Category Archives: religion
“Chris Wallenska, Mister Wallenska (or, the preferred form, plain Mister) was fresh out of seven years of classics and philosophy. He was all of 24, although he seemed centuries beyond us in his knowledge of the world—the ancient Greek and Roman world, the only one that mattered. He taught us their languages as well as English and religion, a catechism class he deplored as theologically neanderthal. I remember him actually throwing the book, a thicker, more Jesuitical version of my elementary school’s, onto the floor in disgust when we reached the question regarding the effects of masturbation, which ranged from acne to sudden death. Any sign of rebellion in those days, a few years before Vatican II convened, seemed scandalously heroic, or just plain scandalous, depending on how much inclined you were toward nailing theses to church doors. I was no Martin Luther, but I thrilled at any display of dissent. …”
I grew up in Fort Lee, then still a small town in northern New Jersey. Apart from its original site as headquarters for a routed American Revolutionary force, its main claims to fame were two: It was the original home of the movie industry in the early decades of the twentieth century, and it holds up the western end of the George Washington Bridge. In the 1940s and ’50s it consisted of about 2,000 people and might have been located in Ohio or Indiana instead of just across the river from one of the largest cities in the world. Today it houses many tens of thousands, including large immigrant populations, most notably Koreans.
In my childhood much of the town was still undeveloped land, the largest tract of which was a couple hundred acres of woodland known as the Great North Woods. Boy Scout troops could camp there without any sign of their being just a short walk to civilization. The Woods abounded in what to me was exotic flora and fauna: tadpoles and rare birds – rare at least for that part of the world. It was also the place I went when I wanted to take pond samples to look at under my toy microscope. In a single drop of water I discovered a world even more densely populated by paramecia and other microscopic wildlife than was the woodland itself by their larger relatives.
Most of my time was spent in the local Catholic school. My explorations occurred after 3:00 p.m. and on weekends, and those were usually in areas closer by than the Woods: a few acres of untouched land where garter snakes abounded in July and August, sunning themselves on the reeds in a small pond. My friends and I tried without success to shoot them with bows and arrows. There were also the immense oaks next to the town athletic field (now a parking lot solemnly blessed by one of the local curates, I’m told). We could climb to dizzying heights in those trees before they were pulled down to make room for a strip mall on Main Street. We could also explore the overgrown trolley route that once ran from north of town to a ferry on the Hudson across from 125th Street in Manhattan a couple hundred feet below the skyscraping Palisades. We gathered wild cherries in summer, caught poison ivy searching for baseballs in the big vacant lot we used for our daily game, and in winter discovered frozen carcasses of dogs and cats in the melting snow.
But it was the Great North Woods that most held my imagination, as much by its name as by the reality. It was the only place I could go where I was unlikely to see, never mind confront, another human being. There was a rumor, perhaps more than that, of a murder having been committed there, or perhaps just a body dumped. In those days Fort Lee was run by a police force indistinguishable from the Italian mafia. Police chiefs who failed to cooperate were found dead, officially suicides, their service revolver lying beside them. A widow of one such lived in an apartment across from our building – “lived” only in the strictest sense because she had tried unsuccessfully to end her own life and was permanently paralyzed.
Then there was the Great Fire. I don’t recall anyone referring to it as such, but I don’t think the name is an exaggeration. I don’t know how it started or how long it lasted, but it was unlike any fire I’ve come close to since, not just because of its extent over hundreds of acres but because it became at some point invisible. After devastating everything above ground it continued to burn beneath the surface, at least in the Great North Woods. The ground smoked like the cone of an active volcano or the roof of hell. Only occasionally did it show itself by a sudden outburst of flame. I had seen it consume the frame of a new house on the periphery of the Woods, one moment looking perfectly alright, the next flaring up in tall flames until nothing was left. But that had taken place far from where I was walking that afternoon. I couldn’t feel the heat through my leather-soled shoes, but plumes of smoke were visible all around me.
I should point out that my religious experience, though rigorously Roman Catholic, had started early on my mother’s lap with what I later realized was a Protestant emphasis. She had read me all the nursery rimes as well as “Tom Thumb” and much else from a collection of volumes called Journeys through Bookland. But she also read me Old Testament stories, all of Genesis and Exodus. I knew as well as I knew “Cinderella” or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but took much more to heart, the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac, Jacob’s pretending to be his brother Esau so as to cheat him out of his inheritance, even Sarah’s laughing at the two angels who told her she was going to conceive a child at the age of ninety, though I had no clue yet how children were conceived. And the account of the Jews’ exile in Egypt, the plagues visited on the Pharaoh and his people for his delay in freeing them (especially the slaughter of the first-born), the long trek across the desert to the Promised Land and Moses’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, all this was as familiar and as memorable as the Gospel stories I would later hear on an almost daily basis. I have since marveled how little of this Old Testament lore most Catholics and even the average Jew I have known is familiar with. I assumed these tales were basic stuff for any Jewish boy or girl. It was only much later, when I learned something about Protestantism (heresy pure and simple in our history books) that I discovered the importance Protestants placed on the Old Testament.
All the vegetation had been leveled by the fire that had swept through the Woods several days earlier. The landscape was as barren as the mountains of the moon, except that on the moon there is no smoke and no remnants of burnt trees. But one small bit of flora did remain in the midst of gray devastation, miraculously untouched, a short bushy thing with its foliage still intact. I stopped my trek to wonder at it. And almost as soon as I did it burst into flame as if it had only been waiting for me to show up to do so. It didn’t burn bottom to top as would be expected given the source of the fire in the ground beneath. It ignited all at once like an exploding firework, and almost as quickly as a skyrocket bursts and quickly disappears the tree disintegrated into a piece of char-wood in a matter of seconds.
I was too literal-minded to associate this burning bush/tree with the one through which Yahweh spoke to Moses on Sinai. I was no Moses. If I identified with anyone in the Bible it was with one of the minor characters no one names their children after. But what I had just witnessed was biblical in its drama. By that point in my education I knew miracles were more or less common place, at least for believing Catholics, but despite the preservation of this tree in the midst of burnt-out wilderness and its spectacular immolation in front of my eyes, I knew what I had seen did not qualify as a miracle. No one had been cured of a terminal disease, no supernatural being had appeared. And so I went home, had dinner and began to memorize the capitals of all the South American nations and the next three questions in the Baltimore catechism where it was understood that real miracles could occur because for the God who made me to “love, honor and serve him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next” “nothing is hard or impossible.”
These catechism lessons may not have accounted for the burning bush in the Great North Woods, but they didn’t need to. I lived happily in the natural, not the supernatural, world. Here the ordinary – not just burning bushes but love (I had been in love since I was seven), snow falling at night through the dim glow of street lamps (“Lord, I love the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth”), the exquisite plumage and impossible levitations of hummingbirds that visited the overgrown gully where those trolleys once rain, these and so much else of this material world were all the miracles I needed.
According to experts, there are 134 million demons or evil spirits in the world.
I learned this from a television newscast. I live on the top floor of a building in Brooklyn that faces south, and I pick up several New Jersey and even Philadelphia stations. This particular broadcast was coming from south Jersey.
The anchorperson, an attractive blonde, went on to recount in her detached anchorperson voice that the reigning pope (John Paul at the time), both in his former capacity of bishop of Cracow and as pontiff, performed and was continuing to perform exorcisms.
Then she broke for a commercial.
I immediately began to wonder about that figure 134 million. It seemed seriously inadequate, especially if you allow for all the guardian angels and other benevolent spirits flying about or attending to the divine throne in heaven. There are about 6 billion people in the world. That means that to have some sort of evil influence on each one of them, every demon would have to service about 45 people. I used to work for a big-city welfare department. I also counseled drug addicts. So, I have some idea of the maximum caseload a professional can competently handle. Fotry-five seems to be right on the edge.
Of course on any caseload there are always some clients who require only the minimum of attention. For demons, these would be the Hitlers and Stalins of the world and their small-time counterparts. Also, the Christian Right, hardline Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews, not to mention the hundreds of millions of ardent Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists and other godly folks, would be among the harder spiritual nuts to crack and might reasonably be put on a back burner.
That leaves us with a core constituency of perhaps twenty to twenty-five souls ripe for each demon’s picking. Not a number beyond the ability of any well-trained professional, especially when you consider that a demon, being immaterial, can go at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with no time off for paid holidays, sick leave or vacation.
This particular television station, by the way, was the same that used to flog a videocassette about the sins of the flesh committed by our then-sitting president. The commercial pulled no punches and spared no delicate civic sentiments. Bill Clinton was depicted as the willing slave of the Devil.
Since it was “experts” who came up with the number 134 million for the demons at large in the world, I didn’t question it initially. But then I got to thinking: Why 134 million and not 135 million? Or some other number entirely?
Until I remembered that at the beginning of the current era (A.D./C.E.) well-educated people took for granted the existence of demons and other various good and evil spirits. In fact, the experts of that day knew the names and rankings for each species, so to speak—Dominions, Powers, Thrones, etc. Each kind of spirit had a job to do for good or ill. Paul the Apostle and other intelligent men and women, Christian, Jew and pagan, never questioned their existence.
It was an age that prided itself on its science as much as we do our own, and had pretty much figured out how everything worked and where everything’s place was in the cosmos. Ptolemy, for instance, devised an ingenious and mathematically precise set of formulae to describe the workings of the universe based upon the obvious fact that the sun revolved around the earth, as did everything else in the heavens. Why shouldn’t the theologians and philosophers be able to classify the varieties of spirits and, with a little help from holy writings, calculate precisely how many there were?
The pope, as a modern man, uses aircraft, television and even public relations people to help him get across his message. The Ayatollah Khomeini preached his revolutionary call via audio cassette during his exile in heathen France before boarding a jet to assume civil power in Iran. And of course the most hardcore religious terrorists use weapons of a distinctly modern cast when they want to blow up a building or take out an abortionist.
So, I suppose it should have come as no surprise to find that well-groomed anchorwoman being able to precisely pinpoint the number of devils, minor and major, plying their trade. Nor should it have been a shock to find that commercial airing about Bill Clinton. Putting one and one together, it all began to make sense: 134 million evil spirits loose in the world; a degenerate in the White House; the pope (recently sainted John Paul) feeling obliged to personally cast out devils in his spare time. The planet is going to hell in a handbasket, and the bulk of us are worried about ephemeral matters like health care and climate change!
Thank God there are still people of faith as well as science keeping abreast of what is taking place in the invisible world. While physicists argue about how many quarks can dance on the head of a proton, god-fearing folks are passing along the much more important spirit count provided by the world’s front-rank demonologists, with special emphasis on those ensconced inside the Beltway.
Check these people out on your own local stations. Neglecting to do so would not only be unscientific but could be dangerous to your spiritual health.
The other day I heard an interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, currently on tour for the English edition of his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Pope Francis has himself just published a book called The Church of Mercy, mercy apparently being the theological flavor of the season). But I suspect the real reason the cardinal rated an interview on my local public radio station is because he’s known as “the pope’s theologian,” much as Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) was known as “the pope’s [recently sainted Pope John Paul’s] Rottweiler.” Having Kasper in studio must have seemed like the next best thing to having the pope himself there and a golden opportunity to pick the cardinal’s brains about the course of Roman Catholicism under Francis’s papacy.
But first the host Brian Lehrer, a gentle but intelligent interviewer, questioned Kasper about the meaning of the word mercy and the reason for its being so high up on the new pope’s agenda. The cardinal happily distinguished mercy from compassion (active versus passive), mercy from justice (complementary), the biblical origins of the virtue (Sermon on the Mount, among others). After several minutes of Q&A, though, little light had been shed on the subject either for the host (who is Jewish) or for me or, presumably, for other listeners to the program. But Lehrer had not denied Kasper his ten minutes for flogging the book, which was after all his immediate reason for appearing on the show or, for that matter, his being in the US in the first place.
Lehrer then moved on to the questions he, and much of his audience Catholic and non-Catholic alike, wanted answers to: Did the pope’s emphasis on mercy and understanding mean there would be any change to the church’s position on birth control or homosexuality or divorced and/or remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, etc.? To all of which Kasper replied in diplomatic and noncommittal terms. He said Catholics are already making up their own minds about birth control, though he reminded us the church is not against all kinds (presumably he was referring to the “rhythm” method). And in the case of Catholics who have divorced and remarried, that choice is their own responsibility.
If you’re one of those Catholics, ex-Catholics or non-Catholics who have been hoping for something truly different from this pope compared with his predecessors, if in other words you have been hoping for a reassertion of the kind of liberal attitude with which John XXIII shook up the church fifty years ago, I’d say the prospects are dim. John XXIII was an anomaly, a tragic mistake in the view of the church itself or at least that part of it that has put into power all popes since John XXIII and before.
The cardinal didn’t indicate anything had changed doctrinally for Catholics with the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papal throne. In case you missed it, just a couple months back Pope Francis threatened the Mafiosi of southern Italy with eternal hellfire if they don’t mend their ways. As long as the church continues to keep hell (and heaven) in the picture, no amount of mercy-talk will change the fundamental use of fear and reward with which the church has always kept the faithful in line. Justice requires a hell by this logic, but it’s the sinner who condemns her/himself to eternal torment, not God, as the church sees it.
Kasper and the pope are simply staking out the themes of the new papacy, much as candidate Obama put forth the themes of his candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember “Hope and Change”? The traditional John Paul/Benedict XVI authoritarianism (attended by the revelation of a church-wide, decades-long cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children) got nowhere in the developed world, however much the church’s continued harping on homosexuality, the use of condoms and an insistence on a males-only clergy appealed to the conservative mentality of the hierarchy and the faithful in Africa and Latin America where the church is doing quite well, thank you.
John XXIII’s papacy was an attempt to return the church to a more collegial governance combined with a “preferential preference for the poor” that spawned a Liberation Theology movement which the church itself, with the help of like-minded friends in the US government and its armed forces, has since been doing its best to suppress, sometimes with murder.
Two hundred years ago the papacy was a feeble office to which the rest of the church paid little attention. The Kings of France, not the pope, appointed that nation’s bishops, a shocking example of papal impotence by today’s standards. The revival of the papacy as a “unitary power,” to use the phrase favored by those who want the same kind of extreme authority for the president of the United States — a preeminent, unassailable last word in matters doctrinal and ecclesiastical — started, as best I can tell, with Napoleon’s agreement to put the pope back in the driver’s seat if he, the pope, sided with the Little Corporal in his Italian wars. The consolidation and expansion of papal power has continued under subsequent popes until today it is all but forgotten that ultimate power in the church used to reside in councils of bishops with the pope acting as first among equals. Today we assume the pope is not only the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals but is the sole initiator of policy in those areas. No synod of bishops can do more than humbly offer advice. The pope is dictator, elected by a body of cardinals themselves appointed by, yes, previous popes. And, the last I heard, no ordinary Catholic or even ordinary priest or bishop gets to cast a ballot for anyone. The church is no more democratic than was the politburo, which also “elected” the head of the Soviet Union.
There are many good people who serve humanity in the name of Jesus — nuns who look after the most destitute cast-offs, who literally each day moping up the waste of people who have no chance of recovering from AIDS and other degenerative diseases. I know someone who has held babies who would not live out the night, would die untouched and unloved by anyone but those nuns. Those women don’t make the nightly news broadcasts.
There are others too, some of them clergy, who lead lives of dedication to the poor and who sometimes lose their lives because they do. The popes and bishops rarely represent these Catholics. The hierarchy’s preoccupation is with the institution of the church, just as it was a thousand years ago when they had the power to execute anyone who deviated from the doctrine they laid down. Berdoglio/Pope Francis did not get elected pope to upset a two-thousand-year-old organization that is still recovering from the changes attempted by his predecessor half a century ago.
We get the leaders we are willing to settle for, whether it’s in Rome or Washington. We will get different ones when we demand them. But I have yet to hear anyone call for a democratization of the Roman Catholic Church (admitting that I don’t get around much in Catholic or any other religious circles). The idea, I suspect, is not even up for discussion, just as the idea of ordinary people taking over their own political and economic destinies is not up for discussion, the failure or Bolshevik communism having apparently proven the inevitability of corporate feudalism and top-down, money-driven politics.
At the risk of sounding like yet another pie-in-the-sky/pinko idealist living in La La Land, I suggest reading Rudolph Rocker’s Anarchosyndicalism, written (elegantly) in 1938 and as fresh and full of good, practical ideas as anything you’ll come across. All it proposes is what has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world as well as right now in many places in the US: that ordinary people are quite capable of ordering their own lives and of cooperating with their neighbors to their mutual benefit.
Meanwhile, if you’re still a Catholic, I suggest you start asking for the basic right of any human being to elect the people who claim to have the right to lay down laws by which they, the faithful, will get to spend that part of their existence called eternity. Democracy was good enough for the earliest version of Christianity. Why not now?