world. Now, in previous years, although there’d be a chance I might have noticed this, I’m pretty sure I would have immediately moved on from it, seeing in the cats’ behaviour absolutely nothing worthy of further comment. But this year I noticed the cats’ behaviour with a poem by Jane Hirshfieldvery much in mind, thanks to recently re-reading her wonderful, and to my mind, always astonishing, 2011 collection, “Come, Thief.”  The poem is called “A Small- Sized Mystery”:

A Small- Sized Mystery
by Jane Hirshfield

Leave a door open long enough,
a cat will enter. Leave food, it will stay.
Soon, on cold nights,
you’ll be saying “Excuse me”
if you want to get out of your chair.
But one thing you’ll never hear from a cat
is “Excuse me.”
Nor Einstein’s famous theorem.
Nor “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
In the dictionary of Cat, mercy is missing.
In this world where much is missing,
a cat fills only a cat-sized hole.
Yet your whole body turns toward it
again and again because it is there.

What Hirshfield’s poem achieves — or at least what her poem achieves for me — is to bring me back, with a sudden bump, to the basic and utterly astonishing mystery of life. A mystery that there is something not nothing. As it does this, I am simultaneously brought face to face with the realisation that the mystery of the world’s reality appearance is not something that can properly or fully understood through human categories such as “the quality of mercy” or “Einstein’s famous theorem.” The human dictionary — whether moral or scientific — simply doesn’t come anywhere near close to mapping the whole of reality. Nor, of course, does the cat’s dictionary, and in both much is missing. These lacunae serve to remind me that just as “a cat fills only a cat-sized hole,” it is also true that a human fills only a human-sized hole. The world may be a mysterious, graceful gift in which we live and move and have our being but — and it’s a vital “but” — but the world is not, and never will be, simply for us alone, but always also for cats and mountains, fishes and fungi, insects and rivers, deserts and whales, saucepans and squeaky doors. And I remain convinced that were humanity, as a species, better able to see this truth, many of our hubristic stupidities could more easily be stopped.

But how to bring this stopping about? Well, I think the cat serves as a good example, because it’s unasked for, and frankly mysterious presence on our laps on cold nights demands our whole body’s attention again and again, simply because it is there and not because of anything else. The cat quite simply calms us down, stops us from doing stupid and unnecessary things, invites reflection and repose and, in so doing, takes us out of ourselves and reminds us that we are not the centre and ultimate purpose of existence.

And today, on New Year’s Eve, I want to suggest that our central task for the coming very, very difficult year, is primarily to continue to engage in, and significantly deepen, our own community’s still developing, mindful and creative, free spiritual practice (jiyū shūkyō) which, to stick to Hirshfield’s metaphor, serves to keep the door of our being open long enough so that a cat will enter. 

As I hope you have already realised, the cat here stands both as an actual example of, and a symbol for, the wonderful, mystery of being itself which is always-already entering into the world whether we notice it or not, and whether the human species survives or goes extinct. 

And I have faith that, when consistently practised, our mindful, creative, free spiritual practice is capable of being something like the bowl of food which, as Hirshfield notes, if we leave it out every day, will encourage the cat to stay, and so help remind us how better to turn our whole body, peacefully and lovingly, towards all other beings, simply because they are there.