You might notice that people around you are in clashing shades of green, pinching priests who forgot a green accessory, because they are all so focused on Saint Patrick. Today, however, we are spending some time with another saint we celebrate on March 17—Saint Gertrude of Nivelles. We’re trading snake driving for cat herding as we celebrate this optional feast on the Lesser Feasts and Fasts calendar. Yes, that’s right, I said we are trading snakes for cats, as Saint Gertrude is known as the patron saint of cats! I would know, as I have my very own St. Gertrude (affectionately known to our family as Gigi), a Siamese and British Shorthair mix.
Saint Gertude (the saint, not my cat) is known as the patron saint of cats, but that attribution is a recent designation (possibly as recent as the 1980s) born out of the fact that she was believed to be a protector against rats and mice. This part of her hagiography finds its origin during a tragedy when that was a sought-after shield—the Black Plague.
Saint Gertrude is also known for being open-hearted and extremely charitable, caring for orphans, widows, pilgrims, and others. She is also a patron saint of those with mental illness. This is where I find her association with cats most personal to me and most relatable to my very own St. Gigi. My cats have been, without question, some of the most loving and open-hearted relationships in my life as I have navigated my own mental illness, which for me is marked by anxiety and depression. Pets have a way of loving us even when we struggle to love ourselves; my cats still purr when they see me, even after I’ve done something that has me reeling in a shame hole.
My St. Gigi can be, at times, not only loving, but insistently loving, ignoring the ways I’ve declined the invitation to snuggle, maneuvering past my outstretched hand—stretched to say “not now”—such that, like a magician, she has formed a kitten-ball in my lap. But this insistence is, of course, best understood through feline head butting, when cats come up to you and mercilessly bump their heads into you as if to say, “I am going to love you whether you like it or not. Also, I am hungry and you have opposable thumbs.”
Recently, I was staring into my laptop, anxious about an upcoming move, gently pushing St. Gigi back with one hand while I tried to click something on my MacBook with the other. I swear, I blinked and—like the mystical and magical stories of the saints that we read, the stories that feel more like fantasy than church history—Gigi suddenly appeared in my lap, looking up at me purring, as if to say, “Thank you for the invitation.” I could not help but to simply burst into laughter, as she just stared up at me with what I can only describe as a giggly smile.
St. Gigi’s magic is maybe not worthy of the folklore in literature classes, or for the day when we inevitably try to re-release Harry Potter, but her presence of open-heartedness and love toward the ill is magic, nonetheless. It is nothing short of saintly magic to feel the anxiety you’ve pent up for hours (born out of circumstances you can’t control, fed by your insistence that you have power that belongs to only God) slip away in the presence of a trusted, furry companion—your guardian against the proverbial rats and mice of pain that leave your brain and heart feeling infected.
May you, in the spirit of this day when we celebrate Saint Gertrude, be met with open-heartedness and compassion toward your illness in mind, body, and soul, and may you show others that same open-heartedness and care. May we, as a people, be empowered by her witness to defend others from the evils of the world that threaten any creatures of God.