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Entries in religion (5)


Blue Highways: St. Michaels, Maryland

Unfolding the Map

What's in a name?  What's in my name?  In this post, I'm going to be a little self-indulgent and reflect on the meaning of the name Michael.  It seems that if names are any indication of what we are supposed to represent, both St. Michaels and I have a lot to live up to.  To see where St. Michaels is located, the map will be your guide.  At right is the state flower of Maryland, the Black-Eyed Susan.  Photo by Lorax, found at Wikimedia Commons, and used under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Book Quote

"On the way was St. Michaels, 'the town that fooled the British' by inventing the blackout.  During the War of 1812, word reached the citizens that a night bombardment was imminent.  Residents doused all lights except candles in second-story windows and lanterns they hung in treetops.  British gunners misread the lights, miscalculated trajectories, and overshot the town.  The trick preserved numerous colonial buildings, including one home where a stray cannonball fell through the roof and bounced down the stairway past the startled lady of the house."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 15

St. Michaels, Maryland. Photo by Acroterion and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

St. Michaels, Maryland

The blackout story is interesting, but I want to focus on the name of St. Michaels, Maryland.  Part of the reason is personal.  My name is Michael.  But part of the reason is a curiosity of mine.  Michael has been one of the most enduring popular names for boys.  But for the life of me, I don't understand why.

Of course, there is the religious connection.  A long time ago, when I first discovered that names could mean something (before that, I thought Michael was just Michael), I discovered that Michael is a Hebrew name, and not only that, but the conjoining of two Hebrew words: micha and elMicha means "in the likeness of" or "like" and el means God.  So in my first understandings of my name, I was, mistakenly, pleased to note that my name meant "he who is like God!"  I was able to lord it over my lesser-monickered friends until looking again, I was puzzled to find that it was actually a question: "Who is like God?"  I didn't understand it at the time.  My friends never bought my argument that I was like God anyway.

The question only makes sense when you attach the name Michael to the most important entity associated with it, the archangel Michael, the most important angel in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Along with two other archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, Michael is a major figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  In Judaism, Michael is the protector of Israel and identified as a "prince of the first rank" of angels.  He also identifies himself as a commander in the army of the Lord.  In the Christian tradition, particularly the Book of Revelation, Michael defeats Satan in heaven and as a result, Satan is thrown down to earth.  Michael is also identified as the angel that will herald the second coming of Christ.  He is considered the patron saint of healing and the prince of the Seraphim.  He is seen to have four main offices: to fight Satan, to rescue souls at the hour of death, to be the champion of God's people, and to bring souls to judgment.  In some variants of Christianity, like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists, Michael is practically synonymous with Jesus Christ, and the Mormons believe that Michael is Adam in his heavenly form.  Michael is also mentioned in the Koran as Mikail, one of the archangels along with Jibreel (Gabriel), where the prophet warns that anyone who is an enemy to God, his angels and messengers, and Jibreel and Mikail, will find God as their enemy.

Thus, Michael serves as a sort of heavenly reality check.  If one sees the name Michael as a question, "Who is like God?", the answer is expected to be "nobody."  Thus, Michael is supposed to remind us of both the power and majesty of God while at the same time revealing to us that nobody can be like God.

Certainly the story of how I got this name, the name of the first among the angels, does not fit with the implied majesty of Michael.  I was adopted at two years old.  At that time, people were calling me "Mike."  I had gotten used to that name and so for my adoptive parents, changing it was out of the question.  But my mother didn't like "Mike" and therefore used the formal version of the name, "Michael."  In other words, my parents didn't put much thought into the name.  They didn't name me after the archangel, or because of the symbolism of the name.  They simply took the diminutive name that I came with and formalized it.

I wish that I could live up to the name always, but like most people, I have my times when I perhaps imperfectly resemble a fuzzy copy of Michael's strength, loyalty, courage, and majesty.  There have been other times when I more accurately resemble something quite different. In a way, it's difficult to live up to the name of someone who carries the power of God and reminds us of what we are not.  Perhaps that's why, at least in English-speaking nations, we don't name any of our children Jesus.  Who can live up to that?  People do name their children Joshua, which is probably closer to Jesus' actual name in Aramaic.

If you're named after something archetypal, something that calls to mind the most noble and perfect of human natures, does it mean that there is an unwritten or unsaid expectation that you live up to those ideals?  By extension, if you live in a community named St. Michaels, or any of the many other communities named after Biblical or holy places, was there an assumption that the citizens of those places will embody such principles?

I believe that the answer is yes but not necessarily overtly.  We give children and places such names because we all strive to be the fullest of what we understand humanity to be.  Yet we all know that nobody can live up to ideals that we set for ourselves.  That's why they are ideals.  All of us are often less than ideal.  But, except for a very few, we wish and we strive to be good people.  We can even argue that those who are often not good people, who may even seem eveil, may be trying to reach a sort of perfection only they can understand; one which puts them very far apart from the rest of us.  I can never truly be my name, Michael, in the historical, literary and religious meaning of the name.  But I can be "Michael."  In other words, I can do the best I can to be a good person and live up to I expect of me.  And when I fail, I can always ask "Who is like God?"

Musical Interlude

When the Saints Go Marching In is a gospel and jazz standard.  The line that appeals to me is the one that says "how I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in."  It is performed by the incomparable Louis Armstrong in this video, with a number of other very fine musicians.  I like to think that if there is a celestial orchestra, Armstrong and the other passed musicians will be jazzing up the heavenly arrangement.

Here's an extra video of Dave Brubeck's Take Five.  Brubeck was a jazz piano icon who just passed away a day or so ago and will certainly be part of that great jazz arrangement in the hereafter.

If you want to know more about St. Michaels

Baydreaming: Saint Michaels
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Town of St. Michaels
Wikipedia: Saint Michaels

Next up: Tilghman Island, Maryland


Blue Highways: Salem, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

What is in a place name, especially those that evoke other places?  I am of the opinion that place names often help us keep alive those other places that we came from or identify with.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) swings through Salem, New Jersey we'll see how this little town inspired the names of possibly three other Salems in the United States.  To see the source of this inspiration, please be inspired to visit the map.  The red oak leaf, at right, comes from New Jersey's official state tree.

Book Quote

"Salem, a colonial town to the west, was abundant with old buildings and homes that would be museums most anywhere else in the country, but here they were just more declining houses, even though many stood when the men of Salem sent beef to Valley Forge to help save Washington's troops from starvation.  The town is the birthplace of Zadock Street, a restless fellow who left New Jersey in 1803 to make his way into the new western territory.  As he went, he and his sons founded towns in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and named them all Salem; in Ohio, his Salem sprouted North Salem, West Salem, South Salem, Lower Salem, and Salem Center.  Americans can be thankful that Zadock Street was not born in Freidberger or Quonochontaug."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Downtown Salem, New Jersey. Photo by Tim Kiser, and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Salem, New Jersey

I've had a couple of posts about town and city names, and LHM has succeeded in piquing my interest in a little mystery.  Why would a man named Zadock Street, of Salem, New Jersey spread out west with his sons and name all the towns they founded Salem?  What is it about the name Salem that was so important to these men?

First things first.  How many towns and cities and places are named Salem.  One source, Wikipedia, lists 25.  Another source, on Yahoo, lists 32.  Clearly people had reasons for naming towns Salem.  From what I've gathered online, Salem is a derivation of shalom and salaam, the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.  Salem was mentioned as a place in the Old Testament, and became part of the name of Jerusalem, founded by King David of the kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem means "foundation of peace."

Therefore, we can see that the most likely spread of the name Salem came with the spread of religion throughout the country.  Indeed, one source who uses the same quote by LHM above, looks into the story of the towns named Salem and of Zadock Street and wonders if LHM's story is true.  The writer points out that Zadock was one of King David's priests, thus cementing the connection between Zadock Street and religion.  The writer looks at the founding of Salems in Ohio, Indiana and Iowa that LHM says were established by Zadock Street and his sons and finds the evidence less than compelling.  Those Salems were founded by Quakers, the writer claims.  The writer says that there is no evidence that Zadock Street had anything to do with their founding, and there is no compelling evidence that Zadock Street or his sons were Quakers.

Thankfully, the internet can sometimes help clear up mysteries.  Wikipedia's entry states that one of the founders of Salem, Ohio was Zadock Street and an historic home in the city was owned by John Street, Zadock's son, and was the northernmost Ohio stop on the Underground Railroad.  The city of Salem in Indiana appears to have nothing to do with Zadock Street, but there are two other areas called Salem in the state, both census-designated places, that may have had something to do with Zadock Street.  And while I could not associate Salem, Iowa with Zadock Street or his sons, the town was founded by Quakers and was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

What accounts for so many towns named Salem, then?  In the case of the Zadock Street and his sons, it may have been that religion plays a part in their propagation of the Salem name, but I think that there is a greater likelihood that the connection to their original home of Salem, New Jersey played a bigger part.  In a sense, we all have that attachment to home.  I cannot see the name Fort Bragg, even if the name is attached to Fort Bragg, North Carolina rather than my hometown of Fort Bragg, California, without getting pictures and images in my mind of all of the scenes I used to inhabit as a child.  The United States, as a country that was settled primarily by immigrants, would have been an alien place.  Names that evoked the familiar would have been important to people, comforting them with memories of places known in the midst of all the unknowns.

I did a post awhile back where I examined why there were so many towns, throughout the Southwest, called a variant of El Dorado.  In that case, Spanish conquistadors looking for gold, the proverbial El Dorado, left that name all over the region.  That was a case of wishful thinking.  However, in many cases it seems that people named towns and cities after that which gave them comfort and something that evoked memories of the places from whence they came.  I surmise that if you closely into town names, they've either been named for someone, or after something left behind.

Place names are a very simple part of a complex process.  No matter how adventurous or how exploratory we are, or how much we push the boundaries of our experience, we seem to need that touchstone to what we were and where we've been.  Two of the most poignant examples of this comes from our explorations into space.  The first example occurred when astronauts first left the safety of our atmosphere and went into space.  The poetic descriptions of the seeming fragility of our world when viewed from space indicated just how much "home" means to us when we look back at it.  As Alfred Worden wrote:

Quietly, like a night bird, floating, soaring, wingless
We glide from shore to shore, curving and falling
but not quite touching;
Earth: a distant memory seen in an instant of repose,
crescent shaped, ethereal, beautiful,
I wonder which part is home, but I know it doesn't matter . . .
the bond is there in my mind and memory;
Earth: a small, bubbly balloon hanging delicately
in the nothingness of space.

The other example came from even farther out in space, when the Voyager probe, close to leaving our solar system, trained its cameras back on Earth which hung like a small speck of dust in the vastness of space.  Carl Sagan said: 

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future

A sense of home, of belonging and of origin, is important.  It is an indelible part of our identity and it provides us with comfort.  As such, it is natural that we take a piece of that which is important with us, and make it a part of any place we go.

Musical Interlude

I couldn't have picked a better song to illustrate my point than Joe Diffie's Home.  This was a nice discovery, since country music is not a genre that I dip into regularly, but I'm often surprised when I do.

If you want to know more about Salem

Discover Salem County: Salem Salem County News
Salem County Chamber of Commerce
Salem, New Jersey
Visit Salem County
Wikipedia: Salem

Next up: Leipsic, Delaware


Blue Highways: Hill Cumorah, New York

Unfolding the Map

This post is about some Mormons in my life.  I'm not concerned here with questions about Mormonism as a faith or religion.  I am writing about a friend, who happened to be Mormon, and the profound effect he and his family had on my life at a time when I needed a sense of normalcy and stability.  William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) visit to Hill Cumorah, where the Mormon faith began, is what occasions this recollection.  See where Joseph Smith found the golden plates on the map.

Book Quote

"Joseph Smith, an eighteen-year-old with small hands and big feet, a quiet and 'unlaughing' boy, encountered the Angel Moroni, son of Mormon, on a drumlin alongside a litle road south of Palmyra in 1827.  The road is now New York 21 and the drumlin, a streamlined hump of glacially drifted soil, they call Hill Cumorah.  It is not a Mount Sinai or an Ararat, but rather a much humbler thing, yet apparently of sufficient majesty for angels and God to have chosen it as the place to speak to Smith.  There he unearthed the golden plates that he said were the source of the Book of Mormon.  With the aid of an ancient pair of optical instruments, the Urim and Thummin, which Smith found with the plates, he was able to translate the 'revised' Egyptian hieroglyphics, although he insisted on dictating his translation to scribes from behind a curtain."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 5

Photo of Hill Cumorah, New York by Tabitha on her blog From Single to Married (to Baby). Click on photo to go to host page.Hill Cumorah, New York

In this presidential election season, where the nation's first black president will be squaring off against the nation's first Mormon presidential nominee, a lot of questions are being asked about Mormonism.  The questioning isn't as bad or as pointed, it seems to me, as the questioning that occurred when the Catholic John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960.  But you occasionally see media reporting on attitudes toward a possible Mormon nominee and president, and more articles about the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints.  Some people will most likely always have an underlying fear of Mormonism and the Mormon Church.

My exposure to Mormons was much simpler and more profound than politics, and convinced me that a needless fear of Mormons is unjustified.  I'll put it out there - I disagree with Mitt Romney's politics and am quite sure I won't vote for him, but my choice will be based on his politics alone, and not his religious beliefs.

I went to a small-town's schools, where each year the class was small enough so that everyone knew each other.  Therefore I knew John, but I really didn't get close to him until high school.  We were both members of our school's storied cross-country team that dominated the north coast of California's small schools and a few larger schools throughout the 70s and 80s.  At the time we had similar builds, though he was a little more husky than I was, we were both smart enough to put us at the top of our class, and despite the fact that he was an extravert and I an introvert, we seemed to connect pretty well.  We quickly began spending a lot of time together.

At the time, the dysfunction in my family was becoming terrible.  At 15, I had stood up to my alcoholic father and ended my sexual abuse at his hands.  However, I kept silent about it, and his alcoholism degraded him further and further.  By then, my sister was well into her long and ongoing struggle with anorexia-bulimia.  My mother, desperately trying to keep control over an uncontrollable situation, was at the end of her rope and manifested an obsessiveness with order and cleanliness and trying to help my sister.  My youngest sister did as well as she could under such circumstances.  We all did.

It was at this time that John strode into my life.  He seemed confident, assured, and willing to have a lot of good, clean fun.  Of course, he was restricted by his religion in what he could or couldn't do, but in hindsight these restrictions on him were really good for me.  Because I hung out a lot with someone who was religiously barred from drinking, I really didn't get too involved with drinking myself - I did drink and got intoxicated a couple of times, but not to the extent that a lot of my fellow high school classmates did.  After all, I lived in a small town far from any metropolitan areas.  There wasn't a lot to do and, unfortunately as I have discovered after the fact, a lot of my fellow classmates were dealing with similar dynamics in their own households.

John drove an orange VW bug and I spent a lot of time with him in that thing, often listening to early 80s rock.  He became almost a part of my family.  My mother loved him, and his personality tended to drive my dad into the corners when he was at my house.  What John did best for me was serve as a reminder that there was a normal life out there.  His family was very gracious in welcoming me into their home.  His father was a biology teacher at our high school, and his mother was a sixth grade teacher at a local grammar school.  Their household modeled to me what a normal household looked like.  His mom always apologized for a messy house, but I relished the disorder in their house because my mom's control issues meant that I had the most spotless teenage room in town, perhaps in history.

John's religion rarely played any influence in our friendship other than superficial issues, like drinking. We talked about our churches once in awhile.  I was Catholic and enlightened him a little on my church, and I learned a little about his.  His church responsibilities occasionally got in the way of activities we wanted to do, but his church was also a source of fun.  It was built around a large multipurpose room which served as the community gathering and service area, but it also had an indoor basketball court on it, and John would often invite a group of us to come and play basketball there in the evenings.

John also had a way with the ladies, and I believe that it was his innate self-confidence that allowed him to date some very sought-after girls in our class and in the classes behind us in high school.  We often talked about dating and the mysteries associated with girls.  While I didn't have a lot of self-confidence and my dates tended to be disasters, John was always there to give me some gentle ribbing and then help me to move on.

Some things eventually happened that caused us to part ways, though I often think of him now.  We went away to different colleges, he to Utah State and I to Santa Clara, but we saw each other in the summers.  One summer, however, he seemed to grow distant.  He was planning to go on his mission, which he did in Brazil, and he seemed to draw apart from me and others.  I didn't understand at first, but now I think it had to do with the preparation he was undergoing for this combination of church duty and spiritual quest - this was a journey I couldn't do with him.  When he came back, we picked up our friendship again.  He soon found the woman he wanted to marry, a Mormon girl from northern Wyoming, and he settled there.  I was asked to be best man, but as a non-Mormon I could not attend the ceremony so someone served as my proxy when he was married at the LDS temple in Salt Lake City.  I lived in Milwaukee at the time, and took a long Greyhound trip to attend the reception.

We keep in touch via Facebook now.  John has a large family with children who are all in their teens or older.  I don't really know any of them.  I saw John a few years ago when he came to Albuquerque for a work trip and we relived some old times.  I was a little nervous because I had grown more liberal and I worried that we wouldn't agree on a lot of things.  As I danced around what I thought might be prickly issues, John, as forthright as ever, said "You know, Mike, I don't think we're as far apart as you might think we are."

As the debates go on about the impact of a Mormon candidate and possible president, I know that John and his Mormon family helped make my difficult teenage life a lot easier.  If religion had anything to do with their kindness to me, then I am grateful to them for acting out of their faith.  But I know that my friendship with John went beyond religion.  I was a troubled kid, and John was my friend, and he acted just as he would have acted regardless of his religious beliefs.

I'm not Mormon, nor do I plan to become one.  But I'm very thankful for a Mormon family who probably doesn't realize just how much they helped a young man's difficult teenage life.  Thank you, John.

Musical Interlude

Here's a non-musical clip from The Simpsons that I always laughed at:

John and I used to cruise Main Street in Fort Bragg in his VW during our senior year of high school.  We listened to this song by Aldo Nova a lot while we drove up and down the length of the town, talking and looking for something to do.  I doubt the Pope and the College of Cardinals or the LDS President and his Quorum of Twelve would have approved, and I don't really care.

If you want to know more about Hill Cumorah

Hill Cumorah and Historic Sites Hill Cumorah
Wikipedia: Cumorah
Wikipedia: Hill Cumorah Pageant

Next up: Palmyra, New York


Blue Highways: Conyers, Georgia

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWilliam Least Heat-Moon (LHM) spends some time at a Presbyterian cemetery and listening to repentence and the possibility of redemption on the radio.  It seems that Conyers has a lot of that, provoking me to begin what will probably be a two part thought exercise (continuing with my next post on the Monastery of the Holy Spirit) on spirituality.  I might have written about it once before, but what else do we talk about if not politics, religion and sex (and not necessarily in that order)?  Click the tiny map at right to see the exact spot of the cemetery where LHM ate breakfast.  Also, let me know you're out there - we've had over a thousand unique viewers this past month.  Thanks for reading!  Comment a hello!

Book Quote

"That morning, down on route 20 near Conyers, Georgia, while I ate breakfast in the Smyrna Presbyterian Church cemetery, I read the Scotch-Irish names on tombstones and listened to the radio.  A stained-glass voice beating repentence into the ungraced at 95.6 megahertz a second may have influenced what happened next."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 17

Old town in Conyers, Georgia. Photo by "Skarg" and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Conyers, Georgia

I can't remember if I wrote much about religion and my relationship to it in any previous post.  I've done so many now, what I remember doing and what I've actually done may be two different things.  The reason I bring it up now is that this post and the next post, based as always on the book quotes I cull from Blue Highways, will have to do with religion and spirituality and the reflections and thoughts that the quotes pull from me.

LHM briefly describes sitting in a cemetery in Conyers, in the Smyrna Presbyterian Church to be exact, eating breakfast and listening to a Christian radio station.  His choice of words is pretty meaningful..."beating repentence into the ungraced..."

The facets of religion fascinate me, and sometimes repel and horrify me.  It's amazing to me that a Christian faith that emphasizes the most empathetic, tolerant and compassionate responses to most any human situation (pretty much everything that Jesus Christ taught) and at the same time the most violent, petty, and vengeful responses to what are often relatively minor infractions (pretty much most of the Old Testament), can exist in the same faith.  It helps explain why within the Christian faith a man like Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (warning - the link to Westboro Baptist Church may be deemed offensive and does not represent the views of this writer) can protest at the funerals of Iraq War veterans with the twisted logic that America's tolerance of homosexuality has brought God's punishment and wrath upon us, AND produce the beautiful service to humanity performed by the likes of Mother Teresa and others.

Christianity is a large tent, but the religious airwaves tend to resound, like the political airwaves, with the most conservative voices.  These are the voices that argue that if you're not Christian, you are destined for a horrible afterlife.  These are the voices that emphasize that the only true way to redemption is through acceptance of a particular Christianity, a particular Christ.  These are the voices that harangue, listing the horrors that befell people who did not believe, did not accept, and did not practice their Christianity and elevate their Christ.

As a person who is a somewhat practicing Catholic, I find these voices have gained strength in my own Church as it responds to the changes in the secular world by pulling in on itself.  Suddenly, it seems that there are litmus tests within the Catholic Church.  A true Catholic accepts what an increasingly conservative heirarchy deems to be important.  When I was growing up, the Church was a loud voice speaking out for justice for the poor, against militarism, and always for the common good.  Now, it seems that the Church speaks loudest against abortion, whispers against the death penalty, turns a blind eye toward militarism, minimizes its own mistakes and criminal actions (pedophilia) and generally conveys a "with us or against us" attitude.  How else can one interpret refusing communion to politicians and other notables who express their personal feelings on issues, silencing important thinkers within its ranks, and refusing venues to those whose opinions may be counter to the official opinion of the Church on various issues?  While the world embraces democracy, the Church remains mired in its opposite.

How interesting that LHM begins this brief exploration of spirituality in Conyers, a city that has evidently experienced mystical apparitions of Jesus and Mary - years after LHM passed through.  Christ may be the Son of God and Man, but in Catholicism, Mary is the uber-woman.  She was the virgin mother of Christ, and her compassion for humanity, even after her death, has elevated her to the highest levels.  Catholics pray to her for her intercession on their problems.  People have seen her in visions that have appeared throughout history; for example, to Juan Diego in Mexico as La Virgen de Guadalupe, or the apparitions in Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzogovina.  It can be fodder for jokes, but people claim to have seen her visage on burnt tortillas (click here for a likeness on a cheese sandwich sold on EBay).  Her statues have been claimed to weep blood tears.  In Conyers, a housewife named Nancy Fowler claimed, starting in 1990, to receive visions and messages from the Virgin Mary.  Pilgrims flocked to Conyers to hear Mary's words, which alternately admonished and offered prayers for humanity, and warned of violent conflagrations to come.  Ms. Fowler's visions and messages lasted until 1998, when they suddenly ceased.

Where do I stand on such issues?  I consider myself spiritual, and try to be a good person. I fail sometimes, but I like to think I succeed more often than not.  I'm less enamored of the rites of my Church than I am in the actions of people within it.  I am of the opinions that humans create their own realities, though I don't question the power of faith to help guide our actions and ease our burdens.  I try to resolve the inconsistencies of messages between the Old and New Testaments by focusing on the New.  But I am uneasy with the direction my Church is going, and it shows in the fact that often I am indifferent to what is considered my Church's most important obligation - attending Mass.  I usually don't find much to inspire me in the proclaimings of a priest on the pulpit, though I can be pleasantly surprised.  I'm not a person who prays regularly, and I am skeptical of the visions and apparitions - I don't disbelieve those who argue that such things happen to people, but I am not sure they are products of divine intervention.  Perhaps it's my academic training in the sciences, or perhaps it's a deep questioning.  Or perhaps, I just don't like being told that I am wrong for exhibiting that most human of characteristics - exploring my relationship to the world and the universe and not just relying on what I'm told.

If you want to know more about Conyers

City of Conyers
Georgia Encyclopedia: Conyers
Visit Conyers
Wikipedia: Conyers

Next up:  Monastery of the Holy Spirit, near Conyers, Georgia


Blue Highways: Greenville, North Carolina

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) drops in on Greenville, North Carolina and reflects on weather and what he must listen to in order to get a shower.  I won't say that we will shower with him, but we will reflect on weather and on religion.  To see where we are, click on the map.  Comments always welcome and encouraged.

Book Quote

"At Greenville, I stopped for the night on the campus of East Carolina University.  Out of the west, with suddenness, a nimbo-stratus cloudbank like a precipice obscured the sun, and a ferocious wind pulled the fine sandy soil into a corrosive blast.  Then the wind ceased, raindrops pelted the sand back into place, the temperature dropped from eighty degrees to sixty-five, the clouds blew on toward the sea, and the low sun shone again.  The whole demonstration lasted twenty minutes.

"That evening, I bought a hot shower in a dormitory.  It cost a dollar contribution and a thirty-minute I FOUND IT bumper-sticker talk intended to drive the infidel from my red heart and bring me safely unto the Great White Bosom.  Take the land, take the old ways, Christian soldiers, but please, goddamnit, leave me my soul."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 5

Downtown Greenville, North Carolina in sunny times

Greenville, North Carolina

Weather and religion subtly and forcefully influence how we look at life, and their effects on us sometimes aren't too far apart, in my experience.  For example, I wake up in the morning and look outside.  If the sky is blue and the day is temperate, it immediately affects my mood and I make choices based on what I might be able to do.  I can ride my bike to work instead of taking the car.  I might schedule more outdoor activities for myself.  If it's a work day, I can eat my lunch outside.  If not, my activities on my day off can be focused more on the outdoors.  A sunny day can certainly affect my mood as well.  Usually I will feel more buoyant and alive. 

But if the day is dark and stormy, or even overcast, my mood will be much different.  I might be put in a more reflective mood, or perhaps even if I am in some kind of emotional distress or despair, the weather can amplify my feelings.  Activities might be confined indoors.

Religion can leave me with similar feelings and reflections.  I am nominally a Catholic, though I am pretty open to all religious views (except maybe for the ones that try to make me out to be somehow misguided or even evil because I don't accept their particular narrow focus).  There are days when I feel that my individual spirituality is a great boon and support in my life.  The effects on me can be pretty noticeable, especially on my mood and on my outlook for myself and how I feel about those arouund me.

There are times, however, when I can feel that my religion and spirituality isn't helping me at all.  This is usually when I'm hurting for some reason.  I might wish that there was something or someone out there that would hear and see my pain and ease my troubles, but nothing happens and I continue to hurt.  I might question whether it is any use to even be religious.

I find that weather and religion can be very similar in that when times are good, and days are sunny, we take it for granted.  We don't think about the possibility that we might eventually hurt or that the clouds, wind and rain will roll in because we want to live in the moment and enjoy our blue skies and the peacefulness we feel in our hearts.

I'm focusing on these two things because LHM touches on both of these phenomenon in his back-to-back paragraphs set in Greenville.  He highlights how a storm roars through, blocking the sun and dropping rain along with the temperature.  Eventually the storm passes, and the sun shines again.  He then must endure a 30 minute talk on faith in order to get a shower.  I have to think that he intentionally placed these two passages about a storm and his experience together, but maybe not.

Once, when I lived in Milwaukee, I watched a sunny day with 80 degree weather turn into a cloudy, windy 40 degree day with snowflakes dotting the air, all in the space of 30 minutes.  The violence of the atmospheric turmoil that turned such a nice day into something so different made a huge impression on me.  Similarly, while driving up to Colorado from New Mexico, my wife and I passed beneath a storm front.  A huge wall of clouds loomed ahead of us, and it almost seemed like the "mother ship" from a different planet, sort of like those huge ships that hovered over major cities in Independence Day, had appeared to wreak devastation and destruction in the form of highly torrential rains.  We moved from New Orleans a year before Katrina hit, but hurricanes are the most bizarre form of violent weather I have ever seen.  One knows that the hurricane is out there, ready to slam ashore and wreak violence, yet while skies are blue and the wind is calm the radio and television are urging people to get out.  It's almost hard to be serious about it when the weather is so nice, even if the hurricane is only a day away.

Religion can also be violent and stormy.  In the U.S., we are currently in a great debate about religion, particularly Christianity, and its proper place in American society.  Is it pre-eminent, or one religion among many in a diverse country?  The debate has been particularly stormy, as thundering commentators send barbs at each other like lightning through the media.  While some, myself included, think that religion is a private matter that we can indulge in public with our particular religious communities, what you worship and how you worship has become a huge public debate.  Lately, the storm is over the proposed site of an Islamic community center in Manhattan

Of course, a great number of people have died fighting for, or defending, their religion and their beliefs.  Like the weather, religious and anti-religious sentiment can get whipped up and move through the landscape, and people can die just as in the aftermath of a particularly violent hurricane or a powerful tornado.  In my experience, I saw such stormy religious sentiment in Northern Ireland, when the Protestant Orangemen of Portadown and Belfast marched toward police and army barriers protecting the (nominally) Catholic areas.  The clash between Protestant traditions and Catholic fears and fortitude resembled a thunderstorm, with the Lambegh drums of the Orangemen providing the thunder.

More and more, I hope for calm skies and sunny weather, and peace in my heart and soul.  I want to try to live a life that keeps drama to a minimum, and satisfaction and happiness to a maximum.  If a sunny day will do that for me, I'm all for it.  If I can gather together with friends and acquaintances and enjoy their company and know they enjoy mine, then I don't care what they believe or don't believe.  In my particular religious tradition, acceptance and forgiveness are the tenets that should be followed.  I don't want to create storms, but I do want people, no matter what their religious convictions, to help me weather any that come my way.

If you want to know more about Greenville

Blog Greenville
City of Greenville
The Daily Reflector (newspaper)
Dine Greenville
East Carolina University
The East Carolinian (campus newspaper)
Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau
Greenville Times (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Greenville

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