About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2014/12/18

Medieval (Russian) Christmas

This year as our Advent and Christmas art I picked an orthodox medieval icon painted sometimes around 1405 by a famous Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. It is an excellent example of early Christian didactical iconography.
     In the center is a newborn Jesus in a cave with Mary reclining on a royal divan and looking away. Theological reference brings in an ox and a donkey from Isaiah 1 thus highlighting presence, wisdom and devotion of animals. Theological consideration also makes the trough to look like a casket and swaddling cloths to resemble a shroud thus already foreshadowing another cave story of the Easter message. Cosmic significance is highlighted by a star’s long ray which points to baby Jesus. Nearby grows a tree or bush - a royal stump of Jesse which is springing out (Isaiah 11).
     All four corners also have their traditional content and meaning. Lower corners are inspired by non-biblical early Christian legends - left lower corner is occupied by Joseph who is tempted by a devil, visualizing our constant human inner dialogue with doubt and unbelief. The right lower corner depicts two midwives (Zebel and Salome) preparing a bath for baby Jesus, thus underlying true bodily incarnation which included a baby bath. The upper corners are reserved for canonical gospels: Matthew’s corner has arriving magi while Luke’s corner shows angelic choirs bringing good tidings to shepherds. The countryside on the background is intentionally barren in order to highlight our human state, a life in an inhospitable world after we lost the verdant Paradise.
     Isn’t it interesting how little has changed over the centuries? These icons are like a window into our human perception of Christmas: oddly arranged theology and legends, naivete and sincere spiritual reflections. This one old masterpiece is just like that, it is loaded with meanings and theological lessons cobbled together, and yet it remains light, delicate, almost ethereal and certainly spiritually mesmerizing. Enjoy!

2014/12/11

Psychiatrist's kid

I grew up on a psychiatric ward. My father is a psychiatrist and my mom was a psychiatric nurse. One of my earliest slivers of memory has me sitting under an elevated examination bed in my father’s office and banging all around with a neurological hammer. Later in my school years, I regularly passed through the waiting room. I still remember the diverse, sometime bizarre and always copious selection of characters seeking help in my father’s office. Alcohol and substance addicts, a depressed teacher, a manic storekeeper, a schizoid long-haired savior, parents with an autistic son, children with a disoriented grandma in early stages of dementia ...
    It hurts me greatly, especially with the beginning of winter, when I see a similar assortment of people around NYC streets staying homeless or almost homeless. Why is it that so many mentally ill people in our society end up on the streets (or even worse - in jails)? I know they can be treated more humanely and with respect.
   
Summer art festival at Psychiatric Sanatorium in Prague Bohnice.
with St.Wenceslas church.
When I was a minister in Prague, in the same district with my church there was one of the largest Psychiatric Sanatoriums in the country. It was founded in 1909 under the Habsburg Monarchy! It had a large chapel (in fact a sizable church, really) in the middle of the campus. A small clergy group took turns in leading worship. This hospital had not only an ecumenical church, it also had greenhouses and a horse farm for work therapy, a theater and several art studios, an symphonic orchestra and a jazz band and a calendar of concerts and events... Only two pavilions, to my best knowledge, out of about fifty (on its 160 acres campus) were so-called closed (to keep and protect the patients); all other pavilions were open and patients stayed voluntarily.
    When it starts to snow or it is freezing cold and I splash through NYC's slush passing by another disoriented or delusional homeless soul, it hurts me so much because I know there are better alternatives. If the Habsburg monarchy, a full century ago, was able to care for its mentally ill citizens, why isn’t our technologically and medically advanced society? It is important to talk about it, it is important to demand from our government a better, more humane, more enlightened approach to mental illness (at least on the level of 1909!). And very practically it is important for us at Rutgers to continue supporting and to celebrate WSFSSH (West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing). In our community it substitutes for and fills in the gaps of our negligent and inadequate government.
    This Sunday we will talk about and pray for social refugees and exiles- people pushed away from their homes because of their mental illness or difficult and complex family circumstances.

2014/12/05

R-Rated Patriarchs

The Bible is a surprisingly earthy book. It is full of unheroic heroes with important lessons to teach. It presents life in its raw and un-adorned nature. In this very essence, the Bible resists being made into some simple-to-follow set of rules and doctrines. And this un-tamed nature is the Bible’s greatest value. Take for instance such shocking behaviour as biblical patriarchs pimping their wives. I know many would object to the use of this verb, but that is exactly what we are told they were doing - presenting their spouses as their sisters and offering them to potentates for personal benefit. Just check Genesis 12, Genesis 20 and Genesis 26!  
Semitic people present in Egypt:
Semitic goddess Qadesh on lion
flanked by Semitic god Resheph
and Egyptian god Min, patron of fertility.   
   
      Threefold recidivism especially unsettled many pious souls as well as theologians and interpreters. Many tried to rationalize these surprising stories. Fundamentalists, unable to defend patriarchal actions, attempted to exonerate them at least from lying - their wives were indeed their blood relatives! Religionists (students of religions) might point out that these stories are some kind of myths reworked into patriarchal legends. As represented on number of Egyptian stelae. Folklorists attempted to reduce the count of stories by seeing them all coming from one original oral tradition. Dogmatists highlighted moral lessons: learning to trust God, and the dangerous short-sightedness of human schemes. Anthropologists suspected some ancient practice of sharing wives with strangers, (well documented in other cultures.) Feminists saw it as a literary device highlighting the stellar beauty of the vulnerable matriarchs while denouncing the callous values of patriarchal system. To a different degree all these observations offer important and relevant insights.
       For me these stories reflect the deepest visceral fears of many refugees, migrants and other marginalized groups in our society. In a foreign culture, in a foreign land, confronted with strange customs, an exposed minority, unprotected and vulnerable, ... in such a situation even deep seated taboos can collapse. Our own Biblical patriarchs help us to understand these dangerous dynamics of alienation and fear. Our own Biblical patriarchs show us why it is important to protect all the vulnerable strangers above and beyond the protection which is enjoyed by the natives. The Bible is surprisingly earthy, practical and radical book. This Sunday we will pray for economic refugees.
       Our guest this Sunday - Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator of the 216th General Assembly and Human Rights Activist will share with us his first hand experiences around and on both sides of the US-Mexican border.

2014/11/26

Obstetric Ornithology

On three Wednesdays in Advent (December 3rd, 10th and 17th) we will gather again in the chancel of our sanctuary to observe Advent Vespers. In the pre-Christmas rush time, seek with us a spiritual safe haven in these quiet, contemplative, candle-lit prayer and meditation times.
After about half an hour long vesper worship, you can join us in a small circle around cookies with warm chocolate. This year we will talk about babies, children, parenthood, our own and their shapes around the world and across ages. Isn’t Christmas about the newborn baby?
 
And for those who read this far here is a little bit of Obstetric Ornithology.
     In European folklore, babies are closely associated with storks. We all know how babies are delivered, by stork-mail, right? But before you dismiss it as an old wives' tale think about its nice symbolism and deep insight. Storks are migratory birds yearly traveling thousands of miles, yet they return faithfully to the same nest year after year. Storks are also predominantly monogamous. And the stork vernal migration comes when great number of the babies used to be born, about ten lunar months after Midsummer Night (All over Europe in rustic times, the summer solstice was an amorous season).
    Ancient Near Eastern people didn’t look for storks, they revered swallows, also migratory birds, also known for forming life-long bonds and also faithfully returning to one home or barn. In pre-biblical times Semitic people worshiped Seven Swallow-Daughters, goddesses of marital bliss whom they called in translation Skillful-Ones - each had a name (again in translation): Wedding-Gift, Dowry, Flame-of-Love, Womb-Opener, First-Baby-Cry, Perpetually-Fruitful, and Benefactress. I know about them because as my hobby and for my doctorate I translated a three thousand year old cuneiform clay tablet (KTU 1.24 - this link leads to a translation by my Edinburgh teacher Professor Nicolas Wyatt, he opted for a different translation, not Swallow Daughters, but mentions it in the footnote no.7) where they are thus named and petitioned to be of assistance at a divine wedding as well as later.
    And I suspect, that these goddesses might also be a deep and ancient part of our own Judeo-Christian faith tradition. In the Bible, they are present in the disguise of Hebrew midwives in Egypt. In Exodus 1, they are called Shiphrah and Puah, but with a little bit of Ancient Near Eastern linguistics, their names can be translated as Fruitful-One and One-of-Parturition. The Bible is trying to disguise their true nature, but YHWH does not deliver babies (certainly not in arch-patriarchal times), but God could commission old-known and well-tried and trusted agents. Does anyone wonder why Hebrew women could not be stopped? How could they with such divine assistance! We do not know if they still envision them as swallows (the Bible does not mention it, but outside of Bible it might be possible) they were certainly swift like swallows.

2014/11/20

Meeting Xenia

Do you know XENIA? Have you ever heard of her? XENIA is the name for an ancient concept of “hospitality towards strangers”. She was known and respected as far as one can see. Her name was present and well established in the oldest surviving literature.
    Now, even if you knew XENIA (you heard about her from me last summer), when was the last time you heard or read about her? Hardly ever! That is because the hearts of people have been jinxed and cursed by her younger sister XENOPHOBIA. Her name means “fear of strangers”, and not just any fear, but rather visceral fear, almost hatred. XENOPHOBIA’s name is also Greek and looks archaic, but it appeared as recently as 1905. And from that moment on, XENOPHOBIA has been going from strength to strength.
    Without any doubt, there was hatred of strangers even before the name for it was coined, and hospitality to strangers is present in our world even without being called by its ancient name. Yet I am convinced that the different familiarity and frequency of use of XENIA and XENOPHOBIA is illustrative. We have, but haven’t been using, an ancient old concept and name for the hospitality towards strangers, while we have created a new technical term for the hatred of strangers. What does it say about us?
    XENOPHOBIA thrives in our society especially along US southern border and in the minds of many narrow minded politicians. But, frankly, it is a worldwide problem. This same ugly XENOPHOBIA causes countless tragedies along the south shores of Europe as refugees from Africa and Middle East try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy boats. The same XENOPHOBIA hag thrives in Australian concentration camps, one of these infamous institutions being on Christmas Island (consider this irony!). Even New Zealand is rejecting climate refugees from Kiribati, whose home is destined to disappear under waves because of global warming. XENOPHOBIA is indeed a dangerous ugly global phenomenon. 
  I am convinced that as people of faith, it is our spiritual calling to wake up XENIA in our world again and reconstitute her as integral part of our faith and important virtue in our society - thus from this Sunday through Christmas we will pray, teach, sing and open our hearts to strangers, immigrants, exiles and refugees of all and many different kinds. This Sunday we start with those who leave their home to seek or to provide health care and healing. XENIA is an integral part of our faith identity and so much needed in our world today!

2014/11/06

Volcanic Theology

Recently I went to Hawaiʻi (Big Island) to study ancient Polynesian religion. Little did I know how alive and widespread I would find it (at least some aspects of it)!
   
Popular artistic depiction of goddess Pele.
     On my first evening on the island, in front of a grocery store, I overheard two locals deep in discussion of the ongoing volcanic eruption. They actually talked about the goddess Pele and "what She was up to." All Hawaiʻians talk about their volcano goddess: Christians (no matter whether Catholics or Protestants), Buddhists, Shinto, Jewish, even the arch-atheists (and interestingly, also professional geologists and volcanologists regardless of their religion). All talk about Pele like an old acquaintance, yet almost always with respect. It is their way to talk about their daily lives, and about the very land on which they live.
    Don’t frown or scoff at them. We do similar things right here on the US South and East Coasts. We also talk about Sandy, Katrina, Andrew... we give them names, we talk about their personalities, and these are ephemeral, albeit powerful tropical cyclones. People in Hawaiʻi live with their volcanos day in and day out and have been doing so for centuries and millennia.
   I heard Hawaiʻians as well as immigrants talking about their volcano goddess more often and with greater passion this time because of the imminent danger of a lava flow burning its way through a local town. It opened for me some interesting insights into the origins of human religiosity, but it also highlighted deep and often neglected aspects of our own Judeo-Christian faith, spirituality, and social and environmental activism. This Sunday we will again listen to Volcanic Yahwism; flowing lava will illuminate for us the nature of the Ardent (Burning) Love of our God.
A lava flow burns its way through an orchard in Pāhoa
(source: USGA, Hawaii Volcano Observatory)


2014/10/30

Healing for Our Wounded Earth

Returning from an overseas vacation, I peeked from the airplane window. We were somewhere above one of the mountain states. The sun was setting, and I saw amber and red mountain ridges with long blue shadows, the highest points already dusted with snow. It was a beautiful idyllic view, unfortunately with a sinister and surreal twist; this tranquil mountain scape was pock-marked like with smallpox. I saw something like it before, in spring 2012, in better light and having a better seat, I took a picture - the landscape around Navajo Lake.
Navajo Lake, New Mexico, in May 2012
   This is a wounded landscape. The lake itself destroyed most holy places of Navajo people (just consider the arrogance in calling the project Navajo Lake!). And the smallpox marks are fracking platforms hardly half-a-mile apart. And just like smallpox, fracking platforms are only surface blisters and scars, but the real disease lurks underneath. It is known that fracking wells occasionally leak poisons into aquifers. Among hundreds and hundreds of boreholes, a single one can pollute underground water (in the west - fossil water, nonrenewable, finite resource) for miles and miles in broad circles and often forever. Our societal carbon addiction certainly looks and feels like serious malady.
    I am so happy that our Rutgers church is taking these matters seriously. Our Trustees in their October meeting committed our church to conduct a full energy audit of our buildings. And the Session and Trustees continue discussion about the best and honest ways to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
    For us as religious people all our concerns, hopes and aspirations are rooted in our faith, our worship, theology and spirituality. This Sunday worship brings us seasonally appropriate message of Festival of Wine Harvest. Prophetic as well as Jesus’ vision of the vineyard will judge, inspire and encourage us to live justly among ourselves, in our society, with our environment, and in peace with our planet. Come this Sunday to celebrate Dionysia of social and ecojustice.