WHY , pray , PRAY ?

Be they American prayer breakfasts or regular Sunday services or people praying in private, one has to wonder why such things go on in the modern world, and what intelligent people truly believe they are doing in addressing an imaginary deity.  The vast majority are not putting on an act (this may or may not be true of U.S. political candidates, beginning with hockus POTUS).  Most truly believe there is Someone, a benevolent, divine, omnipotent Friend listening.  They sincerely believe that S/He will answer their prayers.  Curiously, they seem to accept that sometimes, often, nothing happens.  But they long ago learned that God knows best, and that He works in mysterious ways . . .

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about prayer is that no one bothers to analyze what they are saying.  You really expect Mary to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, though she has been dead herself for two thousand years ?  You seriously believe that God will give us our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses ?  Ask the starving in Africa and the prisoners on Death Row.

Mind you, most people would despair if you destroyed their pathetic belief that they were talking to Someone, when in fact they are talking to themselves.  Leave them in their illusion ?  Or liberate them to face the truth ?  I have opted for the latter.  Many believers have a faith that is as blind as it is impregnable.  But I will continue to sow the seeds of doubt, hoping that some will find the answer, or at least the question, blowin’ in the wind.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

” ALLELUIA ! “

Televangelists and other frenetic American Protestant preachers, black and white, pad their spiel with an exclamation that never fails to rouse their congregations to enthusiastic repetition of the mantra : “Praise the Lord !”, “Praise God”, or simply, in its original Hebrew version, “Allelu-ia”.  In any language the word deserves reflection.  Religion universally seems to involve praising the deity for being such a Great Guy (or Gal), for His/her goodness, kindness and bounty, if not appeasing Him/Her to avoid divine anger.  Either way, this “God” is a monster of egoism, a supposedly omnipotent God of Love who looks the other way when His children murder their brethren in Bali, Belfast and beautiful downtown Baghdad.  Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition !

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

A BLOODY MIRACLE

Catholics have their lunatic fringe, evidenced annually in the supposed liquefying of the blood of a third century martyr, Saint Januarius.  The Church ( the One, True, Roman, Catholic, Apostolic Church, need it be underlined ?) prudently refuses to call this event which occurs on the feast-day of the Saint, a miracle, contenting itself to describe it as a “religious phenomenon” (readers will appreciate the jesuitical distinction).  Small matter that the stuff inside the vial is a 14th century solid chemical which turns to liquid whenever a Bishop, or anyone else, shakes it.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

COINCIDENCES OR DIVINE INTERVENTION ? GIVING GOD THE CREDIT

It was a difficult birth, but, thanks be to God, both mother and baby are fine.  It was a terrible accident : the driver was killed but, thank God, all of the passengers survived.  It rained today; the drought is over.  Let us thank God who has answered our prayers.

In 2008, Ingrid Betancourt was liberated from the FARC after six years of captivity as a hostage in the jungles of Colombia.  She thanked God for her “miraculous” liberation.  The future (now the past) was to reveal the relative weight of the rôle played by the Presidents and Secret Services of the U.S., of France, of certain South American countries and even of Israël, in this extraordinary exploit.  But God gets the credit.

With all the respect we owe to the brave, pious Ingrid, her thanks to God will remain evidence of her confusion of the intervention of political, financial and military means with those of a God she and so many others have imagined.  God, as usual, had nothing to do with it.  Thank Whomever or Whatever, but not “God”, that she is free at last.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

CAUSE AND EFFECT

It is obviously … pleonastic to state that there can be no effect without a cause.  But can there be a reality without a cause ?  Theists believe so : that “reality” they call God.  Surrounded by, and themselves incarnating, what are already effects – their own bodies, their food, their home, clothes, furniture, children, neighbors, their planet and their universe – they jump to the conclusion that there must be a First Uncaused Cause of all these effects : “He who is who He is” (“Yahweh”, in the Judeo-Christian tradition), the Ultimate Given.

No one can dispute the necessity of a cause to explain an effect.  But to identify “the ground and source of being” (Paul Tillich) as some divine Person(s) – depending on whether your tradition is Judeo or Christian – is a jump atheists refuse to make.  We prefer to speak of the Big Bang, rather than the Big Being.  But, theists will object, what caused the Big Bang in the first place ?  The glib answer would be “God knows !”.  The honest answer of atheists is “We don’t know”.  You believe that God is the Ultimate Cause.  We affirm that He is not, given the total lack of evidence.  Neither you nor we will ever know.

The reflection on causes and effects has multiple repercussions.  Let us examine just one of them.

A terminally-ill patient is wheelchaired into the miraculous waters of Lourdes.  Doctors who gave the patient no hope of recovering are flabbergasted to have to recognize, post factum, a complete cure.  An amazing, incredible, inexplicable … miraculous effect !  The cause ?  Why, the “Immaculate Conception”, of course, the name which Bernadette Soubirous said Mary the Virgin Mother of Jesus revealed to her as her title (coincidentally with a papal, “infallible” doctrine, misunderstood by most Catholics), along with the gift of a miraculous spring, and the request-command to have a church built in her honor (she knew all about mothering but also marketing) in the mountains of southern France.

Science and scientists cannot (yet) explain such effects.  To attribute their cause, however, to the quaint figure we recognize in statues of the Virgin in Catholic churches throughout the world, and even in the plastic bottles in her effigy (!) filled with water from Lourdes which pilgrims bring home, is a quantum leap easy for the credulous, impossible for the rationalist.

The unexplained does not equate with the unexplainable.  We have already spoken, in the previous post, of the extraordinary power of the Placebo Effect in such “miraculous” cures.  It is the best explanation we presently have – better anyhow than the imagined object of the credulity of the poor, pious, uneducated adolescent later to become Saint Bernadette and the wishful thinking of the sick and invalid who count on Pyrenees spring water to cure them.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

DO MIRACLES REALLY HAPPEN ?

Many of the faithful see miracles as a mainstay of their reasons for belief.  Indeed so did I long ago.  I remember as a priest telling a sceptical friend, “Medical miracles either prove that God exists or show that the mind has immense power over the body”.  Unfortunately at the time I was backing the wrong horse.

Just a few years later evidence was published demonstrating the amazing Placebo Effect which amply demonstrated the power of the mind to produce a good (as well as a bad – think of ulcers) result in the body.  Numerous studies have shown that placebos – sham treatments – are often about as effective as many over-the-counter, non-prescribed, drugs at relieving illness.  Some spectacular instances have been documented in medical literature, including remission of massive and multiple cancers, and even in relieving Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by disruption of the supply of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.

I am at present ingesting two magnesium pills, prescribed by my doctor, every day for six weeks, to prevent noctural cramps in my legs.  The blurb on the box states : “In the absence of an improvement of symptoms after a month of treatment, it is useless to continue”.  Surely this is a blatant admission that the pills are a placebo.  My problem is not a deficiency of magnesium but of credulity.  Sounds like homeopathy to me.  Better to stick to walking barefoot, free of charge, on a tiled floor.

Voodoo and similar magic have been using the mind over matter effect for millennia, both positively in promoting cures and negatively in casting spells which can cause death.  The Australian aborigines had a “pointing the bone” ceremonial, which could seemingly transmit the piece of bone miraculously into the victim’s body.  Provided the victim was told of the ceremony, he would give up all hope and die, unless stronger magic could be employed to lift the spell.  In ancient cultures all sickness was blamed on evil spirits or malevolent spells cast by enemies.

Lourdes in France has been the center for miracles in the modern world ever since a local girl saw visions of the Virgin Mary a century and a half ago.  Six million pilgrims visit the shrine each year.  Many believers claim a miraculous intervention, but the Catholic Church recognizes very few.  In 1947 a medical bureau was established by the Church to examine each claim and determine whether the cure was indeed outside and beyond the explanation of medicine.  The number of cures claimed has been decreasing exponentially.  Before 1914 one pilgrm in a 100 claimed a cure; from 1947 to 1990 only 100 cures were claimed and just 56 recognized by the medical bureau.  The rate of recognition has now dropped to a trickle.  Has the shrine lost its effectiveness or are modern medicine and psychology providing the explanations for more and more of the cures ?  Perhaps even the faithful no longer have the degree of belief required for the Placebo Effect to kick in.  The “God of the Gaps” is once again finding His territory shrinking if not disappearing.  The tourists and the hopeful (or desperate) nevertheless keep flocking to Lourdes.

The miracles of the Bible are a somewhat different case.  There is now no chance of scientific examination or verification.  We are expected to accept them as authentic for the sole reason that they are “in the Book”.

All the religions of antiquity had their gods intervening directly in the everyday affairs of the people.  The gods of the ancient Greeks, from Zeus down, seemed to do little else but meddle in the wars, love affairs and daily life of the hapless Greeks.  The Hebrews were not to be left behind; Yahweh worked His magic to impress the Egyptians.  Aaron and Moses could hold their own against the magicians of the Pharaoh, and ended up destroying their Egyptian pursuers when the Dead Sea, which Moses had parted, folded itself in on them (great visual material for Hollywood and Charlton Heston).

Shamans in hunter-gatherer societies employed a good range of conjuring tricks to sustain their power and mystique.  Australians are familiar with the Cargo Cult promoted by the New Guinea witch-doctors and the “miracles” they perform.

We humans love the mysterious.  Just look at the number of television programs dealing with aliens, time-travel, superhuman heroes, and a variety of preternatural happenings.  We are unfortunately all too ready to accept the miraculous on the slimmest “evidence”.  We also know how readily events are embellished and distorted with retelling, in the age of the Internet, especially through its exploitation of fake news for the credulous.  Little wonder that the many events in the New Testament accounts of Jesus refer to miracles; the inconsistencies of their description in the Gospel accounts, the approved, “canonical” versions of Jesus’ life, do not seem to trouble the credulity of the true believer.

So we go round and round the loop : we believe in God because there were miracles, we believe in miracles because they are in the Bible, we believe in the Bible because some folks claim it is God’s word.

I blush when I realize that I was once a promoter of this grand delusion.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

FAT FINGERS AND FAITH

When I was born, eighty-three years ago this week, I weighed ten pounds.  The figure is hard to believe, especially if you had known me as a boy (“thin as a rake”, they used to say), and above all as a young Franciscan ascetic.  I made up for all this, of course, later in life, thanks notably to the excellent cooking of my French wife as well as ten years living, lunching and dining in a private French château, served by guys wearing black bow ties.

I never realized that I had fat fingers, but I must have, because having once succeeded in losing ten kilos (which put me on the right side of the one hundred mark), I noticed one day that I no longer had my gold signet ring (noblesse oblige … ) on my pinky.  It must have slipped off my formerly fat finger – but where ?  Remembering where I last saw it, I knew it had to be inside the house or more probably the garden.  The solid-gold ring was obviously of considerable value, even more so as it is the only ring in the family graven with our coat-of-arms (descendants of the O’Brien Kings of Thormond, as if it mattered).  Now it was lost, no doubt irretrievably.  Nonetheless I set about looking for it, in the grass, under bushes, in a compost heap, throughout the house, under beds, even in the kitchen garbage-can.  My initial reaction to the loss had been, naturally, anger and frustration.  But strangely enough, I soon had two other contradictory reactions.  One was stoic acceptance.  Spilt milk and all that.  Even the thought that one day, years, maybe centuries, later, someone, on what had been my property, would literally strike gold.  Small comfort.  One thing was certain : I would never see it again.

The other reaction was even more curious.  I thought of Saint Anthony of Padua, a canonized Franciscan to whom we prayed every day, in Latin, during our seminary training :

“Si quaeris miracula,                        “If then you ask for miracles,

Mors, error, calamitas                       Death, error, all calamities,

Daemon, lepra fugiunt                      The leprosy and demons fly

Aegri surgunt sani.                              And health succeeds infirmity.

Cedunt mare, vincula,                       The seas obey and fetters break,

Membra resque perditas                  And lifeless limbs thou dost restore,

Petunt et accipiunt                             While treasures lost are found again,

Juvenes et cani.”                                 When young and old thy grace implore.”

Because Anthony had been reputed to have restored the severed foot of a young man, who, having kicked his mother, had heard him preach and had taken a tad too literally the Gospel injunction about cutting off your arm or leg if it caused you to sin, the Saint has ever since had the reputation of being able to restore things we have lost : limbs, golf-balls, wallets, eye-glasses, children, you name it – just about everything except perhaps virginity.  It occurred to me that years ago I would have asked the Paduan to find my ring for me.  Of course I didn’t now, but I was almost tempted to do so (What did I have to lose ?  What if . . . ?, etc.).

Many Catholics still pray to St Anthony and other saints, many of whom have apparently specialized in providing particular favors.  If Anthony can find things for you, St Blaise, for example – who had his head cut off – is just what the doctor didn’t order for curing …. sore throats.  St Jude is not a specialist but a General Practitioner.  He is the man you need in situations that are truly hopeless.

The great thing about praying to a Saint is that you don’t need his/her phone-number or even e-mail address.  You just start talking in your head and he/she is on line immediately.  Ready to help.  Well, that all depends.  Sometimes prayers are not answered.  But the believer knows why : it’s for our own good !  Those celestial citizens, up there, have total vision, bound by neither space or time, of what’s good and what’s bad for us down here, in this vale of tears, lost keys and lost rings.  Maybe if I found that ring and then regained the weight I’d lost and a few decakilos more, my finger would be so fat that I would not be able to take it off, and my finger would have to be amputated to stop my blood from clotting.  Whatever.  “Ask and you shall receive”, said Jesus.  And if you don’t get what you asked for (like a kid asking Santa for a semi-automatic rifle), just praise the Lord and thank Him for not giving you something you really wouldn’t have wanted if you knew how dangerous it was.  (OK, it’s a bit hard to console believing parents who prayed their hearts out in vain for the recovery of their dying infant.  But faith implies trust; God knows best.  You just have to believe, during the lowering of the little white casket into the ground, that God works in mysterious ways and that it’s all for the best; Thy will be done).

Prayer is for asking favors, sometimes trivial, often serious, like forgiveness and eternal salvation, for expressing thanks for the food in front of you, or for surviving that operation or for finding that ring or for making the rain start or stop, or, curiously, for praising the Lord and telling Him what a Great Guy He is.  Some people find a fourth function for prayer.  As with the Net and the telephone, it’s wonderful for just chatting, shooting the breeze, letting God know what you’ve been up to, what you’ve been thinking, what you’re planning to do (as though the Omniscient didn’t know all that already).

You fall on your knees, they say, when there’s nowhere else to go.  But for many believers, prayer is not a last resort.  It’s been their daily practice since childhood.  Did you say your morning prayers ?  “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here.  Ever this day be at my side etc.”.  “Hail Mary, full of grace, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”.  (She has a better chance of getting her Son’s attention and favors than you or I).  “Our Father who art in Heaven, give us this day our daily bread” – a request that doesn’t seem to work too well in certain sub-Saharan countries and in some of our own mean streets.

We are touched by the innocence of children saying their night prayers, begging God to bless Mummy and Daddy and their new-born kitten.  Some of us, however, are simply amazed at the continuing, childish credulity of adults who depend on God, His mother and His saints to find lost rings.

P.S.   Miraculously (?), I found mine.  I hadn’t asked for any divine, supernatural help.  But I did find the need to shout “Hallelujah !” (“Allelu –  ia”: Hebrew for “Praise God”) – which I did – and for one fleeting second, even the need to thank Some One – which I did not.

RIDENDA     RELIGIO

 

MIRACLES : FACT OR FICTION ?

PREFACE  :  Rather than begin a new series of posts on the Universe, as originally intended, I have decided to content myself with the half-dozen posts already published in 2019, September 26 through October 17, in favor of a handful of reflections on miracles. Christianity’s credibility is ultimately based on miracles, beginning with the most unbelieveable and unfounded of them all, Jesus’ Resurrection.  But throughout the history of the Church, miracles have continued to be proclaimed to offer undeniable proof of its claims.  The following posts reveal just how pathetically credulity can be exploited.

*******

Catholic authors and scholars have done what they consider their best to sift legend from history.  Some pride themselves on their “objectivity” in identifying, for example, certain of the “miracles” of St Anthony, the 13th century “Franciscan thaumaturgist”, in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, as “apocryphal legends”.  This officially approved compendium of Catholic belief and practice in its article on the Saint from Padua, admits cautiously and hypothetically, that “it may be true that some of the miracles attributed to St Anthony are legendary”, before going on to insist, on the other hand, that “others come to us on such high authority that it is impossible either to eliminate them or explain them away a priori, without doing violence to the facts of history”.

Earlier in the article, the author had listed the Saint’s “most authentic miracles” during his sojourn in the province of Limousin in 1226.  This seems to suggest that there are degrees in authenticity : “This painting attributed to Rembrandt is more authentic than that one” ?  “This forged banknote is a little less authentic than another forgery” ?  You’re authentically pregnant or you’re not !  Moreover one must wonder what criteria were used to qualify the “miracles” in question as “historically certain” :

  •   The Saint apparently remembered during a sermon he was preaching that he was expected at the same time to be back in a distant friary to sing a lesson of the Divine Office.  So he just appeared in the friary chapel, sang his lesson, and then went on preaching in the church.  (It is not specified whether the preacher went into suspended predication or just vanished into thin air.)
  • Anthony must have had some sort of phobia concerning rain.  One of the Limousin “miracles” listed tells of the time during an outdoor sermon when “he miraculously preserved his audience from the rain”, and another when “he preserved from the rain” a maid-servant delivering vegetables to the friary.  (Her vegetables never got wet.)
  • The most spectacular of these “miracles”, however, has to be when he predicted that the pulpit in which he was preaching was about to be demolished by the devil, but that no one, including the preacher, would be hurt.  And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.

Apparently, to bolster his work as the “Hammer of Heretics”, notably the Cathars, he also worked a miracle involving a horse.  The poor animal, which had been kept without food (“fasting”, the article says) for three days, refused the oats he was finally given, until he could kneel and adore the Blessed Sacrament, which Anthony held in his hands.  Legend has it, the article states, that this happened in Toulouse, in Wadding, in Bruges.  Not so, proclaims the article : “the real place was Rimini” (!!).  That’s history for you.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

” O MY DARLING . . . “

Her name was Clémentine.  No one in France ever associated her name and her death (26/05/08), at age 113, with the song we all know.  She deserves more respect than that.  Anyone who can survive as long as that, knows something the rest of us do not.  She remained independent until age 106.  In my early eighties, I am cracking up.  Tying shoelaces ?  Forget it !  Mocassins are the answer.

I’m not sure that I want to live that long.  I know I don’t.  I’m afraid that one day, if I go on surviving, I will need help to get out of bed, to go to the toilet, to shower, to feed myself, to – well – survive.  I don’t want such a condition.  When I was young, I considered suicide a sin, the unpardonable sin.  I thought that we were destined and expected to submit to old age and accept its difficulties, with or without the aid of loved ones.

Today I see it differently.  Extreme old age, dependence, pain, make no sense.  When the going gets tough, the tough make the difficult but right decisions.  Euthanasia is an eminently human, courageous, necessary option, liberating for oneself and for those whom we refuse to enslave to assure our personally pointless temporary survival.  Do not tell me that “God” would not approve.

Apparently Clémentine died a natural, unassisted death.  She attributed her long life to the fact that “God had forgotten her”.  Behind this is the quaint, pathetic belief that a God has decreed the moment of our demise.  Then – can God contract Alzheimers ? – He apparently forgets some old folks, who muddle on in decrepit old age and finally croak.

Seriously, no one can reasonably accept such nonsense.  We die because we have reached the limit of our vitality.  Our battery has run out of juice.  God, as usual, has nothing to do with it.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

DEATH AND . . . DISNEY

European “intellectuals” – the, to us Anglosaxons, pejorative sobriquet, is not only accepted but appreciated, even sought after in Europe – tend to denigrate Disney, pirate, according to them, of Europe’s best fairy-tales, turned into sentimental, marshmallow movies destined for brain-numb American, and unfortunately world-wide, child and even adult audiences.

Personally I dip my lid, as we say in Australia, to Uncle Walt – which is not terribly significant, because neither I nor anyone else would suggest that I am an “intellectual”.

The “Lion King” educates children – and the adults who take their children and grandchildren to see, and secretly themselves enjoy, the movie – into the reality of the food-chain.  Not dog-eat-dog.  But lions have to eat other animals which themselves have to eat other animals.  That’s the way it is.  They will die if they don’t eat meat (Vegan is not yet an option for them).

I will die, more or less soon, whether I eat meat or not.  I would not mind, being dead, becoming part of the food-chain myself., but it is highly unlikely that anyone would be a taker of my … ashes.  So my possible contribution will be wasted – due to something about respect for us supposedly unique human beings, endowed with eternal “souls” and all that.  (Why not leave our cadavers in trees, for the vultures and the other volatiles who would appreciate a little protein ?)

The producers of “Charlotte’s Web” also deserve a pedagogical pat on the back for a movie that has the Spider-Star, Charlotte, proclaim, at the moment of giving birth to her 514 children, that she is about to die.  The most natural thing in the world.  I was happy to see the movie with my, at the time, six-year old grand-daughter, who now has a new respect for spiders if not for grandfathers.  I don’t know whether she caught the bit about the normality of dying.  I hope she did.  As I hope she will, concerning my own more or less … imminent demise (in dealing recently with the supposed threat of Iranian attacks, Trump has not only assassinated a general but a perfectly good word).  It will be up to my grand-daughter whether she goes further and recognizes that the dead have entirely ceased to exist.  I dare to hope that she will accept the reasonableness of atheism.

Walt Disney is dead, the Lion King is dead, Charlotte is dead.  Pretty soon we will all, even you, dear readers, be dead.  Kaputt.  Finis.  Terminés.  Gone with the wind.  Terminado.  No more.  Inexistent.  Let’s hope that our survivors come to accept this basic, fundamental … vital truth.  And that they don’t count on an imagined God to give them, or us, an imagined “after-life”.

                                             RIDENDA      RELIGIO