Thursday, February 23, 2012

God is an Animal (or is he?): Shamanism

Weiner provides an overview of shamanism in this chapter. He mentions that shamans have been found throughout human history and in many cultures around the world; they are also referred to by different terms such as medicine men, witch doctors, and healers. To quote Weiner:

"Shamans are lovers of nature, in the tradition of St. Francis. They relate to the natural worlds as equals, as family. The shaman does not take pity on animals but aims to tap into their superior wisdom. Another characteristic of shamans: they work quickly. Shamanism promises a sort of spiritual shortcut, allowing people (me?) to 'achieve in a few hours experiences that might otherwise take years of silent meditation,' says Michael Horner, anthropologist turned shaman. This appeals to me immensely. I mean, who doesn't love a shortcut? (p.267)

The Little Flowers of St. Francis (discussed in an earlier post) do mention that St. Francis preached a sermon to the birds, who afterwards flew away in the shape of a giant cross. While obviously an eloquent speaker, St. Francis does not act in a shamanic fashion. Shamans will observe animals in order to gain information about future events, or use them to help move between this world and the spirit world. Francis provided the birds with information about God, then dispatched them into this world to dessiminate it.

Mircea Eliade, in his classic book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, describes shamans as psychopomps who move between worlds - our world and the sacred worlds of a particular religion. The shaman's journey is taken to get something from the sacred world to help someone in our world.  Animal guides assist the shaman in this journey. To say that "God is an animal" is to distort the shamanic view of existence; to the shaman, the animal is god since repesents an aspect of the divine.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wicca & Granny Weatherwax

Over the years, I have come to believe that the writer who best understands witchcraft is Terry Pratchett, the author of the Discworld series. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are two witches who live in a remote village in a small kingdom on Discworld. Over a number of years, they fight vampires, voodoo curses, deranged fairy tale characters, fairies, sorcerers, Death, and other witches. They also help to train a young witch, Tiffany Aching.

Tiffany realizes that what makes a good witch is what Granny Weatherwax refers to as "headology." A witch must be able to outthink her fellow villagers (for their own good). In one book, Granny Weatherwax uses an unexpected chiropractic throw to fix a man's back problem, but also gives him an herbal medicine to take; the throw fixed his back, but she knows he won't believe it but needs the herbs to convince him that he is cured. Granny and Nanny make sarcastic comments about witches who dance around in the nude (just asking for pneumonia) and who clank around in pentacle necklaces and magic stones.

A number of the witches invest in items from the "Boffo" catalog. These are showy cauldrons, scary warts, spider webs, showy wands, etc. They use them as a sort of Dumbo's magic feather - to give themselves confidence and to get the villagers to trust in their power.  Granny Weatherwax is such a headology master that she doesn't need such props.

Tiffany learns that being a witch is hard and unrewarding; a true witch exists to serve others. The villagers rarely give you credit for your hard work. You see little actual cash. When times get tough, anti-witch hysteria begins, often feuled by a wandering holy man, and you get drowned or burned.

The compensation comes in moments of connection with the natural world. Granny Weatherwax is able to get into the minds of animals, and fly, swim, and otherwise explore the natural world. Tiffany is connected to the chalk downs where she was born, and draws upon them in times of trouble. They experience a connection with nature that is worth more than money. It is this connection with the natural world that Wiccans seek.

Monday, February 20, 2012

God is Magical: Wicca Part 2

Weiner attends a ritual with Jamie the Witch since he claims "It's been said that you're not really a Wiccan until you do something Wiccan. So when Jamie invites me to a coven, a gathering of fellow witches, I eagerly accept." (p.248) On the way out to the ritual, Weiner and Jamie discuss what makes a good ritual as opposed to a bad ritual.

Weiner himself seems to have little grasp of what makes up a ritual - typically an opening that sets apart the space and worshippers as sacred (creating a liminal space); the ceremony itself; the ending that deconsecrates the space and removes its liminal nature. Any ritual, whether done at home by an individual or in a group by a designated leader, deliberately removes the worshippers from regular space and time into a special place. The Kabbalah teacher Yedidah had a morning ritual of drinking mint tea, sitting in a special chair, and saying the most important Hebrew prayer. Jews cannot begin morning prayer without a minyan of ten and follow a standard service. The Franciscans said a Catholic mass. The Wiccans are having a special ceremony in a forest, although I suspect that many of those at the ceremony create small daily rituals at home.

Jamie later suggests that Weiner meet with a Wiccan magician named "Black Cat." Black Cat, who lives in Seattle, shows Weiner his altar. He also discusses how he does magic deliberately for specific results - to get money, to remove an annoying person from his life, etc. His deliberately targeted use of magic is more like that of a magician rather than a typical witch. Deborah Blake, in her The Goddess is in the Details: Wisdom for the Everyday Witch warns that

"Most experienced Witches have learned that magick is not always the best solution to all of life's problems. Many issues in our lives can be handled in mundane ways, and there are certain situations where magickal interference is probably a bad idea (messing with the weather, for instance, almost always backfires)." (p. 14-15).

Weiner comes to view Black Cat as too materialistic to be believable and he is right- Black Cat's actions might not be acceptable to more spiritual Wiccans. However, the same can be said about certain priests and ministers in non-Wicca religions.

Do you think that it is acceptable to change ritual?
Can ritual be viewed as fluid?

Do many religions besides Wicca appeal to deities for aid?

Please comment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

God is Magical: Wicca Part 1

Prior to Weiner's trip to Israel, he spends time with modern witches in Washington state. He appears to be somewhat sceptical about Wiccans:

"That default question when investigating a new faith - What do you believe? -was of little help with the Buddhists and Taoists. It gets me absolutely nowhere with witches. They're hard to pin down. 'I dare you to find out what Wiccans believe', my friend Alan Cooperman, a former religion reporter for a major newspaper, told me over a  sushi lunch in Washington D.C. "I dare you. It can't be done,' he said, practically spitting raw fish at me, so adament was he." (p. 239).

This is an interesting statement, since it pre-supposes that non-Wiccans can tell you exactly what they believe in. In my experience, many people (Wiccan or non-Wiccan) do not think about about their religious beliefs on a daily basis and even if they did would have a difficult time articulating their beliefs in a coherent fashion. I know that I refuse to discuss religion with people who are not close friends and I do not discuss it at work. I would NEVER discuss religion with someone whom I knew was a reporter. Why would I want to see myself misquoted in an article?

Weiner also appears to lump anyone of pagan persuasion into the Wiccan category. There are people who are pagan who are not Wiccans, and who do not practice witchcraft. There are also pagans who have clearly articulated belief systems, which they do not hesitate to share. Raven Grimassi, for example, has emphasized the difference between Italian witchcraft and northern European Wicca movement. His book on Italian witchcraft states that the modern Wicca movement was drawn from traditional Italian practices. He provides online classes for people who wish to learn Wicca since the Italian practices are mainly hereditary (he ha swritten two books on Italian witchcraft).

 Weiner decides to meet with Wiccan who is also a practicing witch. He first meets with Jamie, who writes a witch advice blog called Witchful Thinking where she describes herself as "Dear Abby with a pointed hat."  In her youth, Jamie studied and experimented with several religions before deciding on Wicca. Its initial appeal is that God can be woman, and it is possible to be a solitary practitioner; the gods don't need you to worship in a crowd. Jamie also likes what she sees as the ability to change the gods you worship if you don't feel that they are helping you.

During the two years that I lived in Seattle, I became friends with a witch. He had learned his herbal knowledge from his grandmother, and was one of the most genuine, natural pagans that I have met. My witch friend always told me to be careful for asking for help from the gods because they will give you the help that they think that you need, not necessarily what you ask for, and will expect something in return for the help. Asking a god for help was not something to be done lightly. I've met other pagans who've felt that way, and would not agree with Jamie's light-hearted comment "if a god isn't working for you, you can fire him or her." (p.244).

Do you feel that most people can clearly articulate their religious beliefs?

Can you articulate your religious beliefs? If so, when do you do so?

Have you ever "fired" a god?

Please post!

God is Complicated: Kabbalah Part 2

Weiner spends much of his time studying Kabbalah with a female teacher, a British immigrant to Israel named Yedidah Cohen. The fact that Yedidah is a woman is unusual in Kabbalah study since prior to the twentieth century most Kabbalah students and teachers were men. Yedidah decided to come to Safed after she had a dream about the city. She began a spiritual reawakening after spending time at the Findhorn New Age retreat in Scotland She was inspired to study Kabbalah after a tranformational experience in a cave that she went to on the advice of a rabbi. While Yedidah was in the cave, the rabbi handed her a text to read about creation. Yedidah could not understand the text, but it filled her mind and she began to meditate upon its hidden meaning. After this experience, she began to study Kabbalah.

As Yedidah explains to Weiner, Kabbalah texts are written in code:

"The texts are intentionally deceptive. This strikes me as odd, and possibly cruel. But Kabbalists had their reasons. These teachings were so powerful, the rabbis believed, they posed a real danger to those not ready to receive them. By encrypting their work, the rabbis reached the "right" people while everyone else dismissed their tales as nothing  more than nice stories about kings and their crowns. So the modern Kabbalist is, first and foremost, an expert code breaker." ( p. 306).

Yedidah can spend days meditating on a particular passage before she understands it.

Much of Kabbalah seems to be a solitary experience. Students can listen to a teacher lecture about a passage or a Kabbalah idea. However, the moment of enlightenment is a solitary one, when the student finally understands the passage and its connection with God.

Interestingly enough, Weiner's most profound experience seems to have come when he was sitting on his hotel balcony, thinking back on all the religions that he has experienced. He looks up, and spots a hawk floating in the air, riding on the wind currents. Weiner forces himself to stop reading, stop thinking, just to be in the moment and observe. For the first time, he seems able to just feel and to appreciate the hawk's joy of the air and of flight.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

God is Complicated: Kabbalah

My initial exposure to Kabbalah came when I was taking a Jewish folklore class, and decided to write a paper on the Angel of Death. This caused me to research the Sitra Achra (or "other side") which in folklore and the Kabbalah is associated with evil, the demonic, and the negative. I read many folk tales and Jewish legends. I also read Chaim Potok's "The Book of Lights" about a young rabbi who studies the Kabbalah as a way of making sense of the world after returning home from war. The protagonist has discussions at night with an agent of the Sitra Achra, who is trying to sway him from the lights of wisdom.

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the basic ideas of Kabbalah are:
  • God and creation
  • Will
  • Thought
  • Nothingness
  • The Three Lights "the root of all roots"
  • The Problem of Evil
  • Prayer and meditation
While Luria spent much time walking and discussing Kabbalah with his disciples around the streets of Safed, most Kabbalist study is solitary. Enlightenment comes from meditating on a passage or in the folktales from dreams. Personal experience and meditation brings about an understanding of Kabbalah texts and of God.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Safed?

I had planned on saving the Kabbalah discussion until later in the month. However, all the recent publicity about Madonna (America's most famous Kabbalah student) inspired me to reread the Kabbalah chapter of the book. As a result, I decided to move up the posts.

Weiner decides to study Kabbalah in an Israeli city named Safed (or Tzfat). For the record, I found his decision to be disappointing. For nearly a decade I have lived near a house that is the Queens headquarters for Kabbalah Center International. I frequently see their huge truck, emblazoned with Live. Love. Kabbalah. in the streets. I eagerly turned to the chapter in the hopes of finding out what goes on in that house (besides constant Fresh Direct deliveries). I had hoped that Weiner would spend some time in the US before going to Israel. I guess that studying on the highest point in Queens doesn't compare to Safed.

Safed has been a center for Kabbalah studies for centuries. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many Jewish scholars moved to Israel and settled in Safed. One of the most famous was Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (known as the Ari) who spent the last years of his life in Safed. He spent much time walking the streets of the town with his followers.

Twenty-first century Safed is extremely proud of its Kabbala heritage. The official city site is:  The city website has a nice overview of the history of Kabbalah and the famous rabbis who studied Kabbalah while they lived in Safed. It also provides information about some of the current residents who make the city unique, such as a doberman-raising man and a woman who formerly had 30 cats.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

God is Personal: Franciscans

Weiner decides to spend time in a Franciscan homeless shelter in the South Bronx. This particular order is a throwback to the thirteenth century:

"Over the centuries, the Franciscan vow of poverty has slipped, and this order, formed only twenty-five years ago, is intent on correcting that. They own nothing. No private bank accounts or credit cards or cellphones or, according to their charter, "popular electric gadgets manufactured sinply for amusement and recreation." No beds, either. They sleep on the floor. The friary has no Internet connection, no TV, no dishwasher, no air-conditioning. All of these things, the Franciscans believe, are obstacles that stand between us and God" (p. 127).

Not only does Weiner have to deal with culture shock from being the only white person in the neighborhood (aside from the Franciscans) but he also has to cope with living in an earlier world - one without technology.

At the shelter, Weiner takes part in a Catholic mass and is refused Communion because he is not a baptised Catholic. He also makes a half-hearted attempt to confess to a priest but is told to come back at a future date because the priest must hold a mass; Weiner is relieved and never returns. He is struck by the personal relationship between Franciscans and God - they speak with God, ask for His forgiveness, and remain cheerful in His service. He spends his days helping the Franciscans in the simple daily tasks they do in order to run the shelter. He also joins them when they picket an abortion clinic - an activity that makes Weiner completely uncomfortable.

Weiner's discomfort is most extreme when he writes about one friar, Brother Louis. The son of a devout Italian-American mother, Brother Louis was a "former saxophone-playing weight-lifting woman-chasing Wall Street executive and owner of a used-car dealership" (p.125). Brother Louis's mother asked him to go on a pilgrimage to a Catholic shrine in Bosnia. Louis went, asked a personal question of Jesus, received Jesus' personal reply from a woman who was known to talk with Jesus, and became a Franciscan friar. This was a good fit because it allowed him to use his energy and intensity in an order that values "active contemplation." It is Brother Louis who organization the anti-abortion protest.

Weiner admits "More than any of the other friars here, Father Louis displays the conviction of the converted. I find his intensity unnerving.  I worry that at any moment he might hug me, or kill me. It could go either way" (p.136). He later admits that Brother Louis scares him, and refers to him as "quasi-satanic" (p.145). My impression is that Brother Louis's personal intensity and his miraculous conversion are genuinely medieval in character, which may be why Weiner finds him so threatening; Brother Louis is a reminder that similar comments were probably made about St. Francis himself in the thirteenth century.

Do you think that it is necessary to disconnect entirely from the material world in order to better connect with people?

Is intensity a characteristic despised in 21st American society?

Would you spend time in a Franciscan retreat?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Man Seeks God - Who are the Franciscans?

The Franciscans are NOT a religion. They are a Catholic religious order of friars started by St. Francis of Assissi in the thirteenth century. St Francis was a wealthy young man in Tuscany who was made a prisoner in a war between Assissi and Perugia. After he was ransomed, he began to rethink his former existence of wine and song. A turning point in Francis' life came when he heard the voice of God telling him to restore a ruined chapel. Francis sold valuable cloth belonging to his father in order raise the money he needed. When confronted by his father, Francis dramatically stripped off all his belongings, which he returned to his father, and took up a life of poverty and good works.

Franciscans are expected to serve God through action - to serve others. At the same time, they are also expected to contemplate God and spirituality. Francis placed much emphasis on practical actions - feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, providing shelter to the homeless. He also encouraged periodic spiritual retreats to speak with God and refresh the spirit.

Stories about Francis always emphasize his happy nature. In his youth, he was known for his music, singing, and what today would be viewed as partying. As a friar, he encouraged his friars to be happy and cheerful. There is a collection of stories about St. Francis and his early followers called "The Little Flowers of St. Francis:

One of Francis's followers was Brother Juniper, known as the "jester of God". When I first read the Brother Juniper stories, I was hit with a realization that Brother Juniper is a more extreme version of St. Francis. Francis himself in the stories is sometimes frustrated by Juniper; at this this time Francis is the leader of a growing Catholic order (in fact three orders according to the Catholic Encyclopedia) sanctioned by the pope and has been forced to become more practical and less spiritual. Brother Juniper's actions make Francis remember what he himself was like before he had to deal with Church beauracracy.

In one Brother Juniper story, Juniper is ministering to a sick man who has a craving for pigs' feet. Juniper runs out to a nearby herd of swine, which is not owned by the Franciscans, grabs a pig, cuts off a foot, and makes soup for the sick man. The man eats the soup and becomes much healthier. The swineherd finds the injured three-footed pig and immediately reports it to the pig's owner. The owner is outraged and complains to Francis. Francis realizes that this is a potential PR nightmare - his friars are known for constantly begging for the poor, asking for work so that they can use their wages for the poor, and now people will accuse them of not respecting private property. He immediately sends for Juniper and berates him for his actions.

Juniper, however, insists that he has done the will of God. He wanted to help a sick man, there was a nearby pig, he made the soup, and the man was cured. The pig was obviously sent by God. Juniper was so convincing that the pig's owner kills the pig (who probably wasn't going to live much longer due to blood loss and the loss of a foot) and gives the meat to the Franciscans. Francis praises Juniper for reminding him of the true meaning of the Franciscan mission. 

An interesting aspect of this story is that St.Francis does not berate Juniper for the pain that he caused the pig. In the Little Flowers, Francis is very compassionate towards wild animals. He preaches a sermon to the wild birds of the field. He persuades the town of Gubbio to agree to feed a wolf so that it will stop eating people. However, he seems unfazed by Juniper's removing a foot from a live pig. Today St. Francis is the patron saint of environmentalists. Churches thoughout the world hold a Blessing of the Animals on October 4th where pets can be brought to church for a special blessing.

Additional information about modern American Franciscans can be found here:

The Catholic Encyclopedia has information about St.Francis and the Franciscans at:

My next post will be about Weiner's experiences with an NYC Franciscan order.