One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.Only the former received prayers.The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.
A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.Spiritual or physical.A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.I suspect this is known by faith alone.
There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.(The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.It’s that certitude that does it.I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.Faith alone can test the results.And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect. And for that there’s no fee.
A few thoughts about the March for Science in Manhattan over the weekend seem to be in order. To get to the rally in time, from our little corner of New Jersey, we found ourselves on an early train. We arrived at 62nd Street and Central Park West to discover the march was beginning just outside of one of Trump’s unimpressive towers. The area for marchers was clearly marked off by barricades, but a woman walking her dogs, a resident of Trump’s tower, wandered in among the crowd. Like most Trump followers, she seemed clueless that there was an obvious way around the obstacles and had to be helped by the police. Seems to be a theme with 45—police are everywhere watching his assets. Meanwhile the hotel doormen from next door were asking for “Resist” paraphernalia and reminiscing about their shock when the boy next door received the nomination. The mood was jovial despite the spitting rain.
The speeches at the rally were mostly given by children ten and younger. The future teaching the past. As might be expected, the signs were clever, and some took considerable thought to figure out. A few, it seems, felt religion was to blame. Well, they’re probably right about that. One gets the sense that science and religion are like cats and dogs, and nobody has to guess which one’s identified with the cats. Still, the majority of the signs pointed out the benefits of science. Even scholars of religion use the scientific method, believe it or not. Like science, religion (as revealed by science) may be good for people. Who brings religion to a science rally?
I’ve always been a fan of science. Throughout school I learned a lot and did well in physics and chemistry, biology not so much (dissection was never my thing). I still read science and incorporate it into my thinking. Balance, however, suggests perhaps religion also be treated as not evil in and of itself. After all, it is evolved behavior. As the march progressed down Broadway, we passed a church that had a prominent banner reading “Prayer really does work,” or something along those lines. I’d seen enough clever signs already that morning to notice this contrarian voice. Then I wondered, why can’t science and religion seem to get along? Both can (but need not) make exclusive truth claims. What’s wrong with admitting that we just don’t know? Belief is involved in either case. No doubt science is important. I’ve always supported its study and always will. Is it, however, too much to believe that maybe religion can also enlighten, if understood for what it is—a human way of coping with an uncertain world? As science marches on, hopefully it will help us comprehend even the unmeasurable.
“With what measure ye mete,” someone once said, “it shall be measured to you again.” I certainly hope that’s true, but empirical verification seems to be lacking. I’m looking at, with the full armor of irony, a postcard from Nashotah House. Those of you who’ve long read my posts (I know who both of you are!) will know my history with said sacred institution. No, it’s not with me that they stay in touch, but my wife. You see, she’s one of those women who kept her maiden name, so in the eyes of many at the sacerdotal school we were probably never properly married. They certainly never came out to wave goodbye. Anyway, this past year they’ve begun corresponding with my spouse. I can’t remember—did I ever teach there for a decade and a half? So what are these sweet nothings they’re sending?
The card in front of me informs me that they’ve been praying for my spouse. Don’t get me wrong—she’s married to me and she needs all the help she can get—I never begrudge anyone’s prayers. I also can’t help exegeting a bit. Occupational hazard. One of my students once told me “don’t exit Jesus from your exegesis.” And they tell me I have no practical experience in the real world! So I’m looking at this prayer card wondering whose autograph it is. A man wants to know who’s praying for his wife. More than that, it appears that the name was scribbled out and written again. Did someone pray for those in the outer darkness by mistake? Heaven forfend! Alas, for my meting days seem to be about done. I must have a measuring tape around here somewhere.
That same guy whom I’ve quoted above also said, “pray for them which despitefully use you,” which I suppose might be some good advice. I understand that one-percenters and their ilk couldn’t be where they are despite using you. You just can’t help it—if something is inconvenient, you can simply toss it away. Build a tower to the heavens—what can be more biblical than that? See, words are endlessly flexible. They can be twisted and turned and made to say whatever you want them to mean. And should it ever come to meting cups, there are some recipes that might call for more than a wafer and a sip of wine. This is probably all obscure, but I’m trying to read by candlelight, and this text seems to say “when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee” and “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” But how will anybody send you money if you don’t let them know?
We all like to believe we don’t believe in magic. In this day of sophisticated materialism, the idea that unseen forces might work upon the world seems terribly naive and not a little embarrassing. Randall Styers’s Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World has been on my reading list for a few years now. Not so much a history of magical thought, Styers offers a history of thought about thought on magic. There are several takeaways from a study like this. One is that magic and science share common ancestors. In fact, some theorists trace the origins of science to magical thought. The height of alchemy was also the period when experimental analysis of the natural world was blossoming. There was a mysterious sense to what we now think of as impassive particles whirling around for no particular reason. Making Magic makes clear that we can’t divorce developed thinking from magical outlooks. In many ways it is difficult to distinguish religion from magic.
Not that Styers advocates magical thought. He does, however, invite us to think about it. Another takeaway from this study is that magic, when described by religious writers, is a foil. Magic is used to show how the unenlightened think about things. Those of us here in the true light would never think such backward thoughts. Indeed, magic, as Styers makes clear, often served as a kind of social control. Lower classes think magic works wonders. The upper classes know that power lies in exploitation. Magic, in other words, can’t be divorced from politics. Those in the know would only encourage magical belief to continue. Invisible forces indeed.
Magic as a regulatory force is indeed the thesis with which Styers is working. The difference between prayer and magic is somewhat effaced when closely examined. Religious belief is seen as benefiting society while magic is for selfish benefits. I do wonder, however, where the modern magical religions, such as some branches of Wicca, would fit into this scheme. They also seek the good of society. Magic need not be selfish. Making Magic is concerned with the analysis of magic by scholars who’ve shown a surprising interest in the topic. It doesn’t really address those of today who, after finding the atomic world strangely vacuous, have turned to magic to re-enchant a world grown dull and dry. Whatever one may say about magic, it still exists, and its believers are among us. Our world with its solemn, feelingless answers could, at times, use a little such conjuring.
To relieve the mangled up snarl of sadness, fear, and loneliness where my internal organs used to be after dropping my daughter off at college, I’ve been watching television. When I can see the screen. Despite this feeling that the world is ending, I just don’t have the tolerance for much of the drivel that passes for entertainment these days. After a night of Amish Mafia on Discovery, I tuned in again for an escapist viewing of Gold Rush: South America. Those who don’t know me personally (and some of those who do) may be surprised to learn that I have panned for gold myself—not religiously or regularly, but with occasional serious hopes of solving my financial woes. Watching Todd and his group of guys setting up sluice boxes in the remote Andes and equatorial jungles has almost a pornographic attraction. The earth gives us what we need. Of course, gold’s main function in antiquity was being used in religious settings—whether making gods or decorating their priests—and that gives capitalism its drive for precious metal even today.
Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited
Mining is not so simple as it seems. You do have to research claims and find out who has the “rights” to property before you begin prospecting. There is a kind of wild-west feel to it, and claim jumping is still a crime. While watching the Gold Rush guys run into disappointment after disappointment, it still bothered me a bit how quickly the solution seemed to involve destroying the ecosystem to find the shiny rocks. Excavators had to be driven through the jungle, trees knocked over, and when the camera longingly lingers over a huge gash in the ground for an industrial gold operation, all the crew can say is what an impressive sight such a deep hole is. When they mention gaping holes, however, I feel there is something missing deep inside my own soul, and I wish they’d just stick to panning.
After many trials and tribulations, they find gold worth $50 a yard. They locate the claim holder and negotiate a deal. Todd’ll move his operation from the frozen Klondike to the sunnier climes of Guyana. As the camera pulls back, the guys gather into a little knot for a word of prayer. Yes, this crew of tough outdoorsmen bow their heads and ask the Almighty to help them find gold. If only it were so simple. The prosperity gospelers would have us believe that the divine wants us to be wealthy. If it was that easy, though, reality television shows would never last more than one season. And besides, some of us would trade every material thing we have to turn the clock back just a few hours or days to live them all over again just to fill in the great void that follows the inevitability of growing up.
Niagara Falls, despite the crowds and commercialization and the diminished flow of the Niagara River to serve hydro-electric dreams, is nevertheless impressive. It is also one of those landmarks from my childhood since I had a great-aunt and cousins who lived in the town of Niagara Falls. That was back in the days when you could cross between the United States and Canada without a blink of a sleepy customs officer’s eye. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of a guy who’s not quite young any more, and maybe it is the sheer intensity of the negative ions released from all that falling water, but Niagara Falls remains one of my favorite places to visit. It is one of those places that you leave feeling like maybe you’ve been touched by something divine. At the office yesterday when talk turned to Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across the Falls last night, memories began to surge. I didn’t watch the live broadcast (I don’t have television service and with my commuting schedule I can’t stay awake past nine p.m. most days), but reading about the successful crossing this morning, I again found something divine.
When reporters asked Wallenda how he’d accomplished the feat he replied, “a lot of praying, that’s for sure.” Here’s where I had to stop and pause. Prayer is a common response to stress. Those moments when people face something that is beyond human capabilities—be it illness and loss in the family, financial ruin, or almost certain death—we often reach out for that which we hope will help us. When Wallenda stepped off that rope, his experience validated his assumptions that God helped him to do what is, in any rational universe, a very foolish thing. At the same time, he asked for divine aid in facing what must be, in that universe, a divine death-trap. Anyone who has stood close to Niagara Falls, or walked the wooded trail along the class five rapids of the Niagara River has come as close to the divine as humans are ever likely to get. To believe that prayer gets you through is to believe that God defies God.
Daredevils live for a thrill that transcends the comfort zone of most religious folk. I grew up during the days when Eval Knievel was a household name and his insane stunts drew millions to their televisions. Surrounded by television cameras, just nine months before his death he undertook his most dangerous stunt. He was baptized at the Crystal Cathedral, spawning hundreds of copycat baptismals. His death, it is generally acknowledged, resulted from complications of his many lifetime injuries. I remember his failed Snake River Canyon jump in 1974. Years later, staring out over the Snake River Canyon for the first time, I felt just a little of that transcendence that draws people to dramatic places. A friend tells me that whenever she goes to Niagara Falls she feels the urge to jump in. She is a very religious person. Hearing her remark about doing a Wallenda without a tightrope, I think she might be the most truly religious person I know.