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St. Sebastian

As a child, long before I turned my attention to tragic heroines and their male counterparts, I was drawn to mortal injury and related suffering. There is no explanation for the deep and satisfying emotions I got from the pictures I hunted in my father’s Professorial Library; I suspect it is the same dark, human impulse that draws people to jars of embalmed fetuses and preserved tattoos skinned from intriguingly inked corpses.

I had, at my disposal, hundreds of beautiful images in the art books that lived in our house. Sixteenth century Flemish Madonnas offering apple-like breasts to blonde baby Jesuses (Jesi?), pages and pages of Botticelli seraphim, Watteau confections,  DaVinci drawings, Magritte and Dali oddities and Picasso in all his various incarnations. Because my father taught about art, and because we often saw art “in situ,” I was unfazed by the parade of breasts, fleshy pink thighs and penises of varying sizes. I was only vaguely interested in the evolution of vanishing point perspective, abstract vs. representational, or the finer points of bas relief, fresco or chiaroscuro. What I liked was the intense, the dramatic, and the emotional. Anyone could whip out a random body part, but getting shot full of arrows was an altogether superior thrill.

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Which brings me to my childhood favorite, St. Sebastian.  In a lovely Hyperion volume of 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings,  I found Mantegna’s painting of Sebastian smack in the middle of his martyrdom. Ordered by Diocletian to be shot to death, Sebastian managed to survive, was killed again more efficiently, and eventually canonized. I loved everything about the painting. I loved it that he looked so sad, that his skin was so very pale, and that (even at seven or eight) I knew that there would really be a lot more blood if someone had been shot with eight arrows. It spoke to me of something dark and supernatural, magical even. I had no religious training, no concept of saints or martyrs, and my responses to iconography were both honest and macabre.


“Daddy,” I said one night before bed, “why did they do this? Was he bad?”

“No,” my father answered, doing that sucking thing he did with a pipe to make it light. “He was a martyr.” I kind of knew the word; it was what my mother called my father when he was driving to her parents’ house in Ohio even though it was snowing. “Catholics believe that certain people who die because of their religious beliefs can become saints.” I knew some things about saints; his mother was Catholic, and had given me a book about St. Francis. She also carried a St. Christopher medal, although I believe St. Christopher was subsequently de-mobbed. I knew about St. Patrick’s Day, and that Santa was really “Saint Nick,” and lots of places were called Saint Something-or-other.

“But why did they want to kill him in the first place? What did he do?”

“He was a Christian at a time when lots of people didn’t like Christians, and he made a powerful person very angry, so he was given a choice of saying he wasn’t really Christian, or being killed. He chose to be killed.”

“But that’s stupid!” He drew, meditatively on his pipe.

“I’m inclined to agree with you about that, but there are millions of people who think otherwise. They think that dying for your religious beliefs means you really believe them and trust that you will be taken care of in heaven.”

“Do you think that?”

“No, but your Grammie does. Some people do, and some people don’t. I think there are causes worth standing up for, and maybe dying for, but for me that isn’t one of them.”

“Is it for Momma?” I asked, tracing a small finger over Sebastian’s right leg, pierced with an arrow in the same way I had been taught to draw an arrow piercing a Valentine heart. That was another one – Saint Valentine. “Is it for me?”

“It isn’t for your mother, because Jewish people don’t have any saints. They tend to be hurt and killed because of what they believe, but a lot of times it isn’t because they choose to take a stand, it’s because people are prejudiced against them. You know about Hitler, right?” I nodded, somber. We had discussed Hitler at great length because of an episode of “Star Trek.” I also understood, in some impressionistic way that a lot of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Russia and Hungary because Very Bad Things were happening to them just because they were Jewish.

“As for you, I don’t know. Momma and I won’t tell you to do anything like that because it isn’t what we believe, but some day when you’re grown up you might find that you believe in something you find for yourself.” This seemed reasonable, safe, and sufficiently distant that I didn’t need to worry about it. “Isn’t it time you went to bed?” It was. Carefully, I flipped the tissue-thin protective page back over St. Sebastian’s lovely, tragic face and replaced the book on the shelf. I was not always so careful, but my father, he of the “handle the slide by the edges,” “handle the record by the edges,” was sitting right there watching me. I knew he loved me even when I threw the records on top of each other so that they got scratched, but why take unnecessary chances?

Soon I would discover other soul-piercing images to savor; the American Heritage volume with the picture of Lincoln dying in his bed, Titian’s “Entombment,” El Greco’s “Lamentation” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” I knew little about Lincoln’s assassination, and less about the crucifixion of Christ, but the frozen moments of pain, longing, loss and unimaginable grief spoke volumes.

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When my father retired, he gave away a lot of books. Although the Hyperion volume was not really from his office, and was therefore not properly part of the bounty, he placed it on top of the pile of books I had chosen. “I seem to remember,” he said, pausing as if drawing on the pipe he had given up forty years ago “that this was a particular favorite of yours.”

Sometimes, when I feel as lost and misunderstood as poor, pale, Sebastian tied to a column, I open the book and visit him. I try not to cry on him. It’s an expensive book.

Every now and then, turning carefully the pages that long ago parted ways with the binding, I swear that I smell pipe tobacco.

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Photo Credits:

St. Sebastian: hhttp://arttattler.com/archivemantegna.html

Lincoln: http://www.myspace.com/lincolncollection/photos/2438168

Titian: http://www.metabunker.dk/?p=1919

El Greco: http://www.catholictradition.org/Galleries/life-christ.htm

Michelangelo: http://escape-artists.com/2009/11/michelangelos-pieta/

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Magic vs. Science, Redux

It is all well and good to apply reason to business plans or a mode of education or a voyage to Italy. One must live in the world after all. But reason, when applied to the universe, to the wonders of nature, to the things hidden from our poor eyes that see not at all, but only what the Lord intended that they see – well, that becomes nonsense, doesn’t it? To say there are no ghosts because we cannot see them, cannot measure them, cannot weigh them upon scales nor note their reaction to heat in a flask – I hardly see the point of such a mode of inquiry. The world is full of wonders that cannot be measured. That is why they are wonders.

-David Liss, The Twelfth Enchantment

 After snow comes up, the wind blows it around so it looks like it’s coming down but actually it comes up out of the ground- like grass. It comes up, Charlie Brown, snow comes up!

-Lucy Van Pelt, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”

It can be, in our society, a shameful thing to be both an intelligent person and a person who admits to having religious faith, or to have had a supernatural experience. Magic, paranormal experience and religious faith are far apart in the minds of those who believe in any of them, but I have a sneaking suspicion that to many in the scientific community they are all bundled up in the “wackadoodle” category of primitive, destructive, and unproductive belief systems. I have written about magic and science before, but sometimes the universe throws pebbles at my window until I wake up and take a look. It would seem, if one believes in synchronicity, that I am fairly compelled to revisit this issue.

First, my sister in law gave me a novel by David Liss in which magic is essential to the plot. Liss portrays an epic, early 19th century battle between Luddites and those advancing England’s Industrial Revolution, and the tension between scientific/industrial progress and the magic of the natural world is played out in fairly improbable, but fascinating ways .

As I read, I found myself weighing science and understanding against magic and mystery, and coming to a fairly comfortable resting place in which they could coexist. Without modern medicine, my parents, my son and my husband would not be alive. Without this computer, the internet, and a host of other science and engineering stuff I could not write this, and “post” it into the air to be read by people in Athabasca. I value the convection oven, air conditioning, topical steroids, digital downloads, and antibiotics. If I went through a day noting the ways in which I am better off because of science, I am certain that there would be hundreds of entries, beginning with the alarm on my iPhone.

I also believe firmly and unabashedly in magic, but more about that, in a moment.

The day after I finished reading Liss’s novel, I watched “CBS Sunday Morning,” which featured a story on charisma. The topic was addressed first in the context of Republican presidential candidates, and then moved on to charisma as a universal phenomenon. Towards the end of the story, the reporter visited a laboratory in which scientists had developed a device that measured one’s charisma. Worn around the neck, it resembled a squared-off flask. Apparently, charisma was measured based on how the wearer’s speech patterns and frequency of gesture compared to those of quantifiably “charismatic” folk. The mental détente between magic and science ended abruptly as I watched a bearded academic type explain his device. Charisma is magic, and I find the attempt to measure and explain it to be horrifying. I feel the same way about body language analysis, the use of pheromones in perfume, and magazine stories about the “ideal” male and female face. Leave a tender moment alone, and all that.

My brother points out that no wars have been caused by the irrational beliefs of scientists, and I’ll give him that. On the other hand, there are stones that may profitably be left unturned. I don’t want to know everything, and I don’t want every beautiful, mysterious, inexplicable thing in my world to be quantified. I see a strong case for researching causes and cures for diseases and figuring out how to keep the world moving without depending on fossil fuel. I admire, although I do not personally understand the drive and focus of people who will doggedly try again and again to figure out why a certain gene mutates in a certain way.

What I do not admire is the eye-rolling derision with which Persons of Science dismiss the reported experiences or beliefs of others because they are neither quantifiable nor reproducible. Presumably, the scientific community knows with certainty that there is no life after death because they have, themselves, been dead. They know, therefore, that there are no ghosts, there is no reincarnation, there is no heaven, there is nothing. All persons, religions and civilizations believing otherwise are, or were simply operating without benefit of modern science. There is no ESP, there is no magic, there is no God, and even the matters of charisma, romantic attraction and the love between a mother and a baby are governed by patterns, chemicals and neuropeptides. (Note: I am not really sure what neuropeptides are, but it sounded good). Why is it that we can believe that there are particles too small to be seen by the strongest microscope, but we cannot believe that our spirits persist in some form after the end of our corporeal existence? Why is one of those things “Science,” and the other “Bullshit?”

There are just things we don’t know, and maybe we’ll never know, and probably that’s okay. I will continue to believe that the uniqueness of snow flakes, and the webs of spiders are beyond rational explanation. I will continue to believe that my cat is communicating with some ancient spirits in this 100-year-old house when he stands on the post at the foot of the stairs, on his hind legs, waving his paws in the air. I will continue to respect anyone who believes in a higher power, whether they turn to the Bible, the Dhammapada or the leaves of an ancient Oak tree.

Because I don’t know different, or better, and neither does anyone else.

Consider the Bee

There is much in this world that leads us to believe that as humans, we are superior to other life forms. We have opposable thumbs, and the kind of intellect and consciousness that allow us to build more than a hive or a dam and shape our future with intellect rather than instinct. We have religions that teach us that we are “stewards” of the earth, as if we had somehow been handed a title by an unseen force who we may actually have invented.

We do not, often, look at ants as they carry a fallen comrade across our bathroom floor and consider whether we would do the same. We worry about how they got into our house, and how best to kill them. No one is going to be bothered to carry every ant, spider and fly outside – they are, after all, encroaching in our homes with their dirty little feet. We particularly hate stinging creatures like bees, hornets, and wasps. We say things like “I see a purpose for bees, at least honey bees, but the other ones don’t do anything useful.”

We are irrational, sentimental and blind about the earth. We love our own pets, and Bambi, and national parks, the sight of an untrammeled field of Purple Vetch by the highway or a perfect ripe strawberry. We also develop land that is the habitat of creatures, mess up the food chain, pollute the air and water, cut down forests to make houses and paper, drive cars down the block, and encourage farmers to grow cattle feed and raise animals in tiny pens that make them better food sources for people. More meat, more eggs, more milk, because we are exercising stewardship and dominion over the land. Because the land belongs to us and it is our right. Right?

Still, we crave nature even as we continue to destroy it. We plant gardens, feed birds, travel to unspoiled places and marvel at the miracle of a naturally-occurring waterfall, a spider web glistening with dew, flowers that open only at night and seem to glow white in the moist darkness of a summer night. No matter how many Disney’s, Dollywood’s, Imax theaters, French restaurants and pristine golf courses we create, most of us still feel the pull of a giant Harvest moon, a meteor shower, or a story about the way that elephants mourn. We still feel small and insignificant as we look out on the ocean or up at a mountain range. We are not the boss of this earth, but participants in a cooperative venture, doing our part alongside the worms that turn the earth and the rivers that carry water. If anything, our ability to dream and plan makes us more responsible to protect and preserve our habitat rather than destroying it.

Which leads me to this video, made by a kind of remarkable person who I have never met, but who I believe to be a kindred spirit.   I started the day reading about local farmers making a comeback growing not food, but corn and soy to feed Asian cattle, and I was sad. Then I read about legislation that would open the doors to wider use of genetically modified crops in my state and I was sadder. Then I saw this video, and I knew that there was still a balance in the world between those who would dominate and those who would coexist with respect, humility and compassion. Thank you, Algis Kemezys.