Monthly Archives: October 2009

“The Quest for God”

I never get over how hardcore and useful the Ann Arbor Dominicans’ children’s shows are. Their TV series, Truth in the Heart, has different weekdays set aside for different ages of kids; but every age group is taught challenging material in an approachable but not syrupy way.

Today, I happened to channel surf onto the show, and they were talking about prayer. Apparently they’ve been running a prayer unit for the last few shows. They had previously defined five kinds of prayer (adoration, praise, thanksgiving, petition, intercession) and three methods of prayer (vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation). Today was their show on meditation.

They treated the subject not as something recondite, but as a perfectly normal thing for anyone to do. (Which it is.) Explaining it as “a quest for God”, they then explained how to do it, covering a wide range of orthodox approaches in very simple language, and then demonstrating how you could do it. Being Dominicans, of course they chose to meditate on a Scriptural passage with the kids. (Lectio divina!) The part I liked was that Sister advocated that the kids not regard it as something they do themselves, or as a job that has to be completed. They were to ask God why a passage stuck out, what it meant, what they were supposed to learn. And the whole prayer period was spent trying to concentrate, that was fine; and that also gave you an opportunity to ask God to help you concentrate.

All of this followed on talk earlier in the episode (by way of a long passage from a saint’s writings, which I enjoyed) about how everything you did in a day counted as “praying without ceasing”, so long as you did it with an intention to praise God (or rather, so long as you made the intention and then didn’t consciously go back on it or do anything bad). So this made it very easy for the kids to understand that trying to pray and meditate is prayer. You don’t have to succeed; you do have to show up.

This sort of sensible catechetical material provides kids with a toolbox for their whole life of faith. It’s representative of the quality presentation of every other topic touched on Faith in the Heart, whether it be of faith or morals.

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Shony On, Harvest Moon

You get a great deal of nonsense talked in this country about how pagan All Hallows’ Eve is, and how every single thing we do is an occult reference to some pagan god. (Even if the custom is proved to have started in 1952.)

This bright and cheerful school of interpretation has been popular in various times and places. One was Lewis, out in the Hebrides. Lewis had been Christian for over a thousand years by the time these particular interpreters showed up, but they Knew Better.

The inhabitants of Lewis should have been dream parishioners for any clergy. They were full of pious Christian customs, treating going to church on Sundays with all the solemnity of a pilgrimage, and even falling to their knees and saying an Our Father as soon as a church came into sight over the horizon. They were just as courteous even with chapels long-abandoned, on islands where nobody lived anymore, when they went there to hunt — being sure to pray there morning and evening. But this sort of piety would not do. It must be stamped out.

Hallowtide customs were no exception. It must have been perfectly well-known to most people involved that “Seonaidh”, pronounced Shoney, is a common Irish/Scottish version of the name “Johnny”. (“Ian” and “Sean/Shane” are John.) St. John the Evangelist was one of the most popular saints in Christendom, often associated with fishing matters because of his original profession. He also was associated with alcoholic beverages and snakes, because legend says he once survived an attempt at poisoning his wine by saying grace, at which the poison turned into a serpent and slithered away. (All of which was used as a story illustrating the verse about Christians surviving poisons and not getting bit by snakes.) In Germany and many other places, it’s thought fitting to ask St. John’s blessing on wine, and wine is made to be drunk on his day.

But Mr. Martin Martin, a gentleman of Scotland, tells the story in 1703, in his famous work used by Johnson as a travel guide, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland:

“The inhabitants of this island [Lewis] had an ancient custom to sacrifice to a Sea God call’d Shony at Hallowtide, in the manner following: The Inhabitants round the Island came to the church of St. Mulvay, having each Man his Provision along with him; every Family furnish’d a Peck of Malt, and this was brew’d into Ale; one of their number was pickt out to wade into the Sea up to the middle, and carrying a Cup of Ale in his Hand, standing still in that posture, cry’d out with a loud Voice saying. Shony, I give you this Cup of Ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of Sea-ware, for inriching our Ground the ensuing Year; and so threw the Cup of Ale into the Sea. This was perform’d in the Night-time; at his return to Land, they all went to Church, where there was a Candle burning upon the Altar; and then standing silent for a little time, one of them gave a Signal, at which the Candle was put out, and immediately all of them went to the Fields, where they fell a drinking their Ale, and spent the remainder of the Night in Dancing, and Singing, &c.

“THE next Morning they all return’d home, being well satisfy’d that they had punctually observ’d this Solemn Anniversary, which they believ’d to be a powerful means to procure a plentiful Crop. Mr. Daniel, and Mr. Kenneth Morison, Ministers in Lewis, told me they spent several Years, before they could perswade the vulgar Natives to abandon this ridiculous piece of Superstition, which is quite abolish’d for these 32 Years past.”

Sea-ware is Scots for seaweed, which is indeed the only fertilizer these people could afford. (They needed to eat or sell the fish.) It was an incredibly hardscrabble life, and they were praying for survival when they prayed for seaweed.

It’s fairly clear that what used to happen was that they’d make a quick holiday ale (not terribly alcoholic!), stand St. John to a cup of it and ask his intercession (especially for their new ale, and for seaweed, which looks snakey), and then go into church at midnight and hear the first possible All Saints’ Day mass. Then they’d break their fast, have a big party, and go home in the morning. In short, a perfectly normal Catholic church festival. Unusual to have it at night; but then, it gets dark pretty early that time of year when you’re that far north. They probably needed all the daylight for work.

After the Reformation, the priests and the monasteries were driven out of the Hebrides and the Orkneys as everywhere else. But there were no rich “livings” in these remote places. So they were not replaced, except in the larger islands, with Church of Scotland or Presbyterian ministers — and certainly not with the same amount of coverage. For the most part, people had to gather on Sunday for prayer services all by themselves; and yet they did. They kept up their faith, and the pious customs too, on their own initiative. In fact, it took Christian ministers to stamp out these ancient Christian customs.

So the next time somebody tells you everything is all pagan, you remember how easy it is to paint an Apostle and Gospel-writer as a Lovecraftian Celtic sea god, and an innocent holiday ale and ceilidh as a horrible pagan propitiation ceremony. Sadly, many anti-Halloween arguments are really anti-Catholic arguments, dressed in anti-pagan clothes. Catholics, and any Christians who believe in the communion of saints, need to watch out for this.

The restaurant chain “Shoney’s” is named after the nickname of its founder, one Alex Schoenbaum. Therefore, nobody need worry that Big Boy is a Sea God.

Some online sites talk about this Lewis figure as “Shorrey”, but that’s an obvious scanning error for Shony.

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Barmbrack for Halloween!

If you want to do something your Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestors did at Halloween, make some barmbrack.

(Oooooh, sounds scary….)

It’s a rich cake-y bread made with fruit inside (making it speckled, or “breac”). The more “correct” pronunciation is barnbrack (from “bairin breac”), but this is how I know it. Traditionally, it was a soda bread; and in fact, many Americans think soda bread is always a fruit bread, not the plain soda bread of tradition! (Barmbrack is probably an easier sell at festivals and at home on the table, which is probably why this idea spread.) Many people use yeast, also.

You are supposed to bake various trinkets inside the bread/cake, which “predict” the finder’s future in the next year. Like most harvest games, this is most interested in the ring, predicting that the person will get married in the next year. (And yes, if this sounds like King Cake or King of the Bean or other baking games… well, obviously there were Martha Stewarts back in medieval times, too.)

If that sounds too complicated, you can peel apples, throw the peeling over your shoulder, and then try to read names and words in the peelings. (And your siblings will probably try to make the peelings spell something for you….) :) This sort of thing is all about cheap laughs, so the funnier the better.

Bobbing for apples is another cheap, fun harvest-time game played at Halloween in Wales, Scotland, et al. (Apparently some people hang an apple from the ceiling by a string, which doesn’t make it any easier to bite without hands. This is called “Snap Apple”.)

Besides apples, another old-time Halloween treat was freshly harvested nuts. The Irish also like to eat colcannon, a very tasty potato/cabbage dish. (Freshly harvested potatoes, of course. You can see a theme here.)

Bonfires are a big part of the Irish Halloween, and torchlight parades, paper lantern-light parades, and turnip lantern-light parades were other fun, cheap things to do all over Europe. (And Japan, and….)

Often, before all holy days, kids would traipse around collecting alms for the poor, the dead, and themselves; or playing traveling songsters for the day (thus meriting some cash which they could spend for holiday treats). None of this stuff is pagan. (Though some of it is pretty universal –humans will always like cheap games, food, and fire.)

Most holidays were associated with various kissing games, dances, and other romantic fare, because there were only so many times a year when marriageable young people could take a lot of time off to court or meet other marriageable young people. This tends to be lost in modern Halloweens. (But we’re adept at making every holiday all about bawdiness, except less fun than that.)

But spooooooky stories were always part of Halloween, too. (Especially since ghosts were usually poor souls begging for Masses to get them out of Purgatory, or souls of the damned being wicked or being a warning.) So the European Christians of yore wouldn’t be surprised by people dressing up as ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity beasties. They’d be surprised we’re not doing it at Carnival time, that’s all. (Which would at least make the racier costumes make more sense, because sometimes things did get wild before Lent.)

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Don’t Mess with the Prima Donna!

Via the comment box at Holy Whapping, an epic tale of operatic derring-do _off_ the stage.

Somewhere in San Francisco, there’s a mugger who may have reconsidered his chosen profession.

The consequences of that act of all-out, totally committed self-defense are a bit scary, though. With two broken bones in less than a week, it’s fairly clear that she will be sucking down calcium like it’s going out of style — and she can’t really take it in dairy product form on the nights she’s singing Ernani. She’ll be dragging around a cast, which is also tiring, and dealing with the pain on both her pegs. She can’t take too much pain reliever, or she’ll lose voice control. At the same time, she can’t let her body’s unhappiness affect her voice; she will have to strive to be relaxed in every muscle. And when she’s done with Ernani, she is no doubt scheduled for many, many gigs that also can’t be skipped. She can’t just go home and veg, unless she wants to be poor; and she has to keep practicing for hours every day, no matter what happens.

On the bright side, this sort of thing would distract you from every other worry. Your brain could hardly spare the energy for stage fright. :)

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More Stuff Gaijin Fans Don’t Get.

I’ve been feeling pretty proud of myself lately, what with catching pretty much every historical reference people threw at me in the animes. Ah, well, nothing like learning humility….

Tonight I was reading yet another title in the excellent Judge Ooka and Seikei mysteries by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. (They’re short YA/kids novels, but they won the Edgar for good reason.) This one revolved around a puppet theater — the kind with the almost-lifesized puppets manipulated by three puppeteers dressed in black. I was familiar with this “manipulative entertainment”, and I always enjoy it when it shows up in anime.

But then, the story told me something I didn’t know, or had heard and did not remember.

The puppeteers in classical bunraku don’t voice the characters. A single “narrator” voices all the characters, aided and abetted by his samisen-playing partner providing the background music.

Well. I guess that explains a lot about anime’s love affair with bunraku and puppeteers. The thing they never come out and say is that the “narrator” is the archetypal Japanese voice actor. Somewhere in their heads, they are in competition with that classical school as well as with all live-action actors.

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Slow Pitch Softball in Erie

Bishop Trautman, over in Erie, is a worthy shepherd in many ways and on many topics. God bless and keep him. But he’s got this bug in his ear about dynamic translation, and how the new translation is toooooo harrrrrrd for Bob and Mary Catholic to understannnnnd. Anyway, he gave a big lecture over at CUA (in DC) about this.

The amusing bit is that he said, “Did Jesus ever speak to the people of his day in words beyond their comprehension? Did Jesus ever use terms or expressions beyond his hearer’s understanding?”

Well, aside from the fact that Synagogue was probably all in Hebrew, not Aramaic or Greek, and Temple worship was surely in Hebrew… the Gospels say this about Jesus’ expressions:

Kid Jesus talking to Mary and Joseph, in Luke 2:50 — “But they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Parable of the Sower, Luke 8:10, 18 — ““The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’… Therefore, take heed how you listen. Whoever has [understanding] will be given more; whoever does not have it, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.”

Luke 9:45 — “But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they would not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.”

Luke 18:34 — “But the disciples did not understand any of these things. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.”

Matthew 16:6-9 — “Jesus said to them: ‘Take heed, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘We took no bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?'”

Mark 9:32 — “But they did not understand his saying, and they were afraid to ask him.”

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Preparing to Be Annoyed

Mercedes Lackey is one of the more popular fantasy writers. Not Rowling or Tolkien popular, but pretty darned popular. Compulsively readable. Prolific. Hence, influential.

Apparently, she’s decided to do a Mists of Avalon type of King Arthur story, all about Guenevere. Of course, my heart sunk. There was plenty of total crud written about Arthur before Mists of Avalon, but after? Shudder. This is what happens when you let a compulsively readable author like Bradley into the feminist canon, especially with a book where her usual display of issues becomes a technicolor all-song-and-dance musical revue of issues.

(Astonishingly, Bradley’s books deal with every injustice in the world against feminism, except for totally ignoring pedophilia. While she was living with a pedophilic husband who was one of the big NAMBLA guys, and who was abusing her kids and her friends’ kids in her own house. One of the most astoundingly sustained possessors of cognitive dissonance in all literary history, was Marion Zimmer Bradley.)

So anyway, I’m not really looking forward to reading this Lackey book; but I guess I have to, in order to keep up with what the little kiddies will be thinking about early Christianity and Welsh history. I’m not encouraged by the reviewer who says it’s all about a civilization having both cultures of goddess worship and worship of the White Christ.

First off, “the white Christ” is a Norse term. Maybe Saxon characters would call Him this, but Welsh or Briton ones?

Second, the Welsh culture was full of gods as well as goddesses. If you read carefully, you’ll see that the goddesses are fairly downtrodden by the patriarchal Welsh. Mostly, the women who symbolize sovereignty are getting kidnapped EVERY FIVE MINUTES for Deep Symbolic Reasons, and twice as often if their names include the particle “Gwen”. The virginal goddesses get raped a lot and conceal pregnancies a lot and live in fortresses away from men a lot. (Wonder why, given term one.)

So if the Goddess worship culture was so important in early Briton society, it wasn’t a very empowering influence for women, I’m thinking. Not going by the surviving legends.

Welsh women saints, on the other hand, at least get to kick butt before they get martyred, if they get martyred at all. If they get kidnapped, they get rescued (while converting everyone in reach). If they have kids, it ends happily.

So apparently, converting to Christianity was very empowering for women. If you go by the stories, anyway.

So yeah… I’m not exactly holding my breath that Lackey’s newest will be a scholarly exploration of Romano-Celtic religion and its interactions with Celtic Christianity (which was a lot cheerier religion when the Empire was leaving your butt to hang in the wind), or of the long fight of Christianity to free slaves and improve human dignity (especially that of women). I seriously doubt that anyone will say, “We fought to get out from under Rome’s heel so we could start burning people in wicker baskets again and knocking them on the head after hanging them so we could throw them in the bog for the gods? Um, I’ll just be over here, worshipping that God who insisted on sacrificing Himself to Himself, instead of demanding us.”

But of course, I could be wrong. I’d love it if I were.


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