Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Pilgrim's Progress: Trudging to the cave of Mary Magdalene in Provence

            Cave of Saint Mary Magdalene Interior Grotto

      Cave of Saint Mary Magdalene

The air of Provence is redolent with mystery. Provence, itself, is a hybrid of cultures--the Greeks who founded Marseilles in 600 BCE, the local Celtic-Ligurians who traded with them for wine and the Romans who established a series of cities in interior Provence along the Aurelian Way. In the midst of this cosmopolitan province arose the story of Mary Magdalene's life after Jesus. Mary is reported to have sailed from Palestine or Ephesus and landed near the mouth of the Rhone with her brother, Lazarus, her sister, Martha, her handmaiden, Sarah, and an early disciple, Maxmin. Mary then went on to evangelize the people of Marseille.

After a few years, Mary Magdalene retreated to a remote cave at the top of a mountain, named Sainte Baume. There she became a contemplative and is said to have been elevated by angels seven times each day on account of the depth and intensity of her prayers.
Sainte Baume--photos above--is isolated and exhausting to hike up to. But the exhaustion was sweet and meditative and transforming in its quietness. Our guide told us that the mountain was a center of feminine spirituality, even before Christianity, where the forest leading up to the grotto was a Druid sacred space.

It is astounding how different Provencal spirituality feels from the spiritual disciplines we liberal religious folk usually employ for self-cultivation. At once emotional and profound, it is difficult to acquire a sense of detachment from either the world or the Divine. The adoration of Mary Magdalene more resembles the bhakti (devotional) yoga of South Asia than the detached, raja (royal) yoga of renunciates. In fact, the Gypsies of Provence who originate from India will each year celebrate the arrival of Mary Magdalene and Sarah to the mouth of the Rhone similar to the worship of the goddess Parvati or Lakshmi in India.
A cosmopolitan Provence has implanted diverse and syncretic religious practices on its rich vintage soil.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Science and Religion: Contemporary Encounters through Archaeology and Anthropology

In 1959, the renowned physicist and novelist, C. P. Snow, delivered an address entitled The Two Cultures in which he bemoaned the unfathomable gulf between scientific and humanistic literacy. Each enterprise was just too narrowly focused to bridge the difficult policy decisions of the modern world which, he felt, required an integration of scientific methodology with the insights into the human condition furnished only by an artistic or literary understanding of the expressive life. I am not sure that we have overcome this divide in the half-century since his lecture, but many liberal religions, such as Unitarian Universalism, pay lip service to their reconciliation in sermons and in religious education.

C. P. Snow, however, was not so acquainted with certain social sciences--particularly from North America--that from their inception have attempted such an integration. I'm thinking, most particularly, of anthropology and archaeology which ever since the 1960s have sought a scientific approach to interpreting cultural phenomena.

This week, a couple of fascinating reports from these fields have the capability of transforming our biased views about religion and ethics. The first is a study conducted by the anthropologist Dean Snow (no relation, I presume) from Penn State. He analyzed a large set of Paleolithic cave paintings from Spain and France such as those made famous in Werner Herzog's  2010 surreal documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Received opinion concluded that the uncannily representational drawings of bison and bears and horses were drawn by men--male hunters who represented these animals as a form of sympathetic magic to facilitate their kill. Dean Snow, rather conclusively showed that the adjoining hand prints to these cave paintings were female hands, based on the ratio of digit lengths, index to middle fingers. Since the 1800s, we have often heard that religion and art were invented by men for the purpose of facilitating hunting; Snow's results leave us in a quandary of interpretive mud. What were cave women doing when they painted wild animals. Could we be witnessing the rudiments of eco-theology? A harmonizing of the human with the wild?

Another study conducted by the primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University found that the odd species of chimps, the bonobos, whose hierarchies are based on affectional rather than aggressive behavior, exhibit empathy toward orphaned bonobos through hugging and other forms of close physical contact. The Ancient Near Eastern religions, Mesopotamian and Israelite, frequently dictate an ethical concern for orphans and widows. Could we have inherited such a specific empathic concern? Could our God, as well as our primate behavioral genetics prime us to console those who are underprivileged or lost--an inchoate liberation theology among bonobos?

Perhaps science and religion are mutually reflecting enterprises, if we delve deeply enough.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nine Days with Divine Mother: Celebrating Navaratra

                         Parvati--Chicago Art Institute                           Puja for Gauri Devi Sunnyvale Temple                                     
From October 5th through October 13th, we enter a nine-day period of worship and celebration, termed Navaratra, for the Hindu Goddess, Durga, in adoration of her manifold ways of being in the world. Durga is a complex and dynamic figure who, as a warrior goddess, kills demons that the gods could not overcome and who, as a nurturing and devoted protectoress, Gauri-Parvati, sustains beauty and love in the world. To the devotees of Shakti--the primordial and active feminine power that undergirds the universe--Durga, in her many manifestations, is their personally chosen deity. She supports a kind of monotheism of worship and meditation while sustaining the pluralism of the world.

I had the great pleasure of visiting and attending one evening of puja (worshipful offering) for Gauri-Parvati at the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple in Sunnyvale, CA. What a transforming experience! Flooded in variegated colors, circling around scores of diverse god and goddess images, smelling the sweet aromas of incense and fruit and milk, hearing bells resounding as multitudes of devotees capture moments of intentional meditative awareness, I was in awe! How different is the pluralist market of Hindu devotional religion from the Protestant simplicity of form. Yet underneath this surface polytheism and perceptual richness lies a singleness of purpose and devotion that is often lacking among the liberal religious. As a devotee, I choose the corner of the temple where the image of my god or goddess resides. In Hinduism, no dogma dictates to whom I express my praise. A unity in a kaleidoscope of multiplicity--all under the same temple roof.