The Red Road

I recently retraveled the back roads of William Least Heat-Moon’s 1978 travel account, Blue Highways.¬† I read the book when it was released, but this time I listened to the audiobook which is how I prefer to experience books when I am on the road or walking my own backroads and woods.

Heat-Moon seems to have coined the term “blue highways” to refer to those out-of-the-way roads in mostly rural America which were shown in blue on the old Rand McNally road atlas. This is a book from a time when a GPS wouldn’t have even seemed possible.

But the author mentions an earlier version of his blue highways coming from his own American Indian ancestry. He references Black Elk’s “Two Roads,” one of which is sometimes called the Blue Road.¬†On this recent reading of the book, I did some further research into that aspect of the roads.

I had read John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks¬†a few years before I read Blue Highways, but I don’t recall ever making the connection between the two.

Nicholas Black Elk was born in 1863 and died in 1950 and saw tremendous changes in the lives of his Oglala Lakota people.¬† The book was published in 1932, but paperback editions of it were common in the 196s and 70s amongst college students. The “New Age” popularity was probably due to the visions of Black Elk that are recorded.

The book describes Lakota life and is a history of a Native nation, but it is often read as a spiritual tale.

Black Elk met Neihardt in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and asked him to record and share his story. (There has long been some controversy about this non-native writer telling the story.)

At the age of nine, Black Elk received a great vision which is the central reflector of the book. His celestial vision has been interpreted as the totality of earthly creation. It is a joyous sky-spanning vision of Earth and the heavens united.

For perspective, think about that the year after his vision, Black Elk was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was a second cousin of the war chief Crazy Horse.

Black Elk
Black Elk (USDA photo)

In the 1997 book, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, we get a more modern version of the vision and of the latter part of Black Elk’s life.

His childhood vision remained strong in Black Elk’s life until his death, though his own interpretation changed. He asks Wakan Tanka (God or The Great Spirit) throughout his lifetime if he properly interpreted or fulfilled the vision. In Black Elk Speaks, the conclusion seems sad and he feels he has not been able to save his people through his vision and works.

But Black Elk lived for almost twenty years after Neihardt finished his book, so the story there is incomplete. The newer book suggests that the answer that Black Elk finally received from Wakan Tanka was that he had fulfilled the vision.

Something that is missing from¬†Neihardt’s book is that Black Elk was baptized on St. Nicholas Day in December 1904 and took the name Nicholas to preface Black Elk. He was a practicing and proselytizing Catholic until his death. He baptized hundreds of Indians, taught the Bible, held Masses, and preached sermons. That was a 46 year period of having a simple, righteous, useful Christian life.

This conversion changed his interpretation of the childhood vision. There is Roman Catholic teaching aide that he encountered commonly known as the Two Roads Map. It was a visual catechism that was poster-sized. Though it is a Christian “salvation history,” there are parallels between Black Elk’s vision and the Two Roads Map that Black Elk was probably pleased to see.¬† Some of the similarities may seem coincidental or trivial – thunder beings, flying men, tree images, villages, a black road, a red road, an evil blue man engulfed in flames in a “Hellish” place where people moaned and mourned. He used the Two Roads Map in his teaching.

The map has a pre-Christian black road and a Christian red road. In Black Elk’s vision as well as in the Christian map, the Red Road was the good and authentic path. For Black Elk, it seems to have represented both the traditional Indian way with Lakota symbolism and Christian symbolism. The Red Road was the Christian right way to live.

It may be cultural or religious appropriation that the Red Road has more commonly become a name for the right path without regard to religion but perhaps some regard for spirituality.

So where does the Blue Road that Heat-Moon alludes to originate? For that, you need to read¬†in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk‚Äôs Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux.¬†This book is also a transcribed version of Black Elk’s teachings on the sacred pipe that was written much later in his life.¬†In this book, he speaks of the Red Road as the north-south cross of the Medicine Wheel. The east-west cross is the black or blue road, which is the way we should not travel.

For, Nicholas Black Elk, Christianity was the Red Road, a¬†metaphor for living a spiritual way of life. Rather than being a road stretching forward to the horizon, he saw the people on the red road as one interconnected circle of travelers making a “sacred hoop.”

William Least Heat-Moon lightly references the blue roads as being a way to travel that is kind of a waste of your time, but his blue highways were chosen to help him reconnect to people, the country and himself. His motorized journey is a spiritual one, though not one Black Elk may have recognized or endorsed.

In the descriptions of Black Elk’s central childhood vision that I have read, there is almost always a disclaimer that, of course, words cannot really capture what he saw. He saw multiple manifestations of a single Great Spirit. This monotheistic image probably made the transition to Catholicism more logical.

Nicholas Black Elk and family
Nicholas Black Elk and family, between 1890 and 1910

In my next post, I will travel down the blue roads and highways…

Cleopatra’s Nose

When I taught in a secondary school, I always had a rotating series of quotations on my classroom walls. Many were quite serious: “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” – Herman Hesse
Some were humorous: “Every place is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
Some quotes were somewhere in between: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
I even quoted myself: “Bladder control is a sign of maturity” and “When the mothership lands, know who your true friends are.”

Students would sometimes ask about a quote, and I would use them in lessons. On some rare and happy occasions, a student would connect a quote to something we were doing in class.

One quote that students usually thought was “stupid” was:

‚ÄúCleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.‚ÄĚ

It is a quote from Blaise Pascal who can be described as both a mathematician and a mystic. He was born in Clermont, France in 1623. I told students that Blaise was homeschooled because his father, a mathematician, believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. My students found this to be sound thinking.

They were in lesser agreement on that approach when they learned that his home life was less fun and games and more geometric problems which he was told to work out using lengths of sticks in his backyard.

The method seemed to work. At 12, he showed his father that he had discovered that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father invited him to join in his discussions with other mathematicians. He published an article on the geometric properties of cones at 16, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

TaylorBut what about Cleopatra’s nose? I always assumed that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but there are very few images or descriptions of her.

In my mind, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra (1963). That nose looks, like the rest of Liz, quite beautiful.

But it seems that power rather than beauty was the real appeal of Cleopatra.

coin
‚ÄúThe Lover‚Äôs Coin‚ÄĚ a bronze showing Cleopatra (left) and Marc Antony.

She is described as being quite thin and quite small (about four feet tall). Julius Caesar was accused of pedophilia when she at around age 18 visited him in Rome. She was also depicted as having quite a big nose. But Cleo was  proud of her large nose because it demonstrated her pure Macedonia blood (she was not Egyptian) as a descendant of Alexander the Great.

Pascal had a good-sized nose himself, so maybe he identified with Cleo. But what did that odd quote mean?

I college, I was assigned to read some of Pascal’s writings in a philosophy course. The idea that stuck with me was that if you change one thing, you change everything. If you decide to go to a different college, or marry a different person, everything after changes. But even if you change something that seems less significant – whether to skip work today, the route you take driving, your nose or Cleopatra’s nose – other things will change. Every choice changes the consequences.

That kind of thinking moves easily into discussions of fate, destiny, free will and religion. Pascal’s family was not religious and he was not raised with religious teachings. By chance (if you believe in that concept), he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal.

The newly converted Pascal had no problem with these new beliefs and science. He continued working on scientific experiments. He showed that a vacuum could exist in nature. He invented the mathematics of probability.

He had his religious beliefs, but he wasn’t a blindly devoted believer.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when
they do it from religious conviction.‚ÄĚ

But then, in 1654, he experienced a ‚Äúnight of fire.‚ÄĚ He had a divine vision. It changed his life and he decided to forget the world and everything except for God.

He left Paris the following year and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus.

He started to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity. He never completed the book. The notes he had made were posthumously published as Pensées (Thoughts).

What I recall most clearly from that book is his “wager.”

‚ÄúGod is or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Let us weigh the gain and the lose in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two changes. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, lose nothing. Wager then without any hesitation that He is‚ÄĚ

If God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him. But if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him.It is logical to believe.

In his writing, the “heart” is what experiences God, and not reason. The famous quote of his on that:

‚ÄúThe heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…
We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

These are far larger questions than my quotations on the wall ever answered. Then again, they were meant to provoke questions more than provide answers. Pascal said that ‚ÄúMan is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.‚ÄĚ

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of √Āvila s a young woman by Fran√ßois G√©rard, 1826

Last March 28, I saw on a website that it was the birthday of St. Teresa of √Āvila. I’m not a “religious” person these days in the sense of an organized religion, but I have an odd relationship with St. Teresa.

It started when I was 13 and attended “Sunday school” at¬†St. Leo’s Church in Irvington, New Jersey. That year I my teacher was a young and very kind nun. Those two qualities set Sister Teresa Avila apart from all the other nuns I encountered.

I knew nothing about the real Saint Teresa of √Āvila whom she was named after until many years later. The Saint Teresa (28 March 1515 ‚Äď 4 October 1582), was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun and author during the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer.

Teresa¬†grew up in a wealthy household in the province of √Āvila, Spain. She was a beautiful and social girl who loved her privileged life, perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when she was¬†14, and her father sent her to convent school to protect his beautiful daughter.

Perhaps surprisingly, she found the religious training very appealing and she decided to become a nun.

After twenty increasingly important years, she established her own monastery, She then traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

One day in that thirteenth year, I had forgotten a homework assignment for Sunday school catechism class. Sister Teresa told me to go home, get the assignment, bring it to the convent and ask for her. The nun who answered my knock at the convent door went to get Sister Teresa.

When Sister Teresa Avila appeared she was not wearing her nun’s habit. I can only imagine how my face must have looked.

She was beautiful. She had long, dark, shiny hair. She asked me for my assignment which was in my hand. I was frozen. It probably took me a few seconds to respond but it felt like a lot longer.

I was in love with her in the way that a boy of 13 can be in love with an adult woman. I don’t know in what way a boy can be in love with a nun.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini , 1652

In college I took a course about religion in literature and although it was taught by a religion professor, it was the most influential literature course I took as an English major. Along with novels, we read religious works including The Wisdom of the Sufis, The Dark Night of the Soul ¬†by¬†Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa’s¬†The Interior Castle.

The Interior Castle¬†was inspired by a Saint Teresa’s mystical vision of a crystal castle with seven chambers, each representing a different stage in spiritual development. She immediately wrote her book which is divided into seven parts (also called mansions, dwelling places or chambers) Each level brings you closer to God.

Entrance into the first three mansions is achieved by prayer and meditation. The fourth through seventh mansions are considered to be mystical or contemplative prayer. The soul achieves clarity in prayer and a spiritual marriage with God in the seventh mansions.

Of course, as I read the book my thoughts often returned to Sister Teresa rather than Saint Teresa. The two have remained blurred in my mind. I imagine Sister Teresa before she took the veil as a beautiful young girl much like the Teresa of Avila in 1529.

Over the years, both Teresa’s have been in my thoughts and have been alluded to in other works. Simone de Beauvoir writes about Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself in her book The Second Sex. George Eliot compared the character Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch.¬†Thomas Hardy took Teresa as the inspiration for much of the heroine Tess (Teresa) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a character who in one scene lies in a field and senses her soul ecstatically above her.

Saint Teresa appears in a few contemporary songs: “Theresa’s Sound-World” by Sonic Youth¬†¬†and in “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne.

But none of those allusions have had as much of an impact on me as reading The Interior Castle through the lens of a 13 year-old boy discovering another kind of love.

The Weight of the Soul

Many years ago, I read an article that has stayed with me about a doctor who tried to determine if the soul had weight. Over the years, I have seen that same story retold in various contexts: religious, scientific and New Age pseudoscientific.

You may have seen a film  21 Grams whose title refers to the early 20th-century research of physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall. He attempted to show scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul by recording a loss of body weight immediately following death. His hypothesis was that if any small amount of weight was lost at the moment after death, it was due to the departure of the soul.

MacDougall only had six patients in his experiment and the result he selected from one of them was that there was a loss of “three-fourths of an ounce.” That was, to him, the “weight of the soul” and it has since been popularized through the film and online as “21 grams.”

Though MacDougall’s results were published in the peer-reviewed journal American Medicine,¬†his experiment has met with mostly criticism as sloppy research or even pseudoscience.

First off, MacDougall assumed that any weight loss was an indication of the soul, which is not the territory of science. When I first read about this experiment, my own thought was that since energy cannot be created or destroyed and since the living body does create and hold an electrical charge that can be measured, where does that charge go after death?

Talking about this with a friend, he suggested (only part jokingly) that the energy leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field. ¬†I found later that he is not alone in his belief in The Force as a kind of global soul¬†or energy field that can be tapped by all of us –¬†if we know how. In the Star Wars series, The Force is used for both good and evil, but it is never explained as being the soul.¬†Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

I have done further reading over the years about all this and asked a few real scientists that I taught with at NJIT and it seems like a reasonable answer to my question and my friends answer is that the electrical charge gets grounded.

Our bodies generate electricity and that allows your nervous system to send signals to your brain and control the rhythm of your heartbeat, the movement of blood around your body and more.

The Earth also carries an enormous negative charge and our bodies connect with the Earth’s energy. Without getting too New Age, when you put your bare feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons (those are the good ones) through the soles of your feet. This¬†effect maintains your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called “grounding” or “earthing,” and it is viewed as an antioxidant effect.

Dr. MacDougall was pretty careful for his time. He recorded patient’s exact time of death, total time on the bed, used the most precise scales available, recorded any changes in weight that occurred at the moment of death. He thought about other explanations for weight loss (bodily fluids like sweat and urine, and gases like oxygen and nitrogen) and factored that into his calculations.

The only modern experiments I have ever come across about finding the soul or the energy were using a kind of photography that could see energy fields and attempted to see the energy leaving the body. Those were inconclusive. I just recently found that MacDougall did another experiment in 1911 attempting to photograph the soul when it left a body.

He said (and it was reported in The New York Times then, that doing a dozen experiments, he photographed ‚Äúa light resembling that of the interstellar ether‚ÄĚ in or around patients‚Äô skulls at the moments they died.

Science still has no interest in this line of soul research. I doubt that any research was done using a much larger¬†sample size. There is even some controversy as to when the precise “moment” of death occurs. Is it cellular death, brain death, physical death or heart death?

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured.

Dan Brown even references MacDougall‚Äôs experiments in his novel The Lost Symbol. A scientist character placed a dying man in an air-tight capsule, fitted with very sensitive micro weight detectors, and after his death showed a difference in weight “though microscopic, is quite measurable.‚Ä̬†The novel’s experiment has some of the same flaws as MacDougall’s experiment.

But wouldn’t it be comforting to prove that we each have a souls that lives on after we die?

We have been considering this idea of a soul for a very long time. Religious, philosophical and mythological traditions often view the soul (perhaps by a different name) as  essence of a living being and it can be mortal or immortal.

In Judeo-Christianity, only human beings have immortal souls. Thomas Aquinas attributed soul/anima to all organisms but argued that only human souls are immortal. Hinduism and Jainism hold that all biological organisms – your pets and the flea on your dog – have souls. Aristotle also believed that. In some philosophies (animism), even non-biological entities – rivers and mountains – have souls.

Science still isn’t interested. I have read that functional neuroimaging has mapped every function once associated with the soul to specific regions and structures of the brain.

Physicists have mapped the connections between subatomic particles and need no spiritual explanations. But they have also said that dark matter makes up more than 80 percent of the universe’s mass, but we haven’t actually seen a single atom of it. That requires at least some non-religious faith.

I agree with Hamlet that still “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

A Father and Daughter and Science and Religion

galileosdaughter

I think it is pretty safe to assume that everyone has heard of Galileo Galilei. Not as well known is his eldest daughter.

Galileo was born on February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy. A mathematics professor, he made observations with implications for the future study of physics. He constructed a telescope (did not invent it) and made significant improvements to it. He supported the Copernican theory of a sun-centered solar system and so was accused twice of heresy by the Catholic church.

He had three children, but was closest to his eldest, Virginia. He saw her as much like himself in intellect, sensibility, and with an always-seeking spirit.

Virginia was born of his illicit affair with Marina Gamba of Venice. Her birth was in the summer of a new century – August 13, 1600.

That year was also when a Dominican friar, Giordano Bruno, who believed the Earth traveled around the Sun, was burned at the stake.

On her thirteenth birthday, Virginia entered a convent and remained there for the rest of her short life. She was devout but loved her father and remained in constant correspondence with him.

I learned about her when I read back in 1999 Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel which used whatever surviving letters (never published in translation) between them as a major source. It is a good tale of that divide and connections between science and spiritual belief that still exists.

Virginia became Maria Celeste as a nun. We can surmise that Celeste might be a celestial nod to her father. In the convent, she was the apothecary Рa kind of science of that time. She sent her father herbal treatments. She asked her father for financial help for the convent. She may have helped him prepare some manuscripts.

It is not really clear how father and daughter reconciled his heresy and her devotion. But they did. Love conquers all?

Galileo was not an atheist. He remained a Catholic and believed in the power of prayer.

Unfortunately, though letters from Maria Celeste were discovered among Galileo’s papers, his responses to her have been lost. Maria Celeste’s letters are published as Letters to father,¬†translated and edited by Dava Sobel.

We remember Galileo mostly for the telescope, which he found out about in 1609. It was a Dutch gadget and initially known as a spyglass or eyeglass. It was curiosity that made faraway objects appear closer and they were being sold in Paris. Galileo saw it as a device of use in the military and promoted it as that to the Italian government.

He improved the design, as others were also doing in other countries,¬†grinding and¬†polishing lenses himself.¬†The¬†Venetian senate was so amazed and obsessed with using it to look for distant ships from bell towers of the city, they¬†renewed his¬†contract at the University of Padua for life, and Professor Galilei’s salary jumped to 1000 florins per year (a 500% raise from his starting pay).

That telescope cause a huge shift in the way we perceive the world we live in and the universe beyond or world.

Galileo used his improved telescope to make¬†detailed drawings of the Moon‚Äôs phases, and he discovered 4 of Jupiter‚Äôs 67 moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), though he considered them to be planets.¬†In a¬†1610 letter, Galileo commented on them and said “I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”

He reminds me of Charles Darwin in that both had a hard time with their discoveries knowing that this new knowledge would clash with existing religious beliefs. Galileo wrote a famous letter about science and religion and that conflict obviously concerned him Рand his daughter, and probably some of you reading this today.

Galileo at age 42.
Galileo at age 42, when Virginia was 6, in a portrait by Domenico Robusti.

Becoming Wiser

krista-tippettI have been listening to Krista Tippett on her radio program, Speaking of Faith, since back in 2003. Though it changed its name in 2010 to On Being, the program has the same focus and appeal.

Like many programs, movies and books that I admire, it often features people who I have never heard of, and who I would probably never have encountered Рbut I trust her choices enough to listen, and I am usually rewarded by insights from her and the guest.

She has written several books, but her new one is Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.

On_Being_Becoming-Wise-Products-final

‚ÄúI‚Äôm a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and¬†beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard. This book¬†chronicles some of what I‚Äôve learned in what has become a¬†conversation across time and generations, across disciplines and¬†denominations,” says Krista.

In the early days, her show did have more of an outright focus on religions. But it has always had an interest in how scientists relate to religion, faith and being. Those programs have been amongst my favorites.

For example, my own fascination with Albert Einstein seems to be shared by Tippett who has done multiple programs about Einstein. She has also written Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit. Einstein is a good example of that strange Venn diagram that many of us have where religion, God, faith, belief, and spirituality overlap. Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God. One of the many Einstein quotes you find online is “God does not play dice with the universe.” That seems to be a clear statement of belief, but it was about quantum physics, not the God of religion. But Albert certainly spent a significant amount of his life doing thought experiments about the relationship between science and religion. How could he not wonder? Any thinking person must wonder.

I believe all of us have the same interest as Einstein (although he may have taken it further than most of us) in trying to discover the order deeply hidden behind everything. Tippett notes Einstein’s self-described “cosmic religious sense” is very compatible with twenty-first-century sensibilities.

But On Being and her new book includes the ideas of theologians from many faiths, but also poets, activists and others.

I call this post “Becoming Wiser” (as opposed to Tippett’s¬†book title¬†Becoming Wise) ¬†because I know I am wiser for having listened to Krista’s programs and read her books, but they also remind me how much further I need to go to be Wise.

This is not a book review but a preview because I haven’t read this book yet, but I am confident that it will continue to help equip me “to meet the world where it really is, and then to¬†make it better.”

 

other books

Further Reading:
Amazon is getting much better with its recommendations. When I pre-ordered Becoming Wise, Amazon suggested a group of books that do belong on the same shelf. There were ¬†four that I have already read, and the others are all books I would like to read. It included the obvious choices of her other books:¬†Einstein’s God¬† and her earlier¬†Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters–and How to Talk About It.¬† It also suggested¬†Rising Strong by Bren√© Brown, ¬†Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver, ¬†The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages by Andrew Blauner, ¬†Gratitude by Oliver Sacks ¬†A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals,¬†and¬†Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty. there are others I would add to that list – for example, guests from her programs, such as¬†Parker J. Palmer and¬†Karen Armstrong.