Witches of America

21 01 2019

Alex Mar’s book on modern day witches didn’t inspire me to look further into a pagan revival in our contemporary context. If anything, it sort of reinforced my previous ideas of how we’re all living in one massive consumer survey, it’s just some people’s tastes are more “interesting” than others. Mar takes us on a journey through various contemporary schools of “witchcraft” such as “Faery,” Wicca, Celtic Neo-Paganism, and perhaps her most dramatic encounter, the Ordo Templi Orientis. In these spiritual quests, she stumbles upon various problems facing those seeking the sacred in a de-sacralized society: the issue of paying for initiations, the logistics of holding ceremonies in rented hotel spaces, and the intersection of magic and modern relationships. The “human story” was thus probably the most interesting element of the book, but that may not be saying much. Read the rest of this entry »

The bewitched automobile

29 09 2010

Well, now, I’ll tell a story what happened to an old lady and her husband down close Hanover. They decided they’d buy themselves a new car – so they did. Well, when Saturday evening come, why, the old gentleman said to his wife, “Now, let’s take a ride in the new car, this evening.” “All right.” They started off and they got in as fer as Hanover. And right at the square in Hanover the care stopped. Nobody could start it. They done everything they knowed, got garage fellows there to look at it, nobody could find anything wrong. Car wouldn’t move. Somebody said, “Well, you go out to Mrs. K. and tell her about this.”

Went out to Mrs. K and told her, and Mrs. K said, “Well, I’ll write you a piece of paper here and you don’t – you’re not to read it. You take it back to the car and put it on the starter and put your foot on this paper, on the starter, and,” she said, “your car will go.” And so they did. Went back a whole crowd around the car. They put this piece of paper on the starter and he put his foot on it, and the car started right off, and away they went. Didn’t have no more trouble that evening with the car.

So the next morning some time, why, they got someone come and said, “Well, the neighbor woman over there is awful sick.” “Well,” they said, “what’s wrong with her?” Said, “She’s in bed, she’s jist that sick she can’t be up.” And this was the woman that put the spell on the automobile. And Mrs. K. fixed her business fer her that she didn’t bother nobody around there fer awhile.

-Text from Don Yoder, “Witch tales from Adams County”, from south-central Pennsylvannia, found in Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States.

Summorum Pontificum 2007-2021

17 07 2021

Note: I first published this on July 10th, 2007

But since in this dialogue Socrates is about to derogate pleasure and Philebus has called pleasure, “Venus,” he hastens to make atonement, fearing a goddess’ name especially as a pious man should. Atonement is the restoration of holiness that has been destroyed. Holiness is devotion to holy things…

-Marsilio Ficino, The Philebus Commentary

Eneadum genetrix hominum divumque voluptas, Alma Venus coeli subter labentia signa Quae mare navigerum quae terras frugiferentes Concelebras; per te quoniam genus omne animatum Concipitur, visitque exortum lumina solis.

-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

The sanctuary at the seminary church in La Reja has an area between two pillars that leads to the apse with the side altars. There, on the epistle side, the professor of liturgy was waiting in the wings and watching attentively. On the altar, a recently ordained priest was saying the 11:30 a.m. Mass. I watched my professor watch the new priest. He was making sure that the man on the altar was saying his Mass correctly: that he was making all of the Signs of the Cross as indicated, that the genuflections were graceful and not twitchy, that he was not saying his Mass too quickly, etc., etc. This was a Mass you had to learn how to say, and new priests were game to be critiqued if they are not performing the actions properly.

This was in the Society of St. Pius X, but I am sure every traditionalist religious order has some of these concerns. The flip side of the Motu Proprio cheerleading has been expressed by some, but I will say it explicitly. Oftentimes the old Mass, for better or for worse, was a chore that had to be endured and far from a spiritual experience. Many priests hated saying the old Mass, and many who remember it now probably said, “good riddance” to it back then. The fact is that the liturgical reform of the 1960’s was the destruction of the old liturgical ethos of the Roman Church and the creation of a new one. I would summarize it very briefly by saying that before, liturgy was something you had to DO, and now it is something that you have to UNDERSTAND.

Indeed, when the divine causes and the human preparations resembling them are united in one and the same act, the acomplishment of the sacrifice achieves all things and bestows great blessings.

-Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

Catechisms from the 1950’s often talked about the necessity of sacrifice in human culture, and those sacrifices needing to be accomplished through a certain set of rules. Sacrifice, for better or for worse, always has a cause and effect mechanism behind it: the sacrifice is done correctly, and the blessings are bestowed. The SSPX put out a document earlier this decade stating that the reform of the liturgy had much to do with the putting aside of the idea of Anselm’s idea of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross being primarily vicarious satisfaction for the sins of the world and its replacement with the idea of the “Paschal Mystery”, something supposedly more ill-defined and Patristic. This is, according to the Lefebvrist theologians, the reason why the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice that takes away sins is no longer emphasized.

In this sacrificial culture, then, the actions of my seminary professor-priest make much more sense. Even if it is not explicitly stated, the very human (read: pagan) idea of accomplishing the cult correctly was at the heart of the rubricism before the Second Vatican Council. The Mass was something that had to appease the wrath of God against sinful humanity. Therefore, it had to be accomplished according to a complicated set of rules, in a language no one could understand, and having parts that were uttered secretly by the priest. (One commenter said that he likes the Mass for the text, which I find highly ironic since most of the “text” was not meant to be heard by the laity anyway.) These were principles that were never defined, but they were nevertheless in the “back of the mind” of Western civilization.

I will not say one way or the other whether or not this idea is correct. And it is still present to some extent even in many Masses said according to the Pauline Missal. (People still have Masses said for particular intentions.) But the Liturgical Movement and the Novus Ordo Missae were very much concessions to the idea of liturgy that was first put forward by the Reformers. Having moved away from the theology of vicarious satisfaction, liturgy is conceived of as something more for the people as the Body of Christ and less for a wrathful and distant God receiving again the Blood of His Son to redeem the sins of the world. It is the remembrance of what Christ has done for us in His life, death, and resurrection. Hence, the greater freedom in how it is carried out, the vernacular tongue, and the general emphasis on interaction with the people. It is admitted by virtually all that this has led to abuses and many undignified things take place during these ceremonies. The degree of gravity, however, of the wrongness of what goes on during these ceremonies depends on what you conceive the liturgy as primarily being. If it is an act of the cult of sacrifice, it is a grave transgression against the order of things. If it is a manifestation of the synaxis of the People of God, it is just people behaving rowdily. Has anyone gone to Hell because of a liturgical abuse?

The bottom line is that these divergent cultures are so distinct now that to think that one can influence the other amounts to wishful thinking. The ethos behind one is completely different from the ethos of the other. While aesthetic radicals like myself love Gregorian chant, Latin, and all of the highly stylized gestures of the old rite, many Catholics who remember them are just glad they do not have to “do that crap” anymore. The ecclesial cultures behind both rites are just too divergent now, and let us face facts: traditionalists constitute a tiny fraction of total Catholics in the world. Even with a greater allowance of the old rite, the only thing that will emerge in my opinion is a niche market style of liturgies similar to Anglican praxis of “churchmanships”. Perhaps it will not fracture the Church, but it will not serve to unite it either. Then again, maybe nothing will.

So I am glad that the Holy Father finally put out his Motu Proprio. I even read it in the original Latin. But part of me fears that this is just “his thing”. He may have very good reasons for it, but it may all just be a case of trying to put something back into Pandora’s liturgical box.

Postscript in 2021: I was right.

Haridasa Thakur and the critique of Abrahamic religion

3 05 2021

Having been born into Roman Catholicism, and having practiced it quite fervently as an adult, the question always looms as to what the role of Christianity is in Krishna consciousness. More ecumenical types want to make it seem that “it’s all good”: bhakti is bhakti, God is one and devotion to Him is also one. Others, however, refuse to be that conciliatory considering the Christian turning of a blind eye towards meat eating and other vices. In fact, my summary of Srila Prabhupada’s attitude on this matter is that he thought that Christianity was very close to Vaishnavism, except for the meat eating and his claims that Christians didn’t know the name of God. He was quite animate about these objections at times.

Yet if we look closely, Christianity was dealt with in Hare Krishna scripture. Well, not directly, but through the assessment of Islam particular in the writings describing gaura-lila: the life of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. We have to remember that many of the major protagonists at this time had to deal directly with Muslims, up to learning their scriptures, perhaps even in Arabic itself. If we consider Islam as an outgrowth of Christianity, but perhaps with a slightly more impersonalist flavor, the early Gaudiya Vaishnavas were well-acquainted with it. One major figure was even an ex-Muslim, the namacharya Srila Haridasa Thakur.

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Personal difficulties with Krishna consciousness

9 02 2021

They’re not the common or the “sexy” ones. I’ve sort of resolved in my own mind Srila Prabhupada’s more “based” sayings about gender, class, and race, the Moon landings, etc. That stuff is just details in my opinion. If you want to get mad about them, others can feed you reasons to get upset. My issues are more foundational:

  1. Meat eating: I don’t personally have a problem no longer eating meat. I don’t “miss” it very much, to be honest. It’s more the idea that I have known people who have demonstrated pure love of God who ate meat and had no issues with it. I have learned from people who are far better than I am who eat meat. That’s not to say that I doubt the principle: I think there is enough evidence in many religious traditions that indicates that renouncing meat eating is a foundation of asceticism and getting closer to God. But I have a hard time thinking it’s a “deal breaker”.
  2. Irenicism: Related to this, I have found many passages from Srila Prabhupada’s books talking about how divisions between bonafide religious systems are a symptom of Kali Yuga, that the love of God is the only real religion, that people don’t need to convert to Krishna consciousness, that all you have to do is “add Krishna,” etc. That’s fine, but it seems that the other 90% of the time a lot of Srila Prabhupada’s writings and ISKCON rhetoric retreat into sectarianism in a sort of “bait and switch”: sell ecumenism to get in the door, then impose a maximalist program of bhakti as essential to returning “back to Godhead”. Again, which one is it? Is the supposed religious tolerance just to get people in the door, but then once they’re in, you basically have to become a spiritual c.16th century Bengali Vaishnava or else? Why not just lead with that if that’s the case?
  3. Nama-aparadha: This is sort of along the same vein, and that’s the issue of “chanting the Holy Name can do anything, but it can’t do that.” I am not against effort or against spiritual growth per se. Nor am I a sahajiya who just wants things easy. At the same time, the whole point of sankirtan or the public chanting of the Holy Name is to benefit all living entities, even if they have no idea what is being said. They all benefit just from hearing offenselessly. But if I am mostly distracted during two hours of japa, because, you know, I actually have a life and a lot of responsibilities, I am just committing offenses? There’s a sort of “ignorance is bliss” logic going on there. Pardon my French, but if I half-ass it, I might as well never had done it at all. I know it’s more complicated than all of the shastric injunctions of just chanting one name of Krishna wiping out mountains of sins, etc. It’s just a difficult concept to wrap my head around. It is similar to idea of “invincible ignorance” or “presumption” in Catholicism, so I am used to the idea of striving for spiritual perfection being a long slog. It just seems to be a confusing premise of the entire Hare Krishna movement.

I only bring all of this up because I have basically read most of Srila Prabhupada’s books at this point, so these are my lingering questions. I would be happy if anyone could help me clarify these issues.

The morality of voting

29 10 2020

I have a hard time accepting that there is any spiritual, ethical, or moral dimension to voting in a mass democracy. To state otherwise seems to be invoking the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a hurricane on the other side of the world.

If you’re going to impute moral credit or culpability for one vote in the midst of millions, you have to be precise about it. If I vote for the “wrong” candidate and am thus worthy of Hell because of it, what degree of fault do I have for the sins of my favored candidate? How many babies did my vote in particular abort? How many migrant children did my vote in particular put in cages? How many foreign people did my vote in particular kill in unjust wars? And so on. If we are going to use moral and juridical language, if we are going to assign fault, we have to quantify it. Or if I back into someone in a parking lot, am I somehow worthy of the death penalty because the trauma of the accident subtracts so many seconds from the person’s life?

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Notes on theological liberalism

20 08 2020

Some of you have been reading me for almost fifteen years, so you know that I am not some knee-jerk reactionary. On the other hand, I hate attempts to “update” and explain away various religious premises and doctrines. Here I am jotting down some ideas as to why:

  1. I find that, in a lot of revisionist / liberal projects, there is an overt switch in belief from submission to power. In other words, there is always an unspoken agenda to it, a fake deference to tradition all the while planning to stab it in the back. And if you try to call it out, gaslighting ensues. The liberal will never fess up to his or her bias or real agenda, but everyone knows they have one, and most everyone knows what it is, but it dare not speak its name lest one be called a “bigot,” “closed-minded,” fundamentalist,” etc.
  2. In that vein, the favorite tactic of the theological liberal is the mote and bailey: attack one premise under the guise of going deeper into the tradition, only to knock the whole edifice down gradually, and retreat back into the particular interpretation of tradition whenever attacked. This is actually a pretty effective tactic.
  3. Don’t cite, just assert. Don’t actually engage with particulars, stick to words like “hermeneutics,” “higher criticism,” etc. Claim that you have the mind of the authority but don’t actually cite anything the authority says. After all, almost every interpretation of the authority seems to be defective, except your own.
  4. Bad cases make good law, and exceptions are rules. Every system has to deal with difficult cases, and all of the past methods of dealing with them are defective except the one you are now proposing (fancy that!) In other words, all problems of the past were too complex for simple solutions, but all modern solutions are totally transparent and will totally work.
  5. This is about sex, isn’t it? Everybody must be as depraved and is having as difficult of a time of it as you are. Of course, people in the past were not more virtuous or at least didn’t have enough of a sense of shame to fake it. That’s crazy talk.
  6. Credentials are the new priesthood. Even though most humanities fields just regurgitate the same theories over and over again with more opaque language, somehow degrees somehow still mean something. When all else fails, argument from authority.

A question

3 05 2020

Someone asked in the comments:

If anything, I’d just like to ask you a question (which you might have addressed in earlier entries, so sorry for redundancy): do you think Christianity necessarily leads to our secular age? In your engagement and critique of Christianity, you’ve always traced the “crisis” of the Catholic Church and Western spirituality to its roots, i.e., the materialism and laxity of today are almost the system developing naturally. Do you think that needs to be the case, or is there a way to avoid those pitfalls of Christianity while retaining the “core” (whatever that is)?

I stated recently that I don’t believe in smoking guns. Nothing leads inevitably to anything else. You’re not breaking into the mind of God and stealing its secrets. On the other hand, one can question the radical break between religion and secularism as it manifests itself in the life of the common person. At least at a very superficial level, we still have a god, we still have magic, and we still deal with forces we don’t understand. It’s just different is all. One reason why I gave up writing for a time other than just being really, really busy, was that my attempt to merge folk Catholicism and Neoplatonism hit a dead end at the beginning of last decade. I ran out of things to say, started some projects and jettisoned those as well, etc. Only recently have I developed the intellectual and moral clarity to say something again. I am not sure how long this will last. Read the rest of this entry »

God has no enemies

5 04 2020


Lord Chaitanya threatening to castigate Jagai and Madhai with the Sudarshana Chakra

The Seventh Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam is widely loved by devotees of Krishna because it tells the story of how five year old Prahlada Maharaja is saved from his father’s wrath by Nrsimhadeva, Krishna’s half-man, half-lion avatar. More on this in a future essay, but here I would like to describe the first chapter of the canto which Srila Prabhupada in his translation entitled, “The Supreme Lord is Equal to Everyone”. The reasoning of this chapter goes that, since the material world is merely the external energy of the Lord, it is both different and non-different (achintya bheda abheda) from Him, or to put it my own overly-simplistic terms, you can’t run from God because you sort of are God, like your finger is you but not quite. In Krishna consciousness, you can’t be totally Other from God, you can’t eternally separate yourself from Him because you’re never independent from Him. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on clerical celibacy

22 01 2020

Clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church has been a contested topic in the last year or so, but I haven’t really stepped into the fray as my position is quite nuanced. I became Eastern rite as a young man for personal reasons that are no longer relevant, so married or not, I could become a priest if the need or opportunity should ever arise. (Full disclosure: I am never going to pursue it, just putting it out there). There have been discussions as to whether celibacy, or a total abstention from sex, is an ontological characteristic that is essential to the priesthood as understood by the Apostolic Tradition. In that case, the Eastern Churches deviated from the norm due to unwarranted concessions to human weakness. I don’t find this line of reasoning very convincing, and that’s not just because I am now a member of the Eastern Church on the books, which has a history of married parochial clergy. Read the rest of this entry »