the White Cat and the Monk : a retelling of the Poem 'Pangur Bán'

Jo Ellen Bogart

“More than 1,000 years ago, in the ninth century, an Irish Benedictine monk, whose name has never been uncovered, stopped in his studies to write down his thoughts. In Old Irish, in rhyming couplets, he described his companion, a white cat , who shared his small room. He found similarities in their pastimes. Each was seeking something…”

“In Irish, the word bán means white. Pangur has been said to refer to the word fuller, a person who fluffed and whitened cloth. We might think, then, that Pangur Bán was a cat with brilliantly white fur. Perhaps he even glowed in the candlelight.
- From the Author’s Note, The White Cat and the Monk.

I have always found the poem Pangur Bán special. That a few moments of vacant reflection, penned quietly in the margins of a monk’s notebook can mean so much so many centuries later is a testimony to the power of insight delivered with simplicity and cadence. The monk’s musings are nothing more than a series of afterthoughts, logs of the routine of his frugal existence shared with his cat. He forms a bond with his feline companion, and in his observation of the cat’s quest for prey, discovers that their pursuits are not very different. Both, driven by curiousity, chisel away patiently and lovingly at their work. They find meaning and contentment in their little pursuits.

Caught in the labyrinth of modern life, it becomes easy to assume an inflated sense of importance, crave adulation, and fill our days through acquisition and consumption. Reading this beautiful retelling of the poem with illustrations that embrace the sparseness of that monastic existence is a gentle reminder of the beauty inherent in ordinary things. Everything else is merely ornamentation.

Note: There have been various translations and versions of the poem over time - W.H. Auden’s version along with some others can be found here.

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