A Saint Lent

Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikicommons

Lent, among the denominations that observe it, is intended as a time of intense reflection.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday the fact of one’s own mortality becomes a foremost consideration as the faithful are reminded that they will die.  It has always struck me as paradoxical that St. Patrick’s Day always falls in Lent.  Those who abide by the liturgical calendar readily acknowledge that Lent is a punctuated season; saints’ days and feasts can still occur, temporarily disrupting the heavy contemplation.  While at Nashotah House we never celebrated St. Patrick beyond a brief mention during a collect of the seventeenth.  His day, rich in Celtic mythology, it seems, was inappropriate to the mandated gloom so highly valued by the soul-sick.  Having some Irish ancestry, I always felt a little slighted by this aloofness regarding a saint most people can actually name.

College campuses, I later learned, tend to schedule their spring breaks to include Saint Patty’s Day because of the damage drunken students may exact.  The stereotypical besotted Irish have become an excuse for excess during Lent, although, I suspect the forty days have little to do with it.  A saint becomes a justification for sin, it seems.  And Lent continues the morning after.  There’ll always be Lent.  The tray holding the ashes of last year’s palm branches is never empty.  Two once religious observations clash in mid-March of each year.  During a brief spell the historically oppressed Irish are celebrities for a day.  Such are the vicissitudes of liturgical calendar clearing.

Today many people celebrate a saint they wouldn’t otherwise recognize.  One that mythically drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, and who perhaps hid a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  A holy man who has made it possible for anyone to be Irish for a day.  Leprechauns and clovers are in fashion as the ironic luck of the Irish closes down major thoroughfares for parades in the midst of ashes and dust.  Outside there may be snow or budding trees.  Perhaps both at once.  There’s a richness to these conflicting symbols that belies the commemoration of a missionary with alcohol.  The day is part of the complex of equinox holidays, whether intentional or not.  The green man of yore begins to awaken as light starts to outstrip darkness for half a year.  We’ve had enough of dusk.  Anticipate the light.  The rules state that Lent will still be here tomorrow.  But the light is beginning to grow. 

Ocean Blue

I suspect with Trump in office Columbus Day will get a boost. After all, it’s the narrative of the white man coming to America and improving on what anybody else had done. Making America great, one might say. That wobbly narrative has been justifiably under fire for some time. Not least for historical reasons. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Vikings were here before Columbus. Ironically, the savage Vikings appear the more benign of the two. A friend recently sent me a story from Realm of History that asks “Did The Irish Reach The New World Before The Vikings And Columbus?” The story by Alok Bannerjee tells of St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who may have made the voyage even before the Vikings. And don’t get me started on the Bat Creek inscription or the Kensington Runestone.

The problem with early history is that it’s early. Evidence, when it exists, is rare and often perishable. We know that the technology to cross the Atlantic existed at least as early as the Phoenicians. And we know that no matter how crazy others tell us we are, people are insanely curious. And those who go down to the sea in ships might even make it into the Bible. Objections to anyone making it to the “New World” prior to the Vikings tells us something of the nature of orthodoxy. Yes, historians and scientists have it too. Orthodoxy is where evidence crosses the line into belief. And belief, as I’ve often said, is difficult to dislodge.

So, am I throwing open the doors for any who wish to claim they were here first? Hardly. Well maybe. My own opinions aside, when unorthodox evidence arises, what should we do? The traditional response of “when in doubt, throw it out” may not serve us well. Perhaps we should have a shelf, or locker somewhere. A receptacle in which we might store the stories. When I was a kid learning about Columbus, teachers doubted Vikings had made it this far. Orthodoxy has had to back off on the Norsemen, of course, since archaeology now backs them up. Vineland was a reality, it seems. Even before the purported Irish or Phoenicians, the first nations were here. Where is their federal holiday? We don’t like to think about that. Far too much investing in “superiority” has gone into it. It’s Columbus Day and most of us are at work anyway. Some of us dreaming of new worlds all the same.

Uisce Beatha

The idea of a state church, I have to admit, sometimes seems not so bad. Before you click off this page in disgust, please let me explain. Once in a great while, I think about what state churches really are. From the most ancient of times, religious institutions supported governments and governments gave money to state religions. It isn’t a perfect system, but the reason it sometimes appeals is that it might prevent the kind of religious quarreling that we see in the run-up to every election: whose religious vision will govern us? I get theological whiplash. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a state church and be done with it? After all, those who live under state churches really aren’t obligated to believe in the teachings, but just to pay for them.

I’m only being facetious here, of course. We all know that in reality where religions and governments get too intertwined human misery results. The Reformation should have taught us that, if nothing else. The crimes of ISIS continue to show that religious belief makes a poor basis for government. Another case that my wife recently pointed out to me is in the quiet and civil nation of Ireland. Ireland has the stereotype of being Catholic, but according to an article in The Guardian, more than 90 percent of state-run schools there are under the control of the church. For some residents, like the family featured in the article, this becomes a conflict when schools won’t admit the unbaptized. Admissions committees with holy water may be a concept that many people find strange, but the fact is churches can set rules just as strict as secular bodies. No baptism, no confirmation, no matriculation.

I would, I think, be concerned as such a parent. Once my child was admitted and enrolled, would not the teaching go against what was being taught at home? Do governments have the right to decide a child’s religious outlook? Here is the dark underbelly of the apparently benevolent state church. Belief, of all things, is an intensely private matter. Many church goers do not understand the deep beliefs of their religious body, and since we seldom stop to think about religion we just do as we’re told. Education, it seems to me, should be very much aware of religion. Instead we see the opposite happening, at least in this country. If we pretend religion doesn’t exist, it will just go away, right? There is a reason that the church teaches that baptism is symbolic drowning. Only for those, however, who pay attention.

Angel's view of Ireland?

Angel’s view of Ireland?

Almost Purgatory

Although it is difficult to tell from 32,000 feet, I think I might have flown over Purgatory on my way home from the UK. The two days I was in Oxford were uncharacteristically sunny and warm. Although it was cloudy around London when we lifted off, the skies cleared by the time we hit the Irish Sea and once Ireland came into view I kept a close watch for what I hoped might be Lough Derg, the site of what was once deemed to be Purgatory. Our flight path took us over the right region, but the maps in the back of the in-flight magazine are never detailed enough for navigation, and the lake itself is not large enough to appear on any but the most detailed charts. Still, I think I might have seen it. If this was Purgatory and I was overhead, I guess I must’ve been in Heaven for a while.

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Symbolism began to kick in, despite the lack of sleep. Our view of the earth today corresponds in a rough way to that of the ancients. For sure, we are more sophisticated, as we suppose, but there remains a lake of fire beneath our feet and the heavens above our heads. The area in between, according to medieval thought, was Purgatory. It’s the place where we live. Believing in the intensely mythological development of a rich afterlife that borrowed elements from the Greeks, Zoroastrians, and Egyptians is hardly something anyone could undertake seriously in the modern world, but the trials we undergo here and now somehow make Purgatory believable as a symbol. When I think of the troubles over the past few weeks alone I can take some solace in a symbolism designed to help us avoid Hell.

As on my trip from New York, I watched hundreds of miles of ice floes, icebergs from the air. I’m not sure if this is unusual—I don’t fly overseas very often, and sometimes it is dark and I can’t see the water below. Of climate change, however, I am absolutely certain. We have undertaken to bring about Hell on earth because of industrial greed. I can’t help but compare how companies continued to promote smoking heavily even after they knew it was killing people. Lucre can make monsters out of ordinary humans. Was that Purgatory I saw back there, over the Emerald Isle? I may never know, but down here on the ground the warming trend continues. Perhaps the ancients knew more than we think they did.

Three Thoughts

If it weren’t for friends sending me little nuggets they find on the internet, I might be uninformed about much of the weird and wonderful world unfolding around me. With hours not spent at work being laid out on spartan public transit, I don’t have much time for surfing. So it was that I watched this video of St. Patrick trying to explain the Trinity to a couple of normal Irish blokes. Of course it’s funny, but as I watched it, a thought occurred to me. I used to think what a waste it was for learned minds to sit around arguing the fine points of theology. The Trinity is a prime example—three is one but not really one. Form, substance, essence, accidents or effects? What is it that makes them distinct yet not? It is, of course, a logical impossibility. Yet hearing words like modalism and arianism made me realize that these were highly sophisticated concepts. They were developed in Late Antiquity in a world with quite a different frame than our own. Atheism probably existed then, but it was very rare. What we might call naturalism did not exist. Some kind of deity or force was obvious behind the natural world.

To be sure, some thinkers had already suggested that the earth was round and that laws of mathematical precision governed aspects of nature. The frame of the human mind, at the point when engineers can construct pyramids and ziggurats, had already reached the point of science. What do you do with science when gods can’t be dismissed from the picture? Naturally, you turn your science on the gods. Although many today would argue that if God exists, the deity is a being (or concept) outside the realm of science. Science deals with the material world, not with supernatural possibilities. Dividing a single deity into three persons without making yourself a polytheist is a real mental puzzle. The concept of the Trinity isn’t biblical, although the basic ideas are derived from the Bible. It is a purely theological construction to explain how Jesus could be God and yet die. Well, it’s more complicated than that.

One of the great joys of the angry atheists is to point out the obvious frippery of theological discourse. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would anyone waste their time on such nonsense? Yet, the thinking behind early theology was exquisitely rational and highly developed. One might almost say “scientific.” The people of antiquity were not stupid. Our mental picture of the Middle Ages is often of unwashed louts chasing witches and hiding from dragons. Their society, however, was advanced by the standards of hunter-gatherers. The technology of the day may not have reached down to the level of the everyday worker, but human thought, ever restless, was working its way toward a scientific revolution. And God tagged along. Even Sir Isaac Newton gave a nod in that direction. While theological arguments may have outlived their usefulness in a society such as ours, they did represent, in their day, the best of rational thought. And in their own way, likely contributed to the birth of what we know as science.

The fate of heretics

The fate of heretics

Coming of the Green

For many years I actively attended to the calendar of saints while at Nashotah House. Although we celebrated Mardi Gras, we never seemed to celebrate St. Patrick, although he does hold a place on March 17. I suppose most people were too busy wearing black to attend to the green. I always, however, donned some verdant vestment for the day, and we usually had leprechaun gifts left behind for my daughter. After leaving Nashotah, I discovered that many universities scheduled spring break around St. Patrick’s Day. This wasn’t because of any love of the Irish or of liturgy, but because campus damage was so bad after the heavy drinking of that day, that many schools decided to let that be somebody else’s problem. St. Patrick isn’t particularly associated with alcohol, but even a quick walk by the bars of New York City demonstrates that the saint has found a home among the inebriated.

Little is known of the historical Patrick. He was associated with Lough Derg, an island of which was said to contain Purgatory. The lake also boasted a sea serpent, which may give some background to the legend associating Patrick with the banishing of snakes from Ireland. The shamrock story is likely apocryphal, but there’s no denying the brilliant green of the Emerald Isle, so the tradition developed of wearing his favorite color to commemorate the day. The traditions of Patrick grew by accretion. The Irish belief in wee folk gave legs to the leprechaun connection and, I’m told, heroic drinking might lead to the seeing of the same. One reason his day might have been downplayed liturgically is that it has become an unlikely cultural holiday. Those of us with some Irish ancestry run into some pretty high numbers.

The myth of St. Patrick is more powerful than his history. This may be a lesson for us even today. The stories we tell of our cultural heroes need not be grounded in fact in order to be meaningful. Over time the religious of many faiths have grown more and more literal to demonstrate their devotion. This is a risky proposition. We know little of the life of Patrick, or even of Jesus and other various religious founders’ lives. Their followers have been free to fill in the blanks for many centuries, building meaningful legends. I have no idea if Patrick of Ireland liked green. He may have found snakes charming. Upon an intemperate evening he may have seen leprechauns dancing about his parlor. It is less the tale that is important than it is what one might choose to learn from it.

StPat

Almost Heaven?

HeavenCanWaitLike most kids raised Protestant, I had little idea about the Catholic worldview.  Despite family wishes, I had Catholic friends, and topics such a Purgatory inevitably came up.  (Well, they did if you were me, with my insatiable interest in religion and its trappings.)  Purgatory was a concept both just and unjust at the same time. It seemed only fair to give people who’d made mistakes a chance at Heaven, yet, at the same time, to make them suffer when they already realized that they’d made mistakes seemed like, to put it bluntly, bad parenting.  The key was in the name: Purgatory.  A place to purge the evil.  Melvillian try pots. Given this background, I couldn’t wait to read Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture. The afterlife is the ultimate 64-dollar question. It pays to be informed.

This fascinating study demonstrates that the idea of purgatory has long roots into Christian history. The Bible does mention Heaven and Hell, concepts borrowed from Zoroastrianism, but it doesn’t directly mention Purgatory. For this reason most Protestants reject it out of hand as Popish and superstitious.  Heaven Can Wait, however, explores how the idea grew into an almost inevitable aspect of Catholic theology. Most intriguing to me was the concept that, like Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven, Purgatory is a place on earth. Specifically, in many Medieval minds, in Ireland. There a cave of torments, guarded by monks, on an island in Lough Derg provided those brave enough to enter the chance to purge their sins before death.  In short, those who braved this cave could bypass Hell by suffering in advance.  Heaven on an installment plan, crudely put.  As Walsh Pasulka describes the accounts of Lough Derg, archetypes begin to fly thick and fast, like proverbial bats out of Hell. This single location, sometimes venerated by, sometimes destroyed by the church, was a vortex of torment.

Over time, as the rationalism of the Enlightenment settled in, the idea of a state of being having a physical locality led to changes in the concept of Purgatory.  The kids I knew took it for granted that it existed, and, with tween angst, accepted that that’s probably where they’d end up.  At least for a while.  Protestant that I was, my choices were a bit more stark. If I messed up, as I well knew I did, my torment would be neverending. Heaven Can Wait is a rewarding exploration of how an idea, logical in its original context, survived long after the worldview of the church had begun to change. Indeed, it survives to this very day.  And like most doctrines of the church, it has a way of scaring even the most inoffensive souls straight.