The Church and Me

Mythic literature is full of stories involving twins. And the hostile brother motif shows up frequently. I wrote about this theme in my previous post, the story of the Swine Herders. And I made the outlandish claim that Gemini, the sign of the “twins,” rules Pigs. It is an observation I made regarding the backstory to the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley). My presumption given the structure of the old Irish tales is that the stories may be older than the bible. The oral tradition was intact on the Emerald Isle long after writing preserved and displaced the the tradition on the mainland, where story and writing merged into scripture. In Ireland I think the oral tradition maintained a solemn place of honor and practice, made sacred by tribal bards and druids who remained faithful to their metaphysical precepts, in part due to the island’s isolation from the European continent. It is no more conjectural to presume that Irish myth is far richer than tradition presumes than it is to assess whole cloth from swatches of time, say from ancient Greece, based on a few shards of pottery, or on fragments of writing found on parchment recovered from an archeological dig. Having a map at my disposal presents an enormous help and advantage. I am able to develop a more complete picture.

Gray Catbirds

This morning a pair of Gray Catbirds landed on my window screen, twinning. Gripping the grid with their talons, suspended just above my right shoulder and not 2 feet away from my desk. They perched a good while. The one on the right held a juicy worm in its beak. The one on the left appeared to be coveting the worm. I was half curious if that worm might grow into a Bull someday. Birds have never grabbed hold of my window screen like that before. No harm. No foul. I guess. Or is it fowl? They let go easily enough and flew off in a low arc under the Japanese maple tree, chasing each other to the line of hemlocks that border our property and the grade school. Pinched between two massive black walnut trees, the line of hemlocks keep watch over the grave of our family dog, Chance. “Socrates fence,” I called the scraggily row in a whisper one morning. I talked like that to my dog as though she were listening. We took our daily stroll between the trees. But we did not go far in her old age. Just down to her usual spot so she could take care of business and get some exercise. The experience of watching the birds, flitter and fray over a worm was kind of fascinating so up close, made all the more intriguing by the experience I had the day before and which made the birds coming in for a landing on my screen feel almost supernatural. I was making notes in my journal. As it happened, about the previous day’s daily ‘constitution,’ a 6-mile loop I walk each day. Yesterday was special. I stopped in my usual place for a pitstop and to take care of business. Suddenly, I heard some rustling in the leaves behind me. “Wow!” I thought to myself, too inconvenienced to turn around. “That sounds way bigger than a squirrel.” My imagination was stirred after having just read an account of a grizzly path on Chicagof Island off the coast of Alaska. John Eldredge tells a compelling story in his new book, Fathered by God. And he uses the grizzly path as an apt analogy, making the point of how important it is to find your path in life. Normally I would be listening to a podcast on my walk, but synchronicity intervened, and that morning my ears were naked and alert. I chose to be more in sync with nature, to listen to the birds. Otherwise I might not have noticed the rustling at all. There are micro moments that scream “pay attention.” And so, glad to have my faculties available I was listening, and as I did, I slowly turned around. Slowly! Afterall, what if it was a grizzly staring me in the face? Holding my breath inside a lump in my throat, my heart skipped a beat. I turned.

Patterns

We are supposed to learn what we ‘need’ to learn from our parents. A psychological theory that presupposes a process that has been working for tens of thousands of years. Eldredge is speaking specifically to men in his new book. And to this process. I think the suggestion at the opening is that sons need a path to follow. And until recently, our fathers provided direction in life analogous to getting our feet underneath us and getting onto the right track. A natural order of things. But today, fathers need to do a better job leading their sons. And although this process works well for bears, we humans for the most part, have made a mess of things.

Grizzlies have trod the same path for millennia, etching patterns of behavior deeply into their being, instinctually they know what path to take in life and how to optimize their best chance for survival. They follow in their father’s footsteps. We are not bears but historically son’s took up their father’s craft, joining the same guilds and continuing “the family business.” Following in their father’s footsteps. Noel Tyl discusses this concept in his book Vocations. I will speak more to this book and Noel’s breakthrough approach in another post. Until then, I think it is fair to say that patrimony forced the issue as to which “path” to take in life, a collective pressure created by custom and by law, mixed in with the religious doctrine, that supported the idea of the family estate being bequeathed to male progeny. Often, the first son stood to inherit the entire estate. But like the fossilized footprints captured by time, imprinted by one of those ancient grizzlies, embedded and frozen in stone, the bear does not change his ways. He finds his footing but not by choice. He is compelled along that path by instinct. The bear simply follows his father, who followed his father, and so on, all the way back to the first bear who originally walked the path. We have for the most part fallen away from this pattern, in many cases we have veered far off the paths our fathers trampled, and in some cases this has been a good thing, especially in the case of a wayward and degenerative role models. Bears do not have these issue because there is only one way to go. There is no choice in the matter.

Boys abandoned by their fathers do not have the luxury to learn from them. And growing up potentially creates havoc in the young mind, unfinished business. Certain rites of passage within the stages of development apparently cannot be delegated. If a boy misses out on these moments, there is an absence, a presence missing, a hole is left in the psyche. Life begins with a deficit in the soul and the numinous spirit goes seeps out. A vital connection is severed. Clarissa Pinkola Estes or Mary Pipher have contended similar narratives regarding the wounded child, only from the point of view of the young girl. Their powerful stories instruct us on what our daughters stand to lose risking such loss, and not just our daughters, but their brothers, our sons and indeed all of us who carry their pain. 

So, there I was at my designated pitstop. And ever so slowly I turned half expecting to see a black bear. We do not have grizzlies in the area, but black bears are plentiful, and we have spotted them from time to time. Sure enough, as I turned there was no bear, but instead a beautiful young buck was standing there. The woods let out a big sigh of relief and everything suddenly became still. Nothing moved. Not a leaf or a critter anywhere. Just the two of us standing there, staring at each other and taking in each other’s silence. He was curious. I was in awe. He was the apparition of a young prince. “Hey buddy? How long have you been here?” I whispered. He just stood there eyes blinking. Unperturbed. Ears twitching in my direction like small radar detectors angling around twigs. He was instinctively on the lookout for hunter’s gear I think or perhaps wondering if my canine teeth would show. Still, nothing. We were frozen in time. Quiet. Immobile. Calm. Just prior to turning, I had this sense that something, or someone was there behind me. There was a presence. I felt a tap on the shoulder as it were. And although after the fact I now realize that it was “just a deer,” I also learned that he was a deer in his youth, no longer a fawn and not quite a buck either. Like a lost boy whose father fell off the path and deserted his child. Leaving the youngster there in the weeds. My new friend was clearly caught in that in between phase, the critical stage of development where we are especially vulnerable to being wounded. He was an adolescent. But strangely, he was not flustered in the least. He had great poise. The poise of a prince. And it was simply amazing to be in his presence. I felt a distinct and deep impression that he would be great one day and ascend the hierarchy, claiming the throne among stags in the woods. He possessed a meek look of majesty, not shyness exactly, but greatness, and not because he wanted it so much, but because it would find him and be thrust upon him. He would gain power not by sheer force but by a growing humility within him. His kind would put their trust in him, and he would not betray that trust, not for fame and not for all the wealth in the woods. He would be honored to lead them, to serve. And that was his comportment; that was how he carried himself. It was the essence of who he is, a caring, protector. This was the presence he projected.

Deer and most animals are imbued with spirit. We know this perhaps from personal experience and from studying American Indian attitudes and beliefs. Indians held animals and the earth with a reverence that most people have never learned. There is a monk that sometimes crosses paths with me on my walk. He has on numerous occasions stopped and picked up a dead squirrel. He removes the carcass from road and places it in the woods. Before picking up the dead animal he says a prayer over it. Then after he finds a good resting place, he steps back and says another prayer. He does this in the middle of a run. When he suddenly stops regardless of how many squirrels line the road. Word about the monk must have gotten out among the squirrels because the more prayers the monk says on their behalf the more squirrels seem to come to die the good death just to receive his blessing. Religion I think grows in a similar fashion. People, like squirrels, get ‘a little nuts’ about religion. Some mornings he can barely run 10 yards before stopping again and performing the ritual again and again. The sincere act and reverence he showed this fellow earth creature was truly an extraordinary thing to behold. He was unaware that I was a witness. But as we passed one another we smiled. I place my hand on my heart and bowed my head. He did the same back to me. “I am no squirrel,” I thought to myself.  

Essence of Presence

The spirit of the young buck touched my spirit in some subtle way. Not like ordering coffee at Starbucks. We were caught in a trance that could not be rushed. His spirit reminded me of our soul connection to Mother Earth. I got it! Slowly, we stepped sideways as if testing our reflection in a mirror. I took another step to give the young buck back his privacy and he jolted off, but not deeper into the wood, he just scampered into the clearing. We were even closer now after he maneuvered around some brush. Then he stopped as if to have a good look at me, and to show off his royal pose. His bulbous eyes wide and alert. Communing. He was entreating me to engage with him somehow. To follow. Why? What was I missing? He bowed his head and might have charged if his antlers were fully in, but then he threw his right paw slightly forward and up. He paused. His leg bent in faux kneeling position midair, like he was presenting his hand to me, his subject, for a kiss. He then tossed me a quick glance in an advanced warning that he was leaving and then he was gone. Ghosted. I laughed out loud because it looked like his white tail was chasing him and try as he might he could not outrun it, jumping through a tapestry of lime green pillows of leaves, and cushioned by trees. He was comfortable there in the woods. Comfortable running. He bounced and glided effortlessly almost as if he were running on the palm of God. I was awestruck! And while recording all of this in my journal, and precisely as I began to write the word “presence” reflecting on my encounter with the young buck, wrestling my thoughts to better understand the “footprint of the grizzly” and the “presence of the prince,” wondering how I was supposed to connect them. And then, at that precise moment the birds latched onto my window screen.

One Path: monism

The great grizzly bears on the Island off the coast of Alaska, according to Eldredge, still follow the same path of their forefathers. Probably going back in time to when the glaciers receded back onto their shelf. But nearly every place else in the world, touched by modern life, human beings have fallen away from the path of their fathers. An ancient pattern has been broken. Lessons have been lost. Identities, unreconcilably altered, confused. Eldredge’s book came in the mail as gift from my brother. A small irony in that I had received another book just the day before from my barber. “Ask me anything. What do you need to know?” my barber asked, expertly snipping and taming my Covid-19 mop. So, being the wise guy that I am I asked, “How do you know what you know is the truth?” I was thinking more about the efficacy of wearing masks in the time of Covid-19 and the ensuing debate exploding about freedom versus cooperation.1 He proceeded to share (preach) in an impressive manner and speak sincerely about what was in his heart. He is a good man, a family man. And he knows his scripture. He studies The Quran and gave me a copy. But he is also a squirrel, or a grizzly. I am not.

I like to randomly open books and see what jumps out at me. On page 206 in the Khan version of the book my barber gave me, in a chapter called Bees, scripture says, “When you read the Quran, seek Gods protection from Satan, the rejected one. Surely, he has no power over those who believe and put their trust in the Lord; he has power only over those who are willing to follow and associate others with God.”2 An ardent and stubborn rebuke of Christianity especially because Jesus, as Muslims claim, is merely an ‘associate’ with God.

My heritage is Christian, and so disclaiming the Trinity is not exactly an easy sell. My beef with Christianity lies elsewhere but not with the ‘idea’ of the Trinity. So unsurprisingly, this claim felt manipulative when I read it. And as another friend put it to me regarding The Quran, also a Muslim, “the book is very unoriginal.” The first chapter I turned to was called Cattle, which is in keeping with the progression of our discussion from Gemini to Taurus. And here I found further insistence that followers toe the line. The Bull either a faithful and loyal adherent, or an equally stubborn apostate. “It is those who have faith, and do not mix their faith with wrongdoing, who will be secure, and it is they who are rightly guided.”The message feels explicitly coercive but no less than the old testament in places, which similarly promises exclusivity, of being ‘the chosen ones,’ a bribe offering to belong and harness the loyalty of the mob. Kind of like Facebook’s early strategy. We want to be on the winning team and cherish the thought that we might be chosen first. There is an atavistic behavior buried in our brains somewhere that plays itself out in this respect, even on the playgrounds of elementary school around the world during recess. Religion essentially reflects some equivalent of this type of hope and promise. Some way of saying “my god is better than your god” if you make the team, and “my way is the only way,” if you wish to stay on the team. The first requirement is simple: “You must believe.” Without proof per se, which is what belief is, and besides requiring such proof paradoxically suggests weakness. So just follow the rules. Be strong. Get in line! The underlying commandment is to follow. And there is no choice about it except to decide. Walk the path, in the footsteps of those who have gone before you, like a good grizzly bear. There is only one way, “[He has enjoined], ‘This is My straight path; so follow it, and do not follow other ways: that will lead you away from His path.’4

The Salmon of Knowledge

The first thing that came to mind when I opened the book from my brother the following day was how thoughtful it was of him to think of me. Receiving the package was a surprise and heartwarming without even knowing what the book was about. We used to be close, but time and distance has put some air between us. We share a common experience with the author, our personal lives entangled in a story that we have not really talked about much with each other. Keeping silent. Obeying the “Private! Keep Out!” signs. But the “story” apparently does not belong to just my brother and me. The story appears to be much more universal than I thought. A story of many men. I devoured the book like a hungry bear, his nose in a honey pot. A huge Copper salmon caught between my paws. The salmon hungry itself devoured 9 hazelnuts that had fallen into the Well of Wisdom, one nut from each of the 9 hazelnut trees circling the well.5 I was possessed by the spirit of  Fionn from the Old Irish tale (bradán feasa: The Salmon of Knowledge) and the book was like the salmon. The pages burned the thumb of my inner child. Reflexively, I put my thumb in my mouth and sucked on it which is how the knowledge apparently moves from the nut, to the fish, to me. The things I learned in 222 pages amazed me.

Eldredge’s Christian take on choosing the “right path” is replete with gospel quotes, literature, and movie references. He has an engaging, breezy writing style. And like a boat hitting white water rapids up ahead he can turn a story upside down in unexpected ways which keeps the story moving, even though you see the rough waters approaching. But unlike the bear in the opening lines of Fathered by God, my father was AWOL. Not at first, but somewhere around the age 12. Like many others from our generation, my brothers and I did not exactly have our paths pointed out to us. I suppose our path can be metaphorically speaking, representative in stories as the potential for a spiritual life, but sometimes that means the “road less traveled.” Our religious instruction as young boys did not get much beyond elementary catechism. Mom kept the family intact and would “take me to church” along with the rest of the family. She singlehandedly held the family together after dad abandoned her, and her 9 children. In time my brothers and I began standing in the back of the church instead of sitting together as a family. At first it was a small “sacrifice” and an act of courtesy to find a seat for our mother and sisters. The “manly” thing to do was to let the women sit. Boys and men should stand in the rear of the church. Back then it was standing room only, not today. Today, there are plenty of seats. Catholicism loses 8 parishioners in the U.S. for every new parishioner to join the church according to Bishop Bannon from Los Angeles, CA… At the same time, Islam is growing exponentially faster and with a book that is less complex than the Christian bible, a monistic view, like an astrology system designed with only a Sun and without regard to any other planets. The “sacrifice” soon became an act of defiance. A fracturing at the family level, but also at the meta level for the church. Perhaps related to the issues Eldredge dredges up in Fathered by God, the cracks began to show. The fracture occurred silently and almost in slow motion and then repeated in pew after pew, from one family to the next family, until all the pews emptied. We began to stand in the back of the church by choice. Even when seats were available, we declined to take our place. And that eventually led to slipping out the front door once mass started. There we would loiter with the newspaper boy, smoking cigarettes, discussing sports, and regaling over last night’s party. Our rebellious behavior peaked I think when one time we got high on the front steps of the church while mass was going on. Eventually, our faith lost, we expressed our agnosticism by not going to church at all… not believing. Not caring.

Mass was basically boring and dull. The rituals were rigid, rote and delivered by drones. If I ever thought that worshipping properly might “save me” maybe I would have given church a second chance, but even now, I am doubtful. Like the apostle Thomas I was a sceptic. Still am. I mean why would anyone stay in a room and listen to “crazy” talk about life after death and people being raised from the dead and such. And many of these same people deny that astrology is even a thing. The utter disbelief and a total lack of sensibility for all things considered “faith,” of congregating in a crowded room on hard wooden benches seemed absurd on its face. Standing, kneeling, sitting, repeat… in unison. On queue. Like little white toy poodles. The “Word,” to my ear, lacked any connection to reality, which I guess made me a heathen, or an infidel.

“Take Me to Church” exploded on the scene in 2013, 40 years after my mother took to packing all 9 of us up in the Chevy station wagon before heading off to mass. The song, by the Irish band Hozier, became a popular anti-gay-bashing “hit,” and went viral. The video portrays a homophobic gang abusing a young gay man, but the songwriter insists that the “relationship” he describes in the song could be any relationship and not just a gay relationship. The reference to “church” likened his own experience within relationship to religion, where the “church” like his former love interest, seeks to exercise complete authority over the individual/him. He felt as though everything he believed about himself was gone, but not in a self-loathing way.4 Love at the start is full of promise. But lovers, like the church, eventually oversteps their authority. Hozier, thought that the condemnation of same sex relationships by the church was an especially apt example of this overstep. The music video captures the fear and misunderstanding of the mob, and the incongruency of an institution professing love while at the same time fomenting hate toward certain “sins” and certain types of behavior. I like what Hozier did with his song, comparing relationships to religious orthodoxy. How we suspend our “beliefs” and displace them with the “beliefs” of others, sacrificing our authenticity for the sake of the relationship surviving (the squirrels). In this way, people become “enmeshed” in relationship and as the argument goes, we can similarly become enmeshed within our respective religions as well. But rather than religion being the end goal, Sri Aurobindo suggests that religion is something of a baby step within the broad cycles of cycles. An infatuation of spirit not too different from our first love. He put it like this: “Religion is the first attempt of man to get beyond himself and beyond the obvious and material facts of his existence.”6 Relationships too help us get beyond ourselves.

The Church and Me was the title of a song I had written back in the day when I was considering a career as a singer song writer. So, it was something of a surprise to learn that Hozier and I share the same birthday. Wildly we wrote songs that convey similar themes but with many years in between. The urban dictionary meaning for “take me to church,” seems to relate to anything that gets our undivided attention. Something that moves our spirit. And wouldn’t you know? Just this morning as I was finishing up this post, my wife and I went “to church” this morning. Church for us is the great outdoors and this morning we were on a newly constructed rail trail along the Ashokan Reservoir here in the Hudson Valley. The morning was perfect, with an immaculate blue sky, the color of the Blessed Mother’s robes. The white birch trees were popping in relief of a sea of green foliage overwhelming the brown undertones where shadows dance. The air was clean, clear, and warm but not yet scorching. We will hit 97 degrees today, so it was nice to get our run in early. We both put in long difficult days yesterday, so we were going to take it easy and decided to walk a bit and warm up gradually before breaking into a jog. The scenery was so beautiful and enjoyable that I am sure Emerson himself would have been awestruck. But then, as we headed north along the trail that cut between two 30-foot rock cliffs, a sizeable stone hit the ground with a thump. The impact and randomness caught us off guard and was somewhat startling. Mountain bikers were coming south at a good clip and passed us within seconds of the rock rolling to a stop. “Man, they would have been hit if they were just seconds faster,” I thought silently to myself as I simultaneously looked up the cliff face on south side to see where the rock had dislodged itself from. And I could not believe my eyes. “It’s a bear!” My god she was gorgeous. Maybe a yearling or two. Not too big but big enough. I scrambled for my phone. Fumbled a little bit and finally had the camera opened. I wanted a good shot for this post, but suddenly she started climbing down the shear of the cliff. The rocks did not appear that amenable to getting up or down so I had no reason to expect she would make the descent. We were safe. Out of harm’s way I thought. But when I had my camera open and in focus, I saw through the lens that she threw her front paws down over the ledge, and onto a lower step. “Holy shit!” I said out loud. “She’s coming down!” We were literally 30 feet away from the bear and not 2 feet from the base of the cliff. She had our attention. No doubt about it. We were believers in that moment. I missed the picture when I took my phone away from my eyes to confirm what I was seeing. We were directly in her path. There was really no time to loiter, although we experienced a sense of thrill and danger being this close to the wild. I think that we are so conditioned to respect the bear’s space and nature that without missing a beat my wife and I got moving quickly in the northern direction again, we needed to get a safe distance between us. We were not exactly fearful. Cautious and excited I would say better described our state. But we hurried along and at the same time, we simply could not resist looking back: 1.) to see if the bear were following us, and 2.) just to have another look at her. She was a marvel to see her so up close and in the wild. I did not feel the “presence of the prince.” Not at all like my experience with the young buck. But the bear clearly saw us. And she seemed oblivious to the fact that we were in the middle of her pathway and did not seem to care in the least. I think we maintained a ‘safe’ enough distance from the bear. AND I think we were close enough. Close enough to feel the “spirit” move in us. And close enough to feel her presence as a bear, her essence. She needs to feel secure within an environment that is full of abundance. And because her spirit was not threatened, she had no cause to be hostile. She was safe. We were safe. We moved to give the bear the right of way and yielded her path back to her. She was magnificent. We were exhilarated. She was beautiful. She took us to church this morning. And so, it goes: The Church and Me.   

“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”

Ralph Waldo Emmerson

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