Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”
There are a lot of books on the market about pagan and neo-pagan traditions like Wicca and Asatruar. There’s a smaller number of books about Afro-Carribean syncretic religions like Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble. This is the only book I’ve come across that is the personal story of a voodoo priestess’s own reclamation of her heritage. It’s fascinating for a variety of reasons. Caulder’s personal story is wrenching and compelling, her description of her trip to Benin to rediscover her Voodoo roots is fascinating as travel writing and cultural comparison, and her account of the cultural differences between African Americans and native Africans is eye-opening. It’s also a good foil to the many myths and misconceptions that surround a religious tradition that, like any religion, has the potential for both good and evil.
Thirteen years ago, I was working for a travel company whose corporate culture trended heavily toward Nordic beauty standards and J Crew clothing — I didn’t exactly fit in. I had a nemesis coworker who was fond of practical jokes, so when she said that someone had just driven a plane into the Twin Towers I thought she was kidding. It became apparent very quickly that she wasn’t. I will always remember the tide of horror, sadness, and fear that rose in my chest as I stood with coworkers around a TV screen and watched the first tower come down. It was a distant precursor to what I would feel in April 2013 when two brothers set off homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Both of these events make me contemplate rage. Continue reading “Thirteen Years After 9-11-01, How Are We Supporting Our Troops?”
Of all our holidays, Samhain is the most obviously pagan in its origins. Halfheartedly assimilated by Christians as Halloween (or “All Saints’ Day” for the truly pious), the focus on the underworld — on death and dying — is hard to reconcile with a tradition that promises everlasting life.
The thing that makes this holiday essentially pagan is its acceptance and observance of death as a natural part of the cycle of existence. Like the Death card in the Tarot, it does not mean stagnation and decay. Rather, it symbolizes the difficult yet rewarding pain of transformation — think of a snake shedding its skin. At Samhain, we shed the remains of what we’ve harvested in the previous year and turn toward the inner work.
It’s a time of endings and beginnings. With darkness encroaching but not complete, it is the twilight time — not one thing nor another. In the half-shadows of the shorter days, with the final flare of the summer sun alive in the changing leaves, and the chill of late autumn in the air, we become aware of the thinning veil between this world and the next. We remember those who have passed before us, grieving their passing and celebrating the brightness they have brought to our own lives.
This October as we strolled under a corridor of yellow leaves, I bemoaned the passing of summer’s warmth and light to a friend.
“Maybe it’s important to focus not just on what’s passing, but on what’s germinating,” she replied. “This is the time of year for apples, and cider, and gathering inside with your tribe around the fire.”
As I continue through a major life transition, I see my tribe changing and shifting. I’ve had to shed some things in order to make room for others. The empty spaces leave me trembling and terrified. But even as I weep and grieve, I see how the Goddess fills those spaces with new life, new energy. I look ahead to what is germinating, trusting in the the wisdom of all the crones who have gone before me, and who gather with me now behind the Veil.
I go in and out of the habit of posting gratitude lists on this blog. I usually include the word “gratitude practice” in the title of these posts, but I wonder if perhaps that sounds pretentious. People refer to a yoga practice, or a meditation practice. I think it’s important remind myself that order to retain certain skills I must practice them constantly. It’s one thing to know in theory how to align the parts of the body in order to achieve a particular asana (yoga pose). It’s another thing to experience the sensation of that alignment — and all the individual variations of mind and body over the course of days as I practice it again and again. Likewise with meditation practice. Likewise with physical exercise. I can’t keep being able to run a mile in 10 or 15 or 6 minutes unless I continue to do it every day.
And gratitude is the same thing. It’s a practice. It has benefits in the same way that aerobic exercise has benefits. If you practice gratitude yourself, perhaps you’d like to articulate those benefits in the comments below. For me, one of the major reasons I practice gratitude is so that I will refrain from behaviours that are harmful to myself or other people.
Someone — a woman I’d never met in person, but interacted with on the internet fairly regularly for a few months — once characterized my comments as “preachy.” I suppose the reason her words cut me so deeply were because I know that I often talk about spiritual matters and spiritual practice. But if you met me in person, you’d know that I do so because I’m a very earthy person. I sit with my legs open more than a ladylike lady-girl should. I wear a size 20. I like things like sex and food and digging in the dirt. And I have other tendencies that have gotten me into a lot of trouble in my life. So if I focus on spiritual practice in my posts on this blog, or on Facebook, or on GooglePlus, it’s because spiritual practice is something I need to remind myself about constantly.
Which brings me around to Jesus. In theory, Jesus and his teachings are quite wonderful. But whenever I hear or read someone describe themselves as a Christian, or as someone who trusts in Jesus, I can’t help but have a certain knee-jerk reaction to same. I don’t hate Jesus (despite what the title of this post might imply), but I have had many unpleasant interactions with many of his followers — including the Catholics who first taught me about things like God and souls and whatnot. Because of certain accidents of birth, I’ve also found myself at odds with the teachings of conservative, Evangelical Christians. When it comes to the culture wars threatening to tear this country in two, it’s pretty clear what side of the divide I belong on. In the 20-plus years since my Confirmation ceremony, I’ve come to terms with this negative-Jesus-association. But on some level, I think that words like “Jesus” and “the Lord” will always evoke a visceral response in me quite different than the one that might be intended by Good Christians(TM).
I went through a brief period of atheism in my early teens, but soon after I was introduced to the notion of a God of my own understanding. It was an incredibly freeing notion, and after much soul-searching I realized that almost none of the things the Catholic Church had to say about God had much to do with my own understanding of the Divine. The God of my understanding today is infinitely vast, infinitely complex and unknowable. In spite of God’s, vastness, I have a relationship with it. And I have directly experienced God’s infinite love for me, personally. I believe that God cares about me and my own well-being. And I don’t care if that belief is true or correct in some objective sense, because my spiritual beliefs and practice are fundamentally pragmatic.
I do and believe what I do because it makes me a better person in the world. It makes me more useful to my fellow human beings. And that is one of the reasons why I practice gratitude. Because a grateful heart is a generous heart. When I pay attention to the things I do have — gifts that were given to me regardless of whether or not I earned them — I’m more likely to find room in my heart to be of service to others. Sometimes being of service just means showing up to work on time and doing my job, or listening to someone who needs to talk. But it’s always easier to do these things when I feel replete. Feeling and being useful is something I’ve been focusing on lately, when I pray to the God/dess of my own understanding.
With his newly released book Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, Andrew Himes creates a history that is both well-researched and deeply personal. It’s a history that’s about more than dates and place-names. It’s about the struggle of a people to survive and thrive in a foreign land. And it’s about the ties of blood that bind Himes to these people, from their roots among the Scots-Irish — “a troublesome group of dirt-poor, hardscrabble farmers and fighters in the borderlands and lowlands along the Scottish, English, and Welsh borders” — to his own family heritage as the grandson of influential fundamentalist preacher and publisher John R Rice.
Many elements of the journey — the American Revolution, the Civil War and the outlawing of slavery, the Scopes Monkey trial, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s — will be familiar to Americans with a standard public school education. But Himes has managed to tell these old tales anew, through the eyes of his own ancestors. They were often on the losing side of these cultural and political battles, and Himes makes no apology for them. What he does do is tell their story with an unflinching eye and a compassionate heart.
The book focuses on the lives and struggles of Himes’s forebears, however it’s clear that it only came about because of a journey that Himes himself undertook: one of rejection and reconciliation. If Himes had not rejected his own fundamentalist upbringing, he would not have had the emotional distance necessary to speak so frankly about its rigid, judgmental legacy. But if he had not been able to reconcile himself to it, the book’s tone would have been unbearably vitriolic. As someone who has gone through a similar journey, I can appreciate the time, work, and insight required. He writes that the book took about 30 years to research and write. I, for one, am glad that he didn’t rush it. I doubt that he would have been able to write the following 30 years ago:
I can identify several specific ways in which my training as a fundamentalist bore good and healthy fruit, though I’m aware that a statement like that may be greeted with some skepticism by those who have only witnessed the world of fundamentalism from the outside. As a fundamentalist, I learned that it was perfectly all right for me to have an idea or outlook different from most folks … I learned that it was acceptable to be passionate about my values, and to care deeply about the consequences of my actions … I learned that faith and community are essential to life.
In a recent interview, Himes said that he expects the most passionate audience for his book to be conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. I hardly fall within that demographic — as even a cursory perusal of this blog will reveal. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think that most Americans — especially the ones like me — would benefit from reading it. I appreciate that the book steers clear of the extreme and inflammatory rhetoric that characterizes so much of America’s current culture wars — on either side of the issue. Himes is not trying to win your soul for Jesus, nor is he mocking the deeply held beliefs of fundamentalists. He’s just doing what every good writer ought to do: telling a compelling, relevant story. And he’s got the footnotes to back it up.
Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out. So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.
That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.
Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:
Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?
Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.
Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.
My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.
Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?
Andrew Himes: Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.
Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?
Andrew Himes: Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.
Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?
Andrew Himes: My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.
A woman named Calliope invited me to join a group blog called “Standing Loud: A place where a loud, proud woman can speak her piece.” On Friday I published my first article on the topic of Loudness and Lovingkindness. Please take a look and comment if you like. Here’s an excerpt:
Which brings me to the subject of loudness — loudness and lovingkindness. Loudness versus silence, that’s something I think I’ve found a happy medium about. But lovingkindness is another alluring, foreign concept that I’m learning — through practice and more practice — to understand and incorporate.
“Try my Jesus,” she said. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”
She had the warm, rounded curves of a mature Jamaican woman. She wore white — white tunic, white pants, a white head wrap. Her name was Mother Lil.
When I arrived at the store, the woman at the counter gave me a slim, hardcover book bound in green. “Have her read Psalm 23,” I heard Mother Lil tell the woman.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
I’d been raised on Bible verses. The Franciscans sang the entire mass, in a chapel suffused with Sunday morning sunshine. But what I remembered was Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. What I remembered was the dingy gray Cathedral where a fat Archbishop in a gaudy dress rubbed oil on my forehead and told me to go forth and be a soldier of the Lord.
The Franciscans were kind, but they weren’t the ones who confirmed me. That fell to St. John’s Parish. Sister Christine ran the Religious Education program at St. John’s, and to this day I think she honestly believed every one of her little charges was going to grow up to be a drug dealer. She wouldn’t let the girls enter the church without a skirt on. Once, she dragged me down to the thrift store in the basement, picked out some moldy old thing, and forced me to put it on over my jeans. The word “genuflect” still makes me think of her.
They still used the Baltimore Catechism in my CCD classes — and that was in the 1980s. “What is the nature of God?” it asked me. And then gave me the answer in one paragraph. Even at the age of 12, I knew humans had been asking and answering that question since the dawn of time.
The Roman Catholics told me my body was dirty and bad. They told me I should be silent in church. They told me to marry a nice man who would take care of me if I submitted to him, but I knew how well that had worked out for my mother. And I loved my body. I loved other women’s bodies. There was no place for me in that church.
Here, in the Hope and Love Botanica, on Main Street in Poughkeepsie, New York, I hoped to find the secrets of that other church. I wanted to unlock the faces of High John the Conquerer, of Yemaya and Obatala.
“What goes on here?” I asked the woman at the counter when I first came in.
“What goes on here?” she echoed. She raised her eyebrows at me, this young white girl in the cheap blazer and the high heels. With my Vassar education and my computer skills, I thought I could cut into the secret practices of a religion born of the slave trade like you cut into a stick of butter.
“Yes, what sort of tradition do you practice?” I asked.
“Well, we are affiliated wit’ the church,” she replied. And I had to ask her to repeat that, because the Jamaican accent, and the notion of the Catholic Church tangled up in this, this thing I wanted so pure and sacred and separate… I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
“Do you teach classes?” I asked.
“We do spiritual readings.”
So I made an appointment for a spiritual reading.
And that is when Mother Lil handed me the Book of Psalms and had me read.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside cool waters
He restores my soul
He leads me on the paths of rightousness
For His name’s sake.
Even if I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I shall fear no evil
For Thou art with me
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me
You prepare a table for me in the presence of mine enemies
You anoint my head with oil
My cup overflows
Truly, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
My whole life long
As soon as I began to read, the tears leaked out. Pipes opened by a vision of a loving God -– a Father, even — who would care for me like a shepherd.
But I couldn’t–I couldn’t. Not then, not for 10 years and more, could I open myself to such a Lord. That wasn’t the Father I knew. He was a Father of vengeance and hate. He never told us the rules, the rules changed all the time. And the rules that he set for us… they made no sense. You might as well tell the Irish to stop eating potatoes, the things he wanted me to do, and stop doing.
Mother Lil never said I had to take the Father, though. She offered me the Son.
“Try my Jesus,” she said, as I wept in the back room next to a table with a white candle and a bottle of fleur de lis. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”
She settled into a trance after an opening prayer so filled with lovingkindness it wrenches my heart today to think of it.
“Someone does spiritual work,” she said. “You do spiritual work?” And I nodded.
“The answer isn’t in the books,” she said.
I never paid her. She never asked for money, but I knew I owed it to her. I was living hand to mouth, right out of college, but nothing really prevented me from going back another day and dropping a $20 bill, a $10 bill, something, on the counter. The store is gone now. There’s no counter left where I can drop that $20. And interest accrues.
Gifts always come with a price, even if it is not money. My price is ministry. Because I cannot pay her back, I have to pay it forward, all the days of my life. Dwelling in the house of the Goddess, under the eye of Obatala, child of Brigid, child of Athena, child of Yemaya, child of Oya, I pay it forward all the days of my life.
Sometimes the whirlwind follows me, not goodness and mercy. I am not the Lord. I am not the Lady. I am a child of the gods as we all are. Any power given to me is borrowed. It leaks out of an imperfect vessel. Given the chance to lead, I’ve sometimes led us into deserts, not green pastures. But even deserts have their lessons to teach. And still I pay it forward.
I send thanks to Mother Lil for that first opening, for that first answer that didn’t come from books. I send thanks to Mother Lil for her Jesus, who is my Jesus, who is your Jesus.
Dear Mr. Keillor:
I am writing in response to your recent article in Salon.com criticizing Cambridge, my home church of First Parish Cambridge (Unitarian Universalist), and the Unitarian Universalist faith in general.
I have been a loyal listener of Prairie Home Companion since you first went on the air in the 1970s. I have always loved listening to the News from Lake Wobegon, the gentle and forgiving and open-eyed way that you described the imperfect and well-meaning individuals from a small town in Minnesota that seems to resemble your own. I listen to the Writer’s Almanac every day. In many ways, your soothing voice and gentle words have followed me all the days of my life. I have dwelt in the house of public radio my whole life long. Your work has been a source of comfort and inspiration to me since I was a small child.
That is why your recent article was particularly dismaying and disappointing to me. I am not angry about what you wrote, Mr. Keillor, just very, very hurt.
In one of your stories, you describe a young man who is a dancer in New York City. In this story, you describe how much easier his life would be if he were desperately attracted to the woman who shared his apartment. But he is not attracted to women. You go on to say, “his life would also have been easier if he were a lawyer.” Like that dancer in New York, I discovered some things about myself that have been very hard for me — and many people — to accept. I am a bisexual woman, and I am a witch. Neither of these things did I choose for myself, anymore than I chose to have blue eyes. These labels do not define me, but they are a part of my identity, just as much as my blue eyes and my love for Prairie Home Companion.
After leaving the Catholic Church of my birth, and after many years of practicing my beliefs in private and seeking a spiritual home, I became a member of First Parish Cambridge. I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation because it was the only church that would take a witch as a member. I discovered for the first time in my life a vibrant, organized, active community of people with deeply held beliefs that I shared. These beliefs and their creed may be different than yours, but they are beliefs nonetheless. They deserve to be treated with the same respect as those of mainstream Christianity, of Judaism, of Islam.
UUs care passionately about things like social justice, the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Do not mistake our aversion to written dogma for wishy-washiness. Wishy-washy people do not work for the survival of Jews in Nazi-occupied Germany. They do not face criminal charges to keep immigrants from dying of thirst in the desert. They do not face violence and death in their own houses of worship.
You accuse us of having no creed. Our seven principles and six sources are even easier to understand than the Apostles’ Creed.
One of the most hurtful things you said in your article, Mr. Keillor, was that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and that if we don’t like it, we should go off and celebrate another one. Christmas is a part of my cultural heritage, and I refuse to abandon it to bigots and dogmatists. Furthermore, most Christmas traditions have pagan origins, including the Christmas tree, Christmas caroling, the exchange of gifts, and the Yule log. Good Yankee Congregationalists and Calvinists like the Rev. Lyman Beecher even refused to celebrate Christmas.
According to many Biblical scholars, it’s much more likely that Jesus was born in the spring. But there’s already another big Christian festival at that time of year. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called Easter (from the German Ostara), a holiday that, like its pagan predecessors, celebrates life, death, and rebirth with the coming of the spring. Easter is also full of traditions that date back to its earlier pagan origins. I, for one, am not going to deny my children the pleasure of an Easter egg hunt in the service of theological purity.
Religion, like all of human experience and culture, is constantly evolving. As a Protestant, you should be well aware of how much your version of Christianity differs from that of Rome. And religious tolerance has always been one of the bedrocks upon which American society has rested. Please don’t fall into the same trap that Rev. Fred Phelps did. As a Christian who celebrates the birth of your Lord Savior Jesus Christ, you are no doubt aware of these words from the Book of Peter:
Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.
1 Peter 3:8-9
I will not repay your insult with more insults, but with this wish: that you be treated with the same kindness, tolerance, and forbearance that all beings deserve.