We’ve been adopted by a kitten. She’s a scrawny black creature who darted out of the bushes a few days ago, mewling and shivering, afraid of all of us but desperately hungry. Now we have a dish for food and water which the boys keep full. The kitten stays mostly in the thick bushes beneath the pine trees beside our house. I suspect she believes that she’s actually a house cat now, given that the boys seem to spend a good portion of their time in those bushes as well, building forts and getting covered in sap that makes their hair stick up at odd angles and leaves them smudged like they’ve been working in the coal mines. The kitten is still skittish, though last night she crawled into my lap as I sat outside. Not that I like her, mind you. She’s a cat, after all, and I don’t like cats.
This kitten has me thinking that maybe “the least of these” is different creatures for different people. For those of us who prefer the poor and wretched to stay on their own side of the tracks, the least of these fits the traditional profile. For those who bathe themselves in the misery of others, laboring in soup kitchens and shelters, perhaps the least of these comes disguised as the repugnant hypocritical religious type who wants nothing to do with the poor. Maybe the least of these, if you are a dedicated liberal, is Jerry Falwell. Perhaps, if you are a hard-core conservative, the least of these is Hillary Clinton. Maybe for some of us the least of these is a scraggly cat who promises only to scratch our children and tear up our running shoes before getting hit by a car and introducing the littlest ones in the family too soon to death.
There’s no telling, is there, who or what will cross your path once you start opening your door to strays, be they cats or people. I know a few people — a precious few — who seem to have spotlights over their homes, calling every broken-down drunk and homeless single mother and three-legged dog in the county to their doorsteps. I used to think it was their circumstances that were peculiar, that they just seemed to be always happening upon those in need. Now I see it’s more the case that we all cross the paths of those in need, but we’ve trained ourselves to ignore them. We wall them out, whether they are the hurting, socially awkward people in our own churches, or the desperately poor people south of our national border.
I’m the best wall-builder I know. I don’t know why a wisp of a kitten makes me think about that, any more than I know why sometimes I start humming “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” or why I sleep with the blankets drawn over my head, even when it’s hot. Maybe I think, as I watch her lap up the dish of cool water, of all the people whom I’ve denied water. Maybe I wish people were easy as kittens. Maybe I see myself in the shivery black thing that hides in the bushes and shrinks from touch.
I like to think that in letting the kitten adopt us, I’m teaching the boys to care for those in need. I want to believe they will never deny water to the thirsty. These are the things you ponder as you guide their little souls to the author and perfecter of faith, praying you don’t cause them to stumble before you’ve handed them over.
The kitten, meanwhile, is slowly taking to them. When they are sitting on the ground she prances up to them in that sideways manner of skittish creatures and pounces on their hands or shoes. For their part, the boys are learning not to practice their manly animal-trapping skills on her. Instead they make kitty noises and stroke her sap-covered fur. I think they’ll make good protectors one day. Good givers of water.