Animal Spirituality

I had little scientific basis for my claims.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have evidence, but it was more one of those “if you see something say something” kinds of scenarios.  I have been claiming for many years that animals experience some kind of spirituality.  My evidence was drawn from disparate scientific materials I’d read, along with ancient religions.  Egyptians believed baboons worshiped the sun.  Chimpanzees make threatening gestures toward the sky during thunderstorms.  Penguins grieve.  Human spirituality, it seems to me, is part of our kinship with other living creatures.  Then I found an article by none other than Marc Bekoff titled “We’re Not the Only Animals Who Feel Grief and Spirituality,” in no less a prestigious place than Psychology Today.  Bekoff, some of whose books I’ve reported on here, has studied animal emotions professionally.

Our ideas of human exceptionality, it seems to me, often get us into trouble.  Arrogance is perhaps the most dangerous of psychological states.  When we see ourselves as part of a continuum, and realize that it can go on beyond us—yes, there are likely greater intelligences—humility should be an expected response.  Those who are arrogant frequently experience their comeuppance, even if they have to get elected to high office for it to happen.  We share emotions with our fellow creatures, and, now according to at least one expert, we share spirituality.  What is spirituality?  It seems to be an awareness that the body isn’t everything.  In my lexicon it’s listed there right with consciousness, mind, and soul.  We know it because we feel it.

The interconnectedness of the world, and beyond, is something many want to take exception from.  Looking around, such folks say, “Hey, we’re different than all of this.”  Yes and no.  We’re different, but that makes us no less a part of it.  Nature is our matrix.  We build fancy houses, but so do bower birds, and they do it without benefit of opposable thumbs, or even hands.  Of late we seem reluctant to admit that even human beings have spirituality.  That doesn’t stop us from feeling it, however.  I’m glad that others see it in the animal realm also.  Anyone who’s “owned” a dog knows what it’s like to receive worship.  We’ve selectively bred these wolves to adore us.  Is it so much of a stretch, then, to suppose that other animals also feel a sense of admiration for what’s beyond themselves?  Only the most arrogant wouldn’t pause to consider it.


Learning Lingo

Languages are more than ways of communicating.  They are ways of thinking.  I figured that out with German, the first foreign language I studied.  It became even more evident with Greek and undeniable with Hebrew.  Beyond that, Ugaritic and other Semitic languages confirmed my suspicion.  To unlock a language is to open up a new way of thinking about things.  (This is one reason Trump’s isolationism was so dangerous.)  Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren, is an overview of twenty different ways of thinking.  The book picks a prominent feature of the twenty most-spoken languages in the world.  Apart from the list of what they are (in order of appearance: Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, and English) there are many other surprises.

Many of these languages—perhaps all—are reflections of history.  The histories often include intentional divisions between people.  “They are not like us” thinking.  Usually on the part of elites and rulers.  The common person is quick to pick up the language of neighbors but those, like Trump, who hate differences, tend to rise to the top.  Quite apart from that, the features of these various languages show us the many ways people have learned to convey their thoughts.  Some tongues are super, even hyper-polite.  Some are reserved for women.  Some represent an entire continent, but notice the sheer number of Asian languages on this list.  Dorren notes at one point that having a unifying Scripture, such as the Bible, often codifies a language.  Religion is part of the human way of thinking.

Nowhere is this more obvious in the case of those languages that are considered divine.  Arabic, as many people know, is considered the only appropriate language in which to read the Qur’an.  Since languages are ways of thinking, that makes perfect sense.  What really struck me the most, however, was the case of Tamil.  A language of south India (many of these languages are spoken in India), Tamil is considered not only a divine language, but some adherents make it into an actual deity.  In a polytheistic culture there’s no problem with adding another god.  The idea that a language can be an actual divinity, however, shows once again how important it is that we try to understand one another rather than asserting one people is superior to another.  The book is appropriately titled Babel, and to properly understand that it is probably necessary to learn Hebrew.


Year Book

I have to confess that I’ve had trouble letting go of the holidays this year.  Actually, that’s kind of normal.  The let down from “sacred time” (however that may be understood) to “ordinary time” is often a rough transition.  Anthony Aveni discusses this, among other things, in his short study, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays.  Not a deep history, but a thoughtful consideration of the seasons of our celebrations, the book informs and entertains.  There are surprisingly few books that cover the holidays, despite their centrality to modern life.  What person in business doesn’t look forward to the third quarter?  Who doesn’t anticipate a little time off work, punctuated throughout the year?  Aveni is one of the few general purpose books that you can go to for background on several seasonal holidays.

Aveni is somewhat of a polymath, being both an astronomer and an anthropologist.  He clearly has a special interest in first nations studies as well, as The Book of the Year occasionally dips into the rituals of Latin America.  A number of holiday traditions are explored here, leaving the reader wanting more.  I find the question of why we celebrate the way that we do a fascinating one.  Many of our customs have unexpected roots and many of them were transformed along the way by the church.  An unusually high number boast recent developments that we tend to think of as foundational to their essence.  The holidays as we grew up with them likely stay in our minds as the default way they should be.  Interestingly, bringing them into continuity with ancient customs reveals a steady evolution, mostly from sacred to commercial.

Since I wrote a book (unpublished) about the holidays several years ago (and have read a number of the same), I’ve always dug into books like this whenever I can find them.  Holidays are the heartbeat of the year.  Many of us look for something to help pace us in the reckless spinning vortex that we call capitalism.  Our lives are all interconnected, and the holidays also have subtle intricacies as well.  As they wind down, they tend to point both back to the previous red-letter day and forward to the next one.  Aveni doesn’t cover political holidays very much.  He does mention Martin Luther King Day, the next federally recognized day of rest.  As Aveni points out, the end of the Christmas season can stretch as far as Candlemas, so I guess we still have a few weeks to go before it’s all officially over, in sacred time.


Manifest Duty

As slaves to Mammon our celebrations are frequently curtailed.  In agricultural culture, winter was a time when fields couldn’t be cultivated (at least in northern climes) and thus the twelve days of Christmas could be relaxed without much consequence.  The history of this holiday complex is fascinating, and while many of us have been back to work for a few days already, today, Epiphany, is the “official” end of the season.  Twelfth Night, in some traditions yesterday and in others today, was a day of celebration, the twelfth day of Christmas.  Ancient pre-Christmas holidays such as Saturnalia lasted several days.  Today’s business world frequently gives a Scrooge-like single day off and many of us spend our hard-earned vacation days to fill out the week that is inevitably slow at work otherwise.

In Christianity, until recent times, Epiphany was a bigger holiday than Christmas.  Of the two it was the original day for gift-giving,  That makes sense in the commemoration of the visit of the magi that Epiphany represents.  They were the first givers of Christmas gifts.  Since Jesus was Jewish the idea of a manifestation, or epiphany, to the gentiles became an important marker.  Magi are styled as Zoroastrians from Persia.  The story occurs only in the gospel of Matthew and clearly wasn’t intended to coincide with the arrival of shepherds and angels.  As the Epiphany story grew to include Christmas it also encompassed many of the shadowy events of Jesus’ early years.  His questioning of the teachers in the temple was a kind of epiphany, as was his baptism.  All these things came together during a fallow time and were sufficient reason to take it easy for twelve days between the end of December and the beginning of January.

Some of our employers have expressed surprise that things continue to run fairly smoothly with workers reporting remotely.  These same people also seem surprised that people come back from several days off refreshed.  I suspect that they are also astonished at how well their computers work after being rebooted.  Time off is sacred time.  Whether we dress it up with elaborate stories of kings, wise men, sages, or magicians traveling great distances to see a baby in a foreign nation or whether we make it the day when one cousin baptized another, Epiphany grew into a major feast in medieval times.  Today it’s just another work day.  And with it the end of another holiday season will need to last us until near the end of yet another year.


Non-sacred Time

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the holiday season (although, according to its origins it’s not over yet!).  While the church still recognizes a couple more days until Epiphany—which until recent times was more important than Christmas—the secular “work world” is back to usual after New Year’s Day.  2021 started with a bonus, giving us a long weekend as well.  In any case, getting back to normal time is always a difficult transition.  For those of us who spent many years in academia, the holidays began about mid-December, and in my case, stretched fairly well into January.  Now, using a combination of vacation days and floating holidays, I’m able to set up a mini semester break of a couple of weeks.  Although I have trouble sleeping in, I was still able to spend the days with family and not worrying about business.

There is a difference in the quality of time off.  Some, I suspect, are eager to get back to work.  For me this first Monday back is difficult to face.  Some would argue that the difference in time quality is merely a subjective projection.  There is nothing scientifically changed from the last two weeks to the reality of the first Monday back.  This is one of those places where religion steps in as the more understanding boss (such instances are rare, so appreciate them while you can!).  Sacred time is taken very seriously by any number of religious traditions.  Even our beloved weekends have a basis in religious observance.  Holidays, even in a secular setting, are opportunities to recharge.  For me the spring semester was something I never dreaded.  We’ve allowed capitalism to take precedence over sacred time.

The problem with ordinary time is its mundanity.  Looking back, I’d been anticipating the holiday season with its time off for well over a month.  A full twelfth of the year.  To help with the transition, with my family I spent some weekend time cobbling together a personalized Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.  Knowing I have good books in the future helps immensely, although I have much less time to read when work takes up much of my waking time.  Even that new start can’t be scientifically measured.  It’s something unique to human minds.  January begins with endings.  No matter how difficult 2020 may have been, at least it ended with a relaxing couple of weeks with family and no pressures to sit in front of a computer screen for over nine hours a day.  There will be more holidays ahead, and each one of them will be sacred time.


Thoughts of Christmas

Christmas, in merry old England, used to be the day when bills were due.  There are vestiges of that still.  Just this past week, when my mind was on upcoming celebrations and family time, companies continue to email me their bills, reminding me that all celebrations are but temporary.  Money’s the real thing, and it takes no holidays.  While the holiday season may be subdued for some due to lack of travel, for me any day that I don’t need to leave the house is a good one.  We had a pretty nasty patch of weather on Christmas Eve, and one might be tempted to say that the atmospheric conditions outside are frightful.  There’s a coziness about staying indoors around the holidays.  Besides, there’s a pandemic out there too.

We’ve got a quiet day planned at home with our usual traditions.  We added a Yule log to our celebrations this year—much of what we now recognize as Christmas derived from the teutonic Yule.  Otherwise, we are quiet people with rather simple tastes.  Even if we can’t afford much, the holidays mean time off work.  Time for those close to us without constantly having to auto-correct back to earning money at work.  I frequently reflect on how distorted capitalism has made us.  Our European colleagues have far more time off work than Americans do.  They don’t seem to suffer for it.  There’s not much light outside anyway, so why not hunker down a while?  Reflect on what’s really important?

First thing this morning, after watering the tree, I fired up the computer to write a few words before the festivities began.  The first two emails in my inbox were, as if on cue, bills.  Computers have no idea this is a holiday, and our neighbor’s early morning car announcing its lock secured tells me that he’s just getting home from work.  The fiction that we all have today off, as time home with family, plays out every year.  Holidays are often the privilege of the affluent, which is why, I suppose, Saturnalia was marked by a reversal of roles for several days.  Rome wasn’t exactly a friendly empire, but it wasn’t a capitalist one either.  This Christmas I’m hoping that those who have to work today—healthcare workers, those who keep stores open for last-minute supplies, emergency workers of all kinds—will have adequate time for peace coming to them.  Even non-essential work can be wearying.  Let’s celebrate, thankful that we’ve survived these last few years at all.  The bills will wait until tomorrow.


Truly Exceptional?

Exceptionalism seems to be in the air these days.  Most recently it’s become a plank in the Republican platform—America is God’s own chosen nation (despite what the Bible actually says).  It’s also been a trait of nearly all human endeavors.  Human exceptionalism, that is.  The idea, whether admitted or not, is based on the Bible.  Even those bespectacled scientists who make no time for religion insist that humans are different from other animals.  Why?  The Bible tells them so.  Evolution certainly doesn’t.  And so we go about thinking how superior we are to other lifeforms.  And not only that, but to other humans in other geographical locations.  It seems Homo sapiens sapiens could use an ego check every now and again.

Not only does our sense of superiority go downward over the animals, it also reaches to the very boundaries of this infinite but expanding universe.  We are alone, scientists declare.  The only intelligent life in a universe far beyond the ability of the human brain to comprehend.  There can’t be any alien visitations with (laughably) superior beings crawling out of their flying saucers.  No, we were the best that evolution could do.  And we elected Donald Trump to be our president four years ago.  What’s that about an ego check?  Especially since we’ve learned that there is water on the moon.  Almost certainly there was once liquid water on Mars.  There may even be traces of life in the atmosphere of Venus (although the earthly jury is still out on that one).  Only humans can make that declaration.

Photo credit: NASA

I have to wonder at this arrogance that comes along with consciousness.  Do we believe we’re the best simply because we learned to apply the laws of rationality to our gray matter?  Back when I was a seminarian the word “pantheism” was rather like a swear.  To suggest a universal connectivity (literally) was an offense against the deity portrayed in the Bible.  (I would hope that a God that big would encourage us to understand the implications of a universe so large.)  We humans have our good points, of course.  I love people and their foibles.  Were we not so dangerous we might even look cute in the cosmic eyes above, as well as the inferior eyes of our pets.  Exceptionalism, it seems to me, ought to be the dirty word.  It seems far more human and humane to throw the gates open wide and consider the possibilities.  I love people, but if we’re the best there is, the universe is in serious trouble.


Turning Point

As the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd gears up for another Yuletide season, its capitalistic brother wonders about how good Christians will shop during a pandemic.  We’re not great materialists in my house, and our holiday spending tends to be modest.  Even so, the stocking stuffer is the kind of thing you find while browsing in stores.  I don’t feel comfortable indoors with strangers now.  Apart from groceries and hardware I haven’t been in any kind of store for at least a month now.  How to get ideas for those little, often inconsequential gifts that are demanded by homage to Saint Nicholas?  The holiday season is a wonderful amalgamation of differing traditions that should, in a perfect world, suggest openness to all and inclusivity.  At least this year we have that to look forward to.

Inclusivity is a gift worth giving.  Many of us are weary of the privileged “angry white man” who has held control of just about everything for the past several centuries but is still never satisfied.  The holidays around the winter solstice—itself the marker of days finally beginning to lengthen again—should be a symbol of the many traditions that make Christmas what it is.  There is no one “pure” idea of what this season represents (beyond shopping) because people all over have traditionally welcomed the return of light after many days of darkness.  Sometimes that darkness of exclusivity can last for years.  Now that we are beginning to spy a sliver a light on a distant horizon perhaps we can see enough to correct the error of our ways.  Perhaps.

That still doesn’t solve the dilemma of pestilence-filled stores where people want to huddle inside because it’s cold out there.  I can’t seem to recall where they hung the stockings in the manger, but surely they must’ve been there.  It’s how to fill them that’s the issue.  Our world has become so virtual.  How do you put streaming into a sock?  How do you stuff that cuddly subscription service into hosiery?  In a pandemic we’re reaping the fruits planted by a technologically-based society.  The art of browsing hasn’t been electronically replicated.  It’s the moment of inspiration in that curiosity shop that seems to be missing this year.  Most of us, I suppose, would be pleased to find a vaccine in our carefully hung stocking.  At least a government that takes the threat seriously will be something to anticipate.  Just a little longer, and the light will be coming.


Mere Christianities

While reading about the experience of an American Catholic who’d gone to Rome (check out this post), something in particular struck me.  Although the setting was in the 1960s, the author noted a truth that is still with us: Americans take religion much more seriously than do their parent bodies overseas.  This may be true elsewhere in the world as well, but those of us in this former frontier know that American isolation means religion developed here in a way different from much of the rest of the world.  To get a grip on that we need to realize that Christianities in America are largely of European origin.  That’s important because the roots of these traditions lie elsewhere and the question of how they measure up against the religion started by a Galilean peasant bears close scrutiny.

First of all, if we take what we can gather from the Gospels the things that Jesus might’ve actually said, we find contradictions.  This isn’t unusual.  Nobody was writing things down as he said them and Jesus probably taught off the cuff (not the maniple).  These traditions were recalled a couple decades after the crucifixion.  Try remembering exactly what you said just a year ago and you’ll get a sense of the difficulties.  Paul of Tarsus took this teaching in a new direction, both in doctrinal and physical senses.  Christianity became a European religion.  Fast forward by a few centuries and we find its much-changed Protestant forms inspiring people to go look for a place to practice it their own way.  Politics never follows far behind religion and so the American Indians became victims of those seeking religious freedom by fleeing from home.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, much of the fire that had led to sparks flying over here had been banked.  The Enlightenment and its application to these various traditions had shown that literal interpretations were historically unlikely.  Indeed, Americans trained on the frontiers by clergy with little education had taken Christianities in entirely new directions.  Literalism was often assumed, although its expressions varied wisely.  When you look closely at how religions develop you learn that the rank and file believer is out of touch with “official doctrine” and those who specialize in it find they can’t course correct without looking hypocritical.  The book I was reading had Vatican officials complaining Americans too Catholicism too literally.  It seems this is the fate of any faith that allows itself to become a mere religion.

Photo credit: Mapham J (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, via Wikimedia Commons


Money Days

Those of us who live in caves (figuratively) have trouble filling all this in.  Not a great fan of capitalism, I find “Black Friday” a troubling add-on to the holiday schedule.  Now I’ve lost track of all the expanding special days: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday.  Must we celebrate capitalism so much?  I have no problem with non-Christian holidays, but when money becomes the sole basis for special days I have to wonder.  Mammon is a deity of which we’d been warned a couple of millennia ago.  The real irony is that it’s the very religion that posted that warning that now seems most closely related to the capitalistic system that perpetuates its worship.  It wouldn’t be such an issue except that the religion that has bought into the system so readily is the one that is putatively based on its condemnation.

Irony is something for which historians are always on the lookout.  Perhaps this is especially so among historians of religion.  Religion has come to denote a codification of our highest ideals and aspirations.  When did money attained such spiritual status?  It seems that Christianity was the vehicle.  Although it’s most obvious in American politics, the relationship goes back to the whole colonial enterprise.  Once Christianity became an imperial religion under Constantine, its focus began to shift.  Even those splinter groups that started off with higher ideals soon came under the overarching umbrella of the capitalistic system sprung from the teachings of a poor carpenter from Nazareth.  And so we find ourselves amid a creeping array of money-based holidays that provide the secular answer to Advent.

Of course, Advent itself became a season of anticipating the commercialized holiday of Christmas.  And here as the calendar year winds down the financial year hopes for a shot in the arm because economy is the doctrine of this new religious thinking.  And the irony is that the system is set up so those who already have too much get more while those who don’t have enough end up with even less.  Sounds biblical, no?  Ever since my ouster from academia, I’ve had to cash in vacation days to make myself a little semester break.  A body gets used to a certain schedule, and those rhythms are difficult to shake.  As we work our way through pandemic-laced spending holidays I’ve got my eyes on a bit of time off from my small part in supporting this all-consuming machine.  


No Dolls Required

Moving is a never-ending process.  We’ve had some new neighbors move in next door over the past couple of weeks.  Seeing their boxes reminded me that we have many we still haven’t unpacked and sorted after over two years.  (That’s what attics are for.)  One of the novelties I found while doing so recently was one of those bookstore impulse buys at the checkout counter, “Voodoo Lou’s Office Voodoo Kit.”  This was actually a joke gift given to my wife some years ago.  In all probability it was me that insisted we not throw it out.  Perhaps I was saving it as an object lesson.  One of the religions I very briefly discuss in Nightmares with the Bible is Vodun.  This African diasporan religion is frequently demonized as “voodoo” because of its supernatural beliefs.

Many religions, of course, harbor supernatural beliefs.  The ballots are still being counted on whether such things exist because we can never wrestle them into the laboratory to measure them with instruments designed for physical applications only.  Vodun isn’t the source of evil perpetrated by the cheap (and often exploited by horror) “voodoo doll” narratives.  It is a complex blend of traditional African religions brought into forceful contact with Roman Catholicism.  We shouldn’t treat it as exotic, nor should it be a codeword for evil.  Like most religions vodun is an attempt to navigate the world of the gods and spirits that people everywhere believe in, even if they can’t be quantified.  The religion was mysterious when first noticed by travelers from the United States and it quickly became fodder for horror films.

We tend to judge religions just because they’re different.  One of the more insidious aspects of global religions is that they create the illusion among their believers that they are the “only true religion.”  Those who study religion professionally know that all religions are “syncretistic.”  There is no such thing as a “pure” form of any religion.  Just try getting a Calvinist and Catholic to come to a common understanding of what Christianity is.  Both want to claim their version as the true one.  Religions, however, have developed as ways for people to cope with the world as they’ve experienced it.  Just because fewer people believe one way we can’t assume their religion is inferior.  Vodun, in which I’m no expert, is far more complex and sophisticated as might be suggested by and impulse buy for frustrated office workers.  Still, it works as an object lesson.


At Sea?

Brian Fagan is a name I’ve long known.  Not exactly the consummate stylist, he is a very prolific archaeologist and anthropologist.  I’ve read a few of his books.  Recently my wife and I read his Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans (you see what I mean about style?).  Divided into different regions of the world, the book explores early boat-craft, sketching how people without our technology navigated oceans, often reaching remote locations.  What interests me is when anthropologists make statements about ancient religions, often before the advent of writing among the peoples studied.  No doubt such peoples realized the dangers of open water—open water is still dangerous with all our tech.  It is reasonable to assume their response was religious.  What exactly it was, we don’t know.

The one that really caught my attention was on the Maya.  Coastal Mayans valued the spondylus, or spiny oyster.  This particular mollusk is seasonally toxic—itself an interesting phenomenon—that becomes a hallucinogen.  Hallucinogens have frequently been associated with religion for indigenous peoples.  If archaeology is to be believed, even temples in ancient Israel burned cannabis, so who’s to judge?  Fagan writes that this practice led to shamanistic trances, and this seems likely.  He goes on to suggest that the spondylus was thus a gateway to the supernatural world.  Of course, in the biblical world shellfish were a forbidden food.

While Fagan likes to reminisce about his own past sailing, and likes to describe boats in detail, and show off his nautical language skills, I think about the religious aspect of the great waters.  We still have only a small understanding of the oceans that cover most of our planet.  We can fly over them these days, and miss the intensity of being where no land is in sight.  It can be a transcendent experience, I’m sure.  I’ve seldom been that far from land.  On a ship bound for the Orkney Islands from John O’Groats we were on the North Sea beyond the sight of shore, if I remember correctly.  Although I can’t recall how long the voyage took, I can imagine the feeling of nerves aching for a sight of coastline.  Even with minke whales off the starboard bow, I knew my feet belonged on terra firma.  It’s more comfortable to read about the gods of the ocean in books like Beyond the Blue Horizon.  And when I’m out to sea, I always pray the mariners know what they’re doing.  


Bible Lesson

I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue.  In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition.  Of the Bible.  As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible.  No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text.  In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect.  Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action.  I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.

Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.).  Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have.  Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood.  I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things.  There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom.  Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.

Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred.  Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there.  It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity.  There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original.  The point is we don’t have the original.  There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning).  Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise.  That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it.  Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text.  Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.


The Halloween

Halloween seems especially portentous this year.  Some of us thrive in this introduction to what was a major set of Christian holidays that encompassed many pagan traditions.  The lynchpin was All Saints Day (All Hallows), which in good Christian fashion upheld its favorite sons (and a few daughters) to remind the rest of us what a sorry lot of humanity we are.  Followed by the more democratic All Souls Day where the vestments went from white to black, it was preceded by Halloween.  Through mostly Celtic additions from Samhain, the first of the three days became decidedly spooky and came to be a commercial holiday.  There’s more to it than that, of course, but we all know Halloween.

This year a number of other phenomena are converging on today.  Not only is it a full moon, but a famed blue moon—the second full moon this month.  It feel like something could happen.  And if that weren’t exciting enough the powers that be have decided to end Daylight Saving Time tonight (well, technically tomorrow morning).  And Tuesday is the most importation election day in the history of our nation, when we decide whether to retain democracy or become a monarchy.  Seems like a strange confluence of phenomena.  Meanwhile, outdoors a pandemic rages and some locations have had early snowfalls.  The last of what had been Hurricane Zeta blew through here yesterday.  Who needs Halloween to be scared?

For some years I’ve been contemplating the spirituality of Halloween.  We live in a death-denying culture while knowing full well we all die.  Halloween has become a holiday when we can think about it openly.  Pretend we’re someone/something we’re not.  Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we might learn something from it.  It has become a boon for horror films, but they’ve been successfully spread through the rest of the year as well.  There’s plenty to be frightened of in July and January too.  Still, there’s something about Halloween.  Some of my earliest memories are of this particular holiday.  Poor as we were, we always had costumes for the day.  I remember sitting on the school bus, wearing a mask, thinking that nobody knew who I was, and I could really be the hero or villain that my costume suggested that year.  Now we wear masks all the time and we’re frightened every day.  Halloween is coming along with a blue moon this year.  There must be some significance to that.


Hot Breakfast

Cooking in a pre-dawn kitchen has a certain appeal as the weather cools.  Knowing that something with warmth will set you right before the nighttime cold forces the furnace on for the next six-to-nine months.  After a recent tooth extraction I was told to keep on a soft diet until the wound healed.  A fan of crispy breakfast cereals, I faced a new dilemma—what to eat before work?  Being vegan means bacon and eggs won’t do (there is passable vegan bacon available, but so far the plant-based eggs haven’t managed not to taste like mung beans).  On a recent frenzy of nostalgia I had purchased a box of (now mostly empty) farina.  Often known by its commercial name “Cream of Wheat,” farina is more like flour and milk (many vegan options available) but with a better texture than paste.  It reminded me of childhood Saturdays.  Then the box was empty and grocery day was the better part of a week away.

Grits seemed a little more challenging.  The particle size is larger and might cause problems in the healing wound.  Still, I gave it a try.  Since my father was from South Carolina I grew up eating things like grits and black-eyed peas.  This makes for a hearty breakfast as long as you keep the grits on the other side of your mouth.  When the black-eyed peas were gone, I turned to oatmeal.  Bigger pieces yet, but still soft.  Oatmeal works best with some kind of sweet accompaniment.  Brown sugar and cinnamon is a standard. Sweets bother my teeth, however, so I need to be careful there.

The problem with all of these options is that one serving of these hot cereals was too little to keep me going.  I wake early and eat breakfast early, so I need about six hours of energy from this meal.  Two servings are too much.  Ratios are beyond me.  So I turn to my religious roots.  Whenever I think of breakfast I’m reminded that our cereal-eating culture (hot or cold) was largely influenced by Seventh-Day Adventist sensibilities.  Adventists are vegetarians, and some prominent among them by the name of Kellogg launched massive, religiously motivated campaigns to have the day begin with grains, back in the day.  It stuck.  I suspect Kellogg was good with numbers.  I wish I could figure out how third-cups and quarter-cups relate to one another.  Like most things in life, it’s falling midway between that is difficult.  It’s chilly in here and I too hungry to do math.  At least the religion part I partially understand.