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HOW THE IRISH GAVE US ST. PATRICK’S DAY…AND HALLOWEEN

What we now know as Halloween began 2,000 years ago as the Celtic festival of Shamhain in Ireland. “Samhain” is the Gaelic word for “summer’s end”. For farmers and rural folk, pagans (the original meaning of pagan was not that of our current understanding, as those who aren’t Christian, but simply those who lived in rural areas, by the rhythms of nature), the holiday marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year. It was the transition from the light part of the year to the darker months of the year.  The day was celebrated starting on sundown on October 31st and then throughout the day on November 1st.

It was beloved- and is still beloved by some- as a time when the veil between this world and the spirit world is thinnest, and departed spirits can return to mingle with the those of the living. 

Celebrants would dress up in costumes, representing the various Celtic deities. Part of the folklore contains a story that Samhain is when the old God dies and the Crone Goddess mourns him deeply for the next six weeks.  The popular Halloween image of an old hag stirring a bubbling brew from a giant black cauldron comes from the Celtic belief that all dead souls return to the Crone Goddess’ cauldron of life, death, and rebirth to await reincarnation.  

The jack-0′-lantern, also has its roots in Celtic legend.  Based on a folklore tale about a forlorn ghost named Jack, jack-o’-lanterns were set outside during Samhain to guide lost souls-and to scare away evil ones.  The difference in the United States is that we use pumpkins.  The Irish originally carved out turnips, but when they brought their tradition to America, turnips were much harder to come by than were pumpkins. In fact, they discovered that pumpkins worked better.

Handing out candy on Halloween to our costumed guests at the doorbell stems from the Celtic tradition of giving food and money to the costumed celebrants, just in case they were the physical incarnations of lost souls.  In addition, when the kids say “trick or treat”, it springs from the custom of doing things to please the spirits or else risk some evil.

Around 700 A.D., when the Christian church began to spread throughout Ireland, the Church renamed the holiday All Saints Day (Nov. 1 precluded by All-Hallows Eve (Oct. 31st) and so it became to be known as Halloween.  Like many other pagan festivals, the Christians adopted Samhain and made it a Christian event. 

While other places in the world celebrate Halloween, it is most widely known and celebrated in the United States, Canada, Ireland, and the U.K.    

So, while the light outside my window is already dimming at 4:30 pm, and my Halloween candy is at the ready for the throngs of trick or treaters to descend upon my doorstep tomorrow evening, I can relish the spiritual connection with my distant ancestors in the “old country” who marked this as a holy and sacred time AND revel with the all the kids who are simply looking forward to a bag full of candy, getting dressed up, and being out after dark on a school night.  As always, the sacred and the everyday live side by side…it’s important to acknowledge both.

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SAINTS ARE SINNERS WHO KEEP ON TRYING

I admit it; I am enamored with saints.  I am fascinated with those who have reached the pinnacle of spiritual freedom, unity with God.  Regardless of their religious traditions, these are men and women who are deemed “scientists of holiness.”  We can learn from them. They are not only guides to the grail of enlightenment but they teach us how to live in a practical and substantive way that can enrich our everyday living. 

Saints never think of themselves as such.  Each has had their own personal demons to face down.  It is in choosing not to run away in the million ways we humans do, but utilizing their trials and struggles for personal growth and focusing on the inner life that they demonstrate another dimension of human potential.  Recovering a bit of the asceticism that has always been the foundational gristmill for spiritual advancement can help us tremendously.  What I mean by this is we don’t need the severe self-denial and austere lifestyle of a Gandhi or a Buddha or a St. Francis, but to give up the current wave of entitlement, to be able to say no to our temptations on occasion, is freeing.  We become able to resist our own compulsive consumption.   

People need to experience God, not be told about God.  Living examples, being very much in the world, do that by inspiring the lives of others.  These are not “feel good” pseudo-spiritualities or for the spiritual elite, but for everyone. Our experience of the Divine informs the self and yet continually needs to be balanced with community.   Reaching out to others is both a natural progression and a means for necessary connection. Indeed, those with spiritual depth often understand social service to be as important, if not more important, than the more traditional activities of preaching and teaching. 

Saints would probably also scoff at the idea of them being mystics, though that is what they are.  Yet mystics are not so mysterious, rather I’ve heard them described as “ones who see into the depth of things through the fissures and fragments of our human experience”.  With single-minded purpose, these friends of God (or to the ALL that IS) are granted a special way of seeing, a heightened awareness of a presence or absence. 

Casting the mystical net wide as the awareness of some sort of ultimate reality that transcends all religions; religion can unify instead of divide.  We can recognize that different traditions can learn from one another, if one if grounded in one’s own tradition and open to another. Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, all can enrich each other’s practices.  For instance, Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, was influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

It is not the visions or miracles attributed to those regarded as saints, during their lives or posthumously, that should be the reasons for  reverence.  In fact, that kind of thinking leads to idolatry rather than the harder working of following by example.  It is the spiritual practices and articulated paths that are to be learned from.

That is not to say that we should disregard profound and unusual human experiences. It’s just that without a conscious effort to seek out these mystics, both past and present, their voices quickly become drown out by the difficulties of daily living, the heroes who win World Championships and are given parades, and the Hollywood stories of celebrities.  In an effort to reclaim the saint, human foibles and all, we are being re-called to something larger than ourselves.

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Putting the Joy Back in Jihad

What’s so joyful about a jihad? It’s one of those experiences that afterwards we call a blessing in disguise.

The concept of jihad or holy war is embedded in the Quran, but it has, from its earliest beginnings, been fraught with multiple meanings.  Muslims often speak of jihad as both a struggle to submit to God’s will (considered the greatest of  jihads) and a battle against unbelievers (the lesser of the jihads).  Our focus today will be on the greater, the individual’s journey toward purity of the soul.

However, it is important to note that the jihad that points to a battle against unbelievers has more to do with Muslims being commanded to do something that they believe to be contrary to the law of God (which includes the sin of polytheism), or to those that dishonor or defeat the community of the faithful, at which point jihad becomes a duty.

It has never been historically true that Muslims are somehow obligated to wage war against those who do not surrender to Allah.  In fact, during what many call the Golden Age of Islam (from about the 9th to 12th centuries), “Muslims were ruling peacefully over large populations of non-Muslims without expending the slightest bit of effort to convert them or to challenge their beliefs.” (From Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell). 

In addition, there is no Islamic jurist (classical or modern) that offers approval or legitimacy to what we now call terrorism.  The armed struggles of jihads of the past were elaborately regulated by Shari’a law (which simply means holy law, covering everything from fasting and pilgrimage to constitutional and criminal law). For instance, no women, children, or the aged are allowed to be killed (in principle).  You have to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities.  These jihads are considered wars in the traditional sense or political reforms or changes in economic policies, but do not in any way resemble the terrorist acts of the last several decades.  

“The greater jihad is something all devout individuals must wage… against their own desires. The mystics of Islam often spoke of jihad as a “dark night of the soul”, where the striver is faced with his/her demons and must confront them in order to stay on the path toward God.” (Karabell, pg. 126). It is a sense of purging and purifying oneself.  It may involve works such as fasting or penance, but primarily it is cleansing the heart from obstructive thoughts, such as envy, greed, revenge, and selfishness, that move us further away from our truest nature.

Christians recognize this metaphor from the work, Dark Night of the Soul (Our Book of the Day) by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish poet, mystic, and Carmelite priest.  It is used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation.  There has been much scholarly discussion as to whether the Christian was influenced by the Sufi or vice versa, but there is no conclusive evidence in either direction.

Interestingly, the inner turmoil of the soul is referenced by most spiritual traditions throughout the world as a necessary step toward a union with God or for a sense of wholeness.  

The Buddhists have a parallel in their practices called “the Knowledges of Suffering.”  In fact, the Buddhist writer Daniel Ingram speculates that the Dark Night is a common mystical state which is independent of any specific belief system.  He uses the term “maps” for the sequence of mental states:

“The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals.  These maps are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. ”

Jihad is a spiritually powerful word that describes a part of the necessary and well worn path toward a union with the divine; it is the process by which personal roadblocks that threaten our spiritual growth are removed.  By continually and willingly entering into jihad, the gifts of the spirit are manifold, including joy, peace, faith, and clarity.  The soul awakens.

 ” The reason for this has been clearly expounded; for ordinarily the soul never strays save through its desires or its tastes or its reflections or its understanding or its affections; for as a rule it has too much or too little of these, or they vary or go astray, and hence the soul becomes inclined to that which behooves it not.  Wherefore, when all these operations and motions are hindered, it is clear that the soul is secure against being led astray by them; for it is free.  For when the affections and operations of the soul are quenched, nothing can make war upon it.”  (Quote from the Book of the Day)

Tomorrow’s post: Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

 

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