Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pagan Easter

March 29, 2010
To open the minds of Christians to a more inclusive vision, I like to cite pagan examples because they mirror Christian beliefs and practices. Pagan mystery religions had divine heroes whose lives were honored in large public ceremonies and in small private gatherings like Paul’s Christian communities, which assembled in homes for sacred meals. Christian meals commemorating Jesus’ gatherings with his disciples gradually evolved into the Mass, which has elements that apparently derived from the liturgies of mystery religions.

Mystery religions portrayed a god’s or goddess’s life in ceremonies that incited a sympathetic union of participants with the deity. They felt with Isis in her struggles over Osiris, with Aphrodite in lamenting the deceased Adonis. They hailed the resurrected one, Attis, and sympathized with Demeter in her search for Persephone.

I like to cite the story of Demeter and Persephone because this Mother-Daughter pair preceded the Christian Father-Son pair. Persephone like Christ descends to the dead. When she rises to the living, her Mother Demeter allows the earth to reawaken into spring. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrating their story began yearly at Eleusis and ended in a moving ceremony at Athens after fasting and a great fourteen-mile procession between the two cities. The whole event lasted about fifteen days and left participants feeling a new spiritual status after having traveled from grief to elation with their divinity.
Something like Lent to Easter.

The Greek word mysterion meant secret. Divulging what happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries was forbidden under penalty of death. We do not know the details of their liturgy—what raised the ecstatic response to the Mysteries—but snitches of ancient literature suggest some details.

Like the Christian Holy Week, the rites effected a mix of contrasting spectacle and contrasting emotions. There were special light effects with torches, music, and singing. The initiates were suffused with awe, confusion, sorrow, despair, bliss, and joy. They experienced opposites in sensory impressions and emotions, moving between extremes of darkness and light, terror and bliss. Using verbal formulae—we can call them liturgical statements—along with contrasts of light and dark, music, and whatever actions the pageant included, the Mysteries engendered the alternate states of hope and despair, fear and exultation, mourning and rejoicing. The rites transported participants out of ordinariness into the transcendent realm. They induced a feeling of renewal or regeneration, a kind of mystical union with the deity.

This relationship of pagans with their god resembled the union of Christians with their Jesus, communion in sympathy and hope of a blessed life after death. Jean Shinoda Bolen said,
The mystery must have been the experience itself, an ineffable revelation that changed the participant into an initiate who no longer feared death.
An Easter experience. A similar drama—but less vivid in post-modern times—plays out in our liturgical year, especially during Lent and Holy Week from Palm Sunday through Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

Easter Rising—March 24, 2010
Lois Wedl, OSB, sister of Janice Wedl, OSB, shared this:
On Sunday morning, Dr. Holly Peterson dressed in the white coat she wears for rounds, stopped by Sister Janice’s hospital room early. Since Janice seemed to be resting comfortably, Dr. Peterson didn’t want to wake her.

However, as she put the stethoscope on her chest, Janice opened her eyes, broke into a most beautiful smile and asked: “Is it time to go?” Dr. Peterson wept as she shared this with us the next day and added, “I’ve never been mistaken for an angel before.” Very likely when Janice saw this person all in white, she was sure it was an angel coming to take her to heaven.

And today Janice’s angel did come to take her to her heavenly home where she surely was welcomed warmly by all in the heavenly court including our wonderful family members and so many, many people Janice touched in her 81 years of living life so fully.
At the funeral service we heard that Janice asked about certain Bible passages, "Do you really believe this?" And we heard she was feisty. Since Saturday I've cherished these and other things I heard because they sustain me when I’m in the trenches saying the words that agitate, upset and provoke to deeper reflection.

As in my St. Cloud Times writing on Monday: Christians not alone in celebrating spring. The point of all religions is transformation.
(I'm not responsible for the run-on at the end. Someone took out my period.)

Janice modeled the most eventful transformation of our lives by joyfully rising to new life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The pageant at St. Ben's

God is in the tall trees;
God is in the wild boar;
God is where the storm destroys
And in the wind’s roar.
Barbarians in “So Let Your Light Shine.”

They were right, of course, but they were subdued by Christians who imposed a God-image with a certain name. Today Christians are learning to embrace the larger “barbarian” awareness of divinity in all.
“So Let Your Light Shine” was an outdoor pageant performed after dark at the College of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, MN, every fall until the mid 1960s. It imagined Western civilization conquering boorish masses.
What were the countries of the North?
They were the wild unconquered spaces.
They were the wild barbaric places,
Where fierce tribes
Knew not Christ,
Knew not the light.
St. Benedict brought the light of Christ. . . .
St. Benedict brought civilization
To Europe, where all was dark—
To Europe, where all was wild.
A swaggering lot of barbarians shouts, “We kill in the night, and we plunder,” and they dance to the throbbing beat of tom-toms. But “a black-robed prayer man” lights a flame that sets into motion orange and yellow-clothed dancers who rise from the ground, swaying, weaving, then leaping out from the center. In a thrilling dance, the flames meet the resisting barbarians and triumph over the teutonic tribes, who meekly slink into the background.

To this day I am inordinately proud of having been a flame who subdued the hordes. And I’m not embarrassed by it; we “Bennies” still love the pageant. But those familiar with my writings know that I always promote an awareness larger than the former Christian exclusiveness. While appreciating the Benedictine heritage from which I still benefit, I join the Benedictines who see a much larger circle than seen in the flame light of the past.
Benedict’s flame of learning and spiritual order accompanied feudalism, also depicted in the pageant.
Noble the spindle and plow.
Noble the hand that wields the flail.
Noble the hand that seeds and tills.
Noble the toil that swamps and hills
Shall turn to golden farms and fields.
Peasants dance and sing beside golden sheaves. Then we hear hoofbeats.
It is the prince who loves his people;
It is the prince who rules his people; . . .
It is the prince who gives them order.
This paternalism and anti-democratic attitude—and did anyone notice the anti-Nature bent?—seemed fairly benign in earlier times but strike discordant notes in 2010.

I'm sure more than one professor at CSB greeted the demise of the pageant with relief because of its religious and cultural elitism, its self-serving insults to Germanic and Celtic peoples. But like Star Wars, it portrays the elemental conflict between good and evil. That in addition to our bodily participation in the pageantry is what draws us. I would love to see it re-enacted along with a reflective message noting the pageant’s text as evidence that human consciousness continually evolves to a higher state.

We flames carried torches to fourteen saints, each representing a century of Benedictine-influenced prayer and work. Lovely. Something was lost with the gain in higher consciousness, which is always the case. It helps to explain the fundamentalist backlash that wants a return to the familiar forms of the past.

I’d like to think that other alumnae of St. Benedict’s who have a deep affection for the pageant could understand my problems with its text because our culture has made huge strides in appreciating cultural diversity. We know that different is not wrong.

My college classmates and I were among the last ones to perform the pageant. When reminded of it, many of us are stirred in a way that’s hard to explain. I’ve thought about this, and it led me to thinking about rituals.

Rituals are ceremonies, usually solemn, often religious or patriotic, and always evoking feelings, attitudes and ideas below the surface of consciousness. In the ceremonies we move, speak, and sing in prescribed ways. We may repeat whole sentences and paragraphs. There’s something appealing and reassuring about repeating movements, words, and songs in unison with others. The rituals of bowing, genuflecting, kneeling, folding hands, moving in procession, reciting certain words, singing certain songs, and repeating certain gestures pitch us into the sacred realm.

But some rituals are secular. Sports certainly have the elements of ritual, baseball the prime example with its ritualistic movements in variations of three and four, significant numbers in the inner world. The underlying symbolism of baseball was explained by Hannah Shapero in Gnosis magazine. The players enter a diamond, a "sacred quadrant" with a circle at the center.

In the outfield stand the attendants in the outer courts. On each of the quarters stands a baseman, guarding his sacred trust . . . They hold ritual implements in their hands. [Officiating are four] priests in blue, the umpires, who know the Law and keep the ritual correct.

After a "sacred hymn is intoned" the action centers on the pitcher's mound, "a circle in the middle of the square mandala." Nine men play nine innings in sacred time as opposed to the linear clock time of football, basketball, and hockey. There are three strikes and four balls. There are
all sorts of personal ritual gestures: crossing oneself, touching various parts of the body, spitting, or gesturing with the wand . . . banishing rituals in this moment of pressure.
And we scoff at ancient religious rites to appease unknown forces!
Sports generate profound emotional energy. Shapero wrote,
The rite unites a community in a closeness that few religious liturgies, whether mainstream or esoteric, can achieve.
Some of this mysterious feeling accompanies our response to the pageant we performed 45 years ago. Those of us who were dancers threw our whole bodies into it, and we did it repeatedly, not only in practices but in final performances year after year. And we did it with others, making us part of a larger whole.

We wore distinctive costumes—peasant, prince, barbarian, and flame. The pageant was presented after nightfall and it was a ceremony of lights. We listened to familiar music, familiar verses, and the hoofbeats of a horse bearing the prince. In retrospect it’s easy to see why this experience carved a deep groove into our bodies and souls. It has an appeal similar to that of Catholic rituals, so strong that someone said it’s as hard to stop being Catholic as it is to stop being Black.

I’d love to see the pageant again, but I wouldn’t like to see the college do it every year.
Mythologists and psychologists have known for many years that humans need and cherish rituals, and now scientists are finding evidence of it. Neuroscientists see the structure for ritual built into our brains, and an archaeologist is convinced that the first human structures, indeed, the first human civilizations, grew out of the religious impulse—The temple begat the city.

It’s not enough for us to think spiritual thoughts and do good works; we yearn to do ritualistic acts with like-minded people. Naturally, effortlessly, we fall into repetitive movements and recitation of formulas. This impulse drives not only religious rituals but secular ones, such as sports events and even wars.

Catholic rituals involve the whole body and a whole community in a space that pitches us into Wholeness/Otherness. The rituals stir us more deeply than we realize and their imprint never leaves. This is why many who reject the rules, repression, and controlling behavior of Catholic officials remain in the fold or, in some cases, flee the fold in revulsion. Both attraction and aversion flow from having been touched down to our deepest center.

My generation bears a deep imprint from ritual, but that’s changing. A report entitled Religion among Millenials produced by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one in four 18- to 29-year-olds is unaffiliated with a religion. That by no means makes them all atheists or agnostics. While they are less likely to say they believe in God, they believe in life after death, heaven and hell, and miracles. To me this says they believe in spiritual reality but not the God-image taught by the religion of their birth.

In fact, the data suggest that millennials may be more spiritually thirsty than older generations. According to a Knights of Columbus/Marist poll, being "spiritual or close to God" was the most selected of any other "primary long-term life goal" among those 18 to 29 years old (other choices—“to get married and have a family" and "to get rich"). The rate at which they selected spiritual purpose was significantly higher than other generational groups. Millennials care deeply about morality, but reject the views of their elders on homosexuality and evolution.

Stated concisely, the trends show that past religious forms have less influence but spirituality is very much alive. This is good news. Spirit is in charge as the evolution of human consciousness proceeds.

June 29
After a reunion weekend with classmates at St. Benedict's, a Catholic liberal arts college for women, one startling idea emerges. The values of these women resemble those of women I meet at the Women & Spirituality conference in Mankato, MN. My presentation there last fall was entitled “Atheist Spirituality,” and afterward women thanked me profusely for acknowledging that atheists are spiritual.

The two groups of women differ in the way they express their spiritual nature. Traditional Christians are devoted to Jesus Christ, and that image doesn’t nourish atheist women, but I think they would approach world problems similarly. In a discussion about daily concerns, about love and care for families, community, and world, they would have much in common. Women, whatever their views on religion, tend to value partnership and cooperation more than domination and competition.

This also applies to women in the monastery at St. Ben’s and in the world matrix of GATHER THE WOMEN, an international group I’m privileged to learn from. The latter conferenced at St. Ben’s two summers ago and were surprised to find so much commonality with the sisters.

In a slight digression, I offer Charlene Spretnak, a leader in women’s spirituality who asserts, and I agree, that the clergy sex abuse scandal exposes the Catholic hierarchy’s need for the relational wisdom of women. Click here to read her piece in NCR. The Church desperately needs to have women as equals in decision making.

Friday, March 5, 2010

This turning world

The Transfiguration, the subject of last Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 9:28-36), usually is used by preachers as a “proof” of Jesus’ divinity. The homilist where I attend Mass, Abbot John, refreshingly drew a different lesson:
The task of discipleship is not to build tents and houses for Jesus. Jesus is not to be housed and worshipped. . . .
As spiritual writer Richard Rohr notes, if religion is not fundamentally about transformation, it is pretty useless. [The Transfiguration] only makes sense in the light of transformation.
Abbot John was talking about OUR transformation.
. . . to give consent to the Spirit to transform us,
to move us toward the white light,
the gifts of the Spirit more visible;
not the gifts we want,
but the gifts that are given.
He addressed “the spiritual poverty of postmodern culture,” and I add that fundamentalist literalism is one example. It reacts to information that stretches us past our accustomed religious information and imagery in a defensive way, threatened by the unfamiliar.

The scholar Karen Armstrong has taught us that fundamentalist literalism is a modern phenomenon. Before the historical Jesus was distinguished from the mythical Jesus in the nineteenth century, Christians simply drew meaning from their stories without bothering to ask themselves whether they were factual. Armstrong stresses that they “were less interested in what actually happened than in the meaning of an event.” When the gospel writers put words into Jesus’ mouth, they weren’t being deceptive and they weren’t setting out to faithfully record history.

They were being faithful to the inner Christ, of which Jesus is the image. The mystic voice in the Gospel of John bears the name Jesus, but the same voice speaks in the Hindu Baghavad Gita, where it bears the name Krishna. For this reason the Hindu writer Ravi Ravindra could say he is “much moved” by the gospel, which always leaves him “in an uplifted internal state.” [Read more in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky.]

Our challenge is to find meaning for our lives in the twenty-first century, not to defend ourselves against diverse, equally evocative but unfamiliar, religious images coming from other traditions. This requires quiet time away from our frenetic consumerist culture and hearkening to the inner voice of Christ and Krishna, the Buddha and the Tao.

It requires letting ourselves be transformed as Jesus was transformed.