Life After…Go figure

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Archive for the category “Library”

Nuns, Book Review and Troubling (For the Geek) Questions…

I wrote this as an assignment to review a book on one topic or person outstanding in the history of Christianity in Europe. Hildegard of Bingen fan that I am I ran with an early but supposedly definitive academic biography: Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life. (Sabina Flanagan, 1984). And while I was working on this, my usual gift for happening upon the staggeringly obvious did not disappoint; I realized that the book is a sullenly abysmal chore in terms of narrative and writing quality..Still, this work from the academic stage twenty years past may be a good opening point for some exploration of an ever-increasing trend: flat, unengaging work that does nothing to make a given subject more accessible beyond the students or PhD’s reading the work for research and even then, creates a spike in the ant-acid budget of scholars. 

So let’s look at an example of this unsightly phenomenon.

Sabina Flanagan wrote her Doctoral dissertation on Hildegard of Bingen’s prophetic works and later published Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life in 1984. Flanagan attempts, in this short biography, to provide an introduction to the outline of Hildegard’s life and some exploration of her written works, both their wide ranging subject matter and their intellectual scope. Flanagan’s principal argument, that Hildegard’s works outpaced many male contemporary scholars of her era in diversity of topics and in intelligence and aesthetic beauty, moves consistently through the book.

One passage of Hildegard that I have especially valued comes in a later chapter where Flanagan summarizes the Abbess’ body of work:

Her interests were intellectual rather than mystical.…as well as understanding, Hildegard wanted to change the world: in a general sense, for man’s salvation in her writings, and more particularly, by recommending certain attitudes and positions. To these ends, the migraine experience was a wonderfully adaptable instrument, as was Hildegarde herself  (209).

Migraine headaches and accompanying illnesses are pernicious, cross-cultural, era and continent-spanning complications. Hildegard was already overcoming the difference in the education she had gained and that of the male scholars whose respect she had won. She had already moved from a future of permanent sequestration with her mentor Jutta to the subtle but unavoidable politics of establishing her rule as an Abbess. And, as Flanagan relates, Hildegard also faced the challenge of a frequently occurring condition that, when compared to the modern detailed ‘check-list’ of Migraine symptoms, fits their pattern quite efficaciously (201). A medical diagnoses at more than eight centuries would be ridiculous; and to Flanagan’s further good grace, she makes no attempt to cast a possibility as a certainty.

As a trained and experienced museum educator I will always have a very powerful desire to see history presented and taken in as an interesting, engaging and thoughtful experience. I want people to be aware of the past, and I want women  in my denomination to be aware of spiritual leadership that contributed to one of the sources of our faith. Hildegard is a tremendously important example of such leadership.  In order to understand how Hildegard experienced her visions and understood them we in turn, need to gather what we can about medical and metaphysical factors—even as some of Hildegard’s writings do as she details what she saw, what she experienced the noticeable connection or parallels between her headache-related sickness and her visions.

I especially appreciated the lack of bias or ‘mission’ in Flanagan’s narrative arguments—she gives no indication of any great drive to discredit or canonize Hildegard’s visions. Although I have unreserved opinions about academic style, when we scholars can remember our training and abandon bias it is a very fine thing. Perhaps I value this so much because I see no need to ‘debunk’ her mystical visions or to prove that they were entirely powered from the realm of the feminine spiritual (a popular catch phrase I still run into in spirituality, history and biography sections in the bookstore). Still the unbiased presentation of the interaction between migraine and spiritual vision in this work is both interesting and informative.

This book is indicative of a problem that existed at the time of writing in 1984 that is alive and well in 2013. While I am indeed engaging in mighty presumption from my soapbox on writing quality among academics, I will presume onward and upwards. I have found the book to be a horrible read. Flanagan, it could be argued for charity’s sake, may have assumed that someone else would surely go ahead and put together a biography of Hildegard of Bingen that would be engaging, provide a more chronologically consistent narrative of her life as well as her career, and, in general, prove informative for someone at least one remove but preferably two or three from the halls of academia. Because, after all, if Hildegard was important enough to write a dissertation on, Flanagan must have cared…?Very well. Charity.  Speaking as an avid reader, a tutor and an educator I know that I would have been very happy if Flanagan had taken the works she analyzed, quoted or translated and put them in one section, then devoted a front section to Hildegard’s life with considerably more on the geography, cultural history and even the geopolitical climate of her region than she did in this 1984 edition.

I’d like to say a brief word about biography, particularly that of a subject in the more distant past. I am actually very aware that considerable challenge and pitfall can await the intrepid scholar who seeks to make their work engaging and detailed.—In the UK, in 2000, I happened upon essays shellacking Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of Richard III—a book hailed as a humanizing, dramatic and thrilling masterpiece of compassionate storytelling. Unfortunately, it seemed that while Kendall had done right by the poor king in pointing out that Richard was the obvious worst suspect in the murder of his nephews, he had simply spun details of crucial battles in the wars of the roses out of not terribly much. (The British Academics used less complimentary words needless to say. Quite a few of them. Rather like coyotes tracking sick deer)*. I contrast that experience with the (possibly coincidental; you know, like the coincidence that Superman and Clark Kent are never together) tendency of professors at my Northern Grad department in history to react with contempt in the face of every well-written monograph , even if it’s just proportional contempt beside their rhapsodic love of brilliant scholars–who cannot write their way out of a wet paper bag. With a chain saw. And ninja stars.

The upshot of this digression is that I have seen the void that well researched but badly written biography creates. I have also seen an equal vacuum created by well written and badly researched work! Both are problematic.

I am left wanting to find some more engaging and accessible sources on the history of spiritual leaders among women in the history of European Christianity. I’m a geek, after all. Learning cool stuff and finding ways to share it with others is hardwired to my personal Geekdom, where I let my Geek flag fly high from the ranks of the humanities, history, literature, folklore and such. So part of my ministry, I suspect, will always include trying to make the past more relevant or interesting—perhaps even inspiring—for anyone whose spiritual care I’m honored with. I will try to keep and maintain a list of updated books on a variety of topics in this vein and Hildegard, long a personal hero of mine, will always be on it. Speaking from this bias, I think every minister should have a minimum of two books on Hildegarde specifically and several on women who were leaders during the first thousand or so years of Christianity’s evolution. I simply don’t see this book as a useful example of one of them.

That concludes my review and raises the question: why aren’t there more books out there that are well researched, and well written and well received for people who are not in graduate study seminars?


*I am unable to recall essay titles or names; hopefully I am at least scraping the bottom of citation protocols by emphasizing that anything about Kendal or the British Academic Community’s response to him belongs to those brilliant lovely people, etc…


Women, Hoodoos, Deception and Hope



(originally turned in as a paper at my theological school, entitled: Facilitator and Trickster; A Woman of the Biblical Badlands)


The idea of ‘badlands’ or ‘waste’ is a concept that transcends culture and geography. Although a ‘badland’ region may be called a different name within its resident peoples and carry specific topographical characteristics, they share common qualities. Their landscapes are varied and challenging, buttes, petrified forests and hoodoos in North America, dried out wadis, stony hills and land inhospitable to farming in Canaan. One woman who breaks into the narrative of the Book of Genesis in chapter 38, Tamar, begins her story in a legal and cultural form of ‘badland.’ She uses her physical and cultural geography to transform her status. Tamar asserts her rights within her culture and ultimately to provide male heirs who will continue her line through Boaz, and, therefore, the royal house of David. Tamar’s actions fit both the mold of a ‘Trickster’ archetype and that of the facilitating mother figure who makes things right not just for herself but for her male heirs.

Tamar’s identity as a trickster figure seems established before her story even begins; its very placement in Genesis creates a break in the narrative of the more well-known stories of more significant characters. This ‘break’ for Tamar’s story provides a leg up to the power of Joseph’s saga, adding a delay in his engaging adventures to heighten the anticipation of discovering his fate,  (New Interpreter’s Bible  Commentary, Freitham, Bruggeman, Kaiser, 604). It also reinforces the themes of loss, disguise and victorious reversal in the larger and more significant Joseph story; these themes run through his family, bringing a counterpoint of his experiences to Judah, one of the brothers who participated in his betrayal (604). The tangled themes of injustice, betrayal and imprisonment with the real risk of death are just as present between Tamar and her father in law Judah as they are for Judah and his brother Joseph. In the Tamar story, however, the betrayed Tamar has to resolve her challenges in narrower confines than the men.

Tamar’s marginality is not merely familial and social—the neglected widow, the childless woman—the landscapes and locations of her story accentuate her remove. She has the right to marry Judah’s third son, but he prevents her. She is under the control of Judah’s authority but sent to live with her father’s family. She plays out her masquerade as a prostitute at the crossroads, a liminal, frontier like area where more than one path leads to multiple destinations—and spheres of authority (Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsome, Ringe, Lapsley 2012. 42).

Commentators agree on the roles gender and sexuality play in Tamar’s story, focusing on different examples of how those themes play out. The NIB  commentary focuses on the question of harlotry in her actions, pointing out that while the narrative allows Judah to draw the conclusion that she is a prostitute, careful steps are taken to establish and affirm her position as Er’s  virtuous (or at least not un-virtuous) widow. The timing of her enterprise with Judah occurs after his wife’s death; she is not inducing adultery. Her veil implies strangeness, a concealment of identity that suggests the behavior of a prostitute. At the same time, her widow’s veil and garb, as the story remarks deliberately on her taking them off and putting them back on, demonstrate a ‘continuity’ of her true dignity, her identity as the widow of the patriarch’s sons (605).

Because of the failures of the dominant powers in her tribe, the men, Tamar operates on the outside fringes of her culture. Her assumption of the prostitute’s guise serves to emphasize her marginality as much as it resolves her situation. As a young woman, she should still be able to give birth. As a widow, she is no longer a virgin. She is neither a mother nor wholly untouched (Newsome, 42-43). If she was indeed the prostitute beyond her disguise, Tamar would have had a very similar story; possessed, but only temporarily, sexually seasoned, but childless (42).

Who are Tamar’s ‘peers’—in the sense of other women who engage in similar (and wise) strategies to right the wrongs of their personal injustices? Ironically, one of her most immediate peers is her own grandmother-in-law, Rebekah. Rebekah has a much more central position, as the matriarch of her family, and yet she needs to employ trickery to insure that she can confer the sovereignty of Isaac’s birthright upon the son of her choice. So she seems to fill the role of the sovereign mother granting leadership, and the role of the trickster simultaneously. The Isis cycle of the Egyptian pantheon reflects another blending of queen-ship, power and the transference of sovereignty. Isis, the rightful consort of her God-King husband must resort to magic, or behavior outside the bonds of the everyday to conceive Horus, the heir. Then, to insure his succession, she has to perform her own ‘sting operation’ as the ‘trickster’ when she disguises herself as Seth’s wife, Nepythus and fools him into supporting Horus’ right to the throne instead of his own son’s cause. Isis may not be using the guise of a prostitute, but assuming the identity of another man/god’s wife is an invitation, however concealed, to adultery and behavior outside the behavior of a chaste or grieving widow.

The quality of what some women, then and today, might describe as merely ‘good sense and insurance’ is another strong and common thread between Tamar and Isis. Tamar, arguably aware that her very life could be at risk if she follows her strategy with Judah, takes care to secure irrefutable proof that he is the man she conceived with at the crossroads. And, indeed when her culture plays out the usual treatment of women and she is sentenced to death, Tamar capably saves herself with the well-presented ‘evidence’ (NIB 606).  Isis secures a suitably specific and ambiguous promise from Seth to champion the rights of her son to the kingship, so that when her face changes, his oath remains binding.

Katniss Everdeen and Tamar might have a great deal to discuss, should they meet in a universal café for literary/theological heroines. Like Tamar, Katniss lives in an area of marginalization, a rough country where borders are not always firmly defined. In District 12, her human rights are compromised or actively suppressed—but she can slip under the electric fence to provide for her family. Like Tamar encountering both the constriction of her identity as a childless widow, Katniss sees the further restriction of her world and its borders, as law enforcement grows harsher, and the border fence is recharged. Marriage and trickery are intertwined for both women as well; ironically in reverse. Tamar must engage in risky behavior to get married and gain her place; Katniss must take the risk of pretending to be married in order to survive.

The sexuality Tamar employs to conceive her child is real and immediate. Katniss uses sex as an abstract deception; she plays on the intrusive culture of the Capital to gain attention and a popular following. Everyone believes she and Peeta are married and engaging in sex—conceiving children as well, but this is an illusion. Katniss is so protective of any children she might have, so determined that nobody will hold them hostage for her that attaining her freedom is the condition of bearing them—not bearing them to attain her freedom as Tamar must.

Bella’s ability to alter the outcome of the conflicts and power struggles of the Twilight series is far more nebulous. Much is made of the ‘stalker’ aspect of her relationship with vampire Edward. However this does not negate any power for Bella in his obsessive focus on her. She has a supernatural being at her ‘beck and call’ willing to do anything for her safety or happiness. This does not make Bella’s power as affirming as Katniss’ or even Tamar’s. It is not a resource she feels comfortable trying to control or direct. Her sexuality doesn’t come actively into play until she has married Edward. But the Twilight title is still a metaphor for consideration. Twilight is a period of liminal change, of uncertain boundary between day and night. Bella’s closeness to Edward (or his stalking-insured closeness to Bella) can only happen after dark, in her bedroom on the edge of a forest. They can only be freely together in their meadow, a topographically marginal, ‘in between’ space.

Tamar must seek out a cross roads, as an undefined place to regain her power, and she does so in a very immediate fashion, conceiving her male twins. Through her growing relationship with Edward, Bella eventually attains her power as a vampire, and the child she bears permanently resolves the war between the Cullen vampire clan and the Black wolf pack. Rennesme as a promised bride and a marital alliance is also a great deal more passive than the securing of Horus’ rights to the throne of Egypt, or Katniss’ freedom to have children unconstrained by the madness of the Hunger Games. Even Tamar’s twins have, as males, a more direct role in affirming their mother’s authority—and then going on to contribute to the royal line of David. It is sobering to reflect that in popular literary models for young women in the 21st century, there enough obstacles to their power and equality that Katniss’ fight is believable and sympathetic, and Bella’s indirect and less-than-healthy route to power is idealized. Tamar’s world, with its inescapable limitations and proscriptions of her freedoms is, on the surface, more challenging than ours. The struggle for equal representation carries common threads connecting the distant and mythological past to the ideas of the present set forth in fiction. The stories don’t end; they simply evolve.





















Works Cited:

The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary and Reflections for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical Books in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 1.,  Walter Bruggeman, Terrence Freitheim,  Walter Kaiser, eds., Nashville: 1994.

The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. Mary J Evens, Catherine Clark Kroeger, eds. Downer’s Grove: 2002.

Third Edition Women’s Bible Commentary. Jacqueline E Lapley, Carol A Newsome Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: 2012.


I’m a Unitarian And I’m All Right! (I Question All Day and I Wonder All Night)…

This is an excerpt from an assignment in one of my seminary courses: write about two theologians on a theme of your choice, your opinion included. We were expected to refrain from using secondary sources.–So in disclaimer, yes, there very well could be a lot of things in here others have already thought, and yes, it is my academic writing, which is not my strongest medium. (Or low, or pre-heat, or ‘warm’…)

Love, Reason and Truth Between 19th Century Unitarians and Universalists

 Hosea Ballou and Samuel Calthrop wrote theological arguments that demonstrated the importance of love in 19th century Unitarian and Universalist philosophies of salvation and the relationship between humanity and God. Ballou spent his American career in Boston Massachusetts. Calthrop began as an earlier incarnation of today’s “interim ministers” in the same city. He eventually settled permanently as minister of the May Memorial Unitarian Church of Syracuse NY (May Memorial website).

Neither of these astonishing theologians lived to see the alliance of the Unitarians and Universalists in the 20th century or the fully developed Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Church. However, the two left passionately articulated ideas and convictions behind in their articles and sermons that presaged the Seventh UU Principle of “Respect for the interconnected web of all existence of which we are all a part” (UUA). The legacies of Ballou’s faith in a loving and universal salvation, and Calthrop’s sense of wonder in celebrating the universe through science and exploration continue to resonate into the modern era.

Ballou’s acknowledgement of the role of reason in discerning the nature of love and salvation connects him with a minister of the other magnetic pole of the UUA’s evolutionary roots; the Unitarian Church. Ballou’s Universalist advocacy of reason and love finds an answer in Samuel Calthrop’s work, which moves through the rest of the 19th century. Calthrop actually began his citizenship in America, and his very ministry serving in a Universalist church in Long Island, New York after immigrating to the United States in 1853, a year after Ballou’s death in Boston Massachusetts. Ordained as a Unitarian Minister in 1860, Calthrop’s 1874 article “Religion and Science,” fourteen years after embracing Unitarian ministry, twenty years after his tenure in Ballou’s Church, demonstrated that there were ideas that he valued across the denominational gap.  For Calthrop, thoughtful exploration to get an idea of all that is going on in the universe is essential to understand and to fully celebrate God as a divine entity.

In Calthrop’s “Religion and Science” God comes into play briefly, if stirringly at the beginning of his article before science takes the “front row” position—although as in any tiered argument, God may be on a separate level but remains relevant to the discussion. Calthrop’s opening reference to Saint Paul gives a clear indication of the direction of his theological focus:

“The invisible things of God” says Saint Paul, “are clearly seen by the things that are made.” If this be true, then the way to clearly see the Invisible God in the things made is to look at the things themselves. In other words, the things themselves will show us how they were made. (Samuel Calthrop, “Religion and Science,” 309).

Calthrop leads into his article with a precedent from Christianity and the celebration of an emotional as well as a reasonable approach, although in his case it is “humility.” This is one of Calthrop’s more subtle links between science and emotion, specifically love. Humility is not a rational or scientific principle, but one based in respect and, frequently, love. Therefore, although Calthrop explores love and intellectual reasoning quite openly later in his work, he ties the two separate concepts together from his opening arguments.

As Calthrop was arguing its relevance to religion, Science, the geology, chemistry, physiology and evolutionary biology he extolled, were all in their infancy. Germ theory was not proven. Nobody had seen an Atom. Some of the building blocks of what would become Richard Feynman’s beloved quantum electro dynamics were in place, and Darwin’s work was emerging as well as beginning its own long evolution in the scientific community (Feynman, Jim Ottaviani, 198-199/Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin). Reason, then, played a critical role in the gathering and evaluation of data. But for Calthrop, reason is beloved, something more than a simple means to an end. Reason and science are the keys to celebrating and understanding a vast universe which correspondingly ties humanity to the divine.

Calthrop concludes his opening with a statement furthering his correlation of science and the divine:

The way God made the stars is to be discovered by looking at the stars, the way God made plants and animals by looking at the plants and animals. A noble motto, this, for all reverent students of nature; and one would suppose that Theology, backed up by such high authority, would in all ages, have been the first to insist upon this method. (309).

In this statement, Calthrop begins to explore a sad disconnect that he perceives between a relationship that humanity could have with the divine and the limitations preventing that closeness. Much of Calthrop’s narrative of the conflict between theology and science approaches example after example of Christian church authorities rejecting and demonizing science as a challenge to the authority of God. He uses a highly poignant image of the slow predation of a newly growing plant: “…and the guardians of the Faith, year after year, century after century, devoured every little green shoot of original thought…” (311).

In a history that is indeed fraught with an often tragic struggle between scientists and religious authorities, it is not as if Calthrop’s frustration and sorrow lacks precedent. As Ballou tries to present the error of humanity’s love for the divine based on quid pro quo, faith in exchange for salvation from hell, Calthrop too, sees something better and healthier for love between humankind and God.

Calthrop sees the world and universe as an equally tangent proof of divine love when it is further explained and explored, not revered as a mysteriously distant point: “We have looked for God’s creating power in the wrong place,” he argues “We have put it afar off beyond the Stars when it was daily working all around us” (330). Calthrop’s call to embrace the reality of a divine kingdom in the physical world surrounding him is an incredibly passionate statement of universal salvation, in its way, equal to Ballou’s. He provides a powerful furthering of Ballou’s exhortation for unconditional divine love and wholehearted human love for the divine.

Calthrop is careful to clarify that he is not seeking to replace theology with science:

But in the last place, I say that Science is going to give Religion a mighty equivalent for all, and more than all, the trouble she has given. She does not pretend to discover Religious Truth: that were to repeat the absurdity of Religion pretending to discover Scientific Truth. (331)

Here, again, is a rejection of strictly practical exchange or supplantation that Ballou rejects in promoting pure, wholehearted love over bargaining. In Ballou’s defense of Universal Salvation, humanity does not and should not embrace the divine solely because they have been delivered from hell. In Calthrop’s embrace of knowledge, there is no need to replace religious faith, contemplation or truth with hard scientific data. Instead he argues passionately for a sense of wonder from understanding the world around him and his belief that this understanding brings him closer to love of all that is truly divine.

One of the most human statements Calthrop makes on behalf of this universal approach is in a break from the statements of his argument into the poetic and personal moment of working out his thoughts:

I was writing this alone in my room at night. My little ones were asleep near by, and the whole house was still, when the thought of the wonder and glory of all this came upon me as never before, and I said in my heart, “Father! Father! In Thee our bodies live; by Thee our senses are daily fed; by Thee our brain and heart and hand grow to power! Not a movement of the limbs, not a vibration of the chambers of sound, but Thou art there! (331).

This is not a statement of repentance or moving away from defense of his beloved science for Calthrop, no more than Ballou’s arguments support blind obedience in contemplating the generosity of God. Instead, Calthrop is taking the time to describe his personal moment of connection with a loving and omnipresent divine spirit.

Although these men are representing different churches and setting their ideas in different contexts, their ideas about the ties between nourishment, reinforcement and inspiration between human and divine resonate strongly with one another.

Where Calthrop draws his affirmation of divine love from his physical world, Ballou finds equal support from scripture for his faith in the strength and nourishment of divine love:

All the duties required by this law of our heavenly Father are here represented to be sweeter than honey, or the honeycomb. Hear the language of the prophet: ”Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye buy and eat; yea come buy wine and milk, without money and without price.” (103-104).

Ballou’s assertion and scriptural references are about more than moving beyond quid pro quo, just as Calthrop’s are about more than science and its importance; these lines are about love as nourishment and internalizing God. One minister is operating from a base of scripture, one from the physical world. Both are resoundingly infused and rooted in the love of God.

Ballou defends the need for un-reserved love from humanity toward the divine because of his belief that the divine has un-reserved love for humanity. He recalls a powerful statement from early Christian tradition: “An Apostle says, “We love him, because he first loved us.” Again, — “He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.” (106). His circular argument makes a succinct counterpart a powerful and even ecstatic celebration by Calthrop:

Yes! Down a ladder of Souls the Heavenly message speeds. First the Light of God shines on Angels’ Eyes and all Heaven rejoices with joy unspeakable. The rapt Soul of Jesus sees the Heavenly Vision! In his eyes the Apostles and Prophets see the shining of the Eternal Light. They make that Light shine among men; and lo! common men and women are nerved to heroism, to martyrdom, to brave life and glorious death. To ever widening circles the Light is carried on and on, until, at last, the Holy Church throughout all the world feels the Father’s Presence in that world forevermore! 335.

Calthrop’s ending imagery is full of humanity’s love radiating up. For Ballou, it is coming down, down from heaven as bounties of milk and honey, as the inestimable gift of universal salvation, as the unconditional love of a divine creator.  The two ideas become even more connected, not simply echoing but resonating from one era and religious movement to tie into another, creating a sense of an expanding arc.

The Unitarian Universalist church of the 21st century is diverse, and nurtures a wide network of congregations. These worshiping bodies embrace a span of beliefs and practices from that Ballou and Calthrop would find familiar to congregational cycles of worship that might well leave both ministers utterly perplexed. The UUA’s union of Unitarianism and Universalism is also a steadily evolving process. But the certainty and faith in the love of the divine, or the spirit of life, the belief in the absolute importance of including science and humanistic principles have grown stronger and more prevalent since the 19th century. Ballou and Calthrop’s initial struggles to overcome a fixation with theories of hell and the exclusion of science from religious celebration have sprouted links in the UUA’s own evolutionary tree. Today their ideas have resonant echoes in the UUA’s embrace of inclusive and all-loving views of God, in the celebration of an interconnected web of life that stretches across all of the Earth and includes (without electing as leader) humanity.

For the aspiring UU minister from multiple traditions, earth-based, Judeo-Christian, and Humanist, the ideas of love, nourishment from the divine—or even the spirit of life and the joy of the natural world can be a vital aspect of personal spirituality. The very nature of pursuing ministry can make the embrace of different theological ideas, different philosophies and practices of life essential. The writings of earlier theologians who embraced rationality and logic as well as concepts of universal love, unconditional love and perpetually evolving love through the exploration of the surrounding world are an enormous resource. They provide a link between religious thoughts and philosophical change between the present and the past. They make the bones of the evolving church as apparent as Calthrop’s beloved physiology, and the nourishment of faith as powerful as Ballou’s sustaining vision of divine grace.

On the day of his wedding, Abraham Lincoln put a ring onto Mary Lincoln’s finger with the words Love is Eternal engraved along the inside (Lincoln Home). Hosea Ballou and Samuel Calthrop would have known that to be true. Their love, of the divine and of the world was apparent in everything they sought to share in their writings. It remains a legacy for the theologian, the aspiring minister, the curious and the thoughtful. In a way, that very endurance provides the final reinforcement and championship of their ideas, their compassion and their love.


Ballou, Hosea. “The Doctrine of Universal Salvation.” In  A Voice to Universalists. Boston: 1849. Pgs. 96-100.

Calthrop, Samuel. “Religion and Science.” Unitarian Review and Religious Magazine.

Vol. 2., November, 1874, #4. Pgs. 309-335.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. London, 1859.

Green, Miranda. The World of the Druids. London, 1997.

Lincoln Home, Indiana IL. Website. “Mary’s Wedding Ring.”

May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, Syracuse, NY. Website. “Rev. Dr. Samuel Calthrop.”

Ottaviani, Jim. Feynman. New York: 2011.

UUA Website. “A Look at Hosea Ballou.”

UUA Website. “Beliefs and Principles.”

Yeah, my moral foundation includes mice, otters and moles. And some weapons.

So my Systematic Theology professor–who has turned out to be a truly kind and wise man–asked us all to write exactly one page about a major source of our moral  outlook, philosophy or personal belief. The catch was, it could not be a person we had met or personally known, it could not reference a major religious texts and when he said one page, that’s what he meant. So in the debris left over from wiping out my other major influences, I remembered a book my aunt gave me in 1988, realized it was full of improbably grouped and even more implausibly dressed animals, mystical swords and idealistic notions, so what would be better for a writing exercise in a very adult sort of class, loaded with mighty minds and grown-up theologians?

When I was ten years old, my mother decided to move us out of Boston to one of the many suburbs I had never heard of. I had no premonition of the changes this move would bring to my life, and no idea of how much I was going to need heroes and guides. I’m not sure I can ever articulate the shock of life in that new town. I came from a world of color and imagination, where of course nine year olds read fairy tales and watched cartoons and imagined places in games. Theater and music were fun. Art was interesting. Suddenly I had arrived in an odd, grey and yellow linoleum world, my new school, where all of those joys were for babies, and where there was no distinction drawn between an unabridged Grimm’s tale and a “board” book of Cinderella for four year olds—being found with either was a risk. Everyone was Catholic. I don’t know if it was my glasses, my inability to enjoy, let alone play soccer or my addiction to books that pinned the bull’s eye on my back but there it was and there it stayed through four years of public school and five years at a small, underfunded girls’ Catholic school in the next town over. And worse, everyone’s parents seemed fine with their children aiming everything from fists, insults, graphic profanity and even seized books at me and anyone else “not like them.” “What did I do?” I would ask sometimes. “You were born,” would come the reply.

The same year that I lost my school, friends and original home from the move, somebody gave me a book called Mossflower by Brian Jacques. Mossflower details the adventures of Martin the Warrior mouse, his friend Gnoff the mousethief, the woodlanders of Mossflower forest and their struggle for independence against the rule of Tsarmina, the tyrannous wildcat who sought to dominate them all from her crumbling stronghold of Kotir. I can alternately describe it as: Arthurian Legend meets The Wind in the Willows. Yes, this was clearly deep and heavy theological, philosophical and morally weighted stuff. And yet…“Story is our wall against the dark,” Jane Yolen once wrote (Here there be Dragons, Harcourt: 1993). Mossflower and the ideas in it were keystones of my wall. The small can overcome the large. The powerless can join together and oppose evil. The poor can stand up to the rich. Bullying, lack of compassion, apathy and politicking deception may not bring someone down, but in the end they reveal a tyrant or a hypocrite’s true self. Martin the Warrior mouse’s code: protect the weak, fight for truth and justice, and build alliances instead of stepping out alone to show off your own magnificence is woven through the other ideas in Mossflower as seamlessly as the lessons of community, love and friendship. Outside of my home and family I did not have this code anywhere else.

As a despised outcast, I lived a lonely nine years in the new town with my dog my only friend until nearly my last year of high school. I certainly never developed the grace and coordination of the fighting mice, otters and badgers, nor the dexterity of the squirrel archers in my favorite book. But Mossflower gave me other tools. I sat in church, CCD and religion classes and saw kids who pledged commitment to love and compassion step out of church or classroom to assault anyone they deemed deserving of punishment for…who knew? Mossflower taught me honesty: don’t mouth virtues you won’t commit to, stand up for yourself, but because you’re not going to make it without your community, stand up for everyone. If you have to fight, fight for peace and justice. Smaller, younger, elderly or friends different from you may slow you down, and they could limit your choices. They also will bring you joy, wisdom and help that is less quantifiable but more powerful because they will sustain your soul. When I found my faith, I recognized it because of the woodlanders of Mossflower.

Mossflower, Brian Jacques, Philomel: 1988

It’s the great Bible, Charlie Brown

So, several years ago, editions of the Psalms, the Gospels and the Book Of Common Prayer came out in these lovely little cloth/board volumes with beautiful late medieval illuminations and color illustrations from 16th and 15th century Bibles. I thought at the time that it would be lovely to have the Book of Common Prayer, in deference to my first religious rebellion from Catholicism to the Episcopal Church and mentioned that to my mother. I also idly remarked how nice a full length Bible done in the same style would look. Then, in an unforeseen shift, I began skipping merrily down the primrose path of the Pagans and forgot all about them. My mother brought up the editions after I had been involved with Wicca for five years and I told her, with some regret, that it seemed extravagant to have such a pretty and expensive text from a religion I no longer espoused.

The result of these conversations was that  in 2007, some ten years after the initial discussion, six years after I had begun to focus more on the Druid path, my mother (with her usual razor-sharp sense of timing) presented me with a new and unexpected ant-flattening-toe-breaking-pet-maiming-potential-murder-weapon–an enormous Bible, the King James translation, done by the company that had first turned out those little jewel like editions of smaller Christian prose works. The illustrations, from the 15th century/early 16th century Urbino Bible are amazing. (I mean the Limbourg brothers’ Tres Riche Hueres are always going to be my favorite but the Urbino pictures are astounding.)  The illuminations, capitals and central page designs are even more exquisite. The book is printed; it’s not a manuscript ot facsimile; the type face is modern (and readable thank Gad). Still, between the weight and the sharp book corners this thing really could do well as a murder weapon. I’m also considering using it to bench press.

I do intend to find an edition that doesn’t require four servants and a liter like the Ark of the Covenant is more portable. Most likely, I will buy a protestant translation; a fellow theology geek has said very encouraging things about the NRSV (And here’s a wiki link:

For now, I read a certain amount every night. I freely admit to skimming Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It’s very useful to know where they are in the Bible and I have found myself encountering the revelation of “Dude, the Fundies actually DID find that in the Bible.” Other than that I plan to wait until one course or another at Divinity School pulls me Bataan march style though them. I honestly see the value in studying those books; I just prefer to do so when I have more than one professor to hold my hand (inasmuch as they are likely to.)

I also freely admit that the Bible is a wonderful sleep aid, not because it’s boring but because of the amazingly beautiful and stately language and the stories themselves. This is my first reading of any Bible edition as a purely academic exercise–or as close to that as I am likely to get. On one hand, I think it is one of the most astounding Fairy stories I’ve ever encountered. I think it’s entirely appropriate to store the book with my Hans Christian Anderson and children’s literature. I find it an epic history like the Mahabarata and the Irish Tain. Sometimes I find it profoundly thought provoking–like a passage in Deuteronomy or Leviticus talking about what the faithful should do to anyone who feels they have been called to worship other Gods. As I have…

–Speaking of calling in the most irreverent connection possible.: I have now been called away to pay for the damage that an anonymous spawn of fricasseed feces did to my car. I just wanted to set down some of my initial thoughts on encountering the Bible after 10 years as an infidel, and I expect it will come up again.

Wolves: The book I drooled over for seven years…

Wolves:Behavior, Ecology and Conservation Editors David Mech and Luigi Boitani. University of Chicago Press: 2003.

So I saw this book seven or eight years ago and immediately started drooling over it. All this time later, thanks to the paperback edition and (which, despite its potential to attract the wrong sort of buyers, I still think should be called ‘clearance and discount’) I have my own copy.

This book is a compendium of essays on Wolves from a scientist’s perspective. As a history geek, I have found it slow going but very, very worthwhile. This review focuses on the two works I have made it through so far; Chapter one, “Wolf Social Ecology” (Mech and Boitani) and Chapter two: “Wolf Behavior: Reproductive, Social, and Intelligent” (Jane M. Packard). Luigi Boitani is a professor at the Department of Human and Animal Biology at the University of Rome and has served as department head. L. David Mech works with the US Geological Survey, specifically the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center of Jamestown, ND and Jane Packard is an Associate Professor at Texas A&M University in their department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences.

What stands out immediately for me as a lay reader is the wonderful contrast between the work I’ve encountered by historians meant to be distributed ‘among the masses’ and these essays. Nobody assumes the reader’s familiarity with seminal works in their field, important theories or terminology. In a work by most PhD’s in History, I would have had to resort to the dictionary to learn terms like ‘Biophilic’. There is no arrogance in these essays and no condescension. I have no idea if the writers took such care with clarity and education because these essays were never meant for the academic community, but it is a refreshing change from some of the pompous drivel I encountered as a graduate student in History.

Having said this I must freely own that the highly technical discussions of the chemical breakdown in a wolf’s breeding hormones and the specific notes on DNA were beyond me. What I appreciated was the wealth of information in both essays as a point of reference that I can return to again and again.

I found many of the observations about wolf society and breeding fascinating. As usual, it was very helpful to get a scientific view to balance the more metaphysical absolutes. It’s all very well for meditation exercises that emphasise wolf’s mating for life and care of their pups. And I find a lot of spiritual inspiration from wolves–I just like to be inspired for the right reasons. For instance, the essays by Mech, Biotani and Packard show that despite the protective nature of Wolf packs, some pups are old enough to strike out independently at five months. Others remain in their parents’ pack for two years. The pack leader and his mate usually stay together for life but this is not an utterly consistent behavior.

I also found it very interesting that more wolves have communities in Europe than I was ever aware, particularly the Italian Alps. I was also completely taken aback to read about packs in Israel.

More updates as I read through the different essays but I enjoy how much I’m learning from this book.

Books: Whale Song

    WhaleSong: Journey into the Secret Lives of the North American Humpbacks

. Andrew Stevenson, Lyons Press: 2011

This is not a scientific study. Andrew Stevenson developed a great passion and skill for underwater photography and has spent years photographing Humpbacks (Megapterra Novaeangliae) on their yearly migration north from the Caribbean to their feeding grounds in Canada. Stevenson is not a scientist but not only does his book carry an impressive number of recommendations by Cetacean specialists, his written accounts of photographing whales should not be missed, even in favor of the breathtaking pictures.

If you buy this book strictly for your coffee table and do not read it through at least once, karma will find you and she will be displeased when she does.

As a Druid, I tend to depend on the scientific community for my understanding of the animals that appear in my meditations. I try to respect knowledge that people from Earth-based traditions have gained from spiritual revelation or their own meditative journeys, but I feel that to truly respect an animal, I need the truth of what their life is actually like. Then there are the hoards of souped-up ‘shamans’ and ‘wise people’ out there trying to earn a buck through their store of ‘spiritual knowledge’ by publishing works about nature that are only loosely based on the actual behavior of animals in our eco system. When you add that reality to the pain, suffering and violation of scientific principles some major religious groups advocate,I think there’s a further argument for the factual approach.

I consider this book an invaluable addition to my natural history library. I plan to supplement WhaleSong with a volume or two more heavy on text and facts, but for any sense of whales beyond diagrams and words, pictures are crucial. That disparity between bare fact and the depth of an image or inspiration has an echo in human interactions with whales. We often can’t observe whales in their natural habitat. The opportunities to go underwater and spend time in their presence are even more scarce than a chance to observe a small view of a whale from a boat. The value of Stevenson’s photographs lies in their emotional impact, which inspires the reader to go and learn more.

Censorship and Persian Eunuchs

As a child, I was lucky to attend a small summer camp in Vermont. There were things about the camp that were wonderful: three to five weeks of focusing on horses, riding skills, free swim periods in late afternoons. There were aspects of life there that were a little austere: one piece of candy, one soda, one ice-cream cone on sundays IF you attended Methodist services in town. Ultimately, camp was an escape into the green leaf-lit canopy of trees, animals, dirt and cats that I loved. One July day, when I was about twelve, I had come to another tent looking for my friend Kay and found it empty. On the floor near the older girl’s bed was a book I hadn’t seen before, The Persian Boy, but I knew the author; my mother had given me another book by Mary Renault that year. I sat down on the damp and age softened wood floor of the tent and opened it.

The hot summer day and the green and blue tent shadows in sunlight vanished. I was with the boy, Bagoas, in the high mountain country of Persia, then the sordid eunuch slave markets of Babylon. I had no idea what the word ‘eunuch’ meant. I didn’t care. I crept through the cool, dark corridors of the ancient and exquisite palaces of Ekbatana and Susa and watched the sun flash on the gold fish tiles of pools and fountains. There was a lot I didn’t understand. I could see that Bagoas suffered shame and loneliness with Emperor Darius and that he loved Alexander the Great with all his heart. Still, Bagoas spoke to me, not just drawing me into his world but transcending the barriers of time, of place and even my own sheltered ignorance until what he said made sense, not necessarily in every detail, but in what he heard, felt and saw, in what he tasted and smelled, in his sadness and fascinations.

Suddenly I was jerked back into the reality of the warm tent and the green-laden air of the Vermont forest when I heard my friend exclaim “Oh God, what are you doing? I have to read that book for school. It’s absolutely disgusting, all about gay sex and prostitution and harems! If anybody catches you with that I’ll never hear the end of it for letting a younger kid read it-“ or something to that effect. I had no idea what she was talking about and needless to say, Kay never enlightened me beyond repeating her initial torrent in a gentler voice.

The Persian Boy remains one of my favorite books today. I love it for the empathy of Mary Renault’s words, the bridge she built between me and a young man dead for over two thousand years. I value the book for the memory of how I first found it. That moment taught me that beautiful things can be censored, by prejudice and hatred for the unknown. Because I felt the loss of Bagoas’ story in my heart, and the pain of separation from his truth, his experience, I learned that even if this censorship came from the kindest intentions, that it was not something I could accept.

It would be years before I found my voice on Civil Rights, Freedom of the Press or Speech and began fighting for them and for the Humanities as well. I didn’t realize at the moment the book was pulled out of my hands, that I had any recourse but the sadness of not knowing the end of Bagoas’ story. I didn’t understand that that moment made me as much of a rebel as Bagoas himself was, in refusing to tamely accept his fate. What I did understand, both then and now, is that everyone’s voice, everyone’s story, can change lives and worlds, and as an aspiring minister, I can imagine few lessons as important to hold in my heart.

Books: Breverton’s Complete Herbal: A Book of Remarkable Plants and their Uses

Book: Breverton’s Complete Herbal
Author/Complier Terry Breverton
Quercus, 2011

This is NOT a compendium of herbal medicine as we know it in the 21st century. The plants, remedies and descriptions should not be made, ingested or used internally/externally/on your Aunt Mable’s buttocks or even That Poodle Who Never Stops Barking Next Door.

Terry Breverton has taken the texts of traditional seventeenth century Herbals–most notably Culpepper’s English Physitian and Compleat Herball of 1653, and set them into a more modern format. No ‘s’ that looks like ‘f’, less engravings of men dressed like they should be at an exclusive club for drag queens in New York City, modern spelling and latin classifications.

As someone interested in Herbal Medicine, I would not touch this book with a ten foot pole. It should always be remembered that in Culpepper’s era, remedies were still chosen because the plant leaf was shaped like one of Christs’ five wounds or because it looked like the tree Judas hanged himself from and these are not valid medical distinctions.

As a lover of folklore, herbal charms and history, I have enjoyed this book immensely–I am still working my way through the legions of entries. We really don’t have any way of dating the folklore in the herbal treatments of the 1600’s. It is safe to assume that much of it is from a far earlier time but not a good idea to hail the herbs used in this book as the wisdom of the middle ages/the secrets of matriarchal midwives/older than toenail clippings of the Venerable Bede. Any reader of Marvell, Johnson or Milton can imagine the scents and plants that surrounded these poets and for the history/culture geek, that makes this book a treasure.

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