Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Pilgrim Story

I enjoy Thanksgiving, but can do without the “Thanksgiving Story.” The events of 1621 have been mythologized, tortured and twisted to suit particular political agendas for so many years that the real “Pilgrim story,” if there is one, lies buried somewhere underneath. Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” has long been a starting point for American politicians to launch off in any number of generally unhealthy directions. A recent manifestation has the Tea Party crowd staking claim to the national myth, casting it as a victory of capitalism over socialism (here.)

The Puritans have suffered from bad press ever since Hawthorne (and no, they did not dress all in black and white, and yes, alcohol was permitted as long as it did not lead to drunkenness.) Their perceived influence over the development of our national consciousness can be overblown at times. I pulled this from The New England Mind by Perry Miller, an old text from my colonial American history class:

The posterity of American Puritanism have devised nothing that would more shock their fathers than their inquiry into the comparative force, among motives which impelled the settlement, of the economic as against the religious….it was unthinkable that children conceived and educated in Massachusetts and Connecticut would become preoccupied, not with universal Christendom, but with provincial merchandise.

Exactly. So perhaps the Puritan ethic was determinative after all, just not in the way they intended.

The Puritans are a bit hard to warm up to, you might say. Despite their much vaunted importance to the development of representative government and all that sort of thing, and despite the industriousness by which they recreated East Anglia on the rocky shores of Cape Cod, I have never found their story to be that compelling. Give me Virginia or Pennsylvania any day.

Of course, there are alternative histories of New England. I find it unfortunate that the libertine Merrymount Commune and Thomas Morton--the early thorn in the flesh of the Massachusetts Bay Colony--have not become part of our national memory. Morton greatly preferred Algonquin society to English, and had his vision carried the day, rather than that of his Puritan neighbors, New England might have developed along radically different lines, as least as it concerned the native populations. And one might also look to the stories of people like Mary Mills, who created such a ruckus in Boston, and who also happens to be my 7th great-grandmother.

My ancestry is solidly Southern—always starting in Virginia or southern Pennsylvania, and flowing in two streams of migration—either through the Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, or following the Piedmont through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, perhaps Mississippi (but never Louisiana) and then on to Texas. The only exception is my paternal grandmother’s family. Her father was born in Texas, but both his parents were born in Indiana, from where their bloodlines go back to the earliest settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut. They eagerly joined the westward migration—Ohio by 1815, Indiana by 1820, Missouri by 1840 and Texas by 1860. In Indiana, they threw off the last vestiges of Calvinism and put on Campbellism, which served the family well for 6 generations or so…that is, until I ditched it for the real thing.

Though I find myself descended from redoubtable Puritan women with names like Mehitable, Remember, Experience and Genevrah, the one that sticks out in my mind is aforementioned Mary Mills, who burst upon the Boston scene in the third Puritan generation. She was only in her teens at the time of her notoriety. The Quaker community in Boston met quietly in the homes of members. But such impertinence was not to be sanctioned in Puritan Boston. Officers would break up the meetings and demand that the Quakers attend public worship. One such meeting consisted of a group of women including young Mary Mills. And the women did attend public worship, but not as the authorities intended. With heads uncovered and hair disheveled, ashes on their faces and dressed in sackcloth, the women marched down the aisle of New South Meetinghouse, occasioning, as one observer noted, "the greatest uproar that I ever saw."

The women were jailed and tried, with execution a real possibility. Young Mary declared that she was ready to die for her beliefs. None of the women were executed, however, but they were “carted.” Stripped to the waist, they were tied to the back of a cart and pulled through the streets of Boston.

After the uproar had died down a bit, the Quaker community secreted Mary out of Boston, placing her with a young couple in Sandwich, a quiet village on Cape Cod. Here she stayed for several years, but in time her presence in the household began to cause problems. The wife charged that her husband’s affections had been transferred to young Mary.

Relief came in the form of an elderly, but prosperous, sea captain. Mary Mills found herself married off to William Gifford, 45 years her senior. Within 4 years, the captain was dead, leaving Mary a young widow with 2 small sons. She never remarried and remained in Sandwich, where her family prospered and became substantial citizens. The youngest, James, went to sea like his father, but kept a family at Sandwich. His granddaughter, Deborah, was the first of the line to head west. I have visited her grave, on a knoll behind a cornfield, 40 miles south of Cleveland.

Years ago, I visited in Sandwich. The old town cemetery there is chock-full of jumbled tombstones of Tobey and Ellis and Perry and Burgess and Bassett, all my people. The old Quaker burial ground, where Mary and the Giffords repose, is another thing altogether. An ancient rock wall encloses a perfectly manicured lawn, without a single marker, stone or rock to denote a burial. For that was the way of the early Quakers. I understand the point they were making—modesty, humility, a stark recognition of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” etc. And this simplicity impresses me more than the overly ostentatious “weeping Angel” monuments of America’s wealthy elite of later generations. But the Quakers were wrong, on this as on any number of things. For there is no rock which one can stand before and cry “Memory Eternal.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Memories of Svaneti

I recently came across this BBC production on Georgia, focusing mostly on Svanetian polyphany. This music is not for everybody, but it sure works for me--and it makes me yearn to go back one day. Once I can afford to travel again, a return to Georgia has moved to the top of my list.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Help St. Michael the Archangel Monastery


Looking for a monastery to help?

Here's a deserving candidate--St. Michael the Archangel Monastery in Canones, NM.

This from Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts:

St. Michael's is under "reconstruction" by Mp. Jonah....Fr. Silouan from St. John's was sent by Mp. Jonah (who was Fr. Silouan's Abbot at St. John's for years) to be the Superior and re-establish order and rebuild the Monastery.

The monastery has basic infrastructure. There are small three cells that were built several years ago. They have no water or electricity to them and are heated by a wood burning stove by design....The original buildings on the property are over 80 years old and were built "al ojo" (by the eye). None of them are insulated and need major repairs and upgrading.

Here is the need: They have basically no money. Fr. Silouan is overwhelmed just keeping up with the day to day needs of the monastery (he was digging a trench to fix a broken drainage pipe last Sunday to try to get it done and reburied before the freeze that night).... If you can donate toward a "construction fund" for the Monastery it would go a long way to easing some of the pressures of trying to prioritize what to fix and when.

Please read Steve Robinson's post for much more information and on how to help.

(On a personal note, Fr. Ephroysnos has been a guest in my home. I am very pleased to learn he is now at St. Michael's.)

"The Left's delusion over Islam is baffling to Middle Eastern Christians"

h/t to Byzantine Texas for this.

Ed West has a great piece in The Telegraph, here, regarding the European Left's steadfast denial of the on-going extermination of Middle Eastern Christians--in Iraq today, perhaps Egypt tomorrow. He points to a recent article in The Guardian as a prime example of the attitude. A few gems from their article amply prove West's point:

One article in Foreign Policy went so far as to suggest the church attack might spell “the end of Christianity in the Middle East” altogether. Yet such generalisations play into the hands of radicals wanting to perpetuate the clash-of-civilisations myth. Though anti-Christian feeling may be rising on the extreme radical fringe of some Arab societies such as Iraq, this should not obscure the harmony that has long been a characteristic of other parts of the Arab world.

In fact, large parts of the Arab world remain tolerant and display deep inter-communal harmony. The fact that most of Iraq’s displaced Christians have fled not to the west but to other Arab states, notably Syria and Jordan, seems to illustrate this.

However, the Arab world in general remains a place where Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and look certain to continue doing so. Perhaps we should be celebrating this fact rather than exaggerating the extent to which the whole region is suddenly becoming anti-Christian.

To this rot, West drolly observes--"Yes, cynical old British media. There we are focusing on the one unfortunate incident where dozens of people happened to be slaughtered in a church, when we could have focused on literally dozens of Iraqi churches where no one was murdered by Islamists that weekend."

West articulates a number of points that need to be said, again and again.

Christians in Jordan and Syria are protected. But despite the Left’s “myth of the myth” of the clash of civilisations, the simple fact is that almost nowhere in the Islamic world are Christians free in the same way Muslims are free in Europe.

Deniers of this essential truth usually fall back on historical arguments about Islam’s famed tolerance, but this is deceptive. During the high middle ages, the Islamic world was far more tolerant than Christendom, but it couldn’t be otherwise. North of the Alps Europe was 95-99 per cent Christian, so minorities faced persecution; the “Muslim world” had enormous Christian minorities throughout this period and in some cases majorities, and this goes for modern-day Iraq, Syria, Egypt (probably majority Christian until the 18th century), Lebanon and Palestine. That they slowly became Islamic was largely down to two facts of life which make a mockery of the tolerance myth: Muslims could not generally become Christians, and Christians had to pay a special tax, and so the class of people who subsidised the rest of the population gradually shrank over generations...

In the West...Muslims practice their religion in freedom, and maintain thousands of mosques. Moreover, they are free to spread their religion, and openly celebrate each new convert. In contrast, Christians in the Muslim world are arrested for allegedly trying to spread Christianity, and a Muslim who converts to Christianity may face the death penalty.

Even Arab Muslims do not believe the Left’s shtick about Islamic tolerance.

Despite such articles as the one in The Guardian, there are some signs that the crisis is beginning to register in the minds of British citizens. Not so in this country, we are too busy keeping up with who was eliminated from Dancing with the Stars.

And in a parallel universe, a bit closer to home, the Bush gang was gathered together again at the groundbreaking of the Bush Library in Dallas. In remarks at the ceremony, he who made possible the current bloodbath in Iraq--former Vice President Cheney--remarked that "history is beginning to come around." Lord, have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thumbing through the Eighth Day Books catalog, I came across the following quote from Walker Percy. It's a keeper, I think.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"We are not leaving"

This dismal plight of the Middle East's ancient Christian communities is a recurring topic of this blog. I have not addressed the subject lately, perhaps somewhat out of discouragement, as the news--outside of Syria and Jordan--remains unremittingly bleak. The recent slaughter of the faithful in Baghdad's Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral is as horrific as anything that has been reported since the American invasion of 2003.

Robert Fisk is a columnist and commentator for The Independent. He has been based in Beirut for many years, and his writing on the region is some of the most perceptive available to Western readers. I consider Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation to be essential reading. Two of his recent columns address the worsening Christian position: Exodus: The Changing Map of the Middle East and Only Justice Can Bring Peace to this Benighted Region. A few excerpts, below:

Across the Middle East, it is the same story of despairing – sometimes frightened – Christian minorities, and of an exodus that reaches almost Biblical proportions. Almost half of Iraq's Christians have fled their country since the first Gulf War in 1991, most of them after the 2004 invasion – a weird tribute to the self-proclaimed Christian faith of the two Bush presidents who went to war with Iraq – and stand now at 550,000, scarcely 3 per cent of the population. More than half of Lebanon's Christians now live outside their country. Once a majority, the nation's one and a half million Christians, most of them Maronite Catholics, comprise perhaps 35 per cent of the Lebanese. Egypt's Coptic Christians – there are at most around eight million – now represent less than 10 per cent of the population.

Yet nowhere is the Christian fate sadder than in the territories around Jerusalem. As Monsignor Fouad Twal, the ninth Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the second to be an Arab, put it bleakly, "the Israelis regard us as 100 per cent Palestinian Arabs and we are oppressed in the same way as the Muslims. But Muslim fundamentalists identify us with the Christian West – which is not always true – and want us to pay the price." With Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem cut off from Jerusalem by the same Israeli wall which imprisons their Muslim brothers, there is now, Twal says, "a young generation of Christians who do not know or visit the Holy Sepulchre".

The Lebanese journalist Fady Noun, a Christian, wrote a profound article from Rome last week in which he spoke of the Christian loss as "a great wound hemorrhaging blood", and bemoaned both Christian division and "egoism" for what he saw as a spiritual as well as a physical emigration. "There are those Christians who reach a kind of indifference... in Western countries who, swayed by the culture of these countries and the media, persuade eastern Christians to forget their identity," he wrote.

And while Western Christians routinely deplore the falling Christian populations of the Middle East, their visits to the region tend to concentrate on pilgrimages to Biblical sites rather than meetings with their Christian opposite numbers.

Americans, so obsessed by the myths of East-West "clashes of civilisation" since 11 September 2001, often seem to regard Christianity as a "Western" rather than an Eastern religion, neatly separating the Middle East roots of their own religion from the lands of Islam. That in itself is a loss of faith.

In fact, I'm wondering if our governments don't need this terror – to make us frightened, very frightened, to make us obey, to bring more security to our little lives. And I'm wondering whether those same governments will ever wake up to the fact that our actions in the Middle East are what is endangering our security.

The West is powerless to help those fearful Christians. The actions of "faith-based" politicians – the Christian faith, of course – has brought about a new Christian tragedy in the Middle East. (The fact that I met several Americans in California recently who thought Christianity was a "western" religion rather than an eastern one probably says more about America than Christianity.)

I'm afraid it's the same old story. Justice will bring peace – not intelligence wars against "world terror". But our leaders will still not admit this.

At Coffee Hour today, I had a pleasant, but serious conversation with a Syrian couple visiting from Aleppo. The husband, Ibrihim, is a quiet-spoken and dapper man who teaches high school mathematics. His wife, a bit more voluble, teaches music. He spoke with pride of their 5 children--a son here, another in Phoenix, and 3 daughters in Syria. Three of the children are doctors. We talked about Aleppo, the Orthodox Church there, the follies of American involvement in the region, and the general situation of Christians in Syria--the best in the Middle East. At the last, though, I noticed that his jaw clenched a bit, as he said:

"We are not leaving. We are not leaving."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Neo-Conservatism on Crack

My voting is never driven by domestic "issues." We have an entrenched, self-perpetuating Establish- ment Party that is both Democratic and Republican. In terms of foreign policy, however, there can be real differences, and oppor- tunities to inflict damage that will last for generations. One example of is the advice of Sen. Lindsay Graham (Rep. SC), here, who suggests that if push comes to shove, we "neuter" Iran. As Reza Aslan observed, "this isn't Iraq, this isn't Afghanistan...some sort of fake country put together." He's right. This is Persia, with a 3,000 year-old civilization behind it.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Great Disparager

In the current issue of The American Conservative (not yet online,) George Scialabba writes of T. S. Eliot, whom he characterizes as a "great disparager." I am not as well read in Eliot as I should be, and this article is certainly an encouragement to learn more. Scialabba writes:

He praised Baudelaire, who, in an age of "programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism, and revolutions," of "cheerfulness, optimism, and hopefulness," understood that "what really matters is Sin and Redemption" and perceived that "the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform, and dress reform...that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation--of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it gives some significance to living."

And this from Eliot:

To me, religion has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying; it has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery; the very dark night and the desert. To me, the phrase 'to be damned for the glory of God' is sens and not paradox; I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children's game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end....And I don't know whether this is to be labeled 'Classicism' or 'Romanticism'; I only think that I have hold of the tip of the tail of something quite real, more real than morals, or than sweetness and light and culture.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Washaterias and Watchtowers

In the course of my career, I have been involved in a number of enterprises "on the side." One of the most colorful endeavors was the broom-making business that my brother-in-law talked me into about 25 years ago. The business, if you want to call it that, consisted of a broom-making machine, a wizened little alcoholic from South Louisiana who knew how to operate it, and a broken-down van to transport said brooms. My brother-in-law owned the old cotton gin in town, and he set the operation up inside. He would handle "marketing," as well as keeping our key employee sober enough to operate the machine. My job was to deliver the brooms to our wholesale customers. As could be predicted, the operation broke down on all fronts. I couldn't keep the van running, and my brother-in-law couldn't keep the broom-maker sober.

As part of a convoluted trade this summer, my family and my nephew found ourselves as the new proprietors of a washateria in a neighboring county. I feel good about it, actually (or at least it has more possibilities than making brooms.) Washaterias are simple and honest--they provide a much-needed service at a reasonable cost. Early every Monday morning, I drive over, collect the quarters and fill up the change machine. I sweep the floor and bag the trash that has accumulated since the last cleaning. Invariably, the Jehovah's Witnesses have left reading material scattered around the laundromat. Generally, I gather it all up and into the round file it goes. Yesterday, however, I stuck a Watchtower in my back pocket to read later on.

I've had a good bit of experience with the JW's, as my favorite aunt is one. Back when that happened, my cousins maintained that whoever knocked on their front door that particular day would have had her. It just happened to be the Witnesses. For many years, my aunt would send us the books and reading material, but that has dropped off in recent years. At its core, the JW sect is just straight-out Arianism dressed up for the modern age. With many of their more noted beliefs oddly peculiar to themselves, the age-old heresy at its heart is sometimes obscured. I thought their Arianism might even be nuanced somewhat in the Watchtower, just as the Mormons do not hit you with the looney stuff until much later on. Most of the issue I read was devoted to knowing God by the "right name" (an argument they seem keen to have,) and various articles about being nice and helpful. But at the end, there is an article with this sentence: "Just think: Jesus Christ, the myriads of angels in heaven, and mankind on earth all have a beginning because of being created." As heresies go, you can't state it any plainer. At least on Mondays, I will suffer no qualms about consigning such publications to the trash can.