Where do Cats Go?: Reflections on Death Post Patriarchal Christianity by Sara Frykenberg


The reason I am speaking about death today is two-fold.  First, I have been somewhat preoccupied with the concept of death since entering a new decade of my life.  I no longer believe in the evangelical vision of heaven I learned about in my youth; but as an uncomfortable “un”-Christian, I also have no satisfactory vision to replace it.  Or rather, there are many visions I find appealing, but none that I “believe in,” as I had believed in heaven.  My family is getting older, my parents have been sick in the last few years, and I often feel that I have more to lose now than I used to.

My second reason for considering death today is that last Wednesday, Mimi, our family cat of 24 years—yes, 24—passed away.  After spending all nine of her lives living, Mimi could no longer eat and was suffering.  My mother had her put down after we all said goodbye; we held a funeral for her and buried her among the lilies in our yard, her home.

My sisters and myself were very, very saddened by Mimi’s passing; but my mother took it hardest of all.  Mimi had been her companion, her friend, her lap warmer, her snuggle buddy, her alarm clock and, we often joked, her favorite child for over two decades.  I wanted to comfort my mother; but my protest that it didn’t matter what the (her) Church said, Mimi was with the God/dess, was maybe, not very helpful.  It perhaps, only reminded her that in her view, I too am not going to heaven.

I remember sitting in church, as a child being told that animals did not have souls and that there was no “kitty heaven.”  That was perhaps, one of the first times in my life that I thought, “that’s just ridiculous,” in a church.  Not just ridiculous, but mean and cruel even.  “What,” I thought, “is the point in saying such a thing?”  As an adult, I know that such doctrines reinforce the idea that “mankind” has “dominion” over the Earth: or power-over it.  This type of theology also often suggests that humans are somehow separate from the Earth, and so, superior to our animal and plant companions.  I can’t deny that I value human life over that of other beings on our planet.  However, I also recognize that interconnection is essential for our existence and that all creatures are valuable, as a part of God/dess or her creation.  Tying our particular manifestation of creatureliness uniquely to soul while excluding other creatures not only undermines their value and our respect for our home, it also reinforces an ethic of disregard, disconnection and eco-neglect.

Our cat knew love very well; which to me, is to know God/dess, howbeit, in her own feline nature.  So if she is not in heaven, and I am not going to heaven, where do we go?  I’ll admit, this question sometimes scares me; AND, that the question scares me, scares me even more.  When I practiced evangelical Christianity and conversion oriented apologetics in my youth, I was taught that if someone was fearing death, or thinking a lot about it, this was our opportunity to try and help them to accept Jesus as their personal savior.  The fear of death was taught as a conversion opportunity—it was a sign of those who were “lost.”

Sometimes I catch myself assessing myself in terms of patriarchal Christianity’s standards for the “heaven bound.”  If I think of a scriptural passage as ridiculous or wrong, I am immediately reminded of the scripture that says those who don’t know God won’t be able to understand the scripture.  The worst part is, I can’t even remember where this verse is or its context.  I only know that I end up feeling like the verse is talking about me: it’s telling me that I am “lost.”

I recognize that these moments of sudden self-condemnation are the reverberations of an abusive relationship to deity in a life that now works to counter this force.  We still live-with abuse, even when we are not creating or participating in it.  Therefore, I affirm this: just because I am not “heaven bound,” does not mean that I am going to hell.

I like the idea from Process theo/alogy that a part of us lives on in the consciousness of God/dess.  Maybe this means we get to glimpse all that she sees and experience creation on a new level.  It also scares me a bit too—do we lose ourselves in the complex consciousness of God/dess?  This reminds me of the anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Characters in this series lose their “AT fields” (their self-other separation) through an “Instrumentality Project.”  But when all of creation finally shares consciousness, the character Ikari Shinji (translates: refuses to believe) struggles with self-recognition.  Given the choice, he decides to reinstate “AT fields,” despite the pain of separation, opting to struggle to love in our human reality—probably, because it is something he can understand.

I also like an idea that comes from my love of Sci-Fi.  Human beings, as depicted by the series Stargate SG-1, can evolve and “ascend” to a new plane of existence, with new challenges and responsibilities… but in the series, we have not learned to do this yet, even though our ancestors have already ascended.

But when I think of Mimi and her soul, I cannot help but think of how some Kundalini yogi’s describe reincarnation—but not because her life’s incarnation as a cat was somehow less or simply a jumping point for a more advanced incarnation.  I can’t help but think of Mimi in the blue ethers because in this yogic tradition, all lives have a soul that’s on a journey.  If she is in the blue ethers, then I am still journeying with her, as her big and beautiful soul decides what it wants and needs to learn next.

I do not know where cats go; but looking past retributive and un-relational patriarchal understandings, I choose to consider those meditations on death that account for the energy and life that remains when creatures pass on.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.



Categories: animals, Christianity, Eco-systems, Ethics, Evangelicalism, Family, Goddess, Loss, Thealogy, Theology

Tags: , , , , , , ,

21 replies

  1. I have no idea whether there will be pets in heaven, but a few years ago i saw that the Evangelical Christian apologist Hank Hanegraaff leaned toward believing that pets would be resurrected, citing C. S. Lewis and Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft as advocates of that position. And while not Catholic myself, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that “the animals possess a soul” and that they are “as near to God as men are.”
    http://www.peta.org/features/pope-benedict-xvi.aspx
    http://www.equip.org/bible_answers/will-there-be-animals-in-heaven-

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    • Thank you for this information! I think this is something I can say to my mom that would be a comfort to her. I was definitely raised in a tradition that made point to say that pets/ animals do not have souls (as I talk a lot about above). Since leaving that tradition, I seldom look back to it regarding issues such as these, so I appreciate the insights.
      I particularly like that Peta is featuring Pope John Paul II’s comments (in your link above)! Thanks again,
      -Sara

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  2. From a process point of view she lives on in you and your Mom and in GodGodess. Isn’t that enough? My little poodle mix Mattakia lives on in me to this day, though she died more than 20 years ago. I am sure GoddessGod could never forget her either, she was such a sweet and loving doggie.

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    • Hi Carol,
      Your question is a good one; and perhaps, it is enough that she lives on in our memories and that of God/dess. But I have to honestly say, when I consider death in general, of others that I love as well as of Mimi, I don’t know — maybe it has to be? … looking at death in ways different than the conception I was handed so long ago is something I’ve avoided at times, and struggled with at other times. That’s why I wanted to post this blog today– to kind of push myself into the dialogue, as well as to start to mourn Mimi’s loss.
      My imagination wants to put Mimi on a different journey, because I am uncomfortable with the limitation of memory or the way that memory fades… even when it does not fade in God/dess. But, I do feel like her love lives on in my memory and own be-ing, yes; and particularly, in that of my mother.
      I am glad that Mattakia is living in you too.
      Thank you for your comment and question,
      -Sara

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  3. Do you know the folksong “The Cat Came Back”? They do come back to us, and in many ways. My first cat was named Fred, an Abyssinian-tabby mix who was like a St. Bernard in cat’s clothing. I have a photo of my 9-month-old son chewing on his ear. Fred didn’t object. I had to have him euthanized, but I still saw him strolling down the hall and sitting in his favorite window. To this day, I feel him on my bed sometimes at night. My first Heisenberg, a silver cream Maine coon, was everybody’s friend. He grew a tumor the size of a golf ball and had to euthanized. Not long after, I adopted a new Heisenberg from Maine Coon Adoptions–it was the same cat in a new body! Even our vet said so. My first Schroedinger (a calico and model for Madame Blavatsky, the cat in Secret Lives) lived with me for 21 years. Our cats are our friends, lap-warmers, and family comedians. I’m sure they have at least nine lives.

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    • I’ve not heard the song! I will have to look it up! :)
      Thank you for your comments here– they warm my heart. My sister-in-law recently mourned the loss of one doggie and soon after, had the same experience as you! Her doggie had come back in her new puppy– howbeit, in a unique way! Its definitely as though he’s still with them.
      If Mimi comes back, I wonder who she will bless or who she will be.
      Btw, I love that you named your cat Schroedinger ;)
      Thank you again,
      -Sara

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  4. Hi Sara,

    My own belief is that the Divine/Universe uses the particular traces of the ‘energy/life we were’ when we die — although I don’t feel attached to ‘how’ (I feel able to leave that to the wisdom of the Divine/Universe). Perhaps we can re-define ‘heaven’ to simply mean the realm of ‘energy that never dies’, where a Universal wisdom guides how that energy will be re-used/formed.
    Also, you might want to consider the term ‘Godde’ — meaning ‘the unified Whole of all possible faces/aspects of the Goddess and God’.

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    • Thank you for your reflections. I strongly resonate with the language “energy” that you use, and find this re-definition of a “heaven” quite interesting. I often consider guides as they affect us here, but seldom have thought of it in terms of our energy post physical death.
      Also, I’m not sure if I’ve seen the term “Godde” used, but will look it up. Thank you for the suggestion and your comments!

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  5. “If I think of a scriptural passage as ridiculous or wrong, I am immediately reminded of the scripture that says those who don’t know God won’t be able to understand the scripture. The worst part is, I can’t even remember where this verse is or its context. I only know that I end up feeling like the verse is talking about me: it’s telling me that I am “lost.””

    I think you might be referring to the parables. Especially in Mark where the disciples asks Jesus why he speaks in parables. The Scripture is

    11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

    “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
    otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’[a]”

    If that is the one you’re referring to that’s awesome, but even if you’re not it’s pretty interesting. That scripture has been on my mind a ton lately. I remember it being told as a warning to know God also. I’ve been thinking about it because I remember there being a part that says that you won’t be able to know if you’re one of the people who understands the scriptures or not. I think what I remember is my pastor’s interpretation of the scripture, which is an interpretation that I don’t think I agree with anymore. The interpretation of the sower and the seed being that, if you have “good soil” then “God’s seed” will be planted in you and fruit will grow. The follow up being that Jesus spoke in parables because only those who knew God would be able to understand him… but that’s not really what he said, and what he did say didn’t really make sense. I don’t mean to turn my comment into criticism of the bible.

    I’m a former Christian. Pets dying was one of my hugest struggles in my faith growing up. I think the fear of God or of hell was the hardest and most liberating thing for me to ever shake. It’s especially hard when you have a parent who believes you’re hell-bound. I remember the times I said I wasn’t a Christian with fear in the back of my throat, total doubt in my mind. But then I learned more about the bible, about feminism, about politics, about life and I lost that fear. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and now not knowing, without having that fear, is soo exciting instead of scary. If dinosaurs existed, and evolution is possible then of course there could be some form of a God/ess and yeah, aliens might exist too.

    Now I’m excited to say I’m not a Christian. Recently my dad pointed out that I still argue against issues with Christian morals. He was insinuating that in some way this still made me some sort of a Christian, and/or that since I was a homosexual non-Christian that meant I should no longer have any morals. However, walking away from Christianity has helped me to examine life’s morality more objectively. It also helps me to appreciate the morals I learned from growing up as a Christian, even though I don’t believe them to be specifically Christian morals. I don’t know if there’s a god and I don’t think I believe in heaven but I know there’s a good and there’s an evil. And I know that in the bible God is a being that encompasses all the characteristics of good. I feel like to love, to give, to seek knowledge, to be honest, to be passionate about life and to explore the earth is to know God, or to experience some sort of divine good that exists in nature.

    I think that maybe if we understood that living was knowing God, then dying wouldn’t be so scary. If we believed that this life was all we had then we’d be working harder to make it better. Sometimes I wonder if “inheriting the kingdom of God” just refers to what happens when you truly live. I heard once that death is the most irrational fear because once we’re dead, we feel nothing, there is no more us, there is no more fear. Unfortunately I don’t think that really calms nerves completely. I could discuss these ideas for hours so I’ll quit now before my comment is longer than your blog…

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  6. Thank you so much for your reflections and for sharing your story with me (and all of us)! I don’t think that is the verse that I can’t remember, but I really appreciate you suggesting one– its like, the verse I can’t remember is always on the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t spit it out!
    I really like the idea, “that maybe if we understood that living was knowing God, then dying wouldn’t be so scary,”… I definitely believe that God/dess drives us to work towards a “kin-dom” here that is lively and abundant… Its funny though, that my being more afraid of death has really surfaced from an experience of more life: of feeling more lively now. Actually, there were times when I was participating in a more abusive relationship with “God” that I didn’t really want to live– but now I do, and want kids, and am excited for life’s fullness– I guess, I’m still figuring out how to understand the loss involved in death now. I wonder if my fear of dying is more a fear of loss, really. … hmmmm….
    But I am taking your suggestion to heart– because I wonder how an acknowledgement of this on a deep level might or could affect me…
    Thank you again for sharing and your thoughts!
    -Sara

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  7. Firstly, I’m sorry about Mimi. My own family cat is getting along in years, and one of my biggest worries is that she’ll pass when I’m not at home.

    I grew up with no religion, but was encouraged to discover or believe in whatever I wanted to believe in. I like to think our pets have souls, but I have never believed in heaven, and so the worry that our pets won’t go there never crossed my mind. To me, and I may feel differently when my cat passes, the only thing I can do is to ensure they are returned to the Earth.

    As to the anime, Neon Genesis Evangalion, the project frightened me as well, but only because it wasn’t voluntary. In my own searching for something to believe in, I’ve come to like the idea of a singular consciousness, however to have it occur before one is ready would be frightening, as evidenced by Shinji’s rejection of it. This is why I’ve merged the ideas of the Karmic reincarnation of souls to the singular consciousness: only when one is ready does one rejoin the consciousness. I’ve long felt that this is what Enlightenment really is. However, before one is ready, that individual goes through multiple reincarnations in order to prepare for it.

    This could connect with the idea that Mimi, or any other family pet, is on its own journey. She may return in the same form or another, but what counts most is that she lived a good life in the form that you had her.

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    • Dear Brenna,
      Thank you for your condolences, I appreciate them.

      I like the point you make about the instrumentality project in Neon Genesis Evangellion as not voluntary– that is definitely true! And it arrived so violently… and it did seem in the series that its violent arrival was maybe, necessary. To join such a consciousness in peace, with choice, well, that would make the appealing parts of that reality less frightening, more accessible. I really appreciate your description of ‘singular consciousness.’
      So, I’m gathering that you’ve seen the series? That too, btw, is exciting to me, because I love it and have long desired to write about the imagery and its multiple cosmological engagements.
      Thank you for your response!
      -Sara

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  8. Hi. This was interesting to me, because in my faith tradition (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka: Mormons) we do believe that animals have spirits, will be resurrected, and have some sort of after life. I was too lazy to look up specific teachings, but a quick google search took me to a page of someone less lazy: http://lds.about.com/library/bl/faq/blanimals.htm

    I once heard someone say that heaven without his wife would not be heaven for him. I know others who could say that of their pets. Including my sister, and probably my mom. For their sakes, and your families, I hope it is true.

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  9. Hi. Thank you for a very interesting post. Just this morning I wondered if dogs just die in their sleep too. My dogs are also getting older am spend a lot of time just sleeping and I hope they will simply drift away one day. The transition from living to being dead is as mysterious as the fusion of the two cells creating a living being at the beginning of life. It is also as natural and part of the process of decay and return to the biological source of all that is. When my dogs die their lives are over but they live on as the organisms in the soil or the ashes that you spread. The basic components of each living body are in fact eternal, part of the Earth that I love, and the cosmos that surrounds me. Do I need to have a soul to be at peace with death?

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  10. Good Evening all,
    I was a bit nervous at first about writing/posting on a blog for the first time in my life, but after reading the blog and all the posts I found myself taking down “notes” on my thoughts and feelings as they came up. It was almost like a free writing excrise but not really. Anyways, I feel the best way to do it justice is to write out here the same way I did on my scrap paper. :) So here we go. (note to self: Why did I feel the need to put out a discalimer? Examine this later)

    I want to comment on the feelings of being “lost” with or without the belief in God or Goddess or any other type of reigion or spirituality. I come a very mixed up cultural and religious background, but something that I have notced is regardless of what I believed and/or was “lead” or “forced” to believe, I have always had feelings of being “lost”. Its usually connected to the question that I ask myself or am asked my others, “What are you doing with (insert almost anything here)?” Over the years I have realized that I need to try to focus on what helps to feel “unlost” or like I am actually here on this planet and not alone. Those things can be anything from dance, nature, music, love, sex, nature, good food, laughter, and my cat, amongst other things that help remind me of my “being” here. The good and the bad.

    I do know for sure and have known since a younger age that I want to be “given back” to Mother Earth, when I pass after my organs and such are put to good use to help others. But at the same time, I am selfish and want to embalm my cat or stuff her when she pases. I struggle with judgements from others whenever I mention this because they believe this to be a weird, strange, selfish, or even absurb or completly mad idea. I don’t know what it is but I’m working on it. But now that I see it written and stop and not think and just take a moment to feel more deeply in my soul, I picture taking her back up North, back home to teh rainy, mossy forest, and burying her there under a tree, where she can be given back too. This saddens me and makes me happy?content at the same time. I still don’t”want” her to go and am lucky that she is healthy and I don’t “have to” or “need to” let her go anythime soon that I know of yet. Even at fourteen years old, she still “acts” like she is four!

    On a side note, Sara I love the anime reference and especially the Stargate SG-1 reference! :) I was a huge fan back in the day, and I own the movie Stargate that helped inspire that series and Atlantis. Something else a tad random but not really that popped out at me was your brief on Kundalini yogi’s, and then connectin it to MImi. Have you heard of yoga or zen cat (they also have it for dogs)? But this is relevent to me because I just sent my mom a yoga cat journal note book a couple weeks ago, and it has a Siememse cat throughout the pages doing yoga poses! Just thought I’d end this with a cute connection!

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    • Dear Ivory,
      I like the way that you connect feelings of being “un-lost” to our immanent– really in the world, experiences. It makes me think of those actions as our way of continually grounding ourselves in our world/ home here on the Earth. Dualistic systems can make it so difficult to see, or appreciate being in-between and changeable. I think, for me, not being “lost,” used to be about having a “permanent home.” Losing that “home (aka: heaven)” can be … uncomfortable. But, as much as static or dualistic categories can feel more secure, I one had a friend tell me: ‘Sara, I think you do better when let go of [firm definitions of the divine].’ And he was right! :)
      And, btw, I LOVE STARGATE and I love making the sci-fi connection! Woohoo! I totally cried when Daniel Jackson ascended instead of dying …. anyways…

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  11. This blog entry struck me as extremely poignant and topical, especially as many humans and animals in my own life are growing old or have unfortunately recently passed away. I, too, grew up with a Christian background, albeit one that was very much rooted in double-standards and patriarchal authoritarianism. As a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major with a strong feminist consciousness, I have slowly unlearned the ways of my upbringing, and this has included what I like to refer to as a Radical Resurrection of the Eternal Feminine. Part of this project is embracing what I have been socialized to devalue or feel humiliated by (i.e., menstruation, domestic labor, vulnerability, rage, etc.). It is obviously still a work in progress, but I am excited to learn and grow from your Women, Religion, and Spirituality course. Death simultaneously intrigues and horrifies me; I no longer identify as Christian–I’m not quite sure if I ever really did?–yet I definitely grapple with my secularism because there is always the fear of “What *does* happen to people like me?” and there is always constant pressure or judgment from family members who seem to believe I’m “going through a phase” and “will eventually change my mind.” Interestingly enough, from what I have gathered in and out of the classroom, I have discovered that feminism facilitates “following the terror”–i.e., learning to live with contradiction and confusion–and this has nourished and uplifted me time and time again.

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    • Dear Farah,
      Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. The question you state, “I’m not quire sure if I ever really did [identify as a Christian],” is quite a pointed one for me. While I definitely identified that way at one point, the idea that I am not now, according to my evangelical upbringing, means that maybe, I never really was one. Of course, I was taught a very narrow definition of what it means to be a Christian— one I now reject. But its amazing the way abusive patriarchal paradigms can linger…. I too,appreciate the way my feminism and community has helped me to live with chaos and contradiction. And I am particularly excited to share theo/alogies or feminist spiritual engagements in this class that value changability, contradiction, chaos and be-ing.

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  12. Two years ago, I took a Reformation Europe class for my history minor and recall the professor jokingly say that, “None of your pets would be up in heaven!” when referencing the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church. Having grown up with fairly liberal parents and little religious influence in my life (only among other relatives and the few times my mom took me to church on holidays), I intrinsically felt something wrong with the hierarchy of some religions early on as well. It became frustrating as I got older and saw a world that often demands the “equality” of human beings (sometimes animals too!), yet leaves flawed religious structures intact.

    I had a cat named Bobo whom I had to give away over the summer. I was heartbroken. I felt so connected to him that it was like a part of myself was missing when he was gone. My cat elicited in me the same feelings as any human being would. Like Mimi, Bobo “knew love very well.” I appreciate you using Mimi as an example of the interconnectedness of all things and your mentioning that we could just be souls on a journey. Gives me something pleasant to resort to when I think about the sometimes frightening question of “where do we go?”

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  13. My condolences on your loss. I completely understand your discomfort with such questions – and even more with the answers given by some Christians. I share my life with cats, dogs, budgies and humans and after losing some of them, the anguish inevitably comes after the pain of loss: will we meet again, somehow? When my own Mimi (yes, same name as your lovely feline companion) passed away two years ago (16 years old, I wish she could have reached the ripe old age of 24), I had already been preparing myself for the moment, although that didn’t make it easier. I now know that if our energy continues, so do theirs, if theirs doesn’t, neither do ours. I really see no difference between humans and nonhumans in this respect. And for me it’s not enough to know that those who depart live in us… they need to have an independence existence, apart from my memories.
    Tons of love and thanks very much for this post.

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