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."


Fragrant prayers

What is the essence of worship? Why does worship matter? How does it "work"?
This Sunday I would like to present you with an ancient, yet instructive metaphor of incense burning. It is an old religious practice shared by diverse religious traditions all around the world. It nicely visualizes, perhaps we should even say sensualizes, and explains the act of worship.
    A ribbon of smoke rises from a burned stick of incense. At that moment it is clearly localized in time and space, visually connecting the below and the above. Soon it disappears from the naked eye, yet it becomes even more potent. In this dispersed form it infuses and permeates the surrounding space. It is exactly in this invisible form that it is most effective and powerful. The fragrance fills the air; it fights out unpleasant odors and repels irritating insects. Subliminally (through our most archaic and least understood sense of smell) it endows worship time and space with a characteristic feeling and special fragrance. Recent research has even found in some incense smoke certain aromatic compounds with possible mild neuro-active properties which might help people to relax, concentrate and start to understand.
    In our Jewish and Christian tradition (in the Old as well as New Testaments) incense is particularly associated with an act of prayer. And as I said, the burning of incense is for me primarily a metaphor. Incense is not magic, it does not “work” automatically (ex opere operato - by doing it). It helps us to visualize and imagine an act of worship in its broader ramifications. First it is localized in time and space. At that moment it is usually discernible, but soon it disappears from sight but permeates the broader space, before it completely dissipates and blows out, gently asking us to repeat the act or ritual. Worship and prayer are just like that, they impacts the worshiper or worshiping community, but they also have much broader effect metaphorically, intangibly, mysteriously infusing and transforming the entire social atmosphere.
    Come this Sunday to experience and discern and be inspired by this ancient worship practice.


Pregnancy Gospel of Luke

Have you been kicked by your child? I was lucky to have that experience quite early on (and 25 years ago). Even for fathers it, is one of those life changing, almost mystical moments. I still remember when it happened to me. One day evening after school, we were still university students, Martina grabbed my hand and placed my palm on her rounded belly. She wore gray and blue tartan dress. “Now!” She said, with bright sparks in her eyes. And I could feel a gentle nudge under my palm. Soon it became more vigorous. In a few weeks she could hardly sleep; at times, we were joking George would be a great soccer striker (thankfully he did not turn that way). With Jakob I even developed a little game. I would tap with my fingers Martina’s arching navel, and he would kick back, I would drum gently, and he would kick back, and again and perhaps one more time. Well, that was about how long Martina would let us play. (When I think about it, he appreciates this kind of little game until today.)
    These are those very special, intimate and mysterious moment of every parent. At the same time it is also one of those realities which constitute the delicate archetypal substance of any true religion. In the Near Eastern bronze age pre-biblical myths and legends fathers counted lunar months of pregnancy, five and five, first five (most likely to the quickening) and second five to birth (KTU 1.17.ii.43-46; KTU 1.23.57) They also deeply revered goddesses of childbearing called Kotharot. This is their three thousand year old hymn:
    I will sing of the goddesses, the Kotharoth
    Daughters of Ellil, the Bright Ones
    Daughters of Ellil, the lord of Crescent,
    they descend to the nut-groves,
    and among the olive-gardens.
    Lo, in my mouth is their number,
    on my lips is their count:
    Wedding-Gift  and Dowry,
    Flame-of-Love and Womb-Opener,
    First-Cry and Perpetually-Fruitful,
    finally, Benefactress - the youngest of the Kotharoth.
        (KTU 1.24.40-50)
Kotharot epithetic (characterizing) names are not unlike similar names of two famous and similarly respected Jewish midwives from  Exodus 1.
This Sunday is the last one in Advent. The evangelist Luke will introduce and highlight this intimate, mysterious life fostering Motherly Religion into the formative moment of our Christian faith. Come to celebrate life with Elizabeth and Mary and hear their “Pregnancy Gospel of Luke”.

(By the way, among the evangelists, Luke is the cultivated Hellenistic person, he has a keen eye for medical observation and detail, and also he has the least patriarchal worldview - his female characters are numerous and developed with insight and understanding.)

Terracotta figurines of pregnant and nursing women (goddesses?) from Iron Age Palestine. 


Advent under attack

The Communist regime under which I grew up in Central Europe, had a very interesting effect on the celebration of Christian holidays. In a paradoxical manner it preserved their more traditional, pristine character. The regime was proudly atheistic so there was no public commercially tainted December-long bombardment with Christmas sentiments. Proper Christian Christmas hymns and carols were not used and commercially abused to their very limits by every supermarket or mall. Thus in churches and Christian homes we could keep true Christian traditions, observing the season of Advent without Christmas decorations. Those would come in on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Eve pageant was prepared for Christmas Eve afternoon. First Christmas carols and hymns were sung at the Christmas Eve service. It kept the Christmas spirit for Christmas and we could observe true Advent, sing meaningful Advent hymns and concentrate on Advent themes. Traditionally Advent is a season of preparation, fasting and spiritual exploration, asking what truly matters in our life and in the world, how can we prepare for the prince of peace, what are the rules governing his kingdom.
Respecting this Advent Season our church musicians have prepared for us very special music for this Sunday afternoon’s concert, The Magnificat in D major by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is exuberant music, short and succinct, brimming with anticipation and joy, and also loaded with Advent meaning.

Here is the text of Mary’s hymn in modern translation. Just think about it in the context of our pre-Christmas commercial madness. It is full of anticipation and simple joy, but you cannot miss the strong social justice themes.
    Mary said: My soul glorifies you my LORD,
    and my spirit rejoices in you, my God and Savior.
    You took notice of me, your lowly servant girl.
    Indeed from now on, all generations will called me blessed,
    for you have done great things for me,
    your name is holy indeed!
    From generation to generation
    you extend mercy to your faithful folk.
You do tremendous things by your power.
    Dispersing the arrogant with all their tricks.
Bringing down the rulers from their lofty thrones.
    Lifting up the outcasts in their place.
Feeding the hungry with all good things.
    Kicking the rich out with empty bags.
Coming to the help of your servant people.
    Remembering your promise of mercy-love.
Those promises you made to our ancestors of old.
    To Abraham and Sarah and all their children of every time and space.

Sometimes I think that celebration of Advent and Christmas under Secular Communism was somehow easier than it is under Capitalist Consumerism. The atheism was like a clear bullying antagonist, consumerism behaves more like a false friend, luring us quietly and deceptively away. We need to be so much thoughtful and intentional! Thankfully we have the biblical message and magnificent music to help us on our way. 

Cultural Identity (Modern NYC case study)

Two weeks ago, the oldest member of Rutgers Church, Ruth Munson, passed away at the aged of 103 years. In her personal Bible from which she read regularly, Ruth kept a prayer: 
    Give me a pure heart – that I may see thee,
    A humble heart – that I may hear thee,
    A heart of love – that I may serve thee,
    A heart of faith – that I may abide in thee.

When deacon William Bailey made a living history recording with Ruth in 2007, (she was 98 then) she did not remember anything about the origin or authorship of this prayer. She probably liked its somehow archaic language, and kept it as an expression of a deep piety. But it is much more than just that.
    These four lines are an excerpt from a spiritual diary of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations. The book with this prayer was published only after his tragic and untimely death. He was killed during a peace mission in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in September 1961. The only Secretary General who died while fulfilling his office. His death was officially declared a tragic accident, but this explanation was always questioned and more and more people think that he was eliminated because he took the UN peacemaking mission way too seriously and strove for strong and proud self-governance of African nations. Secretary Hammarskjöld worked for peace, while Belgian, British, American and South African governments knew about mineral and especially uranium deposits underground. (The stage was set for a western client and egomaniac Mobutu Sese Seko)
    Ruth did not remember the origin of the prayer. She probably did not know details of this sinister history, hardly knew about Belgium Congo, Patrice Lubumba, Katanga rebellion or the interests of western mining corporations and secret services. But the presence of the Hammarskjöld prayer in her Bible is not just a coincidence. Someone in her circle had to be reading his spiritual diary, most likely someone from her church. It was clearly part of her environment, part of her cultural identity which she shared with her church. She did not know details, but they still reflected their shared or similar values and sentiments.
    I am not at all surprised she kept a part of the Dag Hammarskjöld prayer in her Bible. In the same interview with Bill Bailey, she talked about how she left her Brooklyn church and did not attend church for many years, because, as she once expressed it to me, church was tolerating and even justifying and thus perpetuating injustice. She returned to church only much later, on the wave of the civil right’s movement, and she returned to a church which took seriously the integrity of faith and its connection with peace and justice. She was called for jury duty and could not imagine sitting in a judgement, without reaching to the source of divine justice for orientation and support. Ruth did not remember and might had never known the origin of the prayer, but she shared the same positive, peace and justice-seeking idealism.

Ruth at the age of 95.
In September 2013, news agencies report (for instance this article in The Guardian) calls for reopening of the case of this untimely death of the second Secretary General of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld and ever stronger evidence of involvement of western spy agencies in his murder (if anyone ever doubted).


Watered Down Prophet

This Sunday we will try to listen and take seriously the radical message of John the Baptist. I believe it is an important message for us, just as it was an important message for Jesus himself and his early followers. But unlike Jesus and his followers, we have a problem.
    John the Baptist did not speak to us directly. He did not deliver his message in our language. (Our oldest records of his preaching are already translations, to Hellenistic Koine, the old popular Greek.) He delivered his message almost 2,000 years ago. He addressed it to a very different society from our own (it was a pre-industrial rural Mediterranean society) and he addressed it to a completely different audience, predominantly to expropriated, and exploited peasants from Judea.
    Thankfully we are not the only ones or the first ones with this problem. The Evangelist Luke had this problem long before now. Luke undertook an uneasy task to translate the charismatic eschatological Judean prophet for an urban Hellenistic audience. It was an courageous endeavor instigated and inspired by Luke’s conviction of the great and universal importance of that message.
    We must take Luke’s endeavor seriously. He highlighted the social justice dimension of John’s message. But by re-directing the message to a different audience, Luke also unavoidably changed the message and unfortunately watered down the radical eschatological edge of John’s prophetic message.
    This Sunday we will take seriously Luke’s Johannine Catechism (the social justice oriented question and answer from Luke 3:10-14) and learn from its message. But we also need to take seriously the  inherent problems and shortcomings of Luke's translation strategy. Unfortunately, for centuries and almost exclusively, social teaching of many churches stopped at this watered down and tamed cultural translation of prophetic preaching. We must recognize this reality and get deeper, farther and beyond it. 

     We need to humbly accept, that we are not the original audience. We need to unlearn this "self-centered" middle-class appropriation of the prophetic message, which takes this message away from the original audience and their heirs. We need to re-contextualize the prophet and accept with the full seriousness that the primary audience were and remain people on the margins, the neglected, the abandoned, the disinherited of his time and of our time! We owe it to John the Baptist and to the divine spirit who inspired him.