Let me take you on a short journey before I begin my own (LONG) analysis. I would ask you to close your eyes, but you have to read! I guess these are the limits of a blog versus a video. =) Still, please, relax and prepare for a quick trip. Read and reflect on this portion before you either 1) click the Read More break link if you're reading this on my main blog page, or 2) scroll down if you're reading this on the page of this post alone. I will leave some room and warn you where this section ends. Thanks!
The area around you is as dark as though your eyes were closed, no light shining beyond their lids. A comfortable blackness. You hear murmurs--of water, and of breath--all around. You are in a place full of people, all of whom are waiting, like you. In comfortable blackness. You cannot see, but you know that everyone is looking toward the same end of the space you're in. Soon, there will be something to see. You wait. The ceiling above you begins to glow with a dim light, reflecting from somewhere else. Ah, so there is a ceiling. A room, then. You are at the back of the crowd and cannot see where the light comes from. Suddenly, a burst of light. Someone has lit a large fire at the edge of the crowd. Flames dance along the walls, creating many silhouettes of the people in front of you. The smell and anticipated warmth of flame thrills you. Someone lights something--a torch, or a large candle?--from the main fire, and begins to walk throughout the crowd. A low chant hums in several throats, but you choose to listen. Soon, the flame grows and spreads throughout the crowd. Each person has a white candle. The fire comes to you and you get your own small flame. You warm the candle in your palms, breathing around the flame, focusing on your own personal intent. Somehow, you know your wish is not the same as everyone else's, and yet your goals are more similar than anyone else will admit.
Smoke fills the room, not from the fire, but from incense. First, a thick, heady scent. Rich. Dark. Like the earth, or the comfortable blackness now left behind for the flickering glow. Frankincense, perhaps. You aren't sure. Chanting continues. You wish there were drums. A faster-paced song begins--a celebration with bells! Oh, if only the people would dance! You see scarves, belly-dancers, gold and fringe in your mind's eye. The music calls you to dance! But everyone else remains still, shockingly so... How can they stay so still? Your feet tap to the beat, stopping short of stomping along. There is a large space next to you. It would be so simple to move, to dance, but no one else so much as nods along as they pour out the beautiful sounds of the music. So you stay, though only physically. Soon a fresher aroma meets your nose, a new incense being used to cleanse the space. Eucalyptus, you're almost certain. People have been speaking and singing, but you remain focused on your own flame. At once, the others blow out their candles. "Blow it out?" you ask the woman next to you. "That seems counterproductive." This light is your own, and you love it because it is you. Why should you extinguish it just because everyone else did? And why should you not have danced? Realizing your position, you elect to snuff your flame with the smooth edge of your neighbor's candle. As the folks around you start, you explain. "I don't believe in blowing out candles." They have earned no further explanation from you.
They wouldn't understand.
This tiny flame. A light in the comfortable darkness... Why did we leave the darkness, again? Wasn't it warm? Safe? The light is fine, too. Either one is a fine choice. We lit the tiny flame. We gave it life. We are celebrating LIFE. The flame, it breathes, as we do.
Who am I to take away your breath, little candle... With my own?
Take a moment to re-read anything you need to, or just to reflect a bit more, before moving on.
Thank you for indulging me, there. =)
I'm sure you'll experience no surprise if I tell you the above is actually an experience I just had. You probably expected that. What would you think if I told you it occurred at a group sabbat ritual? A celebration of the new light of spring. You may or may not expect that. What would you think if I told you that the previous experience occurred at a Catholic mass, for Easter vigil?
Well, what would you? Because that one's the truth. Easter Vigil is possibly one of the most pagan rituals I have ever attended as a child in the Catholic church. All I remembered about it was the candle. It was my favorite part. Tending my own tiny flame, a miniature vestal virgin. I never liked being told to extinguish my candle. I never liked having to give it back to the ushers at the end.
It's after midnight as I write this, so the date will show as Easter Day, 2013. But tonight is Saturday, and I recently returned from this year's Easter Vigil. I haven't attended mass at my family's church in maybe a bit less than a decade--certainly not since I began actively practicing my own pagan path. But tonight my grandmother wanted to go, so that she can cook tomorrow morning instead of going to the Easter services, and she doesn't like to drive in the dark. "I'll take you," I offered. "I haven't seen the new church, anyway."
Years ago now, our local Catholic church built on a whole new wing. They needed a bigger church, I suppose, though I did notice tonight that the new one is also universally designed--not just wheelchair accessible with a ramp or elevator, but actually universally designed so that every person uses the exact same routes. I don't know whether that was part of the plan, but it was notable. There is no more balcony. The sanctuary (is that what they call it in Catholic church? I don't remember) is long and wide, looking more like a Lutheran church I attended once than the old, high and narrow Catholic style I, admittedly, loved for its aesthetics. It didn't look the same, it didn't feel the same, it didn't sound the same. Evidently the former Pope Benedict changed a lot of the services a few years ago. Responses I was made to memorize as a child were changed now, but only by a few words, so little that I thought, "Now WHY even bother to change THAT? It means the same thing."
But the candles. Those were the same. The only part I ever remembered.
And while so much of a Catholic service matches well with pagan ritual--they, too, use altars, bells, candles, incense, chanting, consecrated water, tree branches (even the new altar and font in the new church wing were more nature-based! The altar is built to look like a pile of stones supporting a large wooden slab, with bark-stripped tree branches connecting the slab to the stone base as supports; and the baptismal font is a large pool topped with a stone pile through which water trickles down--not at all the old wood and steel basin. I wonder why those changes?)--when the priest who baptized me all those years ago began to speak, the similarities faltered. At that point, I stood even straighter, sat even more comfortably, than I ever had when I thought I wanted to try and fit into this church. I held my place with conviction. I was not a scared little girl anymore, nervous about saying the wrong words when reciting prayer, or in a hurry to stand and sit at the exact same time as everyone else, lest I be looked upon as forgetful of the order. I remember that little girl all too well. A decade is not that long. I was that girl, not so very, very long ago. How things change.
The service was a whopping two hours long, because Grams and I didn't know beforehand that there were going to be three baptisms (two adults and one young child, though not a newborn, as usual), and six confirmations and first communions. Two hours is a long time. One could say a lot in two hours. Yet tonight, nothing much was said.
The sermon gave no life lesson or encouragement as happens at my UU church. The only joke made was about death. The only thing referenced other than the Bible was when the priest said that "C.S. Lewis and others" have said that Jesus is who he claims to be. The message of the night was not even particularly hopeful. It was simply this: Jesus Christ is the only man who claimed to be God and proved it, and his way is the only truth and anyone who tells you differently is a liar. There is simply no other way. Women were welcomed into that church tonight, welcomed as daughters of Christ and encouraged to spread his love, though according to church law those women can never be ordained and formally preach the word of God. A young girl was baptized into that church tonight, and while there were so many smiling faces, it only made me sad. As they all prayed for people like me to come to the light of the Lord, I took solace in remembering that I had once been that girl. And I made it on to something far greater in my eyes. In the same moment that little girl was getting swatted at for swinging her feet back and forth, and still grinning ear to ear for she was, honestly, VERY happy and clearly proud of herself, the sweet little thing... In the same moment, there I was, confidently sitting where I had once sat years ago in boredom, in torment, in stillness egged on by the disapproving stares of all those around me, now fully comfortable with what I had come to believe.
Six people were confirmed into the Catholic church in front of me tonight. At least one of them was dressed inappropriately for what you expect to see at church (by which I mean to say provocatively, as were several other church-goers), but I merely observe. Six people. The sponsor of each one had to whisper the person's name to the priest before he blessed them, because he didn't know their names or planned that he wouldn't remember. (At my church, you can't walk in the door without meeting nearly everyone! And we wear name-tags.) And the priest asks the congregation to join in saying "I do" when he asks the newly confirmed whether they believe such and such. As the congregation reaffirmed their beliefs, so did I. By staying silent.
I was not there to judge. I was not there to mock, ridicule, or influence. I was there for my grandmother, to see the new church, and to hear once again the types of things I was taught as a child, for I have always believed in knowing what the opposition says about you, just to be up to date. I did not mean to arouse any adverse feelings by standing or sitting silently, and I doubt that I did. But church, if you're going to go to one, should be a place where revelations are had and changes occur. And while I highly doubt that any large number of the church-goers tonight were changed one bit by the simple sermon (Hey guys, remember this is the only way. The only one. Okay, see you next year), I at least did get something out of it. I know that some people probably did say "I do" with ardor, and really felt good about being a part of the church. I don't want to discount them. Though I'm willing to bet that many of the people there just mumbled "I do" because they're supposed to, without thinking about each and every thing they were responding to. But I listened to every statement, and consciously disagreed. I truly believe that I said more in my silence than a lot of them did in their repetitive two words.
The Catholic church reaffirmed their faith tonight. And so did I.
I reaffirmed that I made the right choice all those years ago.
And I thank my mother for standing by me, not in agreement, but in toleration.
Not yet in understanding, but in love.
I wondered how many of the people in that church--people I recognize from when I was a child, people I went to high school with, and young children new to the world and the church--truly believed in the faith deep at their core, and how many believed it merely because they didn't know there was another choice. For some people, Christianity or Catholicism is the way. It is their truth. They believe it. But for others, who maybe don't believe it but haven't been opened up to the rest of the world, I prayed tonight that they be given the channels I found. Those who are meant to find their own path, I hope they do. And I hope they have someone like my mother, who maybe doesn't agree but let's them believe their own way. That is my wish. That whatever a person's truth is, they are allowed to find it.
A brief note on relativism. I read an article earlier today (Saturday) about Pope Francis and how traditionalists dislike him because he's being so, well, non-traditional. And hey, that's why I am really liking the guy so far! Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve inmates at a juvenile detention facility in Rome this past Thursday, symbolic of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles before the Last Supper. Why the fuss? Two of the inmates were women. The article said one was an Italian Catholic and the other, a Serbian Muslim. But surprisingly the girls' religion was not the issue, merely their sex. None of the apostles were female. Liturgical law states that thus, only men can participate in this rite. The Pope writes the laws... So really, he can change it up if he wants. But people don't know what to do when the Pope himself disregards church laws and washes and kisses the feet of women! People think that, even though Pope Francis is opposed to women's ordination (a woman should not be the head of a church, say the Catholics, which is also why the priest who baptized me and lead tonight's mass is unhappy with my mother, who is an ordained minister), somehow the fact that he washed the feet of women will lead to women's ordination becoming okay. And darn it, if that just doesn't bug the Hell right out of traditional Catholics. =)
The article mentioned several Catholic blogs, one of which expressed concern that Pope Francis' actions on Thursday will lead to religious relativism. I wasn't exactly sure what that term meant, but when leaving the mass tonight, my grandmother was handed a free copy of a book called The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic by Matthew Kelly. I looked through it briefly: the four signs are prayer, study, generosity, and evangelization. Now, except for the fact that I don't try to convert people to my religion, I do all of those things. And I do share my beliefs with the world, just not with the intent to convert everyone. Why? Because I believe what's right for me is not right for everyone. That, it turns out, is religious relativism, and Matthew Kelly thinks it's a huge problem with the world. He says that even the statement, "nothing is absolute" IS an absolute statement and therefore the entire theory is full of contradictions. There simply must be one truth and one truth alone. This makes sense, if you really view the world as plainly true or false. If one thing is true than an opposing thing cannot also be true. This holds for some things, but once you get past things like "1) The sky is blue, 2) The sky is green, Which of these statements is TRUE," I think you limit yourself immensely by not accepting that more than one thing can be a Truth.
What is true for the people in that church is not true for me. The things that are true for me would never be agreed to by them. The things I believe may not be what you believe, and vice versa. Frankly, Scarlet, I don't give a damn. But there are two things I know to be true.
So far, I'm liking the tradition-challenging aspect of Pope Francis,
and Nothing is Absolute.
Edit: I ended up reading The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic and I did a book review on it, talking more about relativism. Watch that video here!