Brother Mango and eternal life

It is now almost a week since our beloved cat, Mango, was put to sleep. His illness seemed to erupt suddenly. One day, shortly after Christmas, he refused to eat and the next day the same. It was so unlike him, since he was an orange Tabby who loved a good dish of tuna. I took him to the vet and was stunned by the news: Mango had abdominal cancer and would last only another week or two. As we watched our beautiful four-legged companion become progressively weaker from lack of nutrition, struggling to get up and down the stairs, a radical life and death decision was becoming imminent. On a cold winter late Tuesday afternoon, when the sun was setting amidst a cloudy sky, we placed Mango in his carrier and tearfully drove to the City Paws Veterinary Clinic on 14th Street. The young woman doctor who assisted us was extremely sympathetic to our impending loss and gave us time to say our “good-byes” to this white and orange ball of fur who stole our hearts.

We rescued Mango a little more than eight years ago after we began to notice a small white head with two funny ears bobbing up amidst the ivy ground cover in the backyard. One day we put a small bowl of milk on the back stoop and the rest, as they say, is history. Once inside the house, Mango had found himself a real home. He was not a lap cat but a very faithful one, almost dog-like. He answered the door, welcomed people inside by rolling over, and otherwise showed up, like clockwork, for his two square meals and midday snack. He liked to sleep in the chapel and often joined us for prayer in the evening. Mango was real presence. And it is his presence that is sorely missed.

Recent trends in ecology and theology have prompted questions about non-human life such as, do animals have souls? Do animals go to heaven? Theologically, we can address these questions as intellectual ones, drawing upon various concepts to sustain our ideas. Without becoming entangled in theological discourse, I want to say quite clearly, Mango was ensouled. His soul was a core constitutive beingness, a particularity of life that was completely unique, with his own personality and mannerisms. To use the language of Duns Scotus, Mango revealed haecceitas, his own “thisness.” Scotus placed a great emphasis on the inherent dignity of each and every thing that exists. We often perceive individual things through their accidental individual characteristics (ex. size, shape, color) but Scotus calls our attention to the very “thisness” of each thing, the very being of the object which makes it itself (“this”) and not something else (not-that). Haecceitas refers to that positive dimension of every concrete and contingent being which identifies it and makes it worthy of attention; that which can be known only by direct acquaintance and not from consideration of some common nature.  

If haecceitas is that which is known by direct contact, then haecceitas best describes “soul.” Thomas Merton wrote, “God utters each living being as a partial thought of himself” – each living being gives glory to God by its unique, core constitutive being. Soul is what God first utters in every incarnation of the divine Word. Divine love pours itself out in otherness and comes into space-time existence through the life-giving Spirit. To be a creature of God is to be brought into relationship in such a way that the divine mystery is expressed in each concrete existence. Soul is the mirror of creaturely relatedness that reflects the vitality of divine Love.  

I did not have to wonder whether or not Mango had a soul; I knew it implicitly by the way he listened to me talk to him (or thinking aloud sometimes), the way he sat on my office chair waiting for me to finish writing so he could eat, or simply the way he looked at me – eye to eye – in the early morning, at the start of a new day. Soul existence is expressed in the language of love. I don’t think Mango loved me in the same way that I loved him, but his very presence touched my soul in a way that sharing life with Mango enriched all of life. In the spirit of St. Francis who called all creatures “brother” and “sister,” we called Mango “brother Mango” and included him as part of our community.

Teilhard de Chardin realized that the prime energy of the universe is love, unitive energy that unites center to center, generating more being and life. Love is not a thought or an idea, it is the transcendent dimension of life itself, that which reaches out to another, touches the other and is touched by the other. When we do not share in the fields of love; when we do not feel the concrete existence of another, we can easily abstract the other into a number, a data point, or even a joke.

When we recounted Mango’s rapid decline to a neighbor, the flippant response was, “Hah! Your first community death!” Without direct contact of core being, without love, a living soul can disappear into the vapors of intellectualism, and we wind up constructing a world of hierarchical ontology, of lesser beings over greater beings, a ladder of existence in which the human alone stands before God. An intellectualizing of love can lead to hardness of heart, a hardness that can be harder than any rock, as Bonaventure wrote.

The death of Mango has impelled me to reflect on what matters most in life, what breaks the human heart and what nurtures the deep, relational dimension of all life.

“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing,” St. Paul wrote (1 Cor 13:3).

Love makes us something; it makes us alive and draws us in to the dynamism of life, sustaining life’s flow despite many layers of sufferings and disappointments. The person who cannot love cannot suffer, for she or he is without grief, without feeling, and indifferent.

Dorothee Sölle claimed: “When a being who is free from suffering is worshipped as God, then it is possible to train oneself in patience, endurance, imperturbability and aloofness from suffering.”

If God is love then the vitality of love, even the love of a furry creature, is the dynamic presence of God.

Hans Urs von Balthasar spoke of the vulnerability of God’s love: “It is God’s going forth into the danger and the nothingness of the creation that reveals [God’s] heart to be at its origin vulnerable.” Out of the fullness of God’s self-giving love, God shares in the pain and suffering of the world. God bends low to share our tears out of a heart full of mercy and love – and we are caught up in his embrace.

Divine love bending low is what gives the haecceitas of every creature a mark of eternal endurance. Every creature is born out of the love of God, sustained in love and transformed in love. Every sparrow that falls to the ground is known and loved by God (cf. Mt 10:29); the Spirit of God is present in love to each creature here and now so that all creaturely life shares in cosmic communion. Bonaventure said that Christ has something in common with all creatures and all things are transformed in Christ. Heaven is where all tears and sufferings are wiped away, where each life is opened to the unlimited, divine creative love and a cosmic communion of all created life is realized in the fullness of Christ.

As I reflect on Mango’s death, his haecceitas and the mystery of love, I have no doubt that his core love-energy will endure. His life has been inscribed on mine; the memory of his life is entangled with my own. My heart grieves for my little brother, my faithful companion, but I believe we are intertwined forever and shall be reunited in God’s eternal embrace.

[Ilia Delio, OSF, a Sister of St. Francis of Washington, D.C., is Haub Director of Catholic Studies and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. Her recent publications include From Teilhard to Omega: Cocreating an Unfinished Universe and The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love.]