The Religious: 4 of a Kind
Ecclesiastes Approximately 200 BC
Why Ecclesiastes in 2016? To begin with, it is timeless. Also, it fits the general malaise. To many, this has not been an easy year. It has driven me, for instance, to seek refuge in the lives of religious figures. How did they handle stress, challenges, or simply life itself?
The first writer, or scribe, is known by various names, from Koheleth to King Solomon. We do not know for certain, though he identifies himself as King of Jerusalem. The salient point of his work is the lack of recompense for having occupied the highest station in life. Nevertheless, from this vantage point he also assails the lives of all who somehow rise in addition to those who do not. He is famous for having written, "vanity of vanities, all is vanity", yet new translations freely substitute "futility" as well as other synonyms. Koheleth is, in one popular version, translated as "the congregator". Koheleth can also mean "teacher", "preacher", or "gatherer". Unlike Isaiah, he does not prophecize. His inability to see the future, or any future for that matter, is what gives the passage its peculiarly bleak characteristic. "The sun rises, and the sun sets; then it hurries back to the place where it rises again." Astronomy does not hold the key. It is, rather, pure observation of how things, good or bad, remain the same, the exact opposite of the regnant view today of a world in flux, always changing. Yet, the author is far from nihilistic. Regardless of how things feel, look, or seem, he exhorts the reader to fear the true God. By fear he means something other than the more modern definition. The one God worthy of worship, held in awe, and to Whom it is advisable to bend one's own personal will, must be heeded. His words are not opinions, like ours. To be sure, men, he says, with the Old Testament tradition preferring men, rather than women, to attend to matters of scripture, are all too apt to fall from grace.
My wish would be to temporally contextualize Ecclesiastes, but there is no perfectly agreed upon time for when it was written, though it appears to have been relatively late, meaning in the last centuries leading to Christ. One commentary places the time during a return from captivity, well after the reign of Solomon, in addition to the first temple, destroyed in 587 BC. The main theme, which is not dependent upon any generation, is that, one (since this is the Old Testament), God exists, and two, He dwells in the heavens. There is not much space in this hub to go into the religion that preceded Christianity, like John before Jesus, but to attach importance to the whys and wherefores of the earth is, as Koheleth repeatedly asserts, "a chasing after the wind", a condemnation he applies to himself. Put it this way, he writes as if he were Solomon. He plainly states that in life he had everything: buildings, vineyards, servants, riches, elite company, concubines, and supreme royalty. In the end, looking back, it was, to him, all vanity, or futility, and he envies the unborn, who have not yet tasted the bitter offerings of earthly existence. At any rate, as an exceptionally well written literary pièce de résistance, I do not think even an atheist would be disappointed.
Solomon and the first Temple
- The First Temple - Solomon's Temple | Jewish Virtual Library
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The Mormons trek Westward in 1842-3
The second book has numerous writers, compiled in The Joseph Smith Papers, Volume II. The seemingly strange Mormon theology can be found elsewhere. This collection of entries and letters tells, in one section, how Smith was hounded, primarily by Lilburn W. Boggs, a patriot, veteran of the War of 1812, and Governor of Missouri. In this capacity, he authorized the expulsion of all Mormons from the State. He also went a step further, signing an affidavit, accusing Smith of complicity in a later attempt made on his life. Smith maintains that on the day of the shooting, he was in Nauvoo, IL, along with likeminded thousands belonging to the Nauvoo Legion. "I am now hunted as an hart, by the mob, under the pretence or shadow of the law," he writes (140). 2nd Amendment supporters might take note that Smith, known more as a priest to his followers, often signed his name, "Joseph Smith, Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion of Illinois Malitia". I have kept his spelling as a smaller matter of interest. His calling was otherworldly, but he nonetheless kept one eye open.
How does one as disliked as Smith, in danger of being lynched, already subjected to indignities, to be judged, especially given the circumstances and prejudices of an angered multitude? Apparently, Smith's greatest fear at the time were "Missourians". He was truly furious, reflected in letters to his wife. Unexpectedly, it was in Illinois, by the Mississippi, that a bullet finally dispatched the 38 year old leader of many wanderers from diverse origins, both in terms of place as well as belief. According to Boggs, sworn in July 1842, "Joseph Smith commonly called the Mormon Prophet was accessory before the fact of the intended murder" (176). It is his desire that the Governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, after Thomas Carlin, surrender Smith to Missouri. Ford turned down the request, but asked Smith to appear in Springfield, "the appropriate venue for this habeas corpus hearing". Herein lies trouble, the kind that admits no palliative. Not an ardent fan of timelines, I nevertheless cannot ignore the fact that in the same year, Lincoln, already established in Springfield, married into the prestigious Todd family. Lincoln, too, appears to have had a greater calling, though he also mastered the dubious art of politics.
Hajj in Mecca 2003
Religious Sincerity or Insincerity 1853
My next entry into this quaint pantheon is Sir Richard Francis Burton, of whom I wrote about in another hub. He is a fascinating character I am only justing getting into, somewhat lost, except to history buffs. My focus continues, as before, to zero in on his 1853 pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, which made him well-known. Prior to the Hajj, he impersonates a Persian Shia Prince, and was mistaken for a doctor due to possession of an extensive amount of medicine. Among the ailments he treated was homesickness, to give an idea of what was expected of 19th century doctors. The adventurer's secretive nature makes him hard for me, at this stage, to fathom what he truly believed in. His biographer put it thusly: "As so often, Burton was engaging in taqiya, concealment, in the matter of his religious beliefs and practices." (189) He would not be the first European to enter Mecca, having a Swiss predecessor, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who arrived inside the sacred city in 1815 -- posing as a learned Muslim after much genuine study in Aleppo. Despite being English, and either employed or encouraged by the Royal Geographical Society of London, Burton's report upon reaching, for instance, the tomb of Fatimah, reads with the utmost respect: "Peace be upon Thee, thou Daughter of the Prophet of Allah!" Her sepulchre is the sixth station, mentioned for the purpose of further research.
In brief, I would withhold judgment when it comes to sincerity and insincerity. An early psychologist claimed the mind can contain several contradictory assertions simultaneously without problem. Although Burton's chief goal was to maintain a Muslim exterior, since his life depended upon it (life on the Hajj was reputedly worth a single Spanish dollar in the hand of a Bedouin), I would not rule out an influenced interiority, too. Nevertheless, Burton was an eclectic. Years earlier, he also studied the Kabbalah, meaning only that his intellectualism was boundless. His biographer notes, first, that he did not experience religious ecstasy on the Hajj, but that, later, he regarded himself as Muslim. He married a Catholic, held a commission with the British Army in India, drank, frequented houses of prostitution, and pursued many additional interests having nothing to do with Mohammadism. Incidentally, Burton himself points out that the English regarded the Muslim on an equal plane with the Hindu, which is to say, with condescension. Aboard a ship in the 1870s, Burton could be seen rolling out his prayer rug on deck while Christians also prayed in a style he might once have participated in.
The Dedicated Life in the 1930s
Divine Mercy in My Soul
For someone poorly educated in comparative religion -- my own case -- Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska has no peer. After finishing Notebook I, it did not take much reflection to conclude that her thought processes were quite dissimilar to the secular. She is in constant communication with Jesus, who not only speaks to her, but reveals Himself as well. The overarching theme of her partnership is Mercy, which, through Saint Faustina, Jesus strives to make manifest. For me, it is a matter of curiosity that she is situated in Poland in the mid-1930s, only a handful of years from becoming an infamous, unholy killing ground. There are honors bestowed that are never solicited; it is basically the same with dishonors. Throughout her novitiate, she is completely cloistered, severed from the the world at large, and very busy besides. She fasts, prays, and works. She cheerfully embraces mortifications and suffering. She requests a 40-day fast and receives permission for seven days. She resides within a lonely cell. The sole impression one gets is that she is intense, somewhat unusually fitted to the regular program, and, with the aid of her Diary, has trained her mind to stay closely focused. As far as having intercessors, we perpetual sinners just do not know.
By 1936, at the time the second notebook was being written, earthly mercy was getting to be a scarce commodity. One can only assume, theologically, that divine mercy is better without really knowing what it is. By means of an inner ear for the Lord's words, an image was expressly created to be widely venerated. My analysis is purely speculative, possibly imaginary at best. Still, here is another coincidence: she takes her vows the same year Hitler comes to power in an adjoining country. Nonetheless, I am neither a student of the Holocaust nor the Church. So, to examine only the purely religious aspect, one can only say that her superiors did, in fact, try to talk her out of the notion of a privileged interaction with Jesus. She notes that her confessor raises his voice in an effort to dissuade her from inventing "illusions". It is a matter of record that religious experiences are normal, just not as intense or frequent as Saint Faustina. If nothing else, the Diary is a matter of literary interest, too. It has the style and appearance of a Daily Devotional, but is actually a dynamic stream of entries, most of which are relatively concise.
Her Life in 8 Minutes
Why the Religious?
For some time, the world at large has seemed to be spinning out of control. With the 2016 election, the spinning has finally reached America. For some reason, a lot of crises other parts of the world have been dealing with for years take a while to reach our shores. Some may never arrive. But terrorism was one of them. It used to be a subject of conversation, not a reality. Now, it seems as though just about anything could happen here. Without going into detail, many citizens are determined to leave no matter who is elected. Without leadership, can there truly be a country? Will it simply function the next four years like one of those driver-less Uber autos? The religious can provide comfort, especially in times of trouble. But they are not always a source of comfort, or they would not have been kicked out of the political arena, reduced to a token role, as obtains in most modern systems of government.
Another reason for seeking direction from the religious is that the presidency, in terms of perspective only, has undergone drastic changes in the last few decades. Attempts to maintain the dignity of the office are not always successful. In the recent race, respectable candidates were not taken seriously. The initial debates did not reflect well on "the system". We were thus left at the end of the slaughter with nominees who make us nervous, so that the segue to religion is almost involuntary. God help us. Staring blankly into the next four years, not knowing what is going to happen, or how it will be dealt with, is not for the faint of heart. Then again, nobody can foretell the future. Why worry? One must wait a while to find out.
Not Strictly Red and Blue Anymore
(1) The Old Testament, New World Translation.
(2) The Joseph Smith Papers, Volume 2.
(3) A Pilgrimage to Meccah and Medinah, ed. by Hugh J. Schonfield.
(4) Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, by Edward Rice.
(5) Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary of Saint Faustina Kowalska.