pangur bán and the nameless monk

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 min­utes.

EVERYBODY KNOWS what a co­in­ci­dence is: “The oc­cur­rence of events that happen at the same time by ac­ci­dent but seem to have some connection”—at least ac­cording to Merriam-Webster. But of course it’s not that simple: ‘real’ co­in­ci­dences not only catch our at­ten­tion, they res­onate with us.

Real co­in­ci­dences seem to ‘mean some­thing,’ even if that meaning is just be­yond our ken.

Also, co­in­ci­dences seem to be unique—they feel special.

They feel woowoowy.


If you want to con­cen­trate deeply on some problem, and es­pe­cially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should ac­quire a cat.


They feel like God/Grommett or the Universe/Void are trying to call us out of our revery and pay attention!

They feel like they’ve never hap­pened before . . .

“Though ‘What are the odds?’ is pretty much the catch­phrase of co­in­ci­dences, a co­in­ci­dence is not just some­thing that was un­likely to happen. The over­stuffed crate la­beled co­in­ci­dences is packed with an amazing va­riety of ex­pe­ri­ences, and yet some­thing more than rarity com­pels us to group them together.

They have a sim­ilar tex­ture, a feeling that the fabric of life has rip­pled. The ques­tion is where this feeling comes from, why we no­tice cer­tain ways the threads of our lives col­lide, and ig­nore others.” (The At­lantic)

As much as I would like to ex­plore this deeper, I’m not going to—or I would end up dis­cussing the many co­in­ci­dences re­quired to ac­cept the of­fi­cial con­spiracy theory re­garding 9/11 and this is not the place for that either.


Hand Improbability

“Ex­tremely im­prob­able events are com­mon­place,” as sta­tis­ti­cian David J. Hand states in The Im­prob­a­bility Prin­ciple. Hand ar­gues that ex­tra­or­di­narily ‘rare’ events rally aren’t all that rare—that most of them are, in fact, rather com­mon­place. He also be­lieves that each of us should all ex­pect a mir­acle a month—for the rest of our du­ra­tion in this uni­verse. 1

A simpler coincidence

I have a much sim­pler, kindler, gen­tler co­in­ci­dence to ad­dress: last month I posted a piece ti­tled “Happy Birthday, Mary Alice Umperdinker” as a tribute to my sis­ter’s day of birth cel­e­bra­tion. That title was tem­po­rary and sched­uled for a change, and yes­terday I made that change: I copied the en­tire con­tents of the birthday post and re­pub­lished it as “Philo­soph­ical Mutts And Zen Master Cats.”

It is a re­view of a book that il­lus­trated the re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and his pets—specifically how dogs and cats ground our wan­dering “selfs” and thereby guard our “being.”

That done, I went about opening up some emails that had been sit­ting idle for a week. Among them was a re­cent edi­tion of the Brain Pick­ings newsletter, whose main ar­ticle was “The White Cat and the Monk: A Lovely 9th-Cen­tury Ode to the Joy of Un­com­pet­i­tive Pur­pose­ful­ness, Newly Il­lus­trated” by Maria Popova.

The ar­ticle in­cluded a sub-heading: “A won­derful coun­ter­point to our cul­ture of com­pet­i­tive self-comparison, re­minding us that we can choose to am­plify each other’s ac­com­plish­ments be­cause there is, after all, enough to go around.”

Yes, in­deedy! thought I.

I did not know the story of the monk and the cat but my in­terest was piqued by the in­tro­duc­tory para­graph of Popova, a quote by Muriel Spark: “If you want to con­cen­trate deeply on some problem, and es­pe­cially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should ac­quire a cat.”


Pangur WhiteCat cover 600

Need­less to say, the re­view is joy­ously pos­i­tive and if you want to read it, click on over to Brain Pick­ings and read it! Here is a de­scrip­tion of the story from Popova:

“Long be­fore the cat be­came a modern lit­erary muse, a monk whose iden­tity re­mains a mys­tery im­mor­tal­ized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Some­time in the ninth cen­tury, some­where in present-day southern Ger­many, this soli­tary scholar penned a beau­tiful short poem in Old Irish, ti­tled Pangur Bán.

[It is] an ode to the par­allel plea­sures of man and fe­line as one pur­sues knowl­edge and the other prey, and to how their quiet com­pan­ion­ship am­pli­fies their re­spec­tive joys.

The poem has been trans­lated and adapted many times over the cen­turies (per­haps most fa­mously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more de­light­fully than in The White Cat And The Monk by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and il­lus­trator Sydney Smith.” (Maria Popova) 2

For this ar­ticle, I present four pages from the book. (Click on any of the im­ages to en­large them.) The Brain Pick­ings’ re­view in­cludes eleven other il­lus­tra­tions of the book along with the six taken from the book that I have in­cluded here. (Not counting the cover).

The White Cat And The Monk was pub­lished ear­lier this year by Ground­wood Books. The publisher’s cover price is $18.95 but is cur­rently avail­able on Amazon with a 33% dis­count and used-but-like-new copies are even less. 3




Pangur Bán by Flower

This is the Eng­lish ver­sion of the poem Pangur Bán as trans­lated by Eng­lish poet and scholar Robin Flower (1881–1946). Flower was one of the most im­por­tant trans­la­tors of the old Irish lan­guage into modern Eng­lish; among the Irish, he was known as Bláithín, or Little Flower.

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
En­ter­tain­ment to our mind.

Of­ten­times a mouse will stray
In the hero Pan­gur’s way;
Of­ten­times my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowl­edge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what glad­ness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Prac­tice every day has made
Pangur per­fect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning dark­ness into light.



whitecatandthemonk 1 700

Pangur Bán by Auden

Here is a dra­mat­i­cally con­densed ver­sion by Eng­lish poet Wystan Hugh Auden. It is re­ferred to by Maria Popova above as per­haps the most fa­mous version:

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone to­gether, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You re­joice, when your claws en­trap a mouse;
I re­joice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, nei­ther hin­ders the other;
Thus we live ever without te­dium and envy. 4



1   I have dark­ened the white-on-white cover image of the book so that the de­sign is read­able. Mein Gott but who would buy a book with such a ghastly cover?

2   The pub­lish­er’s blurb de­scribes the book this way: “A monk leads a simple life. He studies his books late into the evening and searches for truth in their pages. His cat, Pangur, leads a simple life, too, chasing prey in the dark­ness. As night turns to dawn, Pangur leads his com­panion to the truth he has been seeking.

The White Cat and the Monk is a retelling of the classic Old Irish poem Pangur Bán. With Jo Ellen Bogart’s simple and el­e­gant nar­ra­tion and Sydney’s Smith’s clas­si­cally in­spired im­ages, this con­tem­pla­tive story pays tribute to the wisdom of an­i­mals and the won­ders of the nat­ural world.”

3   “Ground­wood Books is an in­de­pen­dent Cana­dian chil­dren’s pub­lisher based in Toronto. Our au­thors and il­lus­tra­tors are highly ac­claimed both in Canada and in­ter­na­tion­ally, and our books are loved by chil­dren around the world. We look for books that are un­usual; we are not afraid of books that are dif­fi­cult or po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial; and we are par­tic­u­larly com­mitted to pub­lishing books for and about chil­dren whose ex­pe­ri­ences of the world are under-represented elsewhere.”

4   “[The Auden ver­sion] ver­sion catches the eye for sev­eral rea­sons. It in­cludes the ac­tual meaning of the cat’s name, White Fuller, i.e the cat has a white woolly coat. Auden is the only trans­lator I can find to use the word ‘book’ it­self as the pro­nounced ob­ject of the poet-scholar’s study.

In its brevity, Auden’s ver­sion at­tempts to sum­marise the re­flec­tive re­la­tion­ship in the final line as one ‘without te­dium or envy,’ an idea never stated ex­plic­itly any­where in the orig­inal, but im­plied throughout. This is Auden’s own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the poem it­self and is telling in terms of his eth­ical ideas about the cre­ative act.” (Carmelite Li­brary)

Gadji_behindrock copy

Here is a photo of Gadji Booboo main­taining a con­stant vig­i­lance guarding our being from be­hind a rock, her at­ten­tion on our house and any pos­sible in­ter­lopers. As I type this, she is lying on my left hand, pro­tecting it from un­seen forces—possibly calling on the Hoary Hosts of Hog­goth to fend off gram­mat­ical in­ter­fer­ence from the Dread Dor­mammu (and re­quiring me to type this cap­tion with one hand).

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