Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Bible in a Year: Respect Your Elders

Readings: Exodus 25-26, Leviticus 19, Psalm 79

On Day 43 of Fr. Mike Schmitz's Bible in a Year podcast, I came across a line that made me pause. 

"You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man."

That's from Leviticus 19:32. 

Sometimes Leviticus is horrifying, as is much of the Old Testament. Other times you see surprising glimpses of compassion emerging from the angry deity of the Israelites. It's almost as if he's maturing as they mature as a people. (Hmm.) For example, elsewhere in Chapter 19, God reminds his people (twice) not to abuse the foreigners residing among them. Don't steal, lie, or swear false oaths. Don't rob or defraud your neighbor. Don't withhold the wages due to your workers. (In Catholicism, that's one of the sins that cries out to heaven.) Don't curse the deaf or lay stumbling blocks for the blind. Don't show injustice to the poor or partiality to the rich. Don't spread slander. Don't seek vengeance or hold a grudge. Don't cheat when using weights and measures. And most of all, love your neighbor as yourself. Shades of the Sermon on the Mount right there. All good stuff.

The people are also commanded not to get tattoos (v. 28), but that's been mostly forgotten these days. 

Then there's Verse 32. 

Now, I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I wasn't sure on first glance how many people reading this translation would understand what "hoary" means. Let's face it: It's not an everyday word. What followed "hoary," the admonition to honor the face of an old man, does give a clue to the context. And yes, it does mean, essentially, "white with age," like the hoarfrost. So, honor the gray-haired people among you. Show respect to your elders. 

As a guy with some gray on his temples and a lot on his face, I'm down with this whole idea of respecting the aged. We might ignore the ban on tattoos, but wouldn't we all be better off if we deferred to the wisdom of the aged? 

But I think this verse points to a potential problem with translations that put literalness over plain understanding. And this is why I like to have an abundance of Bible translations on hand. I thought this would present a good opportunity to do some comparisons, so let's dive in.

Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition: You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man. This is the translation Mike Schmitz uses for his podcast. And this particular verse, notably, is nearly identical to what appears in the King James. I'm generally a fan of the RSV-2CE for its formal prose and its literal translation tendencies. But sometimes, I'm left needing some clarity. This was one of those times.

English Standard Version, Catholic Edition: You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man. Proof that changing just a few words can make the difference between a difficult passage and one that sings. "You shall stand" is more powerful and direct than "You shall rise up," which could mean something like getting up from a reclining position, or even coming to life. (Rise, my minions.) And yes, "the gray head" just cuts to the chase and paints a clear picture. Excellent.

Douay-Rheims: Rise up before the hoary head, and honor the person of the aged man. So here it seems the RSV-2CE's King James-ish translation leaned into the traditional Catholic wording. One reason I don't often reach for the D-R (or the KJV for that matter, setting aside the problem of its incomplete Old Testament canon) is the archaic language. Scripture need not be dumbed down, but it should be immediately understandable.

Knox Bible: Rise up from thy seat in reverence for gray hairs; honor the aged. Typically beautiful prose from Msgr. Knox. Specifying "from thy seat" leaves no ambiguity about what "rise" means. "In reverence for gray hairs" is just wonderfully poetic. 

New Catholic Bible: You will stand up in the presence of those with gray hair, and honor the presence of those who are old. Not bad, but it takes a lot of words to make the point, and it's rather straightforward and bossy and, moreover, lacking in elegance. The repetition of "the presence of" suggests that the editors were trying to create some parallelism to give some good balance to the sentence structure. I'll give them points for that. Nice attention to prosaic detail. 

New American Bible: Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the old. Functional and serviceable, but loses the nuance that comes with referencing the gray hair. A little bit too straightforward. Typical of the NAB to miss the mark. 

New Living Translation, Catholic Edition: Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged. Not much different from the NAB, but at least it makes sense in a Bible that's meant to be written in everyday prose. The NAB can't seem to decide how it wants to present itself, so it just jumbles everything up and spits it out, without any regard for grace, nuance, or stylistic consistency. (Have I mentioned I don't like the NAB?)

Jerusalem Bible: You are to rise up before gray hairs, you are to honor old age. This gives us the same unclear "rise up" as RSV-2CE. And "honor old age" is maybe a bit off: It's the aged, not age itself, that is to be honored. I normally love the Jerusalem Bible for its poetic, conversational flow, but it doesn't always hit the spot. 

I think ESV-CE and Knox are my favorites for this verse.

An aside: It's interesting that the notes in the New American Bible say the prohibition on tattoos is probably meant only to prevent slaveholders from branding their slaves. Why that would be isn't specified. If you can drive an awl through a slave's earlobe (Exodus 21:6), why couldn't you tattoo him? It also cites the Mark of Cain as an example of a tattoo. Odd. But then the NAB's notes almost always are. (I forget if I mentioned I don't like the NAB.)

Not that the ceremonial laws are in force for Christians anymore. I just find it funny when devout Christians with tattoo sleeves start lecturing people about following the Bible to the letter. 

That's all for today.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

How Fiducia Supplicans Proves the Eastern Orthodox Were Right

President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

"We must obey God and not man!"
-- St. Peter, the first pope according to Catholic tradition, Acts 5:29

As a cradle Catholic, I can't help noticing the pickle that faithful Catholics find themselves in now. With Fiducia Supplicans, the Vatican has once again made a proclamation that sows confusion, typical for this papacy that doesn't seem to know how to let its yes be its yes and its no be its no. Somehow we're supposed to believe that this document doesn't change church teaching on human sexuality while simultaneously authorizing the blessing of couples in so-called "irregular" situations, including same-sex couples. The Vatican's justification is predicated on the idea that a couple is in some way different and distinct from the union they make up, with the result that a priest can bless the couple without blessing the union. As any thinking person can see, that's a distinction without a difference.

As I've mentioned, my interest this discussion is primarily in observing how the church is undermining the logical consistency present in its own body of teachings. I'm fascinated by how rules, laws, and regulations make the systems that they serve function smoothly. And that's mainly where I'm coming from. There's much that I admire about the church, but it doesn't run my life. To be clear, I don't have a problem with same sex-attracted people. For me, that's not what this is about.

What I'd like to do is comment on the predictable fallout over this document. Among the Catholic faithful, you basically have three camps. The first is the typical Catholic pew-sitter who either won't give Fiducia more than a passing thought or will argue that the church has always blessed sinners, and that it would therefore be "homophobic" not to extend a blessing to same-sex couples. I'd argue that these folks make up the vast majority of Catholics. They're the "Oh, but Pope Francis is so nice!" crowd. Poorly catechized and incurious, they'll hear disingenuous church leadership say that the document changes nothing about church teaching -- which is basically the stock company line that most bishops, including ours in Idaho, are going with -- and move on with their lives. Or, conversely, they'll persist in their failure to understand the difference between blessing sinners and blessing what the church considers unrepentant sin. In any event, these people are irrelevant to this discussion, much as their own faith life is largely irrelevant, given their complete lack of understanding of what their own church teaches. (I'm not being facetious here: Almost half of U.S. Catholics don't even know what the church's teaching on Eucharistic transubstantiation is, and fully two-thirds believe that the bread and wine used at communion are just symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ.) 

So let's look at the other two factions. First you have the so-called popesplainers, who insist that the pope is always right and must never be questioned, as if he were some kind of deity. This attitude, of course, simply leads to blind obedience and cultish behavior that will excuse any manner of abuse because the leader can never be wrong. And if you object, out comes the No True Scotsman fallacy: You were never a real Catholic. That's an interesting stance to take, considering that even Peter -- the first pope, according to Catholic tradition -- was rebuked by both Paul and Jesus himself. And even Peter said in The Acts of the Apostles that "we must obey God and not man." I've heard a lot of evangelicals over the years argue that Catholics worship the pope. And while that's not true, I'm beginning to understand why they have that impression.

On the other hand, you have the trads, the well-catechized Catholics who argue -- not without reason, I might add -- that the Catholic church has been in gradual moral decline ever since the modernization of the Mass following the Second Vatican Council. The driving force behind Vatican II was ecumenism -- making Catholicism more welcoming of other faiths while being more responsive to the needs and challenges of contemporary culture. The church no longer wanted to be perceived as some kind of imperial institution stuck in the Middle Ages, declaring edicts from on high. Pope Francis is in a lot of ways the culmination of that desire to break from the old ways, which is why he’s so critical of traditionalists, which he delights in calling "rigid," and is also why he would love nothing more than to end the old Latin Mass forever and break the Catholic church once and for all from its past.
The problem is that in doing so -- in catering to contemporary cultural trends and norms -- the church is sacrificing its moral authority and becoming just another voice in the crowd. Rather than acting as a bulwark against moral and ethical decay, it bends the knee more and more to the culture. When it does that, it's no longer able to speak against the culture.

But the dilemma for trads is that they know there's nothing they can do about what's happening in the Vatican. A lot of them take a "recognize and resist" approach to the current papacy, essentially proclaiming to the world, "I don't like what Rome is doing, but I'll never leave." Well, guess what part the Vatican hears? "I'll never leave." With no consequences for its actions, the Vatican has no incentive to ever change.

So putting aside the incurious and largely oblivious pew-sitters, the two Catholic camps with regard to the papacy boil down to "we must always obey" and "I'll never leave." In the end, they amount to the same thing.

We hear a lot about talk of papal infallibility. That's a dogmatic belief that came out of the First Vatican Council in the 19th century. It also caused a schism, and the Old Catholic Church that emerged from that schism still exists. It's a misunderstood dogma and applies only to very specific situations; it was never intended to mean that the pope can never be wrong in his personal opinions. Yet it only served to underscore the existing belief that that was indeed the case, that the pope could in fact never be in error. The problem for Catholics is that they're inclined to believe this about the pope because they're also duty-bound to believe the gates of hell will never prevail against their church. Catholics are taught that Jesus himself founded their church when he renamed Simon to Peter -- "on this rock (Greek, petros) I will build my church" -- and handed his disciple the keys to the kingdom. (See Matthew 16:13-19.) So they're essentially painted into a corner when it comes to criticizing the pope over anything. And the dogma of papal infallibility only muddied the waters, inasmuch as it proclaimed that the pope enjoyed divine protection from error when speaking officially (from the chair of Peter, or ex cathedra) on matters of faith and morals. Thus, your average Catholic is inclined to believe that if the pope can't be wrong on Subject X, then he also can't be wrong on Subjects Y or Z. And your average Catholic is left with a dilemma: "I know this thing from the Vatican seems terrible, and my conscience tells me it is, but I can't question it because the church says I can't. It must be right and I must be wrong. To question it would be to question, and to disobey, God himself."

In short: Unaware that the church respects primacy of conscience and that it asks us to embrace our God-given faculty of reason, these people think they're never permitted to question their church's leadership, under any circumstances, because of their firm belief in their church's divine origin. Thus, the word of the pope is essentially the word of God.

Of course, the Eastern Orthodox also believe their church is the church of the Apostles, and they don't have this hangup over whether to obey God or man. That's in large part because the Orthodox don't constantly tinker with doctrine or add new dogmas. They believe that if the church had the fullness of faith 2,000 years ago, then there's no reason to alter it. It's hard to argue with that. People who have studied church history might find it ridiculous that a major contributor to the Catholic-Orthodox split in 1054 was the Catholic church's addition of three little words -- "and the son," or the filioque, in reference to the procession of the Holy Spirit -- to the Nicene Creed. But the issue wasn't so much the filioque in and of itself as the fact that Rome kept unilaterally changing things and expecting everyone else to follow along. The East eventually said no and went its own way, and Rome has continued on with its "development of doctrine" for the past millennium, incrementally moving it ever further from what the early fathers taught when they were establishing the church. If you ask me, that's a problem. Either eternal truth is eternal truth or it isn't. You would never get the equivalent of a Fiducia Supplicans from the Orthodox church -- and that in itself speaks volumes.

In many ways, the papacy is an anachronistic relic of the days of kings and emperors who ruled with absolute power. Although I admittedly lack the dedication necessary to go through a yearlong catechumenate process to become one of them, I have a great deal of sympathy for the Orthodox these days. Leading up to the Great Schism, Christians in the East, living far from Rome, must have been hearing the same demands people are today that everyone must proclaim their fealty to the papacy, that the pope can never be in error, and that the pope must always be obeyed. The Eastern churches' answer to Rome's de facto demands for dictatorial power was to promote a collegiality among their own bishops, and to remember that those bishops existed to serve and defend the faith and the church's teachings, not the other way around. 

The Orthodox have been warning for a thousand years now against placing submission to a man, any man, above submission to the word of God. If only Rome had ever possessed the humility to understand that, perhaps the ancient church would never have fractured in the first place.

In short: The Orthodox were right.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Pope Francis: Author of Confusion

Image by Vectorportal.comCC BY.

Anyone who follows this blog (so, you know, all one or two of you) knows that I've had a complicated relationship with the papacy of Francis. I was born into the Catholic church, the first in my family to be so, and while there is much about Catholicism that appeals to me, I've struggled since I was a kid with a lot of the things I was expected to believe. These days, I take the whole thing as a sort of symbolic expression of humanity's connection to divinity, spoken in a particular dialect. 

When I came back to the church after many years away, Francis was pope. At first I liked him. I appreciated his pastoral approach to the papacy. He seemed intent on acting more like a shepherd and less like a king. He led with compassion instead of with decrees. I thought this was just what the church needed.

But as his papacy went on, I began to see things that caused me concern. 

There was the deal he struck with China to recognize the Communist government's distorted version of the church. By doing so, he abandoned the Chinese underground church that had remained faithful to Catholic teaching.

There was his muddled response to the sex-abuse crisis. He offered some condemnatory words but otherwise advised people to fast and pray for the sake of the church -- pretty much the equivalent of offering "thoughts and prayers" after a mass shooting.

Then there was his attack on traditionalists and the Latin Mass. He condemned the supposed rigidity of traditionalists and put severe restrictions on the Mass that had existed for 400 years before the modern Novus Ordo Mass took root in the 1970s. 

That one really left me wondering: What kind of pope attacks the traditions of his own church?

Well, I think we got a pretty clear answer to what kind of pope Francis is when his Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document just before Christmas approving of the blessing of gay couples. Specifically, Fiducia Supplicans authorizes priests to bless "couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples."

Now, let me make something abundantly clear right off the bat. It bothers me not at all if two people of the same sex want to get married. The best evidence we have says that sexual orientation is immutable, not a choice, and there is thus no justifiable reason to deny two people of the same sex who love each other the same legal and civil rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, nor is there any reason to deny them the right to have their relationship civilly confirmed, recognized, and celebrated. 

The problem here is that Catholic teaching has always upheld that the only proper expression of sexual union is between two married people of the opposite sex. That definition excludes not only same-sex couples but also cohabiting couples, divorced people in a second marriage that the church doesn't recognize, people whose marriage wasn't performed in front of a priest, even adulterous pairings. In theory, Fiducia Supplicans allows for blessings of all these unions. 

Thus, the issue is not so much the blessing of gay couples as it is that the document fundamentally changes Catholic teaching on sexuality. 

The Vatican, no doubt aware of what it was doing, took pains to note in the document that the blessing was not a validation of the "irregular" union itself but a prayer offered for the couple in the union. The problem is that that's a distinction without a difference. A couple makes up a union. The union doesn't exist without the couple. Thus, if you're blessing a couple, you're de facto blessing their union. If a football team came to a priest asking for a blessing before an upcoming game, everyone would understand that it was the team being blessed, in the context of what they want to achieve collectively on the playing field. 

It has to be noted that individuals have always been able to approach a priest for a blessing. You ask for a blessing when you begin your confession to a priest. You can approach the priest at communion to receive a blessing if you don't feel you're properly disposed to receive the Eucharist. That's never been a problem. The problem with this new document is that it's going out of its way to create an entirely new category for blessing couples within a specific context. A man could approach a priest asking for a blessing to find the strength to leave his mistress and return in fidelity to his family. What he wouldn't do is approach the priest with his mistress and ask for a blessing for the two of them as a couple. That's what the new document allows for. The Vatican can claim that it's not blessing the union the couple is in, but in reality, you can't separate the couple from the union. To claim that you can is to engage in hairsplitting sophistry to an absurd degree.

The document also puts forth an entirely new category of blessing, claiming that a "pastoral" blessing, which includes the newly allowed blessings, is not the same as a "liturgical" blessing. The distinction is intended to further emphasize the point that these blessings are not to be seen as some kind of formal affirmation but as something a priest might do casually if, say, spontaneously approached on the street by a couple asking for a blessing. But all that's really doing is creating a new category to give cover for something that the church knows it otherwise couldn't justify under its own teachings.

And all you have to do is look at the reaction from those who approve of the idea to see what the Vatican has unleashed. The media has spun the document as a monumental step forward for the church, as if it were throwing off its primitive bigotry and finally getting with the times. Fr. James Martin, a priest who for years has been an outspoken advocate for gay Catholics, praised the document. He went so far as to call up a gay couple he knew and arranged a photo op with The New York Times, so that the whole world could see a Catholic priest blessing two men holding hands.

While that's happening, you have bishops -- like ours here in Idaho -- basically telling people that nothing about church teaching has changed, as if you should ignore what you can see happening right before your eyes. 

But there are also bishops -- many, many bishops worldwide -- who are flat-out rejecting the document and ordering their priests not to offer the kind of blessings that the document newly permits. A number of Eastern Catholic officials are also pointing out -- correctly, as far as I can see -- that Fiducia Supplicans doesn't even apply to their rites, only to the Latin rite. They sensibly and understandably want to distance themselves from this terrible document. 

So why are there two different reactions to the document, even from the bishops? Well, I think what you're seeing is the difference between bishops who are concerned with defending church teaching, those who want to change church teaching, those who probably just want to go along to get along and are hoping the whole thing blows over, and those who think that whatever the pope says, goes. 

More than that, there's no unified reaction to it because the document itself sows so much confusion. On one hand, it carves out an entirely new category of blessing in order to bless things that violate church teaching, and on the other it claims that couples are different from unions and that these blessings are not to be carried out in a formalized church setting, lest there be the potential for scandal and confusion.

Well, it's kind of too late not to cause confusion. And this is so very typical of Francis' papacy and his communication style. He speaks in vague generalities about things, leaving people to wonder what exactly he's even trying to say. The word salad of Fiducia Supplicans is no exception, inasmuch as it authorizes blessings of "irregular" sexual unions while simultaneously claiming not to. Thus, while the original document stated that there would be no further discussion on the matter, the dicastery has since had to offer two "clarifications," the more recent of which is almost half as long as the original document. 

Unfortunately, the clarifications don't clarify anything. They essentially insist that nothing has changed about church teaching, and that what the document states must be accepted and universally implemented. But if nothing has changed, then why was the document even needed? In 2021, this same dicastery unequivocally answered "no" when asked if the church could bless same-sex unions. So yes, everything has changed. If it hadn't, why would you feel the need to order everyone to accept and implement what the document says? 

It's also quite telling that the most recent clarification explicitly states that the document doesn't teach heresy. Funny that that would have be pointed out, isn't it? In grand Orwellian fashion, it seems that heresy is being proclaimed as sound Catholic teaching, while claiming that the heresy actually isn't heresy at all.

And yes, I'm calling Pope Francis a heretic. And I don't apologize for it.

The most charitable explanation I've heard for the existence of Fiducia Supplicans is that it was actually intended to rein in the German clergy who were well on their way toward creating liturgical frameworks for the blessing of same-sex unions in formal church settings. But I don't think that explanation flies, because the Vatican could simply have said, "Stop doing what you're doing, or you'll be excommunicated." Instead, it said,"Oh, go ahead and keep doing it, but don't make it look like a formal rite." 

The thing is, whatever you bring to a priest to be blessed has to conform to God's will, and whether anyone likes it or not, the God of the Bible is kind of unambiguous about what he thinks of homosexual acts. But it's not just homosexuality that's at issue here. For example, I could bring a rosary to a priest to be blessed, but that same priest would be right to refuse to bless, say, a Wiccan pentagram necklace. In the same way, an alcoholic or a thief could ask for a blessing to overcome their sinful ways, but not to bless their alcoholism or thievery. Nor could a woman ask a priest for a blessing that her abortion goes well. 

That's the key thing to understand here: If an individual comes to a priest seeking a blessing, it's assumed that the person is seeking to find the strength, clarity, and humility to become a better, more faithful person, in obedience to the church. And that's the problem with coming before a priest in the context of a couple in an "irregular" relationship: You can say you're only blessing the two people in the couple and not the relationship, but the couple wouldn't be presenting itself as a couple unless it was seeking validation for the relationship itself. 

Implicit in the idea of a blessing is that the recipient is working toward repentance and conformity with God's will and the will of the church. And let's be real: No couple, straight or gay, is going to approach a priest asking for the strength to end their "irregular" relationship so they can be aligned with church teaching. No, they're going to approach so the priest can validate their union. I can assure you that the two men being blessed by James Martin weren't looking to end their relationship, nor did James Martin have that in mind for them.  

Again, I don't care if two loving people of the same sex want to enter into a union. That's not even the point. The point is that the church is doing something that violates its own teachings. If you want to be conformed to the church, you have to follow its rules. It's really simple. I got a convalidation of my marriage in front of a priest when I returned to the church, because that was what the church expected. But when you have the leadership of the church itself saying you no longer have to abide by church teaching, then it's just undermined any moral authority it ever had. After all, if the church can't be bothered to enforce its own teachings, then what reason do I have to abide by them? What reason does anyone have?

No one likes to hear talk of "sin" these days, but the church teaches that certain things are indeed sins in its eyes. It should go without saying that the church cannot bless sin -- but now it's doing exactly that.  The church apparently no longer has the courage to stand by its own convictions. And yes, I do see this incident as an act of moral cowardice on the Vatican's part. My disdain for this papacy cannot be overstated. It's good at following Jesus' command to "judge not, lest you be judged," but it fails abysmally at recognizing that while Jesus showed mercy to sinners, he also told them to "go, and sin no more."

Francis wants a church that meets people where they are on their journey. That's commendable, in and of itself. But he's going about it the wrong way. What he's doing is creating a church that rubber-stamps people's current actions and never encourages them to transform their lives and grow into the faith. We have a church that wants people to feel good, and that's about it. It has drained itself of any relevance it had left. 

And that's really the bigger problem here: The church has symbolically bent the knee to the prevailing culture. It has proclaimed that what the church teaches should be subordinated to what the culture wants. It may not realize it yet, but it has just painted itself into a corner. It almost doesn't matter what the document says, because the culture has interpreted it to mean that the church is now fully on board with same-sex unions. And if any priest refuses to give a blessing, the current climate is one in which that priest could well be attacked, both physically and reputationally, for refusing to play along. And I'm not even sure the Vatican would have his back.   

The Vatican has had to do so much damage control in the wake of this document that it's resorted to grasping at straws to justify it. For example, the dicastery now says the blessing is supposed to be only "10 or 15 seconds" long. Well, what difference does the length of the blessing make? It's either in accordance with church teaching or it isn't, whether it lasts 10 seconds or an hour. That would be like saying, "Sure, we said 'Hail Satan,' but it only took a few seconds. At least we didn't perform an entire black Mass, so everything's good." 

But I think it's also important for Catholics to understand that Fiducia Supplicans isn't going to be rescinded. It's here to stay, because this papacy wants it to stay. It will blame any pushback on either "rigid traditionalists" or on a failure to understand the document. Indeed, the argument a lot of its proponents are leading with is "You clearly haven't even read the document." Well, yeah, I have. And that's the problem. Others are holding the line by essentially gaslighting the critics. "Oh, calm down," they say. "Nothing has changed." That's basically what Idaho's bishop is saying to the faithful. But again, if nothing has changed, why have the document at all? You can't have it both ways.

But even traditionalists can't blame the Vatican entirely for the fact that the document won't be taken back. It's astounding how many Catholics always say something to the effect that "I don't like this, but I'm not leaving" when controversies arise, as they so often do with this papacy. You know what part of that the Vatican hears? "I'm not leaving." That just gives Catholic leadership carte blanche to keep on doing whatever it wants to. It knows there will never be any consequences for its actions.

"Oh, but the pope can never be wrong." No, that's not true. The dogma of papal infallibility, which emerged from the First Vatican Council, states that the pope, guided by the Holy Spirit, can't be in error when speaking dogmatically on matters of faith or morals, but only in that specific context. He can still render personal opinions and be dead wrong. He's human, not a god. 

"Oh, but leaving the church is apostasy." Is it, when you have an apostate -- a heretic -- sitting in the chair of Peter? Who actually left the faith -- the person walking away or the pope? This is exactly what happens when you allow "development of doctrine" to run unchecked and you let modernists and heretics infiltrate the highest levels of the church. Over 2,000 years of history, we've seen the Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox, the Protestant Reformers, the Old Catholics, and the sedevacantists all separate themselves from Rome. After a while, you have to wonder if maybe the ones who broke away were never the problem -- that maybe the common denominator is you.

I understand that people who sincerely believe that the Catholic church was founded by Jesus Christ himself can't allow themselves to believe that the church could be in error, let alone that it might not be the "true" church. Taking that stance, in all candor, makes you come across like someone in an abusive relationship who endlessly makes rationalizations for why he or she could never leave. It also makes the entire Catholic church sound like a cult whose leader can never be wrong about anything.   

It should be noted that the church does not reject or condemn gay people; to the contrary, it welcomes them, as Jesus welcomed all, but it also calls them to a life of celibacy. You may or may not agree with the church's teaching, but that's what it is. But now what the church is not-so-implicitly saying with Fiducia Supplicans is that if you're gay and not celibate, that's actually OK. In fact, it's so OK that we'll go ahead and bless you and your partner -- but somehow, not the union itself. When you, dear reader, can make sense of that, do let me know.

So again, the problem with this whole thing is not the sexual orientation of the people it addresses but the de facto affirmation of sexual activity that the church claims to not condone. It is therefore hard to fathom how or why the Vatican thought this declaration would be acceptable within the bounds of Catholic teaching. The dicastery emphasizes that the document shouldn't be construed as undermining the traditional Catholic position on marriage, but how else could it possibly be interpreted? That's what makes it heretical.

It is likewise difficult to overemphasize the potential damage this document can do to the church, or the slippery slope it places the church on. It's fair to say that this is the proverbial camel's nose under the tent. It may not seem like much now, but all anyone has to do is look at what has happened to the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which went from affirming same-sex marriage and cohabitation in 2021 to now declaring the terms "husband" and "wife" offensive because they don't apply to everyone's situation -- like the "irregular" situations the Catholic church is now blessing. (The U.K. Methodists have gone so far off the deep end, in fact, that they don't even want anyone to say "brothers and sisters," lest some theoretical "non-binary" person somewhere take offense.) Therefore, don't be at all surprised if you see the Vatican likewise approving same-sex marriage within a few years. And when it does, don't be surprised when critics are told to stop overreacting, that you're being too "rigid," and that "nothing has changed."

Heresy is as heresy does.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Francis is destroying the Catholic church almost singlehandedly. And that makes me both very sad and very angry. 

This development has deepened my resolve to strike out on my own. I've been tossing around the idea for years now of seeking my own ordination through the online seminary that ordained me as a minister and conferred a Th.D. on me. I do enjoy going to Catholic Mass and probably always will, but I've never felt completely beholden to the church, in part because as much as it's been a significant part of my life and helped shape who I am in many ways, I also have several personal disagreements with it. I think communion should be open to everybody, I think married clergy should be permitted, I think the Orthodox do a much better job of handling situations of divorce and remarriage, and I wouldn't have a problem letting women be ordained. 

Do those views make me a heretic too? Well, the difference between me and Francis is that I don't agitate for the church to change its teachings to make me feel better. I understand that it's not all about me, while Francis caters to those who do think it's all about them and comforts and confirms them in their "irregular" relationships. Besides, I understand the church's reasoning for holding the views and teachings it does, even if I don't always agree. If it were to undermine its own teachings, it wouldn't really be the Catholic church anymore. And it's quickly getting to that point -- thanks in large part to a mealy-mouthed pope who seems incapable of letting his yes be his yes and his no be his no

It's not often you'll see me quoting the Apostle Paul. Simply put, I'm not in the Paul Fan Club. But I think it's illustrative in the current situation to note something Paul said in the the first letter to the Corinthians: "God is not the author of confusion." Implicit in that statement is that God's adversary, the devil, is the author of confusion.

Make of that what you will when you think of the current pope.  

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Christmas Is Mary's Season, Too

Image from the film The Christ Child: A Nativity Story.

December has arrived, and with it the beginning of another Advent season. 

I wasn't sure I was going to observe Advent this year, but we have an established family tradition of loading up an Advent calendar with goodies for my daughter, and I wasn't about to deprive her of the fun and anticipation of opening up a new present every morning. Then I saw the Advent wreath in the basement that my wife made for me a few years ago, along with the new Advent candles I'd bought. 

So I thought, why not? 

As I discussed in my 50,000-word blog series, while my spiritual mindset leans toward pagan thought these days, and specifically in Anglo-Saxon mythology, there's no reason I can't incorporate other traditions into my practice if I want to. One driving tenet of my Middangeardweg is that if J.RR. Tolkien, the architect of my favorite fictional universe, found inspiration and meaning in something, then there's no reason I can't as well. I see Tolkien as a tree-hugging, mythology-loving Catholic with a pagan heart, and I'm really not too far removed from that way of seeing things, which is a big part of the reason I take so much inspiration from him. I might even eventually find myself going to a Latin Mass sometime, the same Mass that Tolkien loved, to immerse myself in the peace and beauty and tradition and familiarity, even if not at all for the theology. The pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty is, after all, Platonic just as much as it is Catholic. And Plato was, of course, a pagan. Thus, when evangelicals complain that Catholicism is too pagan, the only thing I quibble with is the "too" part. The saints are like the localized and specialized demigods of old, the transubstantiation of the bread and wine ranks up there with the highest of magic, and Mary is a goddess figure to all who can see past the church's limiting dogma. She literally stood in for the goddesses that were displaced as Christianity spread into pagan strongholds.

Which brings me to my point. 

As I've said many times here, Mary is my spiritual mother. She has been ever since I was a little kid. As far away as I've ever gotten from my Catholic roots, she's always been there, the sole constant on a lifelong spiritual path that has taken me around the world and then some. To me, she is the human face of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, which Christians tend to call the Holy Spirit. She is that every bit as much as Jesus is considered the human face of the Father. They are a spiritual yin and yang. One shows us how to live an ethical life marked with love and compassion, such that we might find that the Kingdom of God is within us; and the other shows us the power of grace and humility as a tool for finding a connection to divine wisdom, much as Tolkien reminds us that the power to undo the greatest of evils sometimes comes from the smallest and humblest, from the unlikeliest and most counterintuitive of people and places. The upside-down appeal of the Christian story is that everyone expected a high and mighty king who would set the world right through force and power, and instead this king came into the world as the lowest of the low, a child born anonymously in a smelly stable to a Jewish girl of no special importance to anybody but her immediate friends and family. 

Christmas is the one time of year when even the most evangelical of Christians are forced to acknowledge Mary's existence. Even so, to many of them, she was just a flowerpot, a vessel chosen at random to do the necessary work of birthing the child who was the Main Event. Mary, in their minds, was simply a means to an end. She did her job, and with that done, she fades into the background, no longer needed, irrelevant.

But what if that attitude is just centuries of patriarchal religion talking? What if Mary actually meant far more to the Christmas story -- and the Christian story? I recently saw on an online forum someone referencing a book that asked a pointed question: 

What if the central story of Christianity was not a man dying on a cross but a woman giving birth? 

That changes everything, doesn't it? It means Mary is no longer peripheral to the story but absolutely essential to it. Just as the Great Mother Tao gives birth to all that exists, so all women reflect its life-giving power in birthing us all into the world. Without women, human life would cease. Likewise, without Mary, there is no Jesus. That ought to count for something. 

And for those who see the connections between Mary, Sophia, and Spirit, it does. This is the secret of the Christian story hiding in plain sight. The early church fathers tell us that Jesus refers in the lost Gospel of the Hebrews to "my mother the Holy Spirit." Early Christian groups, notably those in the Syriac tradition, thought of the Holy Spirit as a feminine power and presence. Marian feast days on the Catholic liturgical calendar use passages from the Old Testament that point to Sophia, drawing parallels between the two figures. Sophia, the one who tells us she was by the Father's side during the Creation, was also once regarded in early Christian circles as the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, the great martyred saint Maximilian Kolbe referred to Mary as a "quasi-incarnation of the Holy Spirit," and the pre-Vatican II church was often criticized for handing over the role of the Spirit to Mary. As I always say, there was a good reason for that, and not something the church should have so cavalierly abandoned. For when it did, it severed an important connection to the Sacred Feminine and reinforced a view of an all-male Trinity that left no place for the nurturing and life-giving feminine, save for subordination. That has had real-world consequences for women, and it has deprived men and women alike of something our world desperately needs. 

It needs a loving and caring Mother. A Comforter, as Jesus notably calls the Holy Spirit that he tells the apostles will be sent from on high after he departs. 

Catholic and Orthodox Christians have been reporting miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary on Earth for 2,000 years now. She almost always comes bearing a message of peace and reassurance and the importance of perseverance and faith. It's almost as if she's filling the role of... a comforter

As I say, the truth of the matter is hiding in plain sight for everyone to see.

Whether you take this literally or metaphorically, the same basic truth remains: Mary is here with us and has never left. And the story of Christianity began with her. 

Christmas is Mary's season, too. And that, as Gandalf would say, is an encouraging thought.

May we bear that perspective in mind as the Advent season unfolds.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Connection Overload

Public domain.

So it turns out that I'm related to 42 of the 45 men who have been President of the United States, and I'm indirectly related to the other three through blood connections to their descendants. I'm also related to most of the First Ladies. 

Apparently, this is not terribly unusual for people who can trace their ancestors back to the days of the first New England settlers -- which I can, as it turns out. In fact, I'm also a direct descendant of Myles Standish; he's my 12th great-grandfather. So I guess my people were the Mayflower people. I appear to be related to at least a dozen of the passengers. 

I found all this out because my foray into Anglo-Saxon lore got me thinking about my roots, which led me to open my old FamilySearch account and comb through the branches of my family tree. Most of all, I just wanted to know: Where did I come from? I have a troubled relationship with most of my existing family, and that often leaves me feeling alienated. And I knew next to nothing about my dad's side of the family, because I never had much contact with any of them, having been raised by my maternal grandparents. Yet I wouldn't be here if not for all of my ancestors, both the good ones and the bad ones. So I decided to try to at least get familiar with some of the names of the people who made my existence possible. 

And that got me to thinking about the lives they might have lived. Many of those who came before me probably had hard lives and had to make lots of personal sacrifices for their loved ones. Some were no doubt very brave, like those who sailed across the sea to make a new life in an unknown and untamed land. Others were just ordinary folks just trying to get by. But the sum total of all their lives led to me, this weird guy from the American Midwest who also wants the best for his family but has to struggle daily against his own body to keep going for another day. Will somebody see my name on an ancestry list hundreds of years from now and wonder what my life was like, much as I've done with the names I've encountered? Like good old Hezekiah Rush, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, christened in 1685 in jolly old England, or Keziah Wetherbee, my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who possesses one of the greatest names I've ever heard? 

I should state that I'm well aware of the limitations of FamilySearch. It's a free site, and you get what you pay for. The ancestral connections are probably not vetted as well as they might be on other sites with premium plans. But if you just want to get a good general sense of your family background, FamilySearch isn't such a bad place to start. The Mormons have done an exemplary job in creating a wonderfully collaborative site and helping people preserve family histories and discover new connections. But before I run off and apply for membership in The Mayflower Society, I'm probably going to dig a little deeper so I can verify the links that other people have created on FamilySearch. I'm a trust-but-verify kind of guy that way. 

In any event, I trust that most of the information on FamilySearch is generally right. There might be an ancestor attached to the wrong person on a family tree here or there, or someone for whom very little documentation even exists. But I think the site probably gets the general pattern of things right. In my case, if I were related to one or two U.S. presidents, I'd probably take the connections with a grain of salt and wonder if somebody got something wrong. But when I end up related to 42 of them? Well, they can't all be wrong, and the pattern suggests that there must be something fairly reliable about all these ancestral connections that keep pointing to the same places. In my case, the vast majority of my presidential connections come through a couple of lineages on my dad's side -- which is also the side that takes me all the way back to Myles Standish and the Mayflower crew. So yeah, it just seems that I've tapped into a rich ancestral vein over there. 

For fun, I'm going to list my presidential links here, as well as those to the First Ladies where they exist. Some of these were hard to sort out, because FamilySearch will give you two different points of relationship reference if one person who's a distant cousin happens to have married one of your other distant cousins -- which, as it turns out, happens quite a lot. That's not as skeevy as it sounds when you think about just how genetically distant you are even from, say, a third cousin. Heck, you might not even have been aware you were related at all, until you start looking through family trees or you do one of those spit tests to analyze your DNA. And then you'd find that you share only 3.125% of your DNA with that third cousin. 

Also keep in mind that in the Old Days, most people never traveled more than a few miles from where they were born and raised. Which means they grew up around a lot of cousins. Which means that cousins got married to cousins. It happened. Same for the old royal bloodlines, where there's a lot of interfamilial inbreeding by choice, to keep the lines pure and unsullied.

Anyway, on with the presidential list. Hail to the chief, and all that.

1. George Washington: my fifth cousin nine times removed, on my dad's side.

Martha Washington: my third cousin 10 times removed, on my mom's side.

2. John Adams: my sixth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

Abigail Adams: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

3. Thomas Jefferson: my seventh cousin 10 times removed, on my dad's side.

Martha Jefferson: my third cousin nine times removed on my dad's side.

4. James Madison: my sixth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

Dolley Madison: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my mom's side.

5. James Monroe: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my mom's side.

Elizabeth Monroe: my sixth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

6. John Quincy Adams: my fifth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side.

No apparent relation to Louisa Adams.

7. Andrew Jackson: my first cousin (!) eight times removed, on my dad's side.

No apparent relation to Rachel Jackson.

8. Martin Van Buren: No apparent relation to him or his wife, Hannah Van Buren. But -- and this is where things get interesting -- three of his children married my cousins, thus making Martin Van Buren's grandchildren my blood relatives. Specifically, his grandkids from these three of his children are my ninth cousins four times removed, seventh cousins six times removed, and 10th cousins four times removed. 

9. William Henry Harrison: my fourth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

Anna Harrison: my seventh cousin seven times removed on my dad's side.

10. John Tyler: my fourth cousin seven times removed, on my mom's side.

Letitia Tyler: my fifth cousin eight times removed, on my mom's side.

Julia Tyler, his second wife, is my eighth cousin five times removed, on my mom's side.

11. James K. Polk: my fifth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

No apparent relation to Sarah Polk, although some of her siblings did marry my cousins.

12. Zachary Taylor: my fourth cousin nine times removed, on my dad's side.

Margaret Taylor: my fifth cousin eight times removed, on my dad's side.

13. Millard Fillmore: my sixth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Abigail Fillmore: my sixth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side.

14. Franklin Pierce: my seventh cousin six times removed, on my mom's side.

Jane Pierce: my fifth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side.

15. James Buchanan: no apparent relation, and since he was a bachelor, there's no way to connect him through a spouse. However, three of his sisters married my cousins (two on my dad's side and one on my mom's), making James Buchanan's nieces and nephews through these lines my blood relatives. They are my fifth cousins eight times removed, eighth cousins four times removed, and seventh cousins six times removed.

16. Abraham Lincoln: my seventh cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

Mary Todd Lincoln: my ninth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

17. Andrew Johnson: my ninth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Eliza Johnson: my eighth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

18. Ulysses Grant: my sixth cousin seven times removed, on my dad's side. 

Julia Grant: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

19. Rutherford Hayes: my eighth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Lucy Hayes: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

20. James Garfield: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Lucretia Garfield: my sixth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side. 

21. Chester Arthur, for whom my maternal great-grandfather was named: my eighth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side (not my mom's, alas).

Ellen Arthur: technically never a First Lady, as she died before President Arthur assumed office. Still, she is my sixth cousin five times removed, on my mom's side. 

22 (and technically 24, but let's not count the same person twice): Grover Cleveland: my 11th cousin on my dad's side.

Frances Cleveland: my sixth cousin four times removed, on my dad's side.

23. Benjamin Harrison: my sixth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

Mary Harrison: my sixth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

24. William McKinley: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my mom's side.

Ida McKinley: my 10th cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

25. Teddy Roosevelt: my eighth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Alice Roosevelt: my seventh cousin four times removed, on my dad's side.

26. William Howard Taft: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Nellie Taft: my 11th cousin once removed, on my dad's side.

27. Woodrow Wilson: my eighth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Edith Wilson: my seventh cousin four times removed, on my mom's side.

28. Warren Harding: my seventh cousin four times removed, on my mom's side.

Florence Harding: my 11th cousin once removed, on my dad's side.

29. Calvin Coolidge: my seventh cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

Grace Anna Coolidge: my seventh cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

30. Herbert Hoover: my 10th cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

Lou Henry Hoover: my ninth cousin twice removed, on my dad's side. 

31. Franklin Roosevelt: my sixth cousin six times removed, on my dad's side.

Eleanor Roosevelt: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my mom's side.

32. Harry Truman: my eighth cousin four times removed, on my mom's side.

Bess Truman: my 10th cousin once removed on my dad's side.

33. Dwight Eisenhower: my sixth cousin five times removed, on my dad's side.

Mamie Eisenhower: my 10th cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

34. John Kennedy: my ninth cousin four times removed, on my dad's side.

Jackie Kennedy: my 11th cousin three times removed, on my mom's side.

35.  Lyndon Johnson: my seventh cousin twice removed, on my mom's side.

Lady Bird Johnson: my seventh cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

36. Richard Nixon: my seventh cousin three times removed, on my mom's side.

No apparent relation to Pat Nixon, but her brother did marry my eighth cousin three times removed on my dad's side.

37. Gerald Ford: my eighth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

Betty Ford: my 11th cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

38. Jimmy Carter: my 12th cousin, on my dad's side. It's harder to piece together connections for people still living, because they're generally not publicly listed on the genealogy sites for privacy reasons. However, their deceased relatives are listed, and in this case I was able to see that Jimmy Carter's father, James Sr., was my 11th cousin once removed, and James Sr.'s mother, Nina Carter, was my 10th cousin twice removed. From there it's a simple matter of doing the generational math. 

Rosalynn Carter: my 10th cousin once removed, on my dad's side.

39. Ronald Reagan: my 10th cousin twice removed, on my mom's side.

Nancy Reagan: my 10th cousin once removed, on my dad's side. That makes Patti Davis and Ron Reagan either my 11th cousins or my 11th cousins once removed, depending on whether you count through Ronald or Nancy.

Although she was never a First Lady, Jane Wyman was my eighth cousin three times removed on my dad's side.

40. George Bush: my ninth cousin three times removed, on my dad's side.

Barbara Bush: my ninth cousin twice removed, on my dad's side.

41. Bill Clinton: my seventh cousin five times removed on my dad's side, counting from Bill Clinton's dad, but also my 10th cousin once removed on my dad's side, counting from Bill Clinton's mom. Both of his parents were my cousins.

Hillary Clinton: my 14th cousin, on my dad's side, based on available information for her mother and grandmother. 

42. George W. Bush: my 10th cousin on my dad's side, twice removed through GWB's dad and once removed through GWB's mom, since they're also both my cousins.

Laura Bush: my eighth cousin twice removed, on my mom's side, based on available information for her father and grandfather. 

43. Barack Obama: my ninth cousin once removed on my dad's side. His mom, Stanley Ann Dunham, is my ninth cousin. Her mom is my eighth cousin once removed, and her mom is my seventh cousin twice removed. So I just calculated forward. 

No apparent relation to Michelle Obama.

44. Donald Trump: only the third president to whom I couldn't trace a direct lineage. But his brother, Fred Trump Jr., did marry my 10th cousin twice removed on my dad's side, Linda Lea Clapp. Her dad is listed as my ninth cousin three times removed. That means Mary Trump and Fred Trump III, The Donald's niece and nephew, are my 11th cousins once removed. 

Likewise, Marla Maples, Trump's second wife, is my seventh cousin once removed on my dad's side, based on her dad's listed relationship to me as my sixth cousin twice removed. That means Tiffany Ariana Trump, Marla Maples' daughter with DJT, is my eighth cousin.

I couldn't find any connection to Ivana or Melania Trump.

45. Joe Biden: my 11th cousin three times removed on my dad's side, based on what I could find about his parents and grandparents. 

Jill Biden: my 12th cousin once removed on my dad's side, based on what I could find about her mother's family tree.

And there you have it. It ultimately counts for nothing besides bragging rights, but it's kind of fun to see the connections and look back through the family trees. Most of the ancestors I have in common with these historical figures go back into the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and I guess I just ended up with a lucky roll of the genealogical dice that my ancestors were early settlers in New England. There's some Scottish and English nobility mixed in there as well if I dig further back, and that's also a bonus because it means better recordkeeping and preservation, as opposed to whatever spotty information may have survived, or was even written down in the first place, for children of the common folk. 

I spent a couple of nights clicking through links and taking notes to collect all the presidential information. I could go even deeper, and I probably will when I have the time. But at the outset, all I wanted to do was satisfy my curiosity once I began to see some links between me and the earliest Americans. 

It actually all started when I was trying to see if I could discover a link between me and Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. My last name is Rush, by way of being adopted by my maternal grandparents of that name, and my Great-Grandpa Rush often told us that we were related to the famous Pennsylvania physician. Well, my younger cousin (my niece by way of my adoption -- terms get weird when you're adopted within the family) did some family-tree research a few years ago and found out that our particular line of Rushes came not from England, as Dr. Benjamin Rush's did, but from Germany, where our last name was spelled Rusch. That meant a link to the doctor was unlikely. And sure enough, I've been unable to establish one.

What I did find, though, was that Dr. Rush's wife, Julia Stockton, is related to me. She's my 13th cousin -- on my dad's side, as in the not-Rush side. Well, how about that? Even funnier is that the only English Rushes I've found in my family tree -- the aforementioned Hezekiah Rush among them -- are also on my dad's not-Rush side. Crazy. 

But even though I can't claim Dr. Rush as an ancestor, my blood connection to his wife means that his children are my relatives -- my 13th cousins once removed. And that counts for something. 

And in any event, I got some decent consolation prizes for not being related to old Doctor Ben. There were many more great men at the Continental Congress in that summer of 1776 to whom I can claim a connection. In total, and if the data is accurate, I'm related to 34 of the 56 signers -- just, ironically, not the guy who shares my last name. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are, of course, two of the signers I'm related to. Then there's John Hancock, my fifth cousin eight times removed on my dad's side. And the icing on the cake for me is that I get to claim a blood connection to one of the greatest Americans of them all, Benjamin Franklin. He's my third cousin 11 times removed, also on my dad's side. His great-great-grandfather, Thomas Franklin, is my 13th great-grandfather. Learning about that connection really made my day.

As you can imagine, I kind of got obsessed with wanting to see what other connections I could make. If all these famous people were tied to me by blood, who else was? FamilySearch offered some suggestions for names I could investigate, and others I tried out on my own. And no matter which path I went down, it seemed as if every almost every person whose name I entered -- not every single one, in fairness, but definitely the vast majority -- ended up being some kind of distant relation. 

Henry David Thoreau? Yep. Fifth cousin seven times removed on my dad's side.

Walt Whitman? Eleventh cousin, dad's side.

Lewis Carroll? Eighth cousin six times removed, dad's side.

Edgar Allan Poe? Sixth cousin six times removed, mom's side.

Mark Twain? Seventh cousin five times removed, dad's side.

Herman Melville? Fifth cousin seven times removed, dad's side.

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Tenth cousin twice removed, dad's side.

You can see where my interests lie. The more literary connections I can make, the happier I am.

I dipped my toe into the music scene:

Janis Joplin: Ninth cousin once removed, dad's side.

Gordon Lightfoot: Thirteenth cousin once removed, dad's side.

How about some of my personal heroes? Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy, the dynamic duo of Catholic Worker fame, perhaps?

Dorothy Day: Eighth cousin four times removed, dad's side.

Ammon Hennacy: Tenth cousin four times removed, mom's side. 

But it didn't end there. These were some of FamilySearch's suggestions: 

Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon: Tenth cousin four times removed, mom's side.

Babe Ruth: Seventh cousin five times removed, mom's side.

Gordie Howe: Ninth cousin three times removed, dad's side. (My Red Wings fan of a wife will love this one.)

Samuel F.B. Morse: ... . ...- . -. - .... / -.-. --- ..- ... .. -. / ..-. --- ..- .-. / - .. -- . ... / .-. . -- --- ...- . -.. --..-- / -.. .- -.. .----. ... / ... .. -.. . .-.-.-

George Harrison: Tenth cousin twice removed, dad's side. A Beatle relative!

Lucille Ball: Eighth cousin three times removed, dad's side.

Elvis (are you kidding me?): Eighth cousin twice removed, dad's side.

Princess Diana: Eleventh cousin once removed, mom's side.

It went on and on. George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Johnny Cash, Norman Rockwell, Oliver Cromwell, Amelia Earhart, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Susan B. Anthony, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and many more.

And then came the absolute jaw-dropper, for me, anyway: 

Marilyn Monroe. 

Eighth cousin three times removed, dad's side.

I'll never look at her the same way again. 

At this point, I was getting seriously creeped out to so suddenly learn that I'm apparently related to all these well-known people. With some trepidation, I shifted to people who've touched my life personally. The same thing happened.

The husband and wife who built the stately 19th-century house that I grew up in on the Michigan prairie -- guess what? I'm related to both of them. Levi Beckwith Jr. is my fifth cousin seven times removed on my mom's side, and his wife, Lucy Markham, is my seventh cousin four times removed on my dad's side. Their families settled in colonial America and migrated westward, leaving a connection to me along the way. And my family eventually moved into their house, completing the circle.

And then, finally, there's the name that I entered just for fun, not really expecting to get a hit. Surely, if my best childhood friend and I were related, I would have known. You could have knocked me over with a feather when his grandma showed up on my family tree. She was our next-door neighbor when I was a kid. And yet somehow, neither one of us ever had any idea when we were growing up together that we were actually eighth cousins. I'm related to my first best friend in life through my mom's side.

At that point, I had to stop plugging in names and step away. It was all getting to be too much. Everything I thought I knew was being turned upside-down. 

I haven't talked in depth to anyone who does genealogical research, so I don't have a good sense for how common it is to find that you're related to pretty much everybody you can think of. Maybe it's my colonial ancestry that gives me such an abundance of connections. But even going back before that time, into the mists of history, I was unearthing royal lineages in places as far-flung as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Supposedly, I even descend from the Merovingian line, through King Clovis I himself. But I definitely need to do far more in-depth research before I'll believe that. Even the smallest error that could creep in after 1,500 years of recordkeeping could derail the entire connection. 

Still, the point remains that finding all these significant connections felt overwhelming to me. I don't really know what to do with the information. 

Granted, the further you travel back in time, the greater chance you have of discovering even a tenuous connection to somebody. Go back far enough, and we're all related. I recently read with interest an article making the case that within a given ethnic group, everybody is likely to be no more distant than a 15th cousin, and that the majority of humans are at most 50th cousins to each other. So if I don't appear to be related to Dr. Benjamin Rush, it's probably only because FamilySearch stops calculating lineages for you at the 15th generation. If I dug in and researched the old-fashioned way -- by tracking down physical documents in obscure dusty archives and the like -- chances are I'd eventually find some kind of connection. 

When you look at it that way, all these "famous" connections start to feel a lot less special. The relationships are ultimately inevitable. It just becomes a question of tracking down the missing puzzle pieces and then finding where they fit. 

Still, it is kind of neat, in a bragging-rights kind of way, to find a connection to you that is, in a big-picture sense, still pretty intimate and fairly unlikely. Marilyn Monroe and I, as eighth cousins, share a common grandparent out of a pool of just 512 human beings. That's not a whole lot in the grand scheme. 

On the other hand, I only make a big deal out of my connection to her because I've always found Marilyn to be one of the most beautiful creatures to ever walk the face of the earth. Gerald Ford is also my eighth cousin three times removed, just like Marilyn, and while that's interesting to me, I have to admit that I don't really care that I'm related to a clumsy guy with a receding hairline who only became president because his boss and the guy he replaced were crooks.

Then there's Joanne Emerson. Born in 1923, and at some point in her life lived in Nebraska. That's all I know about her, and it's probably all I ever will know. Chances are she was never known outside of the same circle of close friends and relatives that we all have as we journey through life. I just happened to find her by following a random branch on my FamilySearch tree. She's also my eighth cousin three times removed. I could have followed a different branch and found a completely different person to make the same point. 

And the point is that Marilyn Monroe, Gerald Ford, and Joanne Emerson from Nebraska are all my eighth cousins three times removed. They're all people of equal relation to me. So why don't I assign equal importance to them in my personal headspace? Because in the end, it's all subjective. It just boils down to what things you choose to care about and give your attention to. And besides, it's not like having famous relatives is something you chose. You just happen to have some people on your family tree that did stuff that people outside of your family tree know about. That's it. Sure, it's kind of fun to go around saying, "Hey, I'm related to so-and-so," but being proud of your blood connections, as if it somehow makes you a better person, is kind of like being proud of your ethnicity. It's something you have no control over. You never had any say in the matter. It's just the way things shook out.   

I guess if I take something constructive away from all these fascinating discoveries, it's that it really is a small world when you get down to it. When two people in medieval England decided to have a baby, it may not have seemed significant at the time to anyone but them and their immediate family. But the web of Wyrd (remember we talked about that?) reminds us that the smallest ripple in one place affects everything else in the web, even if we can barely perceive it at the moment. Every action we take, every choice we make, sends the web in a new direction, until even more cumulative effects send it vibrating toward yet another destination. And when that English couple had a baby 500 years ago, they set a ripple in motion that resulted in me. If any of their descendants in between them and me had made a different life choice, I wouldn't be here writing this. 

That's extremely humbling to me, and it fills me with gratitude -- because even though my life is pretty hard some days, I'm still grateful that I'm here and I get to experience life for a brief flash of 60 or 70 or 80 years on this planet, before I have to say goodbye and leave my name behind for some future genealogically minded descendant to discover.  

I can only hope that person will look at my name with as much wonder and curiosity as I did when I found Keziah Wetherbee and wondered what she was like. Hopefully we can leave behind good stories that our descendants can attach to those names. 

That's our true legacy. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Conclusion: The Road Goes Ever On

Photo by Tobias Stonjeck on Unsplash.

And so we come to the end of this 50,000-word experiment. I've spent the past couple of weeks talking about my interest in paganism, and why Anglo-Saxon paganism in particular holds an appeal for me. Today I'd like to wrap up with my observations and where I see this path going for me.

Anyone who's ever read this blog knows that religion and spirituality are a never-ending source of fascination for me. But I'm not in it for the dogma, or for some carrot-and-stick system of rewards and punishments. I'm in it because I think religious belief reveals a lot about who we are as a species. Because we're aware of our own mortality, we're forced to think about our place in the cosmos and what, if anything, happens to us when we die. And because we're aware of the fact that we can't just live by instinct like the animals, our societal groupings have had to forge agreed-upon codes for ethical and moral behavior. Those codes have, throughout human history, often taken the form of some kind of religious edict. That's not to say that people without religion can't be moral and ethical, only that the idea of a deity who hands down commandments has often gone hand in hand with human behavior. 

What religion should do is humble you, smooth out your rough edges, make you kinder and more patient and more tolerant. Far too often it's used as a bludgeon against people who disagree with another people's religious system. That's not as it ought to be, and that's the kind of religion I hope we can move beyond one of these days. 

Because I like the way religion helps shape my philosophical ideas about life, the universe, and everything, and because I think belief has helped me persevere through some difficult times, I choose to stick with a spiritual practice. But for most of my adult life, I've been bouncing around from idea to idea to try to find a home. There are things I can't shake about the Catholicism I was born into, yet there are lots of things I admire about Taoism and Buddhism too. And that's not to mention my abiding interest in the Sacred Feminine and my focus on the needs of both the planet and the people who inhabit it. It's that latter part, my need for a spiritual here-and-now immanence, that has had me leaning toward nature-based traditions in recent years. Christianity has its head in the clouds; it's so obsessed with sin and death and the afterlife that it ignores what needs to be done here on Earth from moment to moment. The Sermon on the Mount would have us focus on doing good to help those in need, and that's why I find those three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew to be pretty much all I need from the teachings of the New Testament. The rest of it is just commentary, some of it not so great. (Hello, Paul.)

And the more I got thinking about what I wanted my individual path to look like, the more I thought that maybe I needed to look into something that upholds the immediacy and practicality of paganism but feels somehow more relevant to me than I've been able to find so far. My meditation area is a mishmash of traditional religious symbols and pagan imagery, but I've always had a hard time thinking of any of it as my own. 

That's where pagan reconstructionism comes into play. Not only can I explore a path that's somewhat relevant to me, a guy with at least some Anglo-Saxon ancestry, but I can also put my love of studying and analyzing things to work -- because this is, as I've said, a religion with homework, There's no sacred text to fall back on. We mostly have to figure things out on our own, because all we have are best guesses about how our ancestors worshiped, along with some bits and pieces that have survived to the present day. We actually know more about the everyday values that were important to them, and in turn we can make educated suppositions about how those values would have informed their religion. 

One very important thing we know is that the Anglo-Saxon gods weren't soft and light. This isn't "fluffy bunny" paganism by any stretch. These are the gods of Vikings, of rough people who believed in fate and whose driving goals in life were to protect the community from both animal and human invaders, to see to the needs of friends and family, and to make sure everything possible was done to ensure that the tribe could survive the long, harsh winters. And if Wyrd did have your number, at least you could go down fighting, knowing you did all you could to protect your loved ones and maybe leaving an inspiring legend behind for others to aspire to when times get tough and they might feel like giving in. 

As I write this, I'm running on virtually no sleep. Some nights I can get a little light dozing in, but other nights my brain just never shuts off. This is in addition to all my other health woes, from blurry vision and dizziness to digestive troubles, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes. My body has taken a beating and continues to do so. I take care of myself the best I can as I get older, but for someone who's always been overly anxious and has pretty much no emotional support outside of my wife and kid, it's a struggle some days. To top it off, I'm the only provider for my family, and because I contract for a living, there's never any guarantee that I'm going to be able to fill out a 40-hour week. There's a lot of pressure on my shoulders. There'd be a lot even if I felt well. But I have no choice but to grit my teeth and push forward. I may not be a warrior in the Viking sense, but I feel like I've had to become a warrior to fight against my own body and push through for another day. 

And that's why I think I relate so much to the ancient Northern European tribes for whom life was quite often a day-to-day struggle. I don't necessarily want to honor deities who take joy in kicking my ass like a drill sergeant, but I do want ones who understand the value of perseverance and battle, whether that battle is with weapons or an internal struggle. And for that, I need deities who live here with us on the Earth, who can relate to our struggles, who will even help us push through those struggles. The last thing I need is some distant cosmic dictator who never shows up yet demands I do everything his way or else he's going to barbecue me for all eternity. Sorry, but there's no good news in that story, and certainly no divine love.  

And yet the story behind that God, the God of the ancient Hebrews, is an inextricable part of who I am. I still do enjoy the rituals and traditions of Latin Catholicism, even if the dogma means nothing to me. And I admire the church's centuries-long pursuit of the Platonic ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty as concepts to shape our personal and spiritual lives around. So what am I supposed to do with that?

Well, as I was writing these posts and doing my research, I kept bumping into the works of Tolkien. Granted, as one of my favorite authors, he's never far from my mind, and to top it off, our family's annual Thanksgiving weekend Lord of the Rings movie-watching tradition is just around the corner. But when you throw yourself into the study of Anglo-Saxon culture and mythology, you quickly find how deeply intertwined it all is with Tolkien's vision. Here was a devout Catholic with a pagan spirit, someone who invented both talking trees and a Mary figure in Galadriel, who insisted that the Lord of the Rings series was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" yet didn't put a whiff of Christian preachiness into his stories. He created timeless tales that speak to those fundamental values of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, but he frames them within a world that reaches back to the days of pagan myths, when the world was enchanted with elves and dwarves and magic, and where people struggle and fight like the Anglo-Saxons of old, even when all hope seems lost. All those things make me love his stories. 

And considering that Tolkien lamented the lack of a mythology for England, and that his life's work essentially created just that, I don't think it's inappropriate to create for myself a spiritual-philosophical system that integrates the myths (or at least what we can know of them) of the Anglo-Saxon peoples with Tolkien's mythological universe that essentially helps us fill in the blanks and flesh out what it means to live a life inspired by his stories within an Anglo-Saxon framework. 

That's not to say I intend to take any of his works as literal religious revelations. I simply think they provide enough material for anyone to take inspiration from and shape their values around. As far as I'm concerned, this is no different from what religious texts do anyway. People may claim that the Bible and the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita contain "real" truths about the world, but are they really any different from The Silmarillion, with its origin stories and world-building and great tales of heroism? To me, they all serve the same purpose, using the power of myth to point us toward deeper truths. And since they function the same, and since I love Tolkien, I'll go with The Silmarillion when I need spiritual inspiration, thank you very much.

The actual "worship" part of my system will still focus on the Anglo-Saxon gods; the Tolkienish stuff will just be there to frame those gods in an appropriate context. 

So, which gods? There are quite a few to pick from, and I listed a bunch of them a while back. I'm inspired by Woden's unquenchable thirst for wisdom, but not so much for his reputation as a reckless warrior who'll just as quickly betray you as conscript you to fight in his spiritual battles. So I think he's out. I have enough on my plate anyway.

But then there's Sunne, the sun goddess. I've always been drawn to the feminine, and a lot of the world's pagan traditions give the sun a masculine deity. I love that the Germanic paths reverse that idea and put the life-giving feminine in the position of providing warmth and vitality. So she's up there near the top of my list, along with Eorðe, Mother Earth, her Gaea-like companion who gives us a home.

Frige would seem to play a small part in Anglo-Saxon myth, aside from giving us the name for Friday, but the fact that she's also associated with spinning and fate means that she's closely associated with the Wyrde sisters who were a large part of the attraction for me to the Anglo-Saxon path in the first place. Living your life from the perspective that you're largely at the mercy of three mysterious women who spin, measure out, and cut the thread of your existence is a pretty humbling way to frame things, but for me it also reminds me that I need to not try to control things that are beyond my ability to fix in the first place. When your number's up, it's up, so you'd better make the most of whatever time you've been allotted. 

Then there's the one that might seem like a peculiar choice: Seaxneat, the national god of the Saxon people. I have a few reasons for selecting him. First is that he's a deity unique to Anglo-Saxon mythology. Most of the others have counterparts in the Eddas of Norse myth -- and if those are the only ones you follow, you might as well make life easier on yourself and just orient your pagan life around the Scandinavian legends for which we have far more source material to work with. If you're going to go the Anglo-Saxon path, it makes sense to me to make one of its exclusive deities a part of your practice. In fairness, there has been some speculation over the years that Seaxneat could be either Tiw, Ing, or Freyr under another name, but I'm going to choose to see him as a different deity from those.

Second is that I felt I needed a male counterbalance to the female deities I was feeling drawn to. I'm always attracted to the goddesses in my pagan studies and end up focusing on them to the exclusion of any male deities. But that's not good for one's yin-yang balance.

Third is that I think he holds an underappreciated place in the mix of Anglo-Saxon deities. Where six of the seven ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms placed Woden at the top of their pantheon, for the kingdom of Sussex it was Seaxneat. We don't know why one of the kingdoms chose differently, but we can assume it's because they found him crucial to their way of life. And what was it that made him so supremely important? His name might give us a clue, as "Seaxneat" probably means "sword-companion." This was a god who inspired warriors to take up arms to protect their way of life. He wasn't messing around. 

Tied to that idea is my fourth point, which is that I find inspiration in the symbolism of the sword. When I was studying Shingon Buddhism, I was always attracted to Fudo Myo-o, a wrathful deity whom I likened to a Buddhist gargoyle. Sitting in front of a roaring flame and wearing a fearsome expression, he held a rope in one hand and a sword in the other, the former to bind our violent emotions and the latter to cut through our ignorant delusions. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was some kind of demon. But it was just the opposite: He was doing the work of the Buddha by frightening away the very things that would hinder us on the path to enlightenment. 

Likewise, I think of the sword of Seaxneat not as the tool of a warrior, even though that's obviously one way to look at it, but as a symbol of cutting through the obstacles in our life so we can bravely keep pushing forward toward victory. For me, that means doing battle against my failing body, pressing on when I feel like giving up, and pushing through the dark places for the sake of those who count on me. Somehow, I don't think Seaxneat would object to such an interpretation. Whether you're doing physical or mental battle, you still need a warrior's mentality to keep going.

Reverence for the ancestors becomes important on this path as well, and I know that's something that's going to push and challenge me, because I have a complicated relationship with my immediate family. Most of them won't talk to me, and most of the rest I have no interest in talking to. And I know I'm not the only one who struggles with difficult family dynamics. One thing I've already done to try to find some peace with things, and at least try to thank the people who gave me life, is to print out their pictures and put them on my still-coming-together Anglo-Saxon pagan altar. It's a small gesture that doesn't cost me anything and may loosen some of those hard feelings I've been holding on to. Another thing that's helped is delving into my family genealogy and imagining what life might have been like for the people I've been discovering far back on the family tree. No doubt some were brave and mighty, while others struggled to do the right thing, and yet others just wanted to push through the day-to-day the best they could. If the website I'm working with can be trusted, I apparently have some Danish, Norwegian, and French royalty in my past -- and that in itself kind of makes me feel good about my heritage. It also inspires me to want to do my best so that if they were here today, they'd think me a worthy descendant. Whatever it takes to motivate us, right? 
Now, what to call this Tolkien-meets-Anglo-Saxon-paganism system of mine? I didn't just want to take on somebody else's ready-made name for similar ways of doing spirituality, like Fyrnsidu or Aldsisu or Asatru, because I don't want to feel like I'm imitating someone else. I want this to be my own thing that I can lean into and make my own rules as I see fit. 

After doing some research, I discovered that the -sidu ending on the Old English words Fyrnsidu and Aldsidu signifies a custom or a habit, a cultural aspect of a given society. But then there's also the word weg, which generally refers to a physical road or path but can also be used in a more metaphorical sense, kind of like how the word "Tao" literally means "path" or "way" but refers as much to how the universe works as it does to taking a pathway through life that emulates its natural, effortless flow. I imagined that if Taoism had been known to the Anglo-Saxons, they probably would have called it Weg, or The Way. And I think that the metaphorical weg gets at what I want to do more than the -sidu that to me suggests going beyond the spiritual practices and into re-enactment, which for me gets a little bit off track from where I want to place my focus.

Thus... Middangeardweg.

Looks like a mouthful, right? Well, we've already discussed the meaning of weg. The rest, middangeard, is the Old English term that ignited Tolkien's imagination when he encountered it. Literally translated, it means "middle yard," and it's sort of spoken that way: MID-an-(g)yard, with just a slight pronunciation of the "g." It refers to the place of humans in the mythological space of the nine worlds of Norse myth: We are in Midgard, surrounded by the realms of the gods, elves, dwarves, and the underworld. We inhabit the centerpoint of these worlds, the middle. Thus, in a deeper sense, middangeard really means the Earth in the middle of it all, or... Middle-earth. To Tolkien, this was more than mythology. It was for him the perfect description of the real world that would be the canvas for the world in his fertile mind.

So Middangeard is "the way(s) of Middle-earth," both spiritual and mythological. It's something that looks to fantasy to help us build an Earth-centric spiritual philosophy, one in which we can be inspired by the brave exploits of Tolkienesque and pagan lore alike. And for someone like me, with a religious background similar to Tolkien's, if I choose to read Catholic values into the stories or to pursue those timeless transcendentals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty in search of a better world, well, I'm not going to stress about it. In some ways, I see Tolkien's world as a place where the old pagan ways and the Christian ways that supplanted them found a way to live in harmony with each other. A place where you can sit in front of your pagan altar and make offerings to Seaxneat, but if you get an itch to go to the Latin Mass that Tolkien loved so dearly, well, you should go right ahead and do that.

Middangeardweg. A place where the old gods are welcomed, where elves can roam freely and trees can talk to us, and we can be inspired by timeless values that don't limit themselves to one particular path. 

I mentioned earlier on in this series that I'd probably be burned out on this whole idea by the end. I'm not, and I take that as a good sign. I encourage everyone to find a path that suits them, whether it's a path that anyone else follows or not. Do what works best for you. I think this may just work best for me.

At least I'm excited to find out.

[WC: 3,393 / TWC: 52,654]