Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's resolution?

Merry Christmas everyone!  Remember, it's Christmas until the Ave Regina Caelorum replaces the Alma Redemptoris Mater ;-) (that's 02 Feb, Candlemas!)
 Christmas is my favorite liturgical season, but over the past few years I've often been yanked away from the liturgies by travel, family demands, and sometimes even work. That's likely to continue for a few years at least, and I'm starting to face the fact head-on and cope.  The ancient Jews certainly did: synagogue life and perhaps even an entirely new theology grew out of the experience of exile in Babylon, with only the rubble of a temple awaiting them in Jerusalem.  God not specific to a place becomes God everywhere, even God in oneself.  Yet this doesn't satisfy in the same way that place-centered ritual does. 

"I rejoiced when they said unto me, 'Let us go to the house of the LORD.' And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem" (Ps. 122:1-2).  How sweet that sounds!  I've often been lucky to live either next to or within a short drive of a church where liturgies were celebrated regularly.  My favorite place was up in the choir loft, my favorite clothes choir robes, my favorite smell the lingering odor of incense and faint candle smoke, and my favorite way to worship singing.  This was for many years, in fact, the only way I could manage to pray meaningfully. 

I still have great opportunities to sing and participate in other ways liturgically, but that may not last long.  Part of the way I've been preparing for that is to avoid bad experiences with prayer in the past, where my mind was alone with itself (maybe it just seemed that way) and left to wander in dark valleys.  As my beliefs have evolved, I feel more comfortable about developing something of a "home liturgical life," rather than dragging along a miserable kneeling existence in exile.  In that context, I appreciated Jason Miller's post on drawing deeper meaning from the Christmas story.  Ritual draws its meaning from theology, and Theosis via Incarnation is a great theological basis for ritual actions in place and time. 

I'm afraid of losing meaning in ritual and turning it into something escapist, and I'm also afraid of my own lack of discipline in keeping habits -- especially when those habits involve conflicts and balancing responsibilities with loved ones and other things.  I'm not sure if the habit of a New Year's resolution is always good, but if I had one for the coming year, that would be it.  I really want to pick myself up and keep a habit like this, that's not externally driven, and that I can feel comfortable defending if it needs defending.  I'm hoping also that the practice of "defending my own" will help me defend other good things I'd like to do in the world, but haven't felt free to do for a while.

Woah, that's like the first intentionally vague, self-helpy post I've written in a dreadfully long while!  Hope it's not oppressively annoying ;-)  I really have nothing to complain about, compared with some blog friends I know who are really struggling materially, emotionally, _and_ spiritually.  Being blessed with many choices really isn't a bad thing!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The power of the alphabet, part 2

On the commute to work this morning, I was thinking about my last post, on the "power of the alphabet."  Both Kabbalists and more orthodox readers of Scripture describe language as created with the universe, and the means by which the universe was created.  Before the creation event, existence is called a "formless void" -- in some sense, perhaps only because no language exists by which to describe it.  Names of the Divine, then, would not predate creation; we cannot address It in words in Its "original state," but only as a creating Being.

It's interesting that we as humans share in that power to create with language.  This point never strikes me more than when I think about the computer scientist's task of writing an interpreter or compiler for a programming language: here, language is turned in on itself, and abstraction and expressive power increase.  It's no coincidence that the bane of many an MIT undergraduate, the textbook "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs," has a wizard on its cover!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The power of the alphabet

A recent blog post on balancing out Geburah and Chesed led me to poke around the Tree myself.  I was trying to refresh my memory on the Tzaddi correspondences, and internet search led me to Mathers' edition of the Key of Solomon.  In particular, it highlighted this passage, which I take out of context from some magical formulae for cursing tardy demons (Ch. 7): these names, and in virtue of these names, the which being named and invoked all creatures obey and tremble with fear and terror, these names which can turn aside lightning and thunder; and which will utterly make you to perish, destroy, and banish you. These names then are Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, He, Vau, Zayin, Cheth, Teth, Yod, Kaph, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Pe, Tzaddi, Qoph, Resh, Shin, Tau.
I'm not a dabbler in this sort of magic, by any means, but what struck me about this passage was not the curse, but the "names of power" -- which are nothing more or less than the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet.  Isn't it true that wielding the pen skillfully gives one more power than any weapon or army?  The text goes on to say, "By these secret names, therefore, and by these signs which are full of mysteries..."  It's odd to think of the letters of the alphabet as "secret names."  I'm reminded of the runes ("Buchstaben") my ancestors carved into little wooden staves; runes developed from Italic or Roman letters that may have meant little to those who wrote them, and in their mystery had power to reveal fate.  Perhaps Hebrew meant a little more to the author of the Key, but it was still the Divine language of Holy Writ and the language by which the universe was created.  To literate folk, the alphabet itself holds no mystery, but in combination, it means all of creation and everything everywhere someone might want to express sometime.  This echo of Borges' "The Library of Babel" shouldn't lead one to despair, as that work may; here, we manipulate the "names of power" to express meaning, rather than receiving all permutations of all symbols.  We know we construct meaning, for good or for evil.  Let it always be for good!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Liturgy of destruction and double desecration

Yes, I know, the above title probably names two existing death metal hits ;-)  Actually, the phrase "liturgy of destruction" came to me in a discussion of the title of the Book of Revelation a.k.a. the Apocalypse.  A lot of this book describes a heavenly liturgy: the Redeemer in priestly vestments surrounded by lampstands, thurifer angels offering up incense, readings (from a scroll nobody but the priestly Redeemer can read) and crowds of various sentient beings worshiping and singing hymns.  Even the large chunks of the work dealing with the destruction of everybody-we-don't-like have a liturgical flavor: seven seals, trumpets, and bowls mark out different torments. 

A search for "liturgy of destruction" surprisingly turned up not death metal album covers, but the distinctly more serious topic of the Holocaust (itself a strikingly liturgical metaphor) and other pogroms.  Google found me a page from a book: "Against the apocalypse: responses to catastrophe in modern Jewish culture," by David G. Roskies.  I was struck by the following description (p. 16) of the desecration of a synagogue by a Russian army in 1917:
When my eye caught sight of the eastern wall, I was totally shaken by what I saw.  The elaborate ornamentation on the ark, including the ten commandments up above, was left intact.  But in the middle of the empty ark itself a huge [Eastern Orthodox] icon [of Jesus] had been placed.

Tselem baheykhal, "an idol in the sanctuary," flashed through my mind.  And this shocked me more than all the pogroms I had witnessed.  An ancient response began to awaken within me, an echo of the destruction of the Temple... I felt that a terrible sacrilege had been perpetrated here, a desecration of both religions.  The brutal hand of a soldier run wild had exacted the same reprisal from God as from man.

The "double desecration" here stood out: the unknown vandals, violently subverting the Face of the Christ as a racial and political statement, desecrated it as much as the Jewish sanctuary.   It was after reading this, that I saw the following news story about some hateful locals in Phoenix, AZ who were protesting what they thought was a mosque under construction.  We laugh, because the supposed mosque was really just a dome for some Christian church, but the same double desecration stands out:  Jesus' Cross, Face, and Name subverted for racial and political ends, insulting Christianity itself along with Islam.  Wikipedia's article on the 1819 "Hep-Hep" riots has a fitting quote by Rahel Varnhagen: "Their hate does not stem from religious zeal: how can they hate other faiths when they don't even love their own?"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Not a famine of bread, ... but for hearing the word of the LORD"

I was struck by the following verses from today's (BCP) reading from the Book of Amos (8:11-12):

Yes, days are coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send famine upon the land: Not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the LORD.  Then shall they wander from sea to sea and rove from the north to the east in search of the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.
Amos has just been condemning the rich of Israel for defrauding the poor, which makes this passage more startling.  Wouldn't the logical response to injustice be the restoration of justice -- in this case, inverting the top-heavy social order?  Yet God responds in a different way.  The context helps a bit: Amos has been condemning the Israelites both for their injustice, and for their religious hypocrisy:

I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream (Amos 5:21-24).
What's most disturbing about Amos' prophecy is that it has come true.  Don't we see rich and poor, liberal and conservative, fundamentalist and free-thinker, all rushing about looking for spiritual reality?  Don't I do the same?  "Then shall they wander... in search of the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it."  Hunger at least brings with it a focus and clarity of purpose: one does whatever one needs to do in order to fill one's stomach and those of one's loved ones.  Generations of hunger have their own distorting effect on the moral sense, but it's hard to condemn that, any more than one can condemn the clever but sometimes cruel survival strategies found in the natural world.  Having the leisure to search for the Divine, however, means that one needs to find new purpose -- a new drive to replace the old one of basic survival.  This is a new stage of human evolution!  I can't imagine it will be easy for us to figure this out as a species, rather than as occasional blessed individuals.  I haven't figured it out yet.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

An Indian Christian sigil?

This Christian sigil, found in India, has been puzzling an online friend of mine.  Being able to read Tamil could help, especially considering my friend's accidental discovery that the sigil has a back side with what appear to be detailed explanations of its different geometrical regions.  Any ideas, fellow bloggers?  Here are some discussion points:
  1. I'm reassured that the eight-sided wheels are not the usual Buddhist "Wheels of the Law."
  2. Jesus is in the middle of the figure -- solar, and likely not constrained by the surrounding figure -- surrounded by protective saints.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Opere ex operato": mixing articles

Jason Miller of Strategic Sorcery has been writing a series of posts on "opere ex operato" -- the magical principle that ritual properly performed "works" regardless of the belief or goodness of the operator.  The phrase originates in Western Christianity, where it has been controversial for ages (read up on Donatism for an ancient example).  This post on the Miraculous Medal devotion, and Mehet's comments on the following post (mildly NSFW tantric image there), stirred me to think about mixing magic from different traditions.

Mehet asked whether replacing the Blessed Virgin Mary with Holy Sophia and various deities in the Miraculous Medal devotion really blunts its efficaciousness, when similar mixing is a familiar part of magical practice.  For example, the Psalms are used in root work (as Mehet points out) and Egyptian deities are mixed into the already syncretic Qabalistic tradition in Western Hermetic rituals.

i responded by saying that "things that are almost but not quite the same, tend to interfere with one another."  The example i had in mind was from linguistics.  Linguists suspect (see e.g., this Wikipedia article on the history of Germanic languages) that English lost its case-declined definite articles (all of which mean "the" in English, but in other Germanic languages change forms depending on the role of the following noun in the sentence) due to regular interaction between speakers of two similar Germanic languages: Danish and Anglo-Saxon.  Danes colonized and took over parts of modern-day England, and along with political dominance must have come trade and social interaction.  The two languages were sufficiently similar to facilitate linguistic crossing (at least to form a Pidgin). However, their case systems differed enough that people must have confused themselves to frustration. Eventually they just threw away the whole thing, and we say "the" instead of one of the many forms described here.

In this case, the Blessed Virgin and Holy Sophia each have their own imagery. They cross quite a bit, but if you're using a Miraculous Medal, you're drawing from a particularly Marian strain. (When Jason Miller speaks of "a coven of Catholic witches," i know exactly what he means.  These folks are devoted thaumaturgists and very specific in their devotional imagery.)  Trying to mix that up with Holy Sophia seems like it would result in confusion. (Also, i don't generally experience the two in a syncretic way, but perhaps that's a sign of my limitations!)

i understand the Psalms differently. People of so many different belief systems have used the Psalms for so long, that they aren't specifically Jewish anymore, or even Christian or Muslim or ... You could say that the Psalms are to linguistics like "Indo-European" is to English.  They also have a different character than a devotion like that of the Miraculous Medal.  The Paslms are prayers, evocations, meditations, etc. rather than devotions focused on a specific figure, like the Blessed Virgin. 

However, after making this comment, i wondered whether the mixing of Egyptian and Christian deities in, say, the Golden Dawn tradition is rather like using the Miraculous Medal as a Holy Sophia devotion.  GD folks (i'm reading Dion Fortune's "The Mystical Qabalah" at the moment) might assert that they link Egyptian, Christian, etc. deities together using a common Qabalistic (for the Outer Order at least) framework.  The framework, they might say, ensures that the strains only get mixed in the intended ways.  In contrast, using a Miraculous Medal for the "wrong goddess" throws away an existing framework of devotion that followers of the Blessed Virgin have been using for centuries.

i think there's something to the GD argument, but i don't have enough experience yet "mixing the articles" to know whether doing so really has power, or whether it merely dilutes the strains and turns magic into a mere "good feeling of oneness with a generally good principle."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sorry, the Golden Ratio is not "neo-pagan"

One of my favorite blogs for "eye candy" and occasional reading is the New Liturgical Movement (NLM).  The NLM's contributors almost always do a great job at showing beauty in liturgy -- architecture, art, vestments, music, and forms -- without sullying themselves with sectarian politics.  Their opinions are usually well-informed too, which is why a recent post ("Just How Golden is the Golden Section?") disappoints me all the more. 

The author, David Clayton, begins with a reasonable and informed argument that the "Golden Section" (known variously by the Greek letters Φ (phi) or τ (tau)) does not play such a large role in architecture and art as common wisdom assumes.  His assertion is supported by more mathematical articles cited in the comments.  However, the essay's final tangent (starting in the middle of page 3) speculates that the emphasis of Φ over other ratios indicates a "neo-pagan" world view, in which "modern man focuses more on what nature is, rather than what nature ought to be."  The author then continues with rambling, absurd numerological speculation:  that the ancients supposedly searched for meaning in the beginning of the Fibonacci series, whereas moderns seek the "ideal" at the series' end (i.e., the limiting ratio of successive terms of the series, which a little bit of algebra shows is Φ), and that this shows that the moderns "cannot see beyond the proportions of the fallen world."  (Wouldn't it mean the opposite?  Φ should represent an evolutionary view which finds the ideal at the Omega Point -- the end of time which is the consummation of all things.)  Clayton concludes with "A modern Christian interpretation of Φ," which makes the absurd claim that Φ represents the fallen material world and should therefore be called the "Fallen" or "Dark Section," rather than the "Golden Section."

The author's most offensive assertion in this essay -- that excessive veneration of Φ is a "neo-pagan" phenomenon -- is most offensive because it is entirely unfounded.  The article cites sources on architecture, art, and mathematics, but fails to cite a single source on what neopagans or "occultists" (i.e., students of the Western hermetic tradition, whom Clayton snidely derides as unworthy of his investigation) believe about Φ.  The author does observe the Pythagoreans would likely favor ratios of whole numbers, rather than irrational (in the mathematical sense) ratios like Φ.  Sacred geometry and numerology in the Western hermetic tradition seems to favor the Pythagorean approach, for example using the Tetractys in correspondence with the Tree of Life.  Irrational ratios do appear, but more incidentally, as part of regular geometric figures or Platonic solids.  Occultists do make use of the pentagram in rituals, but this occurs entirely independently of Φ. 

I'm not qualified to speak about what neopagans believe.  It is a point of controversy how much the 20th-century development of organized Western neopaganism has in common with (in)famous occult figures of the time (see e.g., Wikipedia's article on Gardnerian Wicca).  I would say, however, that both neopagans and occultists tend to be syncretic in their beliefs, and "take whatever they think is good from wherever they can get it."  Interest in Φ by a neopagan or occultist may be no more special than their usual interest in phenomena that relate the macrocosm to the microcosm.  (Clayton himself proposes Φ as an expression of this relation.)  Furthermore, a central premise of the Western hermetic tradition at least is the brokenness of the created world.  Human beings participate in the healing of that brokenness, a process known as the Great Work.  In that sense, the ratio Φ has no more to do with "fallenness" or "darkness" than any other ratio of physical quantities.

Despite my criticism of Clayton's article, I should point out that he presents his conclusions as provisional.  I would encourage him to consider not only evidence from art and architecture, but also from those beliefs which he critiques without understanding.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Theoria and praxis, distillation and inspiration

We love books.  While we haven't quite stooped to keeping books in our oven, our little apartment has long ago run out of shelf space.  Books stack in precarious piles around the edges of the living room and reach for the ceiling on top of shelves.  Many of these are spiritual and mystical books, ranging from the most orthodox of orthodox Christianity (St. Francis de Sales' "Introduction to the Devout Life") to the least orthodox (but perhaps more interesting!).  I've read all of them, some several times, but i can't say that i've truly absorbed the implications of any of them.  St. Maximus the Confessor said that "Theology without action (praxis) is the theology of demons."  I don't think i know any more about demonic theology than i do about angelic theology, so perhaps i missed out on the content as well as the implications!

Anyhow, the point is that i look back on my ~ 15 years of devotional study, and wonder what "progress" i made.  I did certainly mature from a pious but naïve youth to a more open-minded, broadly educated adult (who finally finished school not long ago, after an education of nearly epic length!).  My religious perspectives certainly have changed.  I can't say that i'm a kinder person, that i'm more charitable (not just in the "dropping money in the basket" way), that i'm any closer to getting in touch with the Divine -- but perhaps this is because my work and familial responsibilities demand more attention and resources.  There are those books, though, mocking me.

I was thinking about that this morning when i drew two cards out of the Tarot deck:  Temperance and the Star (the latter link might be a bit NSFW if your boss can't handle nonsexual art nudes).  (I took the images from Wikipedia's depiction of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which i don't use, though i like Pamela Colman Smith's artwork.)  Temperance and the Star both depict a female figure with two water vessels in the midst of pouring.  The difference is that Temperance transfers liquid from one vessel to the other, while the Star pours them out, one upon the waters and the other upon the earth.  One can understand the water here as inspiration or the "stuff" of spirituality.  Pouring it between containers is an allegory of distillation or refinement (compare the alembic); pouring it out is an allegory of divine or heavenly inspiration.  Distillation and inspiration aren't opposites, but they do involve different agents.  The former is the work of the mystic or "spiritual alchemist" who refines received ideas,  extracting out the "aqua vitae" ("water of life" -- the "living essence" of the idea).  The latter comes from above.  The Star's work happens in secret, at night, without an obvious human agent to receive the results.  (Perhaps our mystic slept too soundly and missed a midnight date with Lady Star!)

The previous two paragraphs introduced two dualities: theoria and praxis, distillation and inspiration.  I would certainly be overextending my rhetorical abilities to put them in correspondence.  They do make an interesting constellation of analogies for understanding how the "stuff" of spiritual life flows around and through a person.  Collected inspiration can be refined and purified through the work of Temperance or nepsis (spiritual sobriety -- the virtue keeping one on the hard, long, but ultimately rewarding path).  Theory has practical implications, and practice influences and inspires theory. 

The personal implication is the necessity of patience in one's spiritual growth.  Inspiration comes when it wills, not when i will.  Distilling it is a lifelong internal work.  Careful praxis may take time to work out, so that it forms a partnership with theoria, rather than fighting against it.  (Just because some group is oppressed, doesn't mean one should immediately rush the barricades with them!)  Perhaps this is only self-justification, but it also seems wise to be patient with one's one nature.  If it takes me a long time to gather and to distill, to refine myself and my ideas, then as long as i'm following the path of true spiritual sobriety, i should let things develop naturally.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Distillation and sublimation

i'd better start up this blog again before the spammers take over!

Was poking around the bookstore for Dion Fortune's "The Mystical Qabalah," which i never had the chance to finish, but found her "The Training and Work of an Initiate" instead.  Surprising to see the book as "The Mystical Qabalah" bought from such a conventional bookstore.  Sometimes i look down on the simple folk in this town, but there must be an interesting reader among them!

Dion Fortune makes a useful point in the latter book: for someone on the path of hidden work in the world (the "occult path"), all the "things of this world" that distract from the Work are not for renunciation, but for sublimation.  The technical image there is of carbon dioxide ice passing directly from the solid to the gaseous state, but the esoteric image is that of "gross matter" being "spiritualized":  the sculptor carving beauty out of stone, the poet shaping everlasting words out of changeable feelings.  Related images are the crucible and the still:  two different ways to express the same idea of separating a noble material from its impurities.

This reminded me of a conversation i had with an experimental chemist.  His experiments require exceptionally pure ethyl alcohol.  Even the alcohol he purchases from chemical supply houses isn't pure enough, so he has to refine it further by distillation, in a process not much different from what moonshiners use.  i asked him whether he couldn't just start with the same raw material (fermented mash) used to distill strong liquors for human consumption, but he said that he can't, because that raw material has water in it.  It's physically (i.e., thermodynamically -- barring the work of Maxwell's Demon) impossible to use heat to separate a mixture of water and alcohol completely.  Some 5% of the water will always remain.  The raw substance with which he starts, therefore, contains no water; it must be made using a different process than used for distilling liquor.

This conversation suggests an esoteric analogy, which should give pause to those who want to practice sublimation: Is it possible to sublimate all human emotions and experiences?  Can everything be spiritualized?  i don't speak of things that are definitely wicked -- that clearly harm others or oneself.  Some things may not be wicked, but they may not be good material for spiritualization: we may need to drop them completely, to renounce them, rather than try to carve them into the desired shape or burn them into a more pure substance.  All things are good, we are told; but are they?