Biblical Conspiracies

I love conspiracy theories. That’s not to say I believe them, but I do love them. I’m not sure why. If you’re like me and enjoy reading conspiracy theories, tell me in the comments why you do. Maybe it will help me figure it out. Anyway, I love me a conspiracy theory and as you might guess from my website, I also love religions. So when the Science Channel folks reached out to me with an advance screener for an upcoming episode of a show called “Biblical Conspiracies” you know I took them up on the offer.

This particular episode, just in time for the Easter/Passover season, is “Biblical Conspiracies: Jesus Family Tomb?” It discusses the controversy of The James Ossuary, a burial bone box that dates to the 1st century, and has on it, an inscription that states, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Some believe it is a simple forgery, others point out that the names James, Joseph, and Jesus were super common names during that time period, and others think it may have a link to the “Jesus Family Tomb”, discovered in 1980 in Talpiot, a Jerusalem suburb. I don’t want to give too much away, but this episode has plenty of history, science, and yes, conspiracy. It was a good time.

“Biblical Conspiracies: Jesus Family Tomb?” premieres Easter weekend, Saturday, April 15 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Science Channel.

The Seen and Unseen Dimensions of Time

By Carisia H. Switala, MTS

I assume most people are aware of the recent “Voice of an Angel” story reported on the news about an 18-month old girl who was found alive in an overturned car 14 hours after it crashed in a Utah river. The four police officers who rescued the little girl said they heard a woman’s voice calling out for help. However, the girl’s mother died in the crash and there were no other people in the car. The officers really believe something otherworldly took place. Perhaps this story is a good example of the temporal and eternal dimensions of time merging together allowing the mother to call for help from the unseen dimension.

After years of research, I came to the realization that time is an elusive concept. Most individuals believe that looking at their watch and hurrying to get to work on time is the extent to which this concept is relevant. However, in my opinion, time is so much more than a measurement of sequential events. For many years, philosophers and scientists have been trying to explain time. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed that time is the measurement of change. Whereas Sir Isaac Newton, an influential seventeenth century English physicist and natural philosopher, believed that space was a static container and time was an absolute flow. Newton hypothesized that absolute time exists independently of any observer and moves forward at a steady pace throughout the universe. He also thought that humans perceive ordinary time as a measurement of objects in motion like the sun.

Saint Augustine, an early Christian theologian and philosopher, believed that time was only in the mind and a human invention that cannot be applied to the universe or to God. Augustine’s view was that God existed in a timeless void. However, as the human mind evolved into a thinking machine that applies science to philosophical questions, the idea of relativity introduced the opinion that time is a physical dimension governed by physical laws. This opened up a more expansive view of the world and the universe.

I believe that the ancient idea of eternity, endless time, is a very profound and complex aspect of the subject. What seems like the passage of time in a changing world is but an illusion in a three-dimensional space.

It is difficult for humans to visualize space. The standard human experience of space can be described in terms of three dimensions: width, depth, and height. Once the fourth dimension of time is added to the equation, parallel dimensions and universes become a clearer possibility in a space-time continuum. This advancement in thought and knowledge reveals the endless nature of time and the continuation of life, defusing the idea of a timeless void. It is a perspective that views eternity as endless time, not the absence of time as Saint Augustine suggested.

We measure the passage of time in seconds, minutes, hours, and years, but this doesn’t mean that time flows at a constant rate. Just as the water in a river rushes or slows depending on the size of the channel, time flows at different rates in different places. Einstein believed that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. In other words, time is relative. So relativity makes it possible, with the proper technology, such as a very fast spaceship, for one person to experience several days while another person simultaneously experiences only a few hours or minutes.

After I delved into scientific theory, I discovered that the idea of parallel universes in quantum mechanics suggests that all possible quantum events can occur in mutually exclusive histories. These alternate, or parallel, histories would form a branching tree, symbolizing all possible outcomes of any interaction. If all possibilities exist, any paradoxes could be explained by having the paradoxical events happening in different universes. This concept leads to the conclusion that time travel is possible, and a time traveler should certainly end up in a different history than the one he or she started from. Hence, relativity and ancient notions of time variation and parallel universes are very similar.

My research into philosophy, theology and science inspired me to merge scientific and religious views about time into one reality of infinite time. The Bible contains many time-centered passages and reveals eternity to humanity. Science is also on the verge of discovering the possibility of opening up the fourth dimension of time in order to make breakthroughs in time travel. When these two disciplines work together, who knows what incredible insights into the seen and unseen dimensions of the universe will be revealed. The result will most likely be humanity’s inspiration to attain absolute knowledge of the mysteries of eternity.

The new paradigm of time I discerned is endless time. It encompasses the eternal dimension of the universe that allows for infinite life. This dimension contains the unending transformations of nonstop creation. And life doesn’t have to start in the temporal world in order to be infinite because life is eternal and therefore has no starting point. The illusions of the third dimension emanate from a static view of space and time where objects exist and events take place in a linear sequence. Perhaps one day the next brilliant scientist will be able to mathematically prove the existence of eternity.

About Carisia Switala, MTS:
The idea for Carisia Switala’s book “Eternity’s Secret: What the Bible & Science Have to Say About Time” was conceived of several years ago while she was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School (of which she is holds a Master’s of Theological Studies from). After a strange experience following her mother’s passing-away, Switala finally reached a point where she decided to write a book focusing on the insights and knowledge she had acquired from her scholarly pursuits. She lives with her husband, Lekan Obadeyi, near Washington, D.C. To learn more visit: http://www.carisiaswitala.com/

A Bible Above the Rest

I’m not here to pass judgment. Oh wait, that’s EXACTLY what I’m here to do, since this is a book review. I’ve got to tell you, spoiler alert, that I am duly impressed with the “NIV First-Century Study Bible” with notes by Kent Dobson. Now you may be wondering how does a piece of work like yours truly go about accessing the worth of a Bible? Honestly, I could have just gone by sheer mass. Seriously. If it wouldn’t be some sort of vortex opening super sin, you really could kill a man with the latest hard cover edition. The publisher used thinner than normal paper. Not flimsy or shoddy, just thinner. I would hate to imagine the size and heft if it had been printed with standard paper. The injuries my wrists take just getting out my copy of “Absolute Watchmen” are intense. I would need an assistant to get this off the shelf if they hadn’t taken appropriate measures. Now before you think I didn’t put any thought or consideration into this at all, let me show you that I do know how to do my non-paying job.

NIV stands for New International Version. According to the Preface, “The complete NIV Bible was first published in 1978. It was a completely new translation made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. The translators came from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, giving the translation an international scope. They were from many denominations and churches – including Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Christian Reformed, Church of Christ, Evangelical Covenant, Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, and others. This breadth of denominational and theological perspective helped to safeguard the translation from sectarian bias.”

The even created a committee to keep up on biblical scholarship and to those ends the NIV Bible has been revised twice. The latest copy available builds on those revisions and reflects the latest effort to best translate international scholarship to English. That kind of work impresses me. But then, just in case their efforts to be as neutral and throrough in their interpretation as possible slips up, that’s where Kent Dobson comes in.

Dobson lived and studied in Israel where he earned a Masters Degree in History and Geography of the First Temple Period from Jerusalem University College. He also studied Comparative Religion at the Rothburg International School of Hebrew University. And Dobson provides all kinds of notes throughout the Old and New Testament and each Book has an introduction that provides outside context to the religious text you’re about to read. I know this is going to sound stupid, but I’m still going to say it, someone could really use this to study the Bible!

An important reason to not only have outside context notes as well as the best attempt at neutral translation can be found with everyone’s much loved Leviticus 18:22 which gets bandied about as the Biblical argument against homosexuality. “The NIV First-Century Study Bible” says:

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

However when we go to the note it is revealed that, “Most of the Old Testament information about homosexuality is in the context of either rape or ritual prostitution. The Bible associates homosexuality with Canaanite depravity and cultic pagan worship. A clear break from Canaanite practices is a major theme in Leviticus, from dietary restrictions to sexual relations.

That’s a bit different, eh? And it’s there, thanks to the addition of Kent Dobson’s notes.

It’s not every day a gal is asked to assess the worth of a Bible, and I have to say, I never really thought I would find that much here to set it apart. Yet as they say, “The Lord (in this case) works in mysterious ways” and I’m sitting here with a Bible I’m pretty enthusiastic about reading. Who knew?

If you find yourself in the market for a Bible for spiritual or academic reasons, I heartily recommend the “NIV First-Century Study Bible”.

Bible Verses By Heart

I received word about an iTunes app that I thought some of you might be interested in.

Penguin, creators of the popular “Poems by Heart” app, launches “Bible Verses by Heart”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: The Bible is the most important book for millions of Christians around the world, but it’s also a classic work of literature. Now, Penguin Random House is proud to launch “Bible Verses by Heart”, an app that will appeal not only to the faithful, but to those who view the Bible as literature and want to better understand the extent to which the “Good Book” permeates our culture and values.

Inspired by the successful” Poems by Heart from Penguin Classics” app—which has more than 30,000 active users a month, has been downloaded over 412,000 times, and is one of only six educational apps recognized as an “App Store Best of 2013”—“Bible Verses By Heart” is a beautiful, intuitive app designed to help readers memorize key passages from the Bible. Joel Fotinos, a licensed minister and the publisher of Tarcher Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, was hugely influential in determining the app’s 20 passages, which were gathered from the Old Testament, the New Testament, as well as Psalms and Proverbs.

“We wanted ‘Bible Verses by Heart’ to appeal not only to people who love the Bible and want to memorize key scriptures, but also to casual readers interested in knowing more about it—i.e., those who see the Bible referenced in literature, the news, and in popular culture, and would like a better understanding of the Bible’s verses, selections, and stories,” said Fotinos. “We narrowed down the selections to what I jokingly call “The Bible’s Greatest Hits” – meaning those passages that would have the greatest recognition and that fit within the guidelines we had set.”

Fotinos then ran the passages by a tough set of critics—a pair of nuns from a well-known Christian monastic community. The result: a collection that draws from five different translations and encompasses everything from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and Genesis 1:1-2:3 to Psalm 40:1-17 (A Prayer for Help) and Judges 5:1-31 (Song of Deborah).

“Since these are poetic selections, we weren’t trying to create a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version. Nor did we want to choose only inspiring verses,” said Fotinos. “Rather, we picked selections that would add to a person’s Bible literacy. When someone memorizes these passages, they gain a greater appreciation of how pervasive these verses are in our culture. Eventually we hope to record and include more selections from the Bible to keep this project expanding and evolving.”

“Bible Verses by Heart” is free to download, and comes with three free passages, with 21 more available for in-app purchase. As users progress through five stages of difficulty, they are rewarded with high scores and Game Center Achievements. They also have the ability to record and share their own recitals via email and SoundCloud. The app was designed and developed by inkle, who also designed “Poems by Heart from Penguin Classics”.

“The Bible Verses by Heart” app is available for download for iPhone or iPad via iTunes. Click to read more about the “Bible Verses by Heart” app on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/bible-verses-by-heart/id925083573?mt=8

Now because I’m like this, and I know a bunch of you would be curious too, I checked with the public relations person for this project to find out exactly which Bibles these verses were coming from. As many of us know, that can make a real difference. It turns out it’s pretty diverse. “Bible Verses by Heart” uses passages from the King James Version, New King James Version, New American Standard, New Revised Standard Version, and the Contemporary English Version.

‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah

I learned of an interesting exhibit going on at the National Museum of Jewish American History that I thought was fun and interesting. Something that those of you in Philadelphia may want to check out this holiday season.

The history of Hanukkah and Christmas songs and the Jewish musicians, artists, and songwriters who wrote and performed them is the focus of the National Museum of American Jewish History’s newest installation, ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah, opening November 4, 2014. The installation combines a cozy living room setting with modern technology to deliver a compelling story about the blending of the American and Jewish musical season, the soundtracks of religious holidays, and the musical standards we know today.

Featuring well-known artists such as Irving Berlin, Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, the Ramones, and Lou Reed, as well as Christmas gems by the likes of Jewish salsa giant Larry Harlow, and Jewish stage and screen icons Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, this multimedia installation will set to music American Jewish efforts to invent, re-invent, and celebrate a season marked by family, gift-giving, food traditions, and well-loved music—across multiple faiths.

“The Christmas music industry, as a quintessentially American enterprise, provided a way for Jewish songwriters, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants, to feel American. By showing how an outsider community can enter mainstream American culture, Christmas songs highlight a classic American Jewish narrative,” says Ivy Weingram, associate curator of NMAJH and co-curator of ‘Twas.

In a gallery styled as a cozy living room, visitors will be able to enjoy interactive song and video platforms, as well as images of holiday-related artifacts from the Museum’s collection of 30,000 objects, delivered on curated iPads accompanied by text and graphics of holiday celebrations. In addition to the audio visual component of the installation, visitors will have hands-on access to record albums, a wide selection of books on American popular music and Jewish history, and kids’ toys and books.

A ‘Twas-themed self-guided tour highlighting holiday-related objects in the permanent collection will also be available.

The installation is inspired by the critically-acclaimed 2012 music compilation produced by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, which draws on jazz, folk, rap, Latin, and Klezmer musical styles. “At the Idelsohn Society, our goal has always been re-examining the Jewish-American musical past in new contemporary contexts,” says Idelsohn co-founder, Josh Kun. “Collaborating with NMAJH offers a rare opportunity to do this in a premier Museum setting where these songs and their commentaries on Jewish life, identity, and ritual will take on new meanings with new publics.”

‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah will build on the cutting-edge interactive media for which the Museum has been widely recognized. This family-friendly, seasonal installation will run through March 1 and is designed to be enjoyed by visitors of all backgrounds.

For those of you who are interested, I have the “‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” musical compilation CD in the “I Recommend” widget on the site here. It’s also available for download through Amazon.

Meister Eckhart on Mindful Meditation

By Matthew Fox

Meister Eckhart was a late-thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century preacher and mystic, yet like Rumi and Hafiz, he remains relevant today. He speaks to so many and touches people’s hearts. In this short excerpt from his new book “Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior for Our Times”, bestselling author Matthew Fox shares his insights on letting go.

How do we get to that silence, to that Source of all things? Meister Eckhart calls on the story of Jacob in Genesis (28:20): “‘Jacob the patriarch came to a certain place and wanted to rest in the evening, when the sun had gone down.’…He says: ‘To a place’; he does not name it. The place is God. God has no name of His own, and is the place and position of all things and is the natural place of all creatures.” We commune with the Godhead, which is natural for us: “The Godhead alone is the place of the soul, and is nameless….‘Jacob rested in that place,’ which is nameless. By not being named, it is named. When the soul comes to the nameless place, it takes its rest. There, where all things have been God in God, the soul rests. That place of the soul which is God is nameless. I say God is unspoken.” It is in repose, at night, in silence, that God’s love burns the hottest. “In a God-loving soul it is evening. There is nothing there but repose, where a person is thoroughly penetrated and made illuminated with divine love….The soul remains in the light of God and in the silence of pure repose, and that is evening: then it is hottest in the divine love.” Darkness holds its special power and its special attraction. God likes a no-place, a no-where, and the soul wants to commune with God there as well. “As long as the soul is anywhere, it is not in the greatest of God which is nowhere.” After all, “God is nowhere….God is not here or there, neither in time or place.” Christ, too, is to be found there in a place of nothingness. “Where is Christ sitting? He is sitting nowhere. Whoever seeks him anywhere will not find him. His smallest part is everywhere, his highest part is nowhere.”

The journey is a journey inward, for that is where the human spirit is most at home and so too is God. Eckhart says, “God is a being who always lives in the innermost. Therefore the spirit is always searching within. But the will goes outward toward what it loves.”

How do we go about this journey inward to a nameless and unknown place? Eckhart says, “The Word lies hidden in the soul, unknown and unheard unless room is made for it in the ground of hearing, otherwise it is not heard. All voices and sounds must cease and there must be pure stillness within, a still silence.” To meditate is to collect ourselves. “The soul must be collected and drawn up straight and must be a spirit. There God works and there all works are pleasing to God. No work ever pleases God unless it is wrought there.” We learn to focus, for “the more the soul is collected, the narrower it is, and the narrower it is, the wider.” Great things happen in this place of silence, which is “the doorway of God’s house….In the silence and peace…there God speaks in the soul and utters Himself completely in the soul. There the Father begets His Son and has such delight in the Word and is so fond of it, that He never ceases to utter the Word all the time, that is to say beyond time.”

The journey inward into the dark and silence is a trip into simplicity, Eckhart says, a letting go of all things — all forms and images and memories — into the “essential mind of God, of which the pure and naked power is understanding, which the masters term receptive. Now mark my words! It is only above all this that the soul grasps the pure absoluteness of free being, which has no location, which neither receives nor gives: it is bare ‘beingness’ that has been stripped of all being and all beingness. There it takes hold of God as in the ground of His being, where He is beyond all being.” One lets go of all desire, which is so “far reaching” and measureless. “All that understanding can grasp, all that desire can desire, that is not God. Where understanding and desire end, there it is dark, and there God shines.” The Word of God is heard there, for “to hear this Word in the Father (where all is stillness), a person must be quite quiet and wholly free from all images and from all forms. Indeed, a person ought to be so true to God that nothing whatever can gladden or sadden him or her. She should take all things in God, just as they are there.” Then God will do the work and humans need only not resist. “If only the soul would stay within, all things would be present to it.” Solitude is tasted, for there the soul “must be alone as God is alone.”

About Matthew Fox:
Matthew Fox is the author of over 30 books including “The Hidden Spirituality of Men”, “Christian Mystics”, and most recently “Meister Eckhart”. A preeminent scholar and popularizer of Western mysticism, he became an Episcopal priest after being expelled from the Catholic Church by Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. You can visit him at http://www.matthewfox.org.

Excerpted from the book “Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior for Our Times” ©2014 by Matthew Fox. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

Thou Art That

How sad is this? I honestly feel just awful. I seriously started this book review over 5 times. That’s right kids, OVER 5 TIMES! I was given a copy of “Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor” by Joseph Campbell. It’s collected from previously unpublished work. It does what Campbell does best, compares the Judeo-Christian faiths similarities and misrepresentations with scholarship that is authoritative, yet a dummy like me can understand.

What do I say about that besides I liked it? That I REALLY liked it! Here’s what I’d like to say, it comes from Eugene Kennedy, Ph.D., “Thou Art That’s” editor:

“Tat tvam asi” is a phrase that appears often in these collected spiritual reflections of the late Joseph Campbell. These words also inscribe a signature of celebration on his life and work. Translated from the Sanskrit as “thou art that,” this epigram captures Campbell’s generous spirit just as it does his scholarly focus. The great student of mythology not only understood the profound spiritual implications of the phrase but, quite unselfconsciously, lived by them as well.

Joseph Campbell was fond of asking Schopenhauer’s question, found in his essay “On the Foundation of Morality:” “How is it possible that suffering that is neither my own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as though it were my own, and with such force that it moves me to action?…This is something really mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation, and for which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is not unknown even to the most hard-hearted and self-interested. Examples appear every day before our eyes of instant responses of the kind, without reflection, one person helping another, coming to his aid, even setting his own life in clear danger for someone whom he has seen for the first time, having nothing more in mind than that the other is in need and in peril of his life….”

Schopenhauer’s response, one Campbell delighted in making his own, was that the immediate reaction and response represented the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization best rendered as “thou art that.” This presupposes, as the German philosopher wrote, his identification with someone not himself, a penetration of the barrier between persons so that the other was no longer perceived as an indifferent stranger but as a person “in whom I suffer, in spite of the fact that his skin does not enfold my nerves.”

And I feel like that’s the real story this collection of previously unpublished works is trying to tell us. Christian, Jewish, whatever. You are a person that’s part of this crazy experiment called humanity. “Thou art that.”

10 Questions with John Mabry

1. What made you decide to write “Growing into God: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Mysticism”?

I’ve long been a student of Christian mysticism—and a practitioner, too, I might add! I was teaching a graduate course in Christian mysticism at a local university, when I realized that the only textbooks out there were either antiquated or hopelessly inept. I decided to write one myself. But because I’m me, it isn’t a textbook. I teach, but I don’t consider myself an academic. I’m a pastor—so I’m not writing for academics or even students necessarily, but for ordinary folks. My ideal reader is a Christian who wants to go deeper into her own tradition, or a non-Christian who wants to see what all the hoopla is about.

2. Readers know what I mean when I say Christianity, but what is Christian Mysticism? What is the difference?

In my mind there isn’t one. Mysticism is the very core of the Christian tradition, regardless of what denominational lens you’re viewing it through. The problem is, most Christians have either forgotten this, or they don’t recognize what they believe as being “mystical.” Mysticism is the pursuit of—or enjoyment of—union with the Divine. Since all Christians believe that they are united with God (or Christ or the Holy Spirit) in some fashion, all Christians are mystics. But unfortunately, we in the Christian tradition have done a pretty lousy job of communicating our tradition, even amongst ourselves. We’ve made it so sin-centric that we’ve sapped it of its joy—and that’s just not the way of Jesus at all. Christianity isn’t about sin or guilt or blame. It’s about life and transformation and making love to God. (There, that should get me on some Christian fuddy-duddy’s hit list.)

3. The path of the Christian Mystic has steps leading to Union. Could you describe each step to my readers

Sure. First, Evelyn Underhill describes a step zero, called “Awakening,” that kicks everything off. This is a mystical experience that just kind of comes out of nowhere and knocks you upside the head. You go, “WTF? What the hell was that?” This is kind of the “God as heroin dealer” model. The first taste is free, but you know you’ll want more, and soon you’re hooked. Which is good, because the next step is very hard. The mystics call it “Purgation” and it’s the first step in the classical model. Once you’ve had an Awakening experience, you see everything in a new light. You begin to sort through the things in your life, weighing them in light of the mystical revelation you received. You begin to let go of those things that are not congruent with your vision, and hold on to those that seem congruent. Basically, you’re sorting the illusory from the Real, based on the brief glimpse of the Real that you’ve received.

Once your done with this sorting, you can settle into a serious meditation practice, which the mystics call “Illumination.” In the Illuminated state, you see the Divine in all things. But as you go deeper, you realize that this is incomplete—that in fact, it is the other way around: all things are in God. I call this stage, “Enjoyment” because in it you really learn to enjoy the presence of God, and you sink deeper and deeper into an awareness of the Divine presence.

Finally, you sink so deep that the distance between you and the Divine disappears. The mystics often speak of this as “divine marriage” or “divinization,” but the result is the same—the illusory distinction between the Creator and the creation is dissolved, and the mystic enters into full and conscious union with the divine. But this is no sea of bliss. To be one with God means that what God wants, you want, and what God does, you do. And since God’s primary concern is to heal everything that is wounded or broken, mystics in full union are very busy people, spending most of their time with the poor and the oppressed.

(Question 4 was skipped because he pretty much answered it in question 3.)

5. In reading “Growing into God”, the path of the Christian Mystic doesn’t seem entirely safe. Could someone attempt this by themselves with just your book for guidance?

No form of mysticism is safe. People blow out their nervous systems doing Kundalini yoga all the time, when they try it out of a book. Christian mysticism isn’t as hard on the body’s electrical system, but you’re right—it’s not a safe endeavor, either. It’s best done within the context of a loving and supportive church community (there is no such thing as a “lone ranger” Christian, after all) and for best results, one should see a trained spiritual director once a month.

6. The Catholic Church features many mystics in their history, but I get the feeling if someone spoke to a bishop today and said, “I’m pursuing the path of the Christian Mystic,” the Bishop’s response would be to back away from you slowly. I guess my question is, what’s up with that?

Well, my guess would be such a reaction might have something to do with an overzealous ambition. It’s like the difference between saying “I’m thinking of going into politics” and announcing, “I’m going to be king of the world!” Going into politics is doable, being king of the world is less likely. And so it is with mysticism. The truth is that all Christians are called to be mystics, but few ever reach the “finish line” of full union in this lifetime, but the good news is, we don’t have to. As St. Therese of Lisieux of Liuseaux said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”

On the other hand, if most Christians knew their own tradition better, we’d all own up to being “on the mystics’ path,” and there would be far fewer raised eyebrows. Still, your fictional bishop should know better. Instead of backing away, he should clap a hand to your shoulder and say, “That’s a wonderful thing. I’ll be praying for you.”

7. Can Union be compared to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment? Is this path just for Christians?

The stages of the mystical journey are roughly the same in most religious traditions. If you conceive of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold path as a linear model of spiritual development, and compare that to the model laid out in the Hindu Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, and compare that with the Christian model of Purgation, Illumination, and Union, you’ll find amazing similarities. The Hindu and Christian models are the closest. The Buddhist model does things in a slightly different order, but all the pieces are there. Of course, each tradition uses a different vocabulary, different metaphors and symbols to describe this journey, but the journey is basically the same. In my book I’m describing the journey as Christians have experienced and spoken about it. But when you strip away the symbols and language and cultural baggage what you find is the same journey of the soul—a human journey.

8. Can you tell us about one of your favorite mystics and why they’re a favorite?

I have so many favorites! I especially love Julian of Norwich, though, because her visions are so rich, so emotional and loving, and they also challenge the theological notions of her time, albeit in a cannily diplomatic way. But I also love the practical mysticism of Charles Williams. His “occult thriller” novels are masterpieces of both horror and theology. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if not for his influence.

9. What’s next for you? Any more books?

Yes, there are always more books! I have a new one coming out from Morehouse/Church Publishing titled Faithful Generations: Effective Ministry Across Generational Lines. I’m also polishing a Christmas novel, and hope to soon start work on a sequel to my horror/comedy/adventure novel, The Kingdom. Meanwhile, my progressive rock band, Mind Furniture, just did our first gig and we were blown away by the positive response we get, so we’ll probably put some energy into more live shows, even as we continue working on our next CD. Our last CD is called Hoop of Flame, and it’s on iTunes, so I hope you’ll check it out. It’s got a great hymn to Shiva, and a rock opera where we put God on trial for his crimes against humanity. It’s a kick!

10. Part shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.

Have you done any articles on Christo-pagan/Christo-Wiccan rituals or communities? I’d love to read that, if so.

I haven’t, but I’d love to. There are so many topics out there, so little time it seems. A great place that has discussed it from time to time along with a ton of other fascinating topics is The Wild Hunt website.

About John R. Mabry, PhD:
John R. Mabry is a United Church of Christ minister and pastors Grace North Church (Congregational) in Berkeley, CA. He teaches spiritual guidance and world religions at the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith Ministry in Berkeley and at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto. Among his books are “The Way of Thomas”, “Faith Styles”, and “Noticing the Divine”.

Invisible Excursions: A Compass for the Journey

“Invisible Excursions: A Compass for the Journey” by James Conlon is a memoir of sorts. Conlon tells the story of his life as it unfolded during pivotal events like the Vietnam war and Vatican II but he also discusses his emerging love affair with creation spirituality. As the book progresses the memoir comes to the present day where Conlon talks about the Sophia Center where he is Director.

However, that truthful, but remarkably bland, descriptive paragraph does not do “Invisible Excursions” justice. It tells the story of a questing, compassionate Christianity that I wish we heard more about these days. One that knows matters of taking care of our planet and social justice are equal to, and work with, matters of theology.

Conlon doesn’t just share his personal journey, he tries to inspire you to look at your own journey and make the most of it. He shares a few of the journeys of those who came to the Sophia Center. Ultimately I feel that “Invisible Excursions” is meant to give us hope in a time when despair is pretty easy to find, and more importantly, Conlon wants you to take that hope and pass it along.

Old Sir Christmas

By John Matthews and Caitlin Matthews from their book The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas (used here with the Quest Books permission)

The Birth of Santa Claus

His story is a complex one. Many will know that Santa means saint, and is of modern usage. Others will tell us that the nearest point of origin for Santa Claus – in time, anyway – is St. Nicholas of Patara, a third-century Bishop of Myra, near the present-day village of Demre in Asia Minor. Born in Turkey to a wealthy family around A.D. 270 he became well known for his anonymous gifts to the poor. Tradition has it that he left these offerings in the houses of selected recipients, sneaking in during the night to leave money or food in the shoes or stockings of children – though it is doubtful whether they would have worn either in that hot land, assuming they could afford such luxuries anyway. However, such is the tradition, and it is from this that we derive the custom of hanging stockings by the fireplace, while in various countries such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Holland, December 6th, St. Nicholas’s official day, is also Children’s Day, and is considered just as important as Christmas Day itself. In fact, it is only in comparatively recent times that we have conflated the two dates – the 6th and the 25th – making the latter a general festival for the exchanging of gifts.

Good Old Saint Nick

If we go back to the Middle Ages, about 1,200 years after St. Nicholas actually lived, we can see how this might have begun. In the words of Naogeorgus, the author of the Latin Vita Sant Nicolai (Life of St. Nicholas):

The mothers all their children
on the eve do cause to fast,
And when they every one
at night in sense sleep are cast,
Both apples, nuts,
and prayers they bring,
and other things beside,
As caps, and shoes, and petticoats,
with kirtles they hide,
And in the morning found,
they say: “St. Nicholas
this brought.”

This has most of the ideas that we associate with the figure of Santa Claus, but there is another, stranger story told of St. Nicholas, which actually points the way to his true origin far more clearly:

An Asiatic gentleman, sending his two sons to Athens for education, ordered them to wait on the bishop for his benediction. On arriving at Myra with their baggage, theytook up their lodgings at an inn, proposing to defer their visit till the morrow; but, in the meantime, the innkeeper, to secure their effects to himself killed the young gentlemen, cut them into pieces, salted them, and intended to sell them for pickled pork. St. Nicholas, being favoured with a sight of their proceedings in a vision, went to the inn, and reproached the landlord with the crime, who, immediately confessing it, entreated the saint to pray to heaven for his pardon. The bishop, moved by his confession and contrition, besought forgiveness for him, and supplicated restoration of life to the children. Scarcely had he finished, when the pieces reunited, and the resuscitated youths threw themselves from the brine tub at the feet of the bishop; he raised them up, blessed them, and sent them to Athens, with great joy to prosecute their studies.

A.T. Hampson: Popular Customs and Superstitions of the Middle Ages

On one level this story may be regarded as nothing more than a pious anecdote illustrating the sanctity and goodness of the saint. But there is more to it than that. The notion of a person being dismembered and put back together, as portrayed in this tale, again derives from a far older time, and when it is placed in conjunction with certain other factors, a surprising new image begins to appear that has all the characteristics of the traditional Santa without any of its later overtones of bishops and Christianity.

The Gift Givers

In comes I, Old Father Christmas.
Welcome – or welcome not,
I hope Old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.

The Longparish Mummers’ Play

Santa Claus is really only the latest of many figures which have come to be associated with bringing gifts on the night of December 25th. In France presents are given on New Year’s Day and called entrennes, a name that can be traced back to the strenae, green branches, exchanged between people at the Roman feast of the goddess Strenia. In Sicily it is an old woman named Strina who brings gifts at Christmas, continuing a tradition that began in the days of the Roman Empire.

The figure who stands behind the jolly old man of Christmas is older even than this, however. In fact, his story takes us back to the beginning of recorded history, when some other characters climbed up trees of a different kind, and returned with gifts for everyone. These were not toys or perfume or watches, but messages concerning the year to come, or the turning of the seasons, or the fate of the world. These people were the shamans, who performed the functions of priest, historian and record keeper, scientist, and magician. Of course there were shamans all over the world, and in most cases they performed the same or similar functions, but, for obvious reasons, it is those who originated in the far North – anywhere from Lapland to Siberia– that interest us most in this context. It is these people who often wore bells on their ritual costumes, who shinned up the central polesof their skin tents, and who returned with the gigts of prophecy and wonder from the Otherworlds. Its is to these people that we have to look for the first appearance of the figure who, thousands of years later, evolved into the jolly old man of Christmas himself, Santa Claus.

If we look for a moment at some of those similarities we can catch a glimpse of the evolution of one into the other. If we dip our hands into Santa’s sack – so like the shaman’s bag of tricks – the first thing we find are the bells that jingle on the harness of the eight magical reindeer. Contemporary accounts of northern shamans, including those of the Altaic and Buryat regions of Siberia and those of the Finns and Laplanders, again and again emphasize the importance of bells in their traditional costumes. These form a double function; as noise-makers to announce the presence of the shaman as he enters the spirit world, and to frighten off any unfriendly spirits who might be lying in wait for him. In addition, iron disks representing the sun or curved in the shape of the moon represent the importance solar and lunar rites among these Northern people– and important point in our consideration of the Solstice itself.

Red Robes and Firelight

Reaching into the sack again we find a red robe or cloak, trimmed with white. Many authorities on shamanic tradition have commented on the importance of the color red in the shaman’s costume. This is, on one level, significant of the sacred blood that links all human beings and that is also perceived as a link between humans and animals, and between the shaman and the earth. It is also, of course, a symbol of fire, that most powerful of magical weapons, as well as the gift of warmth and life to all, especially significant in such cold lands as those we are considering here.

Next in the sack we find a burning brand that signifies the eternal light and the warmth without which all life would perish. The shamans possessed this gift of fire, which initially perhaps they alone had the power to kindle (the number of flint fire-lighters found among shamans’ bundles alone is enough to suggest this) and which was a gift they brought to the tribal people they served. It was believed that these gifts were entrusted to them for the people by the gods and spirits of the land. Here, the symbolism of red fire in the white desert of Winter is a vital image. Is it stretching the point too far to see an echo of this in the red and white costume and white beard of a certain other figure? Certainly the importance of these colors throughout the northern world is beyond question.

Dipping into the sack again we find reindeer with bells on their harnesses, who can fly through the sky and cover vast distances in no time at all. This is yet another echo of the shaman’s journey into and through the heavens, in search of the gifts of fire and prophecy. In addition, there is the obvious importance of reindeer to the people of Lapland and Siberia is obvious. To these people the reindeer not only provided a source of food but also skins for clothing and tents, sinews for thread, bones for needles, and, when rendered down, fat for rush lights and
glue to mend pots and fix spearheads in place.

So Santa is an old man dressed in red who comes out of the dark forest of the North on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. It is significant then that the shamans hunted the reindeer, ran with them in spirit Corm, drew their shapes on rocks with red ochre as a means of capturing them, even saw them as a symbol of the newly born sun of Midwinter. A wonderful modern poem speaks of the hunting of spirit deer, who, impervious to the hunter’s arrows, were a symbolic reference point for hunting the real creatures:

A red deer comes over the hill,
Shoot your arrows as you will,
The deer will stand there still!

Alison Mcleay: Solstice

The Shaman in the Tree

Consider the image of the shaman climbing down through the smoke hole of a skin tent with bells jingling, bearing in his hands a red painted wooden reindeer. The shamans saw to it that the sun returned from that point when, at the very edge of the horizon, it dipped and, for a moment, was gone. Then, summoned by the ancient language of the elements, it returned. Sun images were hung on a tree, that also formed the central pole of the tent and represented the axis of the world, the connection which leads to the heavens the final destination of the shaman who was, indeed, the midwife of the sun.

Imagine some of the questions asked of the shaman. As Alison Mcleay put it in her wonderful evocation of the Solstice in a radio broadcast she made in 1985:

Shaman, will the sun be reborn?
Will we have a good harvest?
Will we catch enough fish, will
there be enough meat to eat,
will the reindeer drop enough
offspring to keep us through another year?
What will the new year
bring for us, for me?
Tell us, shaman, make your
journey and bring us the
gifts of your seeing?
You are the bringer of gifts,
the protector, the magician,
the future is yours to see, the
gifts of the future and the past
—tell, us shaman, tell us.

Sacrifices were hung on the living tree: animals, birds, perhaps once even humans, such as Odin hanging on the windy tree of Yggdrasil to bring back the gifts of the runes. Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnyr may also be linked with Santa’s sleigh and its eight reindeer. And that song – next out of the sack:

0 the rising of the sun, and the running of
the deer, The playing of the merry organ,
sweet singing in the choir

The Holly and The Ivy

These are old images, stolen by a later time, and reflect two aspects married under the Solstice tree: the running deer who were the totem creatures of many different Northern tribal groups, and the singing of carols in the stone forests of the Christian world. The old ways were not wholly forgotten, not even after the coming of the Christ child, who brought the gifts of light and eternal life to the world, and who received gifts from the wandering wise men – the Magi of biblical and pre-biblical tradition. They too contribute to the image of Santa the gift bringer, and, as we have seen, there is more to them than meets the eye.

About John Matthews:
John Matthews is an international authority on Celtic folklore, the Western mystery tradition, and the Grail legends, and is one of the great culture-bearers of our times. He has written over forty books on the Arthurian legends, esoteric wisdom, and the Grail. His Quest Book “The Winter Solstice” won the Benjamin Franklin Award in 1998. With his wife and frequent coauthor Caitlin, John established the Foundation of Inspirational and Oracular Studies. To visit the author’s website, www.hallowquest.org.uk