About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2014/08/27

Surprising personality

Just imagine that almost all of us have another person living just next to us in our apartments, cleaning our crumbs and occasionally also stealing from our cookie jars or causing some other minor mischief. Imagine that person is living right in front of you and with you: in the wall, between the bricks, under the floor boards or behind the drywall. No, I am not getting peculiar or paranoid or both. Earlier this summer Proceedings of The Royal Society B published an article documenting that ant nests of the same specie (in that case rock ants - Temnothorax Rugatulus) develop different yet lasting behavioral traits depending on their environment and their prior experiences. In one word, not individual ants, but ant-nests have personalities, nest becomes a person!
    I remember hearing something like that three decades ago from a family friend and naturalist/entomologist based just on his elemental observations. When you think about it, it actually makes very good sense. Social insects achieve high level of cooperation and cohesion - their hives and nests often act as one entity. Now, let us do a little mathematics - an average ant worker has about 250,000 neurons; depending on the size of the nest (anything between several hundred to millions and even hundreds of millions of ants) it can have a combined neuronal capacity anywhere between a dog (hundreds of millions of neurons) all the way to a small team of scientist or even a medium sized scientific institute (billions and trillions of neurons)!
    Ant nests clearly have neuronal capacity to develop personality, and now it has been scientifically documented that they do this very thing. The biblical Book of Proverbs (30:25) made a similar observation many centuries ago: Ants are a nation without much strength, yet they are able to plan and store food for lean season. Come this Sunday as we continue to reconnect with ancient spiritual wisdom of our faith and celebrate not only ants but all embracing mystery of life. We will celebrate the life giving spirit, a divine spark which we humans share with all creatures, large and small.

And next time you see an ant, perhaps even several of them, invading your home or kitchen, please consider mechanical cleaning of your detritus and crumbs rather than a cocktail of chemical poisons in a spray. It might kill off ants efficiently and quickly, but also quietly, inconspicuously, little by little, poison you and all our environment. With ant colonies we might share personality, but with individual ants we certainly share the divine spark of life, the same molecular physiology of life.

2014/08/20

Glassblowing God

Do you remember your first, or some other powerful childhood wonder? I was born and grew up in the glass-making part of the Czech Republic. My maternal grandfather worked in a glass factory making hardwood molds for glassmakers. I remember watching master craftsmen draw red-glowing blobs of molten glass from infernal ovens and blow them into the most sublime shapes. People call it hand-made glass, but from my youngest age I have known that the finest glass is in fact breath-made.
    It reminds me of a beautiful saying from the Gospel of Philip: “Glass carafe and earthenware jug are both made by means of fire. But if glass carafes break they are done over, for they came into being through a breath. If earthenware jugs break, however, they are destroyed, for they came into being without breath.” I know it is very unlikely to be Jesus’ own saying as blown glass was just appearing at this time and familiarity with glass belonged to a different social class. I also know that this saying from the Gospel of Philip is loaded with self-centered and self promoting sentiments. It was to illustrate the superiority of a glass blowing Christian(Gnostic) God over the Jewish God of the Hebrew Bible who was churning up just pottery... (Jeremiah 18)
    But this lovely metaphor does not need to be an antagonistic replacement, it can also be a genius update of the potter’s parable. The spiritual egotism of this gnostic saying can be eliminated as soon as we recognize The Master Glass-Maker at work not only in the elite group of the elect few, but in the forming and reshaping of the wide open world. After all, don’t volcanoes, with their infrared radiance and subsonic deep rumbling, look like some gigantic ovens? Doesn’t flowing lava look, move and behave much like molten glass? And just like a grain of gold melted in glass makes it ruby-red, or cobalt makes it unmistakably blue, or uranium teal green, so do different gasses, minerals and circumstances change colours and shapes of lava rocks. I guess my fascination with volcanos must have grown from my early childhood wonder.
    Different people have different early encounters with wonder. But the wonder itself is the same. And if we allow this wide-eyed child-like wonder enchantment to stay with us to adulthood, it has spectacular powers to keep our minds nimble, to inspire us, to ground us, and to keep us in harmony inside and outside. Come this Sunday to celebrate this mysterious power of our early wonders.


Glassblowing in Corning, NY and lava flowing near Kalapana, HI

2014/08/07

The Place of Healing

Do you have your Healing Place?
I do not mean a hospital or any walk-in-clinic.
I mean that special place where you feel calm, solace, connection and perhaps that kind of spiritual awe which is combination of respect and charm. I have several such places - some distant and some just around the corner. One such special place is even called Moku Ola, literally “The Place of Healing.”
 
   This Moku Ola is an island in the Hilo Bay, a place which was holy already to old Hawaiians. It was their ancient place of refuge, where sins and guilt were redeemed, and well being and harmony found. It was a place connected with a temple, royal fish ponds, surrounded with holy grounds. Unfortunately, in modern times, the fish ponds were turned into a park, the temple was destroyed, paved over and made into a parking lot, and the place of refuge became a popular picnic destination and a playground.
    Yet, no matter what modern insensitive people did to this place, it still is Moku Ola - the Healing Place. It is difficult to describe; it might be in its geography, its island nature, the embrace of the shore, the special air and smell, the angle of light and its reflexions, its unique and unbalanced horizon of ocean and mountains. For me this place still retains its special charm, it still is a special place to be and feel the presence of divine.*)
    And don’t worry, I am not succumbing to some virulent form of New-Age religiosity. This kind of recognition of such special spiritual places is in fact very Biblical **) and always has been part of our Christian faith tradition***), although it became partially suppressed and partially forgotten in modern times.
    This Sunday, the first in the series “Rainbow of Mysteries“, we will attempt to uncover this forgotten and neglected aspect of our faith tradition. We will seek to open our minds, eyes and senses to the Mystery of Presence and God’s Moku Ola the Healing Places in environment around us.


*) Ancient Hawaiians had a special class of priests called kuhikuhi pu‘uone (Literally: Experts in making heaps of sand) to seek appropriate places and to design houses and temples. They were indeed experts because there is hardly a religious place which would not be set in unique location, a place of worship without special atmosphere.

**) We will be talking about Jacob's dream at Beth-El (Genesis 28), but there are many other especially biblical instances of special places where the divine presence was noted and remembered.    
***) Many churches, monasteries, or places of pilgrimage were built in significant locations - on hill tops, by river confluences, near powerful springs... 

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And here are pictures from some of my other healing places: St. Margaret Church on the Oppidum (abandoned iron age city) near Prague, or sunsets from the roof of our building.
Originally Romanesque church of St. Margaret near Prague
Sunsets over Hudson River from the roof of our building.

2014/08/05

Environmental prophet

“Our present combustion of fossil fuels threatens to change the chemistry of the Globe’s atmosphere as a whole, with consequences which we are only beginning to guess.”
 
    This was not written last Thursday but in December 1966. It was said by a person of bright mind and deep faith, a lifelong Presbyterian and medievalist by profession, Lynn White.
    White was a true modern prophet and as such he criticized our shared Judeo-Christian faith tradition. Monotheistic religions became the most anthropocentric religions the world has seen and as such enabled and justified exploitation of nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.
    Almost half a century ago White wrote “I personally doubt, that disastrous ecological backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology.” And like any true prophet he challenged his contemporaries to change something deeper: the way in which we relate to nature and our planet on the deepest emotional and religious levels. The only way out of our current ecological crisis leads through a change of mentality, through re-forming our religion, transforming our faith, reconnecting with God, while recognizing our human selves as part of nature.
    We will participate in this ongoing transformation through the remaining part of Summer.
1) Our worship in August and September will seek to reconnect our faith and nature inspired by Lutheran biblical scholar from Australia Norman Habel.
2) Our Vacation Bible School will pick up this environmental theme for one of its weeks
3) On September 21 we plan to join an environmental demonstration during the UN meeting on Climate Change.
4) On September 27 and 28 visiting scholar Tricia Tull will teach and preach about this theme.
5) And on one of these Sundays we plan to visit an environmental exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art.

(By the way, as a true prophet, Lynn White as early as in 1966 warned against the narrow-minded, disastrous, religiosity of then Governor of California - guess who it was - Ronald Reagan!)

2014/08/01

Un-censoring a Psalm

Can the Bible be censored? 
Churches do it all the time!
Some biblical texts are never read in worship, preached upon or even taught. 
Why? Because so many biblical passages are truly boooooring, others are difficult to understand, many more are outside of our cultural comfort zones and quite a number of them are really brutish and nasty. And thus these questionable biblical stories, laws, prophecies and prayers are not necessarily censored, but simply left out with almost the same result - spreading a simplified, dulled-down religiosity prone to manipulation and abuse.
     A large number of English-speaking congregations use for their worship and liturgy the so-called Revised Standard Lectionary. In a three-year cycle it suggests for every Sunday and Holiday four biblical readings: one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, one passage from an Epistle and one text from a Gospel. I like this system, I use it often; it is a great tool, but a bad master. This Sunday we are, for instance, to read Psalm 17. But seven verses of this Psalm are (inconspicuously) left out, never to be read and heard in worship, neglected, forgotten...
      Come this Sunday to un-censor the Bible, come to un-neglect these intriguing seven verses, come to tackle the demons of our religiosity (aggression, violence, windictivness, prayer for vengeance, dark religiosity...) and so grow stronger and more mature in faith.

2014/07/21

Biblical horror story

I have been always a dull and boring person - just ask my sons! When they were teenagers and wanted to go to some juicy horror movie I would not go. Understand, in the Czech Republic for certain movies, parents were required to accompany minors, so when I did not go, it meant they did not go also. Adding insult to injury, I told them, “Read the Bible instead!” And I meant it and I still do! If you desire vivid nightmares you don't need any horror movies, read the Bible! The Fourth Book of Moses, the book of Numbers, for instance, has an ample supply of such material. One such story, etched into my mind, is the story of the Korahite rebellion (Numbers 16).
 
    The final version of this story, as preserved in the Bible, is clearly a result of several editorial stages. The core of the nightmare is the oldest part, in which Dathan and Abiram challenged Moses’ leadership. Moses “piously” prayed for a divine sign and it immediately followed: Earth (in the story she is personified) opened her mouth and swallowed the rebels with their families and with all their possessions; they descended alive to Hell (Scheol) and Earth closed its mouth over them. (Thankfully, we are spared details how she burped afterwards!) I do not know about you, but being swallowed alive by (Mother) Earth can wake me up in the middle of night screaming, kicking and covered in cold sweat. After all, aren’t nightmares and dark myths made of the same subconscious stuff Mr. Jung?
 
    Every good myth and any real nightmare must contain at least some kernel of reality. Almost on the opposite side of Earth from the biblical Middle East I came across a surprisingly similar story. Early in the historic times (the end of the XVIII century), shortly after the first contact with Europeans, King Kamehameha I unified the entire Hawaiian archipelago. It did not happen peacefully. On Big Island one local chief named Keōua presented substantial resistance.
 
   
Non-violent eruption at the summit of the Kilauea volcano
In 1790 after yet another indecisive battle near Hilo, Keōua was returning to his home base on the other side of the island. He took his warriors and their families (Hawaiians, just like Israelites, were moving with their families) by way of the Kilauea Volcano. They camped at the summit caldera and since the volcano seemed restless, they wanted to appease the goddess Pele, Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, by presenting some gifts. It did not seem to help; the volcano was getting more and more active and thus they decided to continue their journey home.
 
    Keōua divided his people into three groups. The first group left the summit under a dark volcanic cloud. The second group left the summit while the situation was getting progressively worse. The third group was still at the summit when Kilauea exploded in the largest explosive eruption for many centuries. The third group left in haste. Soon they came across the second group, which appeared to be resting by the road, but when they came closer, they realized that every single member of the second group was dead.

    
Ka 'u Desert covered with sharp-edged A'a lava
and volcanic ash from 1790 eruption.
The first and third groups survived, but the middle group, at least 400 people, was hit by a pyroclastic surge: hurricane force winds of superheated steam, ash and suffocating gasses. Although the third group was closer to the explosion, the second group was in the path of the surge, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon rain fell on the layers of volcanic ash changing them into thick mud. It preserved the footprints of surviving ancient Hawaiians. Those footprints are still visible in Ka‘u desert. Keōua took the catastrophe for a divine sign. His district was covered in volcanic ash and hit by crop failure. He lost spirit and the willingness to fight. Next year he gave himself up and was executed, sacrificed in Pu‘ukoholā Heiau, a temple which Kamehameha just finished.


I find these two stories of Dathan and Abiram on one hand and Keōua on the other hand surprisingly similar. Both stories clearly originate in some underlying natural disasters, most likely of a similar, volcanic nature. But there are also substantial and worrisome differences. And the Biblical tradition is not coming out of this comparison well. Keōua did not blame his second column for being despicable sinners deserving death. Keōua did not blame the victims, but took blame on himself. The Biblical tradition, on the other hand put the blame unequivocally on the victims - they deserved the harshest punishment. And as if it was not enough, postexilic textual editors used this ugly story for their own second temple ideological ends - political and religious propaganda. They added and mixed in another storyline about the Korihites and their priestly challenge to the Levites’ leadership. Thus centuries later they re-used the story for the setting of scores between two priestly groups of Korahites and Aaronites/Levites - just guess who were the Second Temple winners.

 
    This is for me the greatest nightmare, this is for me the greatest horror of this biblical story - transforming the LORD into a killing monster while blaming the victims; and the Bible does not only that, it takes it one step further, it uses a natural disaster and the tragedy of its original victims for self-serving political and ideological ends. As I have told you, if you want nightmares, read the Bible!
 
    But not everything is completely dark. By writing what I have just written, by reading what you have just read, by recognizing and acknowledging this problematic, nightmarish nature of some biblical passages we have taken the first steps towards healing. We are being liberated from the idolizing of the Bible; we set ourselves free from dangerous fundamentalism. Simultaneously we learn to recognize similar inhuman arguments in and among ourselves and in our society. Furthermore, we train ourselves to respond to disasters differently, not by finger-pointing and assigning the blame, but by reaching out with compassion and helping hands. Sometimes even nasty horror stories can have a real positive outcome.

2014/07/17

Eldmessa - The Mass of Fire

Two hundred thirty one years ago this Sunday, exactly on July 20, 1783 (which also happened to be a Sunday) the Reverend Jón Steingrímsson preached his famous sermon - Eldmessa - “The mass of fire.” Earlier that summer, on June 8th (which that year was Pentecost) the volcano Lakagígar (also known as Laki) erupted with ferocious force just north of his South-Icelandic home Kirkjubæjarklaustur. It was one of the largest known Icelandic eruptions. It produced 3.4 cubic miles of lava and changed the global climate for the next several years: for instance next winter the Mississippi River froze over at New Orleans and ice floated in the Gulf of Mexico.
    On Sunday July 20th a mighty lava flow was about to enter the Kirkjubæjarklaustur village and the church was likely the first to be swallowed. Everyone was ready to run but their minister coolheadedly insisted on keeping the last Sunday service before they left. When they went to the service, they could see the lava flow creeping forward, but after the service, the lava stopped and never moved again. Their home village was spared!
    Was it just a coincidence? Was it the power of worship? Was it the stubborn recklessness of an old minister? Was it his observational talent, realizing that the lava flow was about to stop? He was after all a real man of the Enlightenment, a true polyhistor with a Renaissance personality: physician, historian, naturalist... He wrote and published articles about volcanism before and after this eruption. We will never know for certain whether
it was an educated guess or a miracle, but one thing I know from my direct experience: everyone in Iceland knows and proudly shares the story of Eldmessa and the Rev. Jón Steingrímsson - their eldklerkur  -“fire-pastor.”
Signature of Jon Steingrimsson
He used this disaster and miracle to build up community spirit and cohesion, thus preparing his parish for upcoming years of severe hardships, crop-failures, livestock demise and widespread famine.
    Disasters are unavoidable. They might be natural, they might be human-made, they might be human-complemented, but the important thing has always been how people chose to narratize and remember them. Disasters are by definition beyond our control, but we control the stories, we control what we say in those stories. Those stories are important, they have real impact in our world, they influence human behaviour, our reactions to disasters: for instance how prepared and willing we are to help. Thus these narratives have power to disclose a lot about our understanding of the world, about our understanding of God, about our society and about us. We will try to achieve just that as we continue looking at Volcanic Yahwism and more specifically the volcanic story of Dathan and Abiram (Datan and Aviram) from the Book of Numbers.

South Icelandic sod chapel (not in Kirkjubæjarklaustur).