Deep Web Religion

The bases of truth are ever shifting, it seems. What was once decided by spiritual tests now finds technological solutions. A friend sent me a story from IFL Science (which, surprisingly, often focuses on religion) concerning a nun in seventeenth-century Italy. What makes this nun stand out is less than she had a mental disorder but more that she wrote that it came from the Devil. Her letter, however, was written in an indecipherable script and has only just been decoded. How? By using decoding software on the Deep Web. As someone who’s still lost on the surface web, I’m not sure whether diabolical possession or this mysterious sub-web is scarier. An even more profound question is why someone in this scientific age would resort to the Deep Web to diagnose the illness of a sequestered religious long dead.

Like Manhattan, which, I’m told, has many layers underground, the web has places you shouldn’t go. Computers linked promiscuously together have an amazing power, and apart from those of us who can while away hours looking at photos and videos of cats, there is a darker, more sinister area that can’t be accessed with Google. Down there, according to IFL Science, resides powerful code-cracking software that might be profitably turned to Linear A or Hurrian, but is used to decipher the centuries’ old note of a woman who believed she was possessed. I’m not knocking the achievement. Decades of research have apparently solved the conundrum of the Voynich Manuscript—we can’t stand having the ancient talk behind our backs—and yet try to get funding to hire an Assyriologist at your school. The vast majority of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets remain untranslated in cellars as dark as the Deep Web.

There seems to be little doubt that Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione suffered from some form of mental illness. Even today some psychologists are starting to suggest that “possession” should be considered a viable option for diagnosing some cases that otherwise defy satisfactory resolution. This isn’t medieval superstition, but it is our understanding of a materialistic universe shoved up against a wall. We can’t stand not to know. Mental illness is as old as mentality. We can’t comprehend the vastness of this world, let alone this galaxy or this universe. Even very interesting stuff gets lost on the world-wide web. I don’t even want to think about what goes on in the infernal regions below it.

Sacred Herstory

NunsBehavingBadlyHave you ever read a book thinking the author was a woman, but later learned that it was written by a man? Or vice-versa? This creates a disturbing kind of cognitive dissonance, and I suspect that it is hardwired to our communal instincts. We want to know whether it is a man or a woman who is talking to us. Expectations of gender are deeply embedded in all societies, and they become problematic when they ossify into rules. Gender roles, in earliest societies, were a matter of biological necessities. In a modern, urban context such roles are obsolete, and certainly damaging—especially to women. Craig A. Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy raised this issue to a conscious level once again. Christianity, always very sensitive to issues of sexuality, had developed in a social context of women as property. In the Middle Ages, where dowries were expected, families couldn’t afford to marry off all their daughters, and convents provided an easy, if not always spiritual, solution. Monson’s book, although not filled with salacious tales, illustrates the point well. In a society where wage-earning was limited to males, females had few options.

Monson narrates the stories of five different convents where a nun (or sometimes groups of nuns) refused to play by the rules established by the male hierarchy. The infractions, viewed from the twenty-first century, seem minor: playing with magic, singing, producing art work, wanting to go outside the cloister walls, visiting (gasp!) an opera! (There are a few more complex issues too, such as arson and the love that dare not Ave Maria its name.) In each case, the masculine authorities were called in to investigate, punish, and restore order. The end result is, although fascinating, somewhat melancholy. These willful women were often acting against boredom. Their lives had no impact beyond the convent wall, and, ironically, I learned, even their enclosures had prisons. A nun could be moved from her cell to the cell. And sometimes the only crime was wanting to hear a professional singer perform.

Nuns Behaving Badly is a clever title for a book. As I read the histories, however, I became increasingly convinced that those behaving poorly were not the nuns. A society fabricated on the premise that men are the divinely ordained masters of their universe is no stellar example of men behaving well. Even the occasional bishop, archbishop, or cardinal who sided with the accused had to bow to the will of the Holy Inquisition. The victims, although not physically tortured, were women who had thrown their entire futures into the service of the church, in one of the few roles allowed females in an era already pressing into the early modern age. The nuns were not behaving badly. They were simply being human. The truly bad behavior came in the form of a male hierarchy that brooked no dissent.

Nun Such Luck

It hardly seems to be news anymore when the headlines read “Vatican orders crackdown on US nun association.” Religions are largely characterized as men telling women (and milquetoast men) what to do. Perhaps because of our evolutionary, simian respect for the alpha male, most followers will resist pointing out inequities in the system just to have a smoother ride. The all-male Vatican is reportedly worried about how nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious might be distorting the masculine teachings of holy mother church. No matter how much science the Vatican supports, it just can’t get over the idea that when God is found out there he will have not only a human face, but a human penis as well. The Associated Press article states that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—that is the organization of the Inquisition, my dear readers—found grave errors of doctrine among the ladies. Sounds like time for an auto-da-fé, n’est-ce pas?

Somewhere on its long and weary trek, the control of fellow humans for the sake of God has slipped into the rut of control of fellow humans for the rush of power. The Catholic bishops are worried about abortion (and other healthcare options for women). The Bible says nothing about abortion, considering life to coincide with the first breath. The chosen people did not have a conception of how conception worked (you can’t see the sperm or ova without a microscope, no matter how divine they may be) and so life began and ended with breath. The only reason to push the origin of life to conception is so that men may control women’s sex lives. These decisions are made by sexless men who wear dresses behind inscrutable walls of power. When nuns start seeking fair treatment for women it quickly becomes heresy.

I don’t mean to single out the Roman Catholic Church here, since many religions proclaim male superiority—loudly or softly. Back in ancient times when goddess worship was taken as seriously as the cult of male gods, a few religions did exist that gave women a position equal to, or sometimes even above, men. The priests of Cybele, for instance, had to undergo ritual emasculation. Strangely, religions with celibate priesthoods today leave their men intact, perhaps as a loophole for sin. I wonder how much more women-friendly official theologies would be if only eunuchs were allowed to serve as pastors. It is, as Genesis famously states, sin that “is crouching at the door,” and therefore it is better to remain gendered and pray not to be led into temptation. Perhaps we have something to learn from history yet.