Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let There Be Lights


  (I originally wrote this in December, 2014. I ran into someone on the train a few days ago who remembered it, and we talked about it.  I thought I would re-run it with some modest additions and changes.)

December is the time of celebration.  There are so many celebrations from so many religious and ethnic traditions taking place during this month. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to and associated with it: Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity and specific religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil based food and dreidel playing, and Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture and values.  And if you are Buddhist, Hopi, Hindu, West African Dogon, traditional Persian, or Wiccan, there are celebrations for you as well. In fact, what many of us think of as parts of traditional Christmas celebrations actually have their roots in the Wiccan and Persian traditions, including the Christmas tree and the story of the 3 Wise Men. We are clearly in the midst of a universally “ritual-rich” time.
What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is a common element, metaphor and symbol world-wide at this time of the year.  And it makes perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. In much of the world this time of the year means very noticable changes in the amount of daylight and darkness surrounding us, and we have to account for that. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us, and for most of our history that has meant looking to the sky.  The sun, the moon and the stars have literally and figuratively been our guideposts. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year, that the winter solstice would be here, and that the length of days and night would be changing. So this became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans.  Ritual, symbol and myth are the ways humans respond to nature,  and this became celebrated in many different ways depending upon geography and culture.

The slow increase in the length of days after the solstice was as if the earth was being reborn, and we had to acknowledge it and honor it else it may not happen again. Many cultures symbolically recognized this time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places associate this time of the year with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians this was the time of the Yalda      festival, and Mithras, the symbol of truth, strength, goodness and light, emerged from a rock at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the all powerful Roman sun god, was also celebrated in December with torches and bonfires.  It was a timeless and universal process. Long ago we humans knew that we had to celebrate and meet this winter darkness with light.  We had to link our doings and our fates with the universe’s. We had to acknowledge this darkness, and in our rituals fire-light-abounded.               

New beginnings are also important in most religious traditions, and light is a strong metaphor for that as well. Our language today reflects this. We speak of, “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.”  We look to the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Light as transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in many of our religious rituals and ceremonies at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates, among other things, the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from its desecration when Antiochus made it into a Greek temple. The candles symbolize, in part, the rebirth of the religion. The candles in Kwanzaa symbolize reawakened connection and awareness of African values and traditions for people of African descent. To Buddhists, Bodhi Day in December celebrates the Buddha becoming a Buddha-an enlightened one who suddenly could see beyond illusion. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. Light was symbolically leading us forward.

And light is as powerful today to us humans as it was when we first figured out the solstice and what it could mean. Tradition has it that Martin Luther saw stars one night as he was composing a sermon and tried to capture their beauty by adding lighted candles to the Christmas tree inside his house. Whether that is true or not, by the time the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree reached the US the idea of lights on the trees were a fixture.  We decorated the tree, and it took off from there. Now there are lighted houses, yards, shops, malls and more. We are awash in lights; there are even whole streets and neighborhoods that collaborate to plan what their light scheme is going to be each holiday season. Many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays. We need the light.

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are still with us, even if we do not recognize them as such. As up to date and modern as we are in this digital age, we are still human, and that means we are still connected to our ancestors’ sense off the universe in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various religious rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up at the night sky and taking some time to note, think about, and marvel at what is going on up there. It is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. And its mystery and beauty link our present very directly to our past.
That is a wonderful and beautiful thing.

Do have a safe, warm, happy, and joyous holiday season.  I hope you find it a time full of good spirits, good company and good food.  And of course, light.                                                  

Friday, November 18, 2016



 “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
                                                                                          Meister Eckhart
 “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of
    Gratitude.”                                                                    A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”                    Epicurus


     Somehow we are in the middle of November, and we are coming up on Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year.  I love the holiday as it is about some things that really please me: good food, being around people in a joyful and happy setting, and expressing gratitude for what I have and for where I am in my life. The relative lack of advertising and the tiny focus on what to buy when compared to Christmas gives me an opportunity to focus more on the day itself and to think about what the holiday is supposed to mean. In that light, I am given a chance to look beyond myself and to acknowledge all the people, things and circumstances that are a part of my life and that I had little, if anything, to do with. While I like to think at times that “I made myself” and that “I am a product of my own efforts,” I know deep down that is not true. This day, Thanksgiving, is one day for me to join with many other people to acknowledge and fully embrace that reality.

   Of course, I am describing and thinking of the modern American version of Thanksgiving. We gather together, probably overeat, watch some football, argue politics, laugh and tell tall stories. We think of "Thanksgiving" as being especially "American" and tell the story of Squanto helping the Pilgrims survive a winter in Massachusetts. But we are far from the only people to have engaged in this practice. The idea of setting aside time for giving thanks is an ancient one found on all continents, in all cultures, and at all times.  As people struggled to survive and reproduce in ancient times, they realized that they were dependent on things way beyond their control. How high would the river be this year, for example? When would the rain come? What grows naturally here in this valley, and how? When and where will the next herd pass by? When would the heat come? Or go? Or stop? These were essential questions, and humans all over the earth would try many things to see if they find some answers and maybe even exert some influence on how things would turn out. Prayers, music, statues, songs, dances, rituals, chants, and sacrifices: these were invented, tried, discovered and passed down the generations in an attempt to give us a say in that which was beyond us. And, at the same time, this led us to the realization that we were not all powerful. We had to appeal to and be grateful to other forces we could not even see. We could not depend only on ourselves.

  This “giving of thanks” was truly human and universal: it would happen at various times of the year all over the world. For many people these observances would coincide with the birth cycle and appearance of some select game or fowl. For others it was when a certain natural development regularly occurred, such as the rise of a river, the form the moon took, a certain period of rainfall, or the growth of a certain wild crop. It was always a cyclical occurrence, and this helped us develop the ideas of “time” and “seasons.” Once agriculture became a part of the human experience, planting and harvest times became ready occasions for giving thanks and acknowledging dependence. In ancient China, for example, this happened in August when the new moon arrived. This was believed to be the birthday of the moon, and it also coincided with the harvesting of certain fruits. The Romans and Greeks celebrated goddesses of growth and fertility and gave thanks both in the spring for planting and in the fall for harvesting. The Hebrews, many Native American cultures, and many European cultures all have autumn harvest celebrations. Whenever it happens, whenever it is celebrated, and however it is carried out, these traditions reflect what seems to be a deep seated human need. We have to set aside some time to get out of ourselves. We have to acknowledge mystery, or God, or gods, or something that is beyond our control and power. We seem to need to do that in order to feel we have a place in this world.

   So I am looking forward to Thanksgiving again. To being together with certain people in a certain way, yes; that is always great. But it is also good to have another opportunity to express in unity with others the gratitude that I feel and to be reminded that we all need others to live well in this world. I hope that you get the chance to reflect on people, situations and things for which you can be truly thankful. Even if things are tough we all have some things, people, memories, and/ or moments for which we can be grateful. Here's hoping we can slow down enough to really acknowledge those things and to discover the quiet pleasure and joy in giving thanks. I hope you all have a good Thanksgiving.

PS: For those who wish to extend your good feelings to those who may be less fortunate, there are a couple groups that do some wonderful work and can use your support always, but particularly at this time of the year:

Philabundance: https://www.philabundance.org/

MANNA: http://www.mannapa.org/     
               (order a MANNA pie-YUM!)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Transition and Wonder

“I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”   author L. M. Montgomery

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Author Albert Camus

 “Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.” Jim Bishop

     It is deep fall now, getting into late October, and the days are noticeably shorter. The hours of dark are slowly increasing and the hours of light are decreasing. Sunrises now occur around 7 AM, and sunsets are happening earlier and earlier. We will adjust for that somewhat with our re-setting of the clocks on November 6, but this is the time when we first really feel the changes in the season. It is also a time when leaves turn color and begin to fall, when the days generally start out cooler and crisp, and we look up and notice birds and other animals on the move.  It is a time of change; of transition. And like spring, it is a time in which the transition to a new reality is obvious and clear. We are witnesses to another turning of the cycle, and for me that is a glorious and joyous thing.

    One of the places that transition and cycle is most noticeable is in the sky. Different constellations have been slowly moving into view, and the added darkness make them more visible. While I am by no means an astronomer, I do remember certain notable constellations from my school trips to the Franklin Institute planetarium, and I love noting them as I look at the autumn night and early morning sky. Looking to the north I can see Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Big and Little Dippers and remember how to find the North Star. Every time I do that I think back to the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, and stories of escaping slaves using that star to light their escape North in the 17 and 1800’s. That is a good reminder to me of the ways humans can interact with and use what we are presented with by nature; we are connected to the sky and not separate from it. Hercules, with his arm upraised and his broad chest, is to the northwest and I can imagine his great strength and power when I see him. Across from him toward the northeast I can usually spot Gemini and my favorite, Orion with his three-star belt. There are other constellations I sort of remember-Perseus, Cygnus, and Capricorn, and it is fun for me to try and locate them and name them. I know I am not always right, but looking up and trying to recall them brings me quiet joy. As fall changes into winter I know I will see these constellations more easily as they change position and that they will be with me on my early morning or night walks. It is a comfort and something I look forward to each night and/or morning.

   The moon is likewise more noticeable as the seasonal changes continue. The process of full moon to crescent moon plays out more clearly to me in the fall and winter, and it is wonderful to see it. Even in the city it is visible, and I get to see it magically appear on the horizon a little earlier most nights. The recent Full Moon-the Hunter's Moon was spectacular-and it filled me and man other observers with pure joy and wonder. I have no idea why the moon affects me more in the fall and winter than at other times, but it does. The sky seems to be closer and more intimate as the year progresses, and I can take delight in walking and looking up.

   So the progression of the fall is a wondrous transition for me. I can feel the cycle in a deep way now. It is around me, visible, and almost tangible. I do not know how and why it affects me as it does, but I am glad that it does. It feels good to be aware of and more in touch with what is going on around me; I am more present, and that is always a good thing.