Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.

Love, Not Fear

How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day when our governments advocate hate?  You have to wonder when the autocrats last fell in love.  Building entire polities on hatred harshes the elevated feelings of letting love, well, love.  The only time Republicans seem to smile is when they’re taking advantage of someone else.  But it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’ll try to think charitable thoughts about even them.  

My reading recently has been taking me into the realm of sin.  Let me rephrase that—I’ve been reading a lot about sin recently.  One of the more striking aspects about badness is that it seems closely related to love, or at least lust.  I’ve often pondered why Christianity especially has tended to treat sex as bad.  While all religions take an interest in sexuality, not all of them declare it a negative aspect of life.  In fact, many see as it quite the opposite.  Since I like to trace things to their origins, I wonder why this might be.  Why did Christianity, whose putative founder declared the greatness of love, decide that although love is well and good that making it is problematic?

Paul of Tarsus, whom some credit with being the actual founder of Christianity, considered his celibate lifestyle to be superior.  While he didn’t mandate it of his followers, he highly recommended keeping their commitments to divine causes rather than to prurient human ones.  He believed a second coming was going to occur any day now, and that was nearly two millennia ago.  He was also, through no fault of his own, an inheritor of an incorrect understanding of gender and sexuality.  Even today there’s much about these that we don’t understand, but we do have more evidence-based ideas about what’s going on.  And not surprisingly, we tend to find that love is good and expressing it (appropriately) is also good.  Valentine, after all, was a saint.

Looking out my window, it’s still clearly winter.  There’s snow on the ground from the most recent storm and I’m aching from the upper-body workout that it required to get it off the walk.  But still, in the pre-dawn hours I start to hear—rarely but clearly—the birds begin to sing.  The amaryllis on the sill has sprung into full bloom.  The thing about love is that there’s enough to go around.  It’s a renewable resource.  If only our leaders showed a fraction of interest in it as they show in hate and fear. 

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

Ashy Valentines Day

It’s been 73 years since it’s happened. Happy Valentines Day! And depressing Ash Wednesday. This is more of a popular culture conundrum than a sacerdotal one. I noticed in my many years at Nashotah House that Saint Valentine doesn’t make the liturgical calendar. This struck me as odd, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. The church has always had a difficult time with love. At least when it starts to get physical. Even if Valentine was a saint—and nobody knows for sure which Valentine it was—he surely didn’t become beatified because of his amorous inclinations. Nothing helps to put you out of the mood like being told “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

As a society we’ve been living in an Ash Wednesday that has been prolonged for over a year now. A government of St. Narcissus, for the only love there is love of self. Yet when I thumb through the liturgical calendar Valentine’s still not there. Ironically evangelicals—the name now belongs to those who support Trump—dismiss love as having anything to do with Christianity. This isn’t about love. It’s about showing hatred to the poor and stranger, the kicking out of those in need. It’s about military parades and “Sieg Heils” and law makers who vote themselves even more power with our tax dollars to fund their insidious schemes. There’s no need to gerrymander around the church—it’s on your side. Is it Ash Wednesday or is it Valentine’s Day? Surely it can’t be both.

Love is valued only in so far as it can be commodified. If you can get people to spend money on cards and chocolates and condoms then you’ve got a holiday worth celebrating. Otherwise you might as well join old Job sitting on his ash heap. The last time these holidays coincided the world was at war. The President had set up safety nets to catch those who were the victims of the greed that led to the Great Depression that is now all but forgotten. Nazis were a bad thing then. Now all we have to do is blubber about “fake news” and declare the truth a lie. Christians prefer Ash Wednesday to Valentine’s Day anyway. I admit to feeling a bit conflicted about this. Patriots and lovers used to be compatible concepts. We’ve been told that America is being made great again, but they called that Depression great too. From where I sit it looks an awful lot like Ash Wednesday to me.

Commitment

Marriage is a human institution. As those who invented it, we should be able to define it. Biology may not help here, since animals become mating pairs in many different ways. Besides, we’re selective in our application of science to the question. Not only that, human views of marriage have changed quite a bit over time, and the practice of marriage is still not uniform today. Back in biblical times, for example, polygamy was more or less normal. Marriages were arranged for tactical and economic reasons, and bonding for love had, one can only guess, very little to do with it. It was practical, pragmatic, and of use to the state. Prior to that, if the evidence is to be believed, “marriage” was a communal practice among groups of maybe 150 individuals. The purpose was the same: social harmony and cooperation.

An article on The Wild Hunt has me thinking about this again. (And you thought I was going to be discussing gay marriage, didn’t you?) According to a recent piece by Christina Harrington, handfasting, the marriage among pagan communities, has now been legally recognized in England and Wales. As far as we can tell, again delving back to the Bible, marriage was not considered a religious matter in antiquity. Part of life, it was handled by families who were witnesses to the promises made. Over time, various religious bodies came to give their blessings to people pledged to each other. In fact, for some religions marriage is perhaps the most important sacrament. Once this happened, however, dominant religions became jealous of their right to declare a marriage binding or not. Even as a child I remember a stigma attached to a merely civil wedding. It is, however, the state the declares a marriage binding.

Photo credit: the ShahMai Network (from WikiMedia Commons)

Photo credit: the ShahMai Network (from WikiMedia Commons)

Marriage is a convenient method to sort out tax statuses among genders with earning disparities. A government has no interest in whether a couple marries for love or not. Even gender doesn’t really matter. Can you tick that “married” box on your tax form or not? So it is that recognizing handfasting is likely, on some level, politically expedient. Meanwhile, those who marry for love have the added benefit of being with someone they chose and having a friend at hand. Tax season is upon us. Valentines Day will soon be here. And in some parts of the world the government is catching up with the times and realizing that marriage is what people make it.

Holiday Fervor

AmericaFavHoliTime comes in different varieties. In temperate regions where the changing seasons keep the time of year for us, we tend to have seasonal holidays. Christmas and other December holidays mark the shortest days of the year with the hope that light will soon become more abundant. Spring rituals, near the time of the vernal equinox, encourage the return of fertility to the earth. Autumnal holidays mark the approach of darkness once again as the world twirls endlessly on. Summer, bright and warm, doesn’t really lend itself to so many holidays. These thoughts came back to me as I read Bruce David Forbes’s America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Forbes doesn’t cover all the special days, but focuses on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. These are five holidays marked, in some sense, by spending. They are often, although Forbes doesn’t really spend too much time on it, the focal point of cultural wars where various Christian groups wish to reclaim a certain day for its “rightful heritage.”

One of the real values of books like America’s Favorite Holidays is that it is clear that these claims of “keeping Christ in Christmas” and its kin are samples of collective amnesia. Many “Christmas” traditions predated Christianity. Others developed concurrent with it, but in “pagan” contexts. Christmas trees, for example, didn’t originate in the latitudes of Bethlehem. The same may be said for just about any holiday. Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, of the five explored, are the lone exceptions. These are fairly recent holidays and neither one marks a solstice or equinox. They celebrate aspects of life we value, making them sacred time. Don’t expect to get Valentine’s Day off of work, however. Capitalism never makes room for love.

Christmas, of course, is the holiday most under dispute. All holidays may be commercialized, but for Christmas spending is central. Forbes insightfully shows that Christmas is, and may always have been, both a cultural holiday and a religious holiday. The cultural aspect of the season is the one that most people celebrate. The birth of Jesus—which we are fairly certain was not in December—was a latter add-on. A baptism, if you will, of a pre-existing holiday. The winter solstice holiday is a staple of cultures in climes where the difference in available light and warmth is appreciable. It marks the point of the year when things start getting better. Yes, the real cold of winter has not yet set in, and there will be months of snow and ice. Still, once the solstice is passed, there is more light to help us cope. Celebrating sacred time, whether secular or not, is the natural reaction of people who crave light over darkness.