Me and Saint Augustine – Sinners

When I was 12 years old and attending catechism classes at my Catholic church on Sundays after mass, the nun who taught us assigned a report on a saint to the class. There was a list of saints and you put your name next to one. I randomly picked St. Augustine because he was at the top of the alphabetical list and that meant I could get my oral report over with it at the beginning of class.

After the list went around the classroom, Sister Wanda called me to her desk.
“I think you should choose a different saint.”
“Why?” I asked.
She hesitated and then said, “His is – a difficult story.”
“I’m a good student. I can handle it,” I replied confidently.
She thought about it a bit and then said I could do St. Augustine.

This exchange piqued my interest in the man.

Vittore carpaccio, visione di sant'agostino
St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502  Link

Augustine came back to me when I saw that today is his birthday. He was born in Tagaste, Numidia in 354 – a year that was incomprehensible to me in seventh grade and still is incomprehensible. I had to look up his birthplace which is a part of North Africa that is now Algeria.

I remember only a few things from that early research. One thing he believed that I found ridiculous was the idea that no one could be free from sin. Sinfulness is the nature of humans. He developed the idea of Original Sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins. That seemed incredibly unfair.

Sin was a big thing with Augustine who turned out to be a pretty good sinner himself. Reading about him (probably in a library copy of The World Book Encyclopedia and in a Lives of the Saints book that my mother had on our bookshelf), I started to see why Sister Wanda wasn’t sure I should learn about him.

His book, The Confessions, is one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion. There were a lot of them. The sins ranged from small ones (stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree) to ones he considered major (sexual fantasies and fornication). Augustine’s story got quite interesting and I found other books in the library about him and looked for the “dirty parts.”

He wrote, “Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. Lust stormed confusedly within me. The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.”

I identified – at least in the fantasy parts – with him. Augustine’s life got me thinking about things that I probably would have to include in my next confession.

Augustine’s mother arranged a respectable marriage for him which he agreed to, but it meant he had to dump his concubine (I had to look that one up in the dictionary)  and that pained him. He wrote, “My mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clave to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding.” Augustine confessed he was a slave of lust, and he procured another concubine since he had to wait two years until his fiancée came of age.

Around that time, he said he first professed his famously insincere prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.” I think I may have said that a few times myself after doing my report. I thought it was funny.

I considered his Original Sin idea to be crazy. You’re telling me that the innocent newborn is doomed? No way. But I agreed that it was hopeless to think we could be innocent or free from what he considered to be “sin.” Since it is hopeless to be free from sin, I felt more relaxed about sinning.  After all, Augustine did a lot of sinning and became a saint! His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. At least he thought that if Christian churches baptized infants it would cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.

I wrote my report and turned it in. The following Sunday, we had to do a brief summary oral report. I was smart enough to not include anything about sex in my report. I stuck to him being a scholar whose writings covered theology, philosophy, and sociology. He realized he was a sinner and that we are all sinners and that we can only be redeemed by recognizing that and so our only hope is in God’s forgiveness.

Sister Wanda liked my report. I didn’t believe everything I had told the class, but I knew what I had to say to her and them.

His life story is still interesting to me. The lesson I took away is probably not what he or Sister Wanda wanted me to learn. I too want to be granted forgiveness and self-restraint – but not yet.

The Parable of the Elephant

The parable of the elephant (I call it that – it seems to have other names too) is supposed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent a long time ago, but it has been passed down in other forms.  You may have heard it in a classroom used as a teachable moment or parable. I heard it in a workshop presentation.

examining the elephant
Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

One version of the story:

Four blind people come upon an elephant in the forest. But they have never had any experience with an elephant. Each person attempts to determine what is before them.
The first person touches and explores the elephant’s trunk. “It is like a snake.” 

“There is a column,” says the next explorer leaning on the huge leg.
Feeling a bit threatened, the elephant trumpets an alarm. “It’s like a horn.” 
The elephant starts moving away and the fourth person freezes in place. “It’s an earthquake!”

The story is ancient and the first recorded version of the story may be in a Buddhist text (Udana 6.4) dated to about the mid-first millennium BCE.

In the many variations you can find, the people are monks, all men, genderless people (the one I use here), children and even modern-day scientists. Some versions have the elephant’s tusk being like a spear or the leg like a tree trunk. I found an alternate version of the parable with sighted men encountering a large statue in total darkness or being blindfolded as an experiment.

And what is the moral or lesson?

Generally, the moral of the parable is that humans tend to claim absolute truth based on their own limited and subjective experiences.   Further, we also sometimes ignore other people’s equally subjective experiences – all of which might have some validity.

The story is used to illustrate how the “truth” is what we have determined by our own incomplete experience without taking into account other people’s experiences and additional observation and information.

In a more moralistic sense, the story points to approaching new things with greater empathy and putting ourselves “into other people’s shoes.”

In the 19th century, the American poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. That version concludes with an actual moral stated that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God. The blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced.

I heard this story in a workshop presentation as a way of illustrating systems thinking. That interdisciplinary study looks at interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. Systems are “bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.”

In the presentation I heard, the story was about networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In that “web of life” way, we know now that changing one part of a system will affect other parts or the whole system, and that a system may be more than the sum of its parts. It can express synergy or emergent behavior. The system could also be a natural environment and the people who live in and near it, such as a wetland.

The more modern uses of the story use it in ways unknown and unintended by the original storytellers, but the moral is broadly the same: we need to seek the truth through the observations of ourselves combined with those of others before we conclude what that truth might be.


Dark Days and Nights of the Soul

Last week, I wrote about attempts to prove the existence of a soul by proving that the soul has weight. Writing that led me to return to “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poem I was assigned to read in college. It was a title that appealed to me then because that was a time when I had many nights that I thought of as “dark nights” due to depression.

The poem was written by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross. St. John didn’t give the poem a title. He also wrote two commentaries on the poem that are much longer than the poem itself. Those commentaries are called Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo) and The Dark Night (Noche Oscura).

The new year 2020 has been a month of dark nights and dark days for me. I can’t say that my dark days are really “of the soul.” St. John of the Cross was describing the journey of the soul to a mystical union with God. If anything, my journey has been away from God.

I’m not sure I can really define what I mean when I use the word “soul” though I have thought about it for years. St. John of the Cross was certainly thinking about God and religious belief. He wasn’t thinking about how life-in-general can have dark nights, but in the 600+ years since he was writing the phrase “dark night of the soul” has been used many times to mean the hardships of everyday life.

It means to me and others a kind of spiritual depression that someone has to go through in order to be reawakened into the world. If you’re experiencing that it can be very frightening and dangerous.

Eckhart Tolle says the dark night of the soul is used to describe “what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level… the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.”

The nights St. John describes are purgations on the path. The first purging is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul.  The second purge is the spiritual part. Both are stages of the mystical journey.

St. John does not actually use the term “dark night of the soul”, but only “dark night” (“noche oscura“). His guidance comes from the only light in this dark night burns in the soul.

When I studied and wrote about the poem as a student, I dug deeper into the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love which had been earlier described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle.

This old poem is not easy to read. What might I find to identify with in a poem written around 1578 while the poet was probably was imprisoned in Spain?

What I found was the idea that a crisis of the spirit and soul might be the start of a journey to something better. I find it hopeful. I found it hopeful many years ago. I still find some hope in its intention now.

The crisis is hopefully temporary, but it may not be brief. I pity those who suffer for a long time. The examples in religious history are not comforting. St. Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured dark nights for 45 years. According to her letters, the dark “night” of St. Teresa of Calcutta lasted from 1948 almost until her death in 1997.

These are heavy and not entertaining thoughts. I once had a conversation with a close friend about this topic and he suggested (only partly jokingly) that the soul is energy and that it leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field.

He is not alone in that belief in a force that is a kind of global soul or energy field that can be used by all of us – if we know how to tap into it.  there’s the rub.  Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

Energy cannot be destroyed, so if the soul is energy, where does it go when we die?

Another scientifically-minded friend answers that the energy simply gets “grounded” in the Earth.

You won’t find scientific interest in soul research. I doubt that any researchers are looking at the dark night of the soul either.

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured. maybe we can’t tap into any larger energy other than our own.

I wrote my own dark night of the soul poem this past week (read it here) and I do feel lighter today than I did the past month.

Maybe I need to lighten up when it’s possible to do so. Perhaps, I will reread humorist Douglas Adams’ novel about the shallowness of modern spirituality, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, whose title sets up where he is headed. And I’ll make a nice cup of tea.

Joans of Arc and Arcadia

I noticed on the almanac on January 6 that it was the birthday of Joan of Arc. It so happened that I had just watched an old episode of the TV series Joan of Arcadia. These synchronicities happen sometimes. They are not coincidences.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc (French: Jeanne d’Arc) was born in 1412 to peasant parents in Domrémy, France. Nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” she is considered a heroine of France for her role in the Hundred Years’ War.

She began seeing visions when she was 13 and believed that Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret were urging her to defend France against the English.

Joan cut off her hair to pose as a boy and joined the troops of Prince Charles, eventually leading the troops to victory. She was at the prince’s side when he was crowned King.

Amber as Joan
Amber Tamblyn as Joan of Arcadia

The television Joan is an American teenager, played by Amber Tamblyn, who sees and speaks with God and performs tasks she is given by God. It ran for two seasons from 2003-2005. Joan Girardi and her family lives in the fictional city of Arcadia, Maryland.

Joan’s visions are quite real and God appears to her as people recurring in her world – a child, a student at her school, a guidance counselor, an old woman at the park, etc. God gives her assignments or tasks that initially seem silly or useless but ultimately have positive outcomes for her or other people. Each episode has a lesson.

The show had critical praise and won several awards including a nomination for an Emmy Award in its first season for Outstanding Drama Series.

At 18, Joan of Arc went into battle again but was captured by allies to the English. They put on trial for heresy. Her visions were at the core of their prosecution, though it was obvious that she was being tried for opposing the English in battle.

The prosecutors tried to trick her by asking her if she knew she was in God’s grace. Church doctrine said that no one could know that for certain, If she answered yes, she was guilty of heresy. If she answered no it would be taken as an admission of guilt. Her answer was a clever avoidance: “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”

Joan was found guilty. She had no legal counsel. There were forged court documents. Joan, who was illiterate, signed a confession that was presented to her as being something else.  She was burned at the stake in the market square in Rouen in 1431. She was 19.

Joan of Arc was declared a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, who called her a “most brilliantly shining light of God.” Her story affects people in different ways – as a religious figure, feminist, a symbol of courage and faith and a victim of political powers.

Joan TV series

My wife and I watched Joan of Arcadia during its original run. Both of us used an episode in our classrooms (mine, an English class, hers, a French class). It is available on DVD but on this second viewing, we recorded the series on the DVR as it ran (in order) on the startTV channel. It is still on as I write this.

I  really loved the show during its original run and I dug into both Joans a bit deeper. For example, I discover that Joan Girardi’s middle name is Agnes. That made me check into St. Agnes, a virgin martyr. She is the patron saint of girls and chastity. A good choice for 21st century Joan a girl whose virginity was an issue in the series.

Joan of Arcadia was canceled after its second season. Despite great reviews, it lost a portion of its first-year viewing audience. I think it is partially because the show (and audience) was split between Joan’s stories and those of her family, especially her father.  I also felt that the second season got much darker in its themes.

The final episode (“Something Wicked This Way Comes”) had God telling Joan that her last two years were just practice. It set up for the intended third season when Joan would face off against a man who also talks to God, but seems to have an evil agenda. This perhaps-Devil is charming, wealthy and influential. He saves Joan’s boyfriend Adam and he works his way into her family who doesn’t see anything sinister about him.

I have read a half dozen books about Joan of Arc including one that I read as a teenager written by Mark Twain that probably inspired my interest in her life. Both Joans have things to teach us and I recommend reading and viewing them.

Religion has a tough time on TV.  “That’s what religions are: different ways to share the same truth,” God tells Joan in one episode.

Other people have written that the series (and ones like it) have a place on the air.

Jason Ritter, who played one of Joan’s brothers on the show, later did a similar series called Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. (which had formerly been known as The Gospel of Kevin). I watched that series too and enjoyed the big themes it took on.  Ritter played Kevin Finn, a man who survived a suicide attempt but loses his way in life, who ends up moving in with his twin sister Amy and her teenage daughter. He encounters an “angel” named Yvette who claims that God has tasked Kevin with saving the world. Yvette clearly has some otherworldly powers and does not appear to others and is there to guide and protect him. Kevin is an unlikely candidate for this task.

Kevin is told that in every generation, there are 36 righteous souls on Earth whose existence protects the word. Kevin, she tells him, is the last of them. This idea of 36 righteous people comes from an idea in the more mystical dimensions of Judaism that says that at all times there are 36 special people in the world and that if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end.

That series came to an end after only one season for probably the same reasons as Joan of Arcadia. I think the big themes and any hint of religion scares TV networks – and maybe viewers.

The latest series to take on similar themes certainly owes something to Joan of Arcadia. That is God Friended Me, now in its second season on CBS.  In this series,  Miles Finer is an atheist and podcaster, who gets a friend request on Facebook from an account named “God.” Skeptic that he is, when the account sends him other friend suggestions (so far people living near him in New York City) of people he discovers need assistance he follows up and investigates.  As with Joan, though initially, the friend suggestions don’t make sense, he does end up helping them.

Like Joan of Arcadia, the show also deals with Miles’ family (his father is a pastor of an Episcopal church) and his girlfriend which are subplots that often weave into the friend suggestions. Another plotline that runs throughout the series is attempts by Miles, his girlfriend Cara and his hacker friend Rakesh to find out who is behind the “God” account. All of them believe it is a person, not God.

Now that I have gotten into the series, I hope the jinx of Joan and Kevin doesn’t strike Miles.


A Perennial Philosophy

water lily buds

I saw a reference this past week to the “perennial philosophy” and though I studied some philosophy in college and sometimes still read in that section of the library shelves I have to admit I couldn’t define what that meant.

This version of philosophical thought has been around since the Renaissance and had a resurgence in the 20th century.  The perennial philosophy is one way to view the practice of many religious faiths.

Aldous Huxley wrote back in 1945 that a perennial philosophy “recognises a divine reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being”.

What first appealed to me when I did study this philosophy was the idea of identifying common mystical experiences across cultures and traditions.

From Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita:
“More than twenty-five centuries have passed since that which has been called the Perennial Philosophy was first committed to writing; and in the course of those centuries, it has found expression, now partial, now complete, now in this form, now in that, again and again. In Vedanta and Hebrew prophecy, in the Tao Teh King and the Platonic dialogues, in the Gospel according to St. John and Mahayana theology, in Plotinus and the Areopagite, among the Persian Sufis and the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — the Perennial Philosophy has spoken almost all the languages of Asia and Europe and has made use of the terminology and traditions of every one of the higher religions.”

I also had read some William James who wrote that an essential mark of the mystical experience is that it is ineffable or indescribable. Of course, that hasn’t stopped “mystics” from talking about, publishing and capitalizing on their experiences. It hasn’t stopped non-mystics from wanting to read about mystical experiences in the hope of having their own at some point.

In the Perennial Philosophy, all of the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions share one universal truth. It’s Einstein’s dream of a unified field theory but or religion. If you accept this, you would agree that all of these traditions are trying to make sense of the same thing.

What is that thing? Huxley thought it was “divine reality.” He thought that although all the traditions vary in their teaching, they all are a search for meaning in life. That’s not THE meaning of life. It is finding meaning in our life.

Clearly, the ethics, beliefs, principles and teachings of the world religions are very different. It’s easy to say they share one divine ultimate goal but it is more difficult to see everything that leads to that divine reality.

Would the Perennial Philosophy mean the creation of yet another religion? It’s not a religion. It’s a philosophy.

Can an atheist follow the philosophy? Yes. How does someone follow it? What is the path?

Maybe Huxley’s own book, The Perennial Philosophy, is a place to begin. He doesn’t abandon religion. In fact, he uses Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Islam and explains how they are united.

There’s no building to go to for meetings. There’s no leader. There really isn’t a book to follow. The Perennial Philosophy might seem lonely or you might like following a path on your own. What is definitely perennial is our desire to find the meaning.


Back When I Was Older

past lives

As a parent, what would you do if your 4-year-old son started telling you about memories that can’t possibly be his own? These are memories that he says are from “when he was older.”

A past life? Reincarnation? Psychic connections?

A recent episode of Invisibilia about one of these stories got me looking back at some investigating I had done on my own years ago. The topic is interesting whether or not you believe that we have had past lives. It gets you into psychology and religion and maybe the paranormal.

An article on “Children Who Seemingly Remember Past Lives” from addresses why some children recount apparent past-life memories with such vividness. In many of these cases, the person from the past being spoken of could be identified through the specificity of information from the child. Here’s a look at two very impressive (and recent) instances.

The stories border on being creepy movie plots. For example, a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl who is very upset because she can’t find “her” children. She describes the past life “her” as someone who lost her life in a car accident.

In Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, a book published by Jim Tucker, a psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia, he compiled hundreds of case that fit this pattern.

Some doctors and scientists who study this are hesitant to refer to this as children experiencing “past lives” because that crosses into reincarnation which crosses over to religion.

These cases are not the result of “past life regression” which is a technique that uses hypnosis to recover what practitioners believe are memories of past lives or incarnations. I question those results of stories gained under hypnosis and the practice is widely dismissed and considered unscientific by medical practitioners. These experts generally regard claims of recovered memories of past lives as fantasies or delusions or a type of confabulation (in psychology, a memory error).

Ironically, though past-life regression is often considered a spiritual experience and advocates belive in reincarnation, those religious traditions that incorporate reincarnation generally do not include the idea of repressed memories of past lives.

Tucker believes parents need to know that these statements from children don’t indicate psychological problems. And though children may be troubled by these memories at an early age, such memories appear to fade by the time children are 6 or 7.

Another book by Tucker along with Ian Stevenson, Life Before Life: Children’s Memories of Previous Lives, examines a collection of 2,500 cases that investigators have carefully studied since Stevenson began the work more than forty years ago.

Children usually begin talking about a past life at the age of two or three and may talk about a previous family or the way they died in a previous life. Their statements have often been found to be accurate for one particular deceased individual, and some children have recognized members of the previous family.

Further eeriness comes when some children have birthmarks or defects that matched wounds on the body of the deceased person.

There doesn’t seem to be permanent problems from these memories. When the kids studied got older, they embraced their present life and identity.

Another Psychology Today article on children and past lives asks readers if they believe in reincarnation. This points to the separation between those who believe that the children are seeing into a life they once lived, and those who believe that the children have somehow tapped into the past or someone else’s memories.

His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama has said “When science doesn’t find something, there are two possibilities: The not finding of something that doesn’t exist, and the case of even though something exists, it can’t be found. They are different. For instance, about past and future lives and not being able to prove them scientifically, it is just that scientists cannot find them, but that doesn’t prove that they don’t exist.”

Where do I stand in this debate? I had my own story of a possible past life experience that happened when I was a college student. At least, that was the explanation I was given by others who heard my story. So, I am open to the idea. That experience mad eme research past lives, reincarnation, and past life regression, but I’m still unsure.

Any thoughts?

10 Mysterious Kids Who Remember Their Past Lives (video)

Tales Told by Children Remembering Their Past Lives

Children’s Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child by Carol Bowman

Old Souls: Compelling Evidence from Children Who Remember Past Lives by Tom Shroder