Ivory Towers


I sometimes confuse “ivory tower” and “ivy tower.” It’s only a matter of or. In my mind the halls of academe are frequently covered with ivy, but the usual term for a rarified higher education is actually “ivory tower.” A pristine, white edifice unstained by the concerns of day-to-day life. It never occurred to me that the phrase might be biblical. According to tradition, King Solomon quoth, “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory” to his beloved (Song of Songs 7.4a). How the term moved from an obscure reference in a love poem to higher education involves the nature of the latter. Higher education was an enterprise of the church. These days we tend to think of religion as opposed to learning, but in fact, universities were natural outgrowths of cathedral schools where future clergy were trained. There was also a guild-consciousness about the Middle Ages that also played into this, but primarily what we think of as universities today were developed to educate clergy. Many of the Ivy League (again with the ivy!) had their origins as seminaries.

Ivory towers, however, are still remote from this. Eventually, probably due to the difficulty of interpreting the Song of Songs, ivory tower came to be an epithet of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, some interpreted Song as the love between Mary and the church. Rather than the erotic intent of Song, which quickly became an embarrassment to the chaste church, the ivory tower came to symbolize the purity of the Virgin. Untouchable, sparkling white. From the pre-Reformation church, universities sprang. Devotion to Mary ran high.

Although the origin of ivory towers as a metonym for universities is uncertain, it appears in literature by the nineteenth century. Possibly it reflects nothing more than the dignified life of the mind as opposed to the sullying of hands. Or perhaps it reflects a deeply buried knowledge that the university, as secular as it has grown, is a scion of the church with its devotion to a virgin who somehow commandeered the language of a love poem from antiquity. Today ivy is less common on campuses than it used to be. Our higher education is much too modern and chaste for that. The towers of ivory, however, remain. Now they refer almost exclusively to dreamers who’ve lost touch with the everyday world. And, as often as not, with the Bible that gave them their start.

Holy Seer

SeerOfBaysideHands up, all who’ve heard of Veronica Lueken. Maybe one of you in the back? I have to confess to having been in the “Veronica who?” crowd until reading Joseph P. Laycock’s The Seer of Bayside. The subtitle would have made the difference: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism. It’s a fascinating story. Lueken, a Catholic laywoman in Bayside, Queens, began to have visions of the Virgin Mary. This was in the days of Vatican II. Lueken was a traditionalist who felt the reforms were misguided, and found Mary to be on her side. She grew a large following during her outdoor vigils, eventually becoming so popular that people bussed down from Canada and in from other states to join her. The neighborhood association complained, and, some say, planned to assassinate the seer. The movement, known as Baysiders, eventually moved their vigils to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where it—or they—continue to meet.

Critics of religion tend to claim believers credulous. The Catholic Church, however, has been notably reluctant to approve of Marian apparitions. Lueken’s visions and her movement were condemned by the authorities, but now, even two decades after her death, two groups of her followers continue to meet. I’ve read quite a bit about Marian apparitions over the past couple of years. As Laycock points out, Marian apparitions are frequently classed with the paranormal since anomalous events often accompany them. It is no different with Baysiders. They claim healings and other unexplained events associated with their devotions, including mysterious lights on Polaroid photographs taken during services.

How are rational people, especially non-Catholics to make sense of this? Obviously one can say that the thousands who’ve claimed to witness such miracles throughout history were simply mistaken. Or deceived. Or one could suggest that there may be more to this old world than we’re generally willing to admit. Laycock takes his book in a different direction by asking the salient question of who gets to decide who Catholicism is. Protestants have no single center like the Holy See, and fractions do what fractions do. They divide. Hierarchy hath its privileges, of course. Rome declares the Baysiders in error. Each side, as is to be expected with religions, claims that it is correct. It seems that only Mary knows the real answer.

Let It Be

CultOfTheVirginMaryWhy do people pray to Mary? The question is a complex one and answers range from a desire to find some feminine compassion in an angry masculine god to the distinctly Freudian. Michael P. Carroll, in The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins, falls into the latter category. Yes, the book was written in the 1980s, but even then Oedipal complexes and penis envy were deeply suspect. Still, at various points along the way Carroll had me scratching my head and muttering “there may be something to this.” For a few pages, anyway. The problem begins much further back than Mary. To start with, we can’t all agree on what religion is. From there we move to the stage where ancient religions had as many goddesses as gods—even the divine don’t like to be lonely. The heads of most pantheons were male, which likely matched most earthly political systems. Powerful females still existed, at least in mythical realms. Monotheism effectively put an end to that, but before too terribly long, Mary emerged and eventually became almost a goddess.

Indeed, early on in his book Carroll discusses how Mary differs from the goddesses of antiquity, drawing parallels with only Cybele. Mary is the virgin mother completely dissociated from sexuality. Deeper study would reveal some mistakes in Carroll’s reasoning—there were virgin mother goddesses, such as Anat, who might in some ways fill in the gaps. Indeed, arguing for the uniqueness of Mary is kind of a goddesses-of-the-gaps theology. The more we learn the less unique any deity becomes. Still, looking to the psyche to explain Mary is a logical step. Tracing Marian devotion to the ineffective-father family, where a machoism hides a longing for the protective mother, Carroll offers us a Freudian feast of options here. Still, in the light of developments in psychology over the past quarter century, his premise is a bit dated.

We simply don’t know why Mary became such a strong devotional interest in a religion with a masculine Trinity. It would seem that women might be the motive force behind it. Given that half of Christendom was displaced, by default, from the male savior, why would Mary not emerge as the mother all people crave and whom, women know, often soften the harsh decrees of martial law? Delving into the apparitions of Mary from Our Lady of Guadalupe to Fatima and Medjugorje, Carroll finds illusions and hallucinations based on strong females behind each one. Rational inquiry into the deeply spiritual. This, however, remains the proximate cause only. What is really seen can’t be known, except to the seer. And it seems that seers tend to find, amid a religion with an omnipotent man at the top, that it is the mother who appears in times of need. Unless, of course, it is a matter of healthcare where, as government shows, father knows best.

Like Virgins

If you are reading this, I have safely arrived in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic. Given the lens through which I view everything, I somehow supposed that Virgin Atlantic was named after one of history’s two most famous Madonnas—the Blessed Virgin Mary, or just plain Madonna. It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Virgin Atlantic, famously under the leadership of Richard Branson, borrowed its name from its older sister company, Virgin Records, also founded by Sir Branson. Virgin Records, I had supposed, was named after the only musical Madonna, but again, not so. The record company, new to an inexperienced Branson, was named by a colleague who noted that they were business neophytes, like virgins. The original logo showed an Eve-like virgin with a snake and everything.

Steve Fitzgerald's pic from WikiCommons

Steve Fitzgerald’s pic from WikiCommons

While in the UK I always call on Nick Wyatt, one of my doctoral advisors and now a good friend. As my mentor in Ugaritic, we always joke that I fly Virgin Atlantic because of the Virgin Anat, Baal’s famous warrior sister and sometimes lover. Anat was, of course, not the first perpetual virgin. The Mesopotamians had the idea that a goddess could be a perpetual virgin and still have kids, and what led up to said motherhood. Virginity is a status marker, still unfairly applied to women. I suspect a good part of it is biology (and if this seems weird, blame it on the jet lag), because the essential male reproductive function occurs whether or not a female is present, and even the most saintly men can not, from time-to-time, barring very extreme measures, avoid it. It is difficult to measure virginity in men, so why the double standard?

In this early morning haze (or is it really afternoon?), I suppose it comes down to not wanting to support somebody else’s child. Looks are at best a lackluster proof of paternity, and in the days before effective birth control, the only way you could be absolutely sure was to make sure your spouse was a virgin. Goddesses could get away with sex and still retain their purity. It was less sanguine for the human woman. Thus the Virgin Mary is accorded a special, but not unique status. But it turns out that none of this really matters because the Virgin I fly is merely a business virgin. And with a bit of experience, provides some of the best care in the air.

Miracle of the Sun

HeavenlyLights The events at Fatima in 1917 have occupied me on this blog before. Perhaps it is because of the haunting quality of the whole thing. Children, two of whom died young, saw a vision and the apparition made a prediction that was held in secret for decades. I’m not sure about you, but these days remembering most things for more than a few nanoseconds is a challenge. What was I saying? Oh yes, the Fatima incident. I recently read a book on Fatima, an unconventional book, but one which makes an intriguing case and raises a valid point. Heavenly Lights: The Apparitions of Fatima and the UFO Phenomenon by Joaquim Fernandes and Fina d’Armada draws compelling parallels between the many UFO reports that are in the public record and the strange events at Fatima, Portugal in the latter days of World War I. Immediately some people will be put off, since we have all been conditioned to ridicule the idea that, although there is almost certainly life in space, it would take the trouble to visit our neck of the universe. In the mantra of conventional thinking: it can’t be done. (Sounds rather like my career. What was I writing about, again?)

The valid point raised by the book is that many people are skeptical of the supernatural. That rules out a miracle for Fatima, since in a materialistic universe, miracles aren’t sanctioned. That leaves us with a crowd of at least 50,000 people, perhaps as many as 70,000, hallucinating at the same time. I mentioned this to a very bright college-aged student recently who responded, “Really? Who would believe that so many people saw the same hallucination at the same time?” That’s the official story, however, in the materialist camp. Just outside the tent are those who believe UFOs are material objects. They are in no way supernatural, just impossible (because nobody can fly fast enough to get here, what with light being so sluggish and all—and even if they could, why would they come here where we’re still pretty much all stuck to the surface of the globe?) I’m afraid I suffer from a surfeit of imagination. I like to wonder what might be possible.

The point Fernandes and d’Armada are making is that rural folk in 1917 had no language to describe what they saw apart from religious language. Interestingly enough, the children were always a bit cagey when saying the woman they saw was the Virgin Mary. They recognized that others said she was, but then, the others didn’t see her. The book does not explore the fact that UFOs and religion have a somewhat long association. That doesn’t make interstellar travelers supernatural, though, just out for cheap thrills. Buzz earth a few times and a century later people will still be talking about it. Some will call it a miracle. Others will say it was a mass delusion. And the rest of us will scratch our heads.

Fecit potentiam

Yesterday at Princeton’s annual seasonal choral concert, the program consisted of Bach. The first piece was a Magnificat, a piece that, in prose form, I quickly memorized at Nashotah House. With our daily double dose of chapel services, liturgical standbys such as the Magnificat quickly became reflex recitations, made with little thought beyond getting on to the next piece. It occurred to me as I listened to it at leisure, the hopes of poor Mary haven’t really materialized after these 2000 plus years. After a couple of millennia, perhaps it is time for a state of the theology assessment.

Despite the veneration of Mary in the liturgical branches of Christianity, the collective handmaids of the Lord have made slow progress in being integrated fully into church leadership. Only with the last century, and fairly late therein, did many Protestant denominations finally recognize that Mary’s gender might have something to teach the men. Paul, for one, would have had none of it. Even today the Roman Catholic Church stalwartly refuses to consider female priesthood. Perhaps Mary’s prayer should be uttered yet again within its walls?

At the section labeled “fecit potentiam,” however, I noticed further lack of fulfillment. “God has shown strength with God’s arm,” the program translates, “God has scattered the proud.” The hopes expressed in the next several verses have been silenced beneath the greed of an economic system with no responsibility. “God has deposed the mighty from their seats.” When did that happen? Those of the Occupy movement who’ve received a face of pepper spray might beg to differ. “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty.” Sent away to their summerhouses, their mansions, and their penthouse apartments? Away from the working class who oil the gears of their massive machines. No, it seems that the Magnificat has not fared so well at predicting the new era to be brought in by a special child.

Of course, Luke’s song of Mary is based on Hannah’s song at becoming the mother of Samuel from the Hebrew Bible. Samuel was the great judge and prophet who saw to the law and order in the land. Strangely, however, the Bible manages to confuse Samuel with his erstwhile enemy Saul, conflating their birth accounts. Isn’t it just like the Bible to confuse the oppressed with the oppressor? The strength shown with the divine arm, the wealthy inform us, is the strength they wield. After all, god and gold differ by only one letter.

Jesus? No News

Stepping into the Port Authority Terminal in New York City may be the last place I expected to see Jesus. But there he was, at Hudson News, his beneficent face forming a repeating mosaic before the hurried and harried commuters rushing to get to work. U.S. New & World Report’s special issue features Jesus. Obviously. Racking my half-asleep brain, I couldn’t think of any reason for this sudden popular epiphany; it seems out of sync for Christmas and Easter, and no big news discoveries in the archaeological world had been recently announced. Perhaps the editors know the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is coming up next week. Getting 10,000 scholars of religion together in one location is enough to make even the most hardened skeptic pray for a miracle. So, what are these “Secrets of Christianity” that call for a special edition?

The sidebar taunts: “New Insights on His Life and Death,” “The Mysterious Virgin Mary” and “Has His Tomb Been Found?” I am curious about what makes Mary mysterious; she is a minor character in the Gospels who rose to a mysterious prominence only with Catholic hagiography. Well, the sidebar does also state that the special edition has “An Excerpt From Pope Benedict’s New Book on Holy Week.” Spoiler alert! Please keep in mind that Holy Week is months away yet. Perhaps it is in response to the overly religious tussle that is going on with Republican presidential candidates. What was once a forbidden topic of discussion is now headline news, and the average person might feel the need to brush up on Christianity 101. Problem is, apart from the Gospels—and their brief is not always historical—we have very little in the way of evidence about Jesus. In the first century he was just another radical rabbi, not likely to have garnered much public notice until after his martyrdom. That means that the smallest nuggets become huge in a world where we simply don’t know.

The cycling and recycling of Jesus into the public consciousness is big business in America. With the frenetic faith claims of political candidates lacing the headlines, it is almost like a high school locker room with each contender claiming to have the bigger God. Cracking open the magazine on my lunch hour confirmed my suspicions—there’s nothing here that scholars haven’t known for years. Problem is, scholars don’t speak on a level that most people can hear. I don’t recall the last time I saw a professor taking a bus or hanging out in a bus terminal. That’s the thing about Jesus, you can always find him hanging out with the common folk. If religious specialists would learn to speak in plain language there wouldn’t be so many “Secrets of Christianity.”