One Day or Another

Although normally a time for celebration, Mardi Gras, I’m told, was subdued this year.  Today is Ash Wednesday but many of us feel like we’ve been living a year of Lent already.  I once told a fellow office worker on Ash Wednesday, “I think about death every day, I don’t need a yearly reminder.”  Looking out at the old snow, melting, freezing, refreshed with occasional flurries, I’m reminded of the cycles of nature.  I’ve been watching the turn of the year’s wheel.  Over the solstice I looked into Yule, and just a few days ago considered Imbolc.  The wheel of the year is a symbol for modern earth-based religions seeking to be kept in sync with nature.  It is a cycle, slowly turning.  Death, in this way of thinking, is part of a larger system.  It seems appropriate to consider it this Ash Wednesday.

I say it’s Ash Wednesday but it would be more correct to say “for many Christians it’s Ash Wednesday.”  Cultural imperialism is difficult to shake.  With the pandemic still embracing us tight we haven’t had much reprieve from thoughts of death these many months.  Thinking of the wheel of the year, however, may bring hope.  A wheel in motion spins around to a new beginning that, in the nature of circles, is equally at every point.  New beginnings are offered every day.  While we’ve never been in a year of isolation before, there is nothing that hasn’t been before.  Self-aggrandizing dictators, world-wide pandemics, calls for social justice and fairness, have all come around before this.  They may come around again.  The main thing is to keep it moving.

It moves, in fact, without us.  One of our human foibles is being species-centric.  When we discuss, in a pique of teenage angst, of “destroying life on earth” we really mean destroying humankind and perhaps many other species as well.  Not all.  With a kind of collective insanity we go about warring against our own kind, exploiting all other species we deem valuable, and talk as if that’s all that matters.  Today, for some, it is Ash Wednesday.  For others it is World Human Spirit Day.  For many of us it’s just another workday among many very similar, cut from the fabric of a year that has no even spokes to keep it rolling.  Beneath our feet this orb spins on, regardless.  The cycles continue, with or without us.  How wonderful it would be if we could actively contribute to their progress.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash


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.


Fears of a Clown

A few weeks back, over on EsoterX, I was reading about circus oddities. Perceptive as always, EsoterX notes that the carnival or circus used to be disturbing. Before being commercialized and sanitized, otherwise civilized folk crept out of town to gaze at the bizarre and troubling aspects so effectively hidden from 9 to 5. Among the most disconcerting of the carnies was the clown. Horror writers and film makers have long focused on the ambiguity of the clown—faces are our clues to the intentions of another person. A face painted is opaque and we feel as vulnerable as in the presence of the false evangelical smile that hides a spiritual deadness in hardened eyes. You are about to be victimized. It is no wonder that small children—and not a few adults—are freaked out by clowns. At times they make us laugh, but mostly they make us tremble.

ClownThose who know or read me may have a difficult time believing that I once was a clown. Not a professional one, of course—it is even more difficult to believe I’ve ever been a profession anything—but part of a campus clown ministry. Beyond simple titillation, I state this fact because, like most things in my life, I researched clowning before I became a part of it. Those books are, of course, packed away with other forgotten bits of personal marginalia but I remember bits and pieces. The origins of the clown are religious. In fact, in the most ancient of societies clowns were most often played by priests. Their early bungling, which may go back to the third millennium BCE, was perhaps a way to indicate that even the somber role of the cleric could be taken too seriously. Like modern concepts such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, that which is sacred builds such pressure that normal people become a little unhinged. We erupt into frivolity while the divine turns a blind eye. Or secretly smiles.

Clowns for Christ was a Grove City College organization that I revived in my Junior year, serving as president and acquiring a campus charter. Based on 1 Corinthians 4.10, we declared ourselves “fools for Christ,” reprising, unknowingly, an ancient pagan custom. We visited nursing homes and mental hospitals and other campus events, bringing the good news in the form of silent skits. The clown traditionally does not talk. Even today when I hear a clown in makeup speak I give him or her a glare—clowning is physical, not audible. As I left college I left behind my childish ways (at least some of them). And the years since have taught me to be afraid of clowns, as any reasonable person should be.

Southern Comfort

CajunNightOnce upon a time, long before Hurricane Katrina, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature held their annual meeting in New Orleans. It must’ve been an incongruous sight: the Big Easy filled with right proper professional religionists discoursing eruditely. While there, my family purchased the Cajun Night Before Christmas, by Trosclair. A cute knock-off of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Santa Claus” (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), the story unfolds of a fur-bedecked Santa visiting a destitute, but grateful family on the bayou. Each year I try to reach deep in my southern roots to find an accent that accommodates the poem, and read the story the week before the holiday comes. A number of factors have suggested that perhaps this year Christmas might catch many people on a more subdued level. Crushing poverty is a reality, guns are too readily available, and the one percent don’t get close enough to humanity to contract the common cold. Even the effects of Katrina have refused to dissipate completely. Her sister Sandy visited the Big Apple, and things still aren’t quite right.

Big Apples and Big Easies may seem to have little in common, apart from how much money is available to assist in hurricane recovery. They both also participate in Christmas, being havens of Catholicity. Yet after the hurricanes some in New York and New Jersey were without power several days, but parts of Louisiana were simply abandoned. The will to help the disadvantaged seems to have improved since 2005. Considering changes at the top, this isn’t necessarily a surprise. Nevertheless, tragedy throws into sharp relief what we consider human decency. Too bad it takes a disaster to make us more human.

What sticks with me about the Cajun Night Before Christmas, apart from the flying alligators, is the profound hopefulness that the poem conveys. Those with so little take so little to improve their lot. Yet those with too much insist it is their right not to be taxed at all. Those who live in a shack don’t expect much from Santa. They have learned through the disappointment of experience that double standards are endemic in life and while some are unbelievably rich, the poor are happy with just the smiles of children. Ironically, Santa is the great equalizer here. While the children of the wealthy may expect and receive more, the children of the humble are also allowed a portion of hope. As I remember New Orleans, in the palmy days before Katrina, it was a city that knew Mardi Gras was far more humane than Lent, and that even a city marked my radical inequities (let those with eyes to see read) could come to a joyous accord when sins are about to be atoned. And even if he has to commandeer alligators, Santa will visit the poorest children the night before the holy days.

Get Lent

Time to get Lent

Each year as spring struggles to overcome winter’s terminal chill, colorful flowers begin to burst from the earth to announce the rebirth of hope. So it is that bright purple signs have begun to spring up all over town announcing the joy that is Lent. Wait a moment – Lent and joy in the same sentence? The radiant signs read, “Lent: a good time to come home.” That’s not the Lent I remember. Having spent the longest decade of my life at a seminary that was frequently touted as “all Lent, all the time,” I suffered my share of the season. While I think I comprehend the tactic behind this attendance boosting campaign, I wonder if it isn’t leading with the chin.

Back when flowers were the first colorful signs of spring, when I was young, churches did not advertise. Stolid bastions of the truth, each and every one, they awaited sinners to come to their senses and select the correct avenue to the truth. If you missed, well, Hell never turned anyone away. Nowadays, however, we need advertising to convince us. In a consumerist heaven, we are deluged with choices. When the faithful dither, it must be time to advertise.

The first to admit personal bias, my experience of Lent has usually been dreary and unrelenting. A naturally quiet and self-critical individual, I don’t need a whole denomination on my back to force me to think about the faults I already castigate. The thought of the season makes me shudder – people who spend all the rest of the year looking out for number one are to emulate Jesus’ reflective 40 days in the wilderness to be like their savior, only to snap back to their old self-serving ways on Easter. Could be a recipe for collective schizophrenia. Temporary Christianity. Do we really need more occasions to be glum? My favorite part of Lent was always Mardi Gras; at least then we were working on something new to contemplate during the next 40 long, chilly days.