From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Peter, Paul, Mary, Jesus, and Judaism

(Jacob's Well in 1934)
When Peter, Paul and Mary sang Jesus Met the Woman at the Well, that age-old story was popularized within a whole new generation.  These Nick Cave lyrics conclude that Jesus is “the prophet” because he knew everything the woman at the well had ever done.

In John 4, Jesus visits the Samarian village of Sychar (formerly Shechem, perhaps the first place that Abraham stopped at when he entered Canaan).  While there, Jesus rested at the site called Jacob’s Well by many Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Samaritans.  A Samaritan woman then also came to the well.  Jesus asked her for a drink, and she responded with surprise because Samaritans and Jews didn’t usually associate with one another.  Jesus then told her:  Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never
thirst (John 4:13, KJV).  After Jesus reveals what he knows about her checkered past, she then replies:  Sir, I  perceive that You are a prophet (John 4:19, KJV).

Noel Stookey - the “Paul” in Peter, Paul and Mary – came to a similar realization about the holiness of Jesus.  In fact, Stookey has said that The Wedding Song (There Is Love) came through him directly from Jesus. reports that Stookey was “given” this song after praying, and that all he needed to do was “allow the pencil to move across the page.”  The original lyrics focus upon the presence of Jesus/God within marriage.  Royalties from this song go to the Public Domain Foundation, which supports music for social change.

The Wedding Song was originally offered to Peter Yarrow – the “Peter” in Peter, Paul and Mary – as a
wedding gift.  Yarrow, whose religion is Judaism, has also been heavily involved in social justice.  In 2000, he founded Operation Respect, which focuses upon teaching conflict resolution within the schools.

Mary Travers – also of Peter, Paul and Mary – died from complications of leukemia in September 2009. reports that her religion was also Judaism. 


Copyright June 30, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Western Wall: El-Mabka and Al-Buraq

The Western Wall (Photo by Golasso)
Rabbinic and secular estimates differ regarding the time
span that Solomon’s Temple was in existence – but they
both agree that this First Temple of Judaism lasted for
centuries.  It was then destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II
after the Siege of Jersusalem in 587 BCE (secular
estimate), or in 412 BCE (rabbinic estimate).

Years later, Cyrus the Great and Darius (both Kings of
Persia) made it possible for the Second Temple to be
built.  Herod the Great (the Donald Trump of his era)
then renovated it circa 19 BCE, and it became known as Herod’s Temple.  Herod did things in a big way, and the Temple Mount was no exception.  He widened
“Solomon’s” natural Mount by building four huge walls
around it and filling in the empty spaces.  This resulted in a trapezoidal platform which added acreage to the Old City of Jerusalem, and formed a base for the new Temple.

According to Wikipedia, what’s now often called the Western Wall is “a remnant of the ancient wall that
surrounded the Jewish Temple’s courtyard.”  It was traditionally called El-Mabka (“the Place of Weeping”)
by the Arabs, and Wailing Wall by the British.  That was because Jews would journey there in order to lament the Temple’s destruction.  The Jewish Virtual Library reports that after the 1967 war, many Jews preferred calling it the Western Wall – feeling that the wailing period was now over.

Muslims also began renaming the Wall.  Palestinians began calling it Al-Buraq in honor of Muhammad’s “Night Journey.”  This journey, which is honored each year during the Islamic festival of Lailat al Miraj, took place after Archangel Gabriel brought the Buraq (a winged steed) to Muhammad.  Muhammad then rode atop the Buraq from Mecca to Jerusalem on the first part (Isra) of this Journey.  The Qur’an and Hadith report that Muhammad tied the Buraq to the Western Wall, then led the earlier prophets in prayer.  After that, Muhammad remounted the Buraq and visited with God in Heaven.  God then gave specific instructions regarding Islamic prayer.  This second part of Muhammad’s Night Journey is called the Mi’raj.


Copyright June 29, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Orloff Diamond: An eye for an eye

(Count Grigory Orlov)
The story of the Orloff Diamond is no less fascinating than the story of its most famous owner.

Catherine the Great wasn’t always Catherine (or great).  She was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (say that three times fast), daughter of a devout Lutheran who strongly opposed her eventual (and politically motivated) conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Along with this conversion came a change of name.  She was now known as Ekaterina (Catherine) Alekseyevna
(“daughter of Aleksey” – not a reference to her actual Lutheran father).

Soon after that (and not coincidentally), Catherine married Peter von Holstein-Gottorp (who - also not coincidentally - soon afterwards became Tsar Peter III of Russia).  After Peter’s (far from coincidental) death a mere six months later, Catherine became Empress Regnant of Russia (for the next 34 years).  Before that (while Peter was still alive), she had begun a love affair with Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (amongst others).

Orlov (Orloff) was (yet again not coincidentally) the leader of the conspiracy that dethroned and killed (not necessarily in that order) Catherine’s husband, Peter III.  For that, he must have won “brownie points” with Catherine - but just not enough of them.  Because his competition was literally getting a leg up on Catherine, Orloff felt the need to get something really big that would outshine his opponent.  That “something” turned out to be the Orloff Diamond.

Word on the street is that this diamond was originally the eye of a Hindu statue in the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple of Srirangam, Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, India.  It was allegedly stolen by a French solider circa 1750 CE.  It later wound up in the hands of a Persian merchant whom Orloff came into contact with.  Orloff purchased it - then (surprise) gave it to Catherine. 

The good news:  Catherine accepted it, named it after Orloff, and even incorporated it into a sceptre.  The bad news:  She dumped Orloff anyway.  Orloff’s bad news became Potemkin’s good news.  Potemkin “got the girl” – but ended up losing his left eye.  To this day, no one quite knows how…


Copyright June 28, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 27, 2011

Strawberry Lore Forever

According to the University of Illinois Extension, strawberry lore has been around for just about forever.

Time travelers might note that Native Americans were quite fond of the fruit long before Europeans imitated the original cornmeal version of strawberry shortcake.  Shakespeare found these berries alluring enough to be included as symbolism on the handkerchief of Othello’s love, Desdemona.  One of Napoleon’s cohorts, Madame Tallien, enjoyed bathing in the juice from 22 pounds of fresh strawberries.  Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives, was thought to be a witch because she had a strawberry-shaped birthmark on her neck.

However, there is none so famous a strawberry association as that with Venus (Aphrodite), the ancient Roman (Greek) goddess of love (and its many facsimiles).  The red heart-shaped fruit must have reminded many of Venus’ tantalizing powers.  As Venus Cloacina, she was a purifier – as Venus Erycina. a prostitute.  As Venus Felix, she was lucky – as Venus Calva, bald.  As Venus Murcia, she was slothful – as Venus Obsequens, indulgent.  As Venus Genetrix, she was a mother (Julius Caesar claimed her as his literal ancestress) – and as Venus Urania, a heavenly one.  Not to mention that, as Venus Kallipygos, she had “a pretty bottom” (not unlike her possible other descendant, Pippa Middleton)…

After all those type associations with Venus, a strong medicinal tonic might be just what the herbalist ordered.  Good thing that strawberries fit the bill on that score, too. reports that wild (must be that Venus influence again) strawberries can be quite effective when dealing with wounds, inflammation, diarrhea, gout, or a sore throat.  They are members of the rose family, as their natural fragrance indicates.

As for Strawberry Fields Forever?  The jury is still out on those lyrics.  Even Venus, with all of her incredible powers, couldn’t quite figure them out.


Copyright June 27, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pearl Buck: The good daughter

(Pearl S. Buck, circa 1932)
If being a good daughter means learning from your parents what to do – and what not to do – then Pearl S. Buck was certainly one of the finest.

Her parents, Absalom Sydenstricker and Caroline (Carie) Stulting, were Southern Presbyterian missionaries from Hillsboro, West Virginia.  Wikipedia reports that there was a split in the Presbyterian Church during the Civil War era between those that “denounced secession as an act of treason” and those that didn’t.  The Southern Presbyterians tended to be more conservative than the Northern Presbyterians.  They clung to a doctrine of “the spirituality of the church” which “declared that social reform and political participation were duties or pursuits to be taken up by individuals, not church courts.” 

Absalom Sydenstricker was certainly cut from that cloth.  As a man of the cloth in China, he disregarded the worldly concerns of his Chinese congregants in favor of what he thought should be their spiritual ones.  Nora Stirling, in her book Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict, described Absalom as one who focused intensely upon “the goodness of his God and the worthlessness of theirs.”  Stirling also wrote that Absalom was so dismissive of women, and so intent upon his missionary goals, that he often acted as if he didn’t even remember having a wife or a daughter.  Buck herself compared him to Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick.

Caroline Stulting Sydenstricker, on the other hand, maintained a very close relationship with Pearl.  While in China, Carie often felt exiled from her American homeland.  She therefore maintained an American type household while there, which Buck described in her book, My Mother’s House. Carie nevertheless was able to respect and appreciate the Chinese people - not just as potential converts, but in their own right.  The
Randolph College (Buck’s alma mater) website includes this statement about Carie:  Unlike her husband, she seemed more interested in the people in their day to day hardships, than in the condition of their souls.

Buck herself seemed determined to emulate her mother’s social-justice proclivities (ironically, though, with some of her father’s type of fervor).  However, Wikipedia reports that she also was “determined to never make her mother’s mistake of subordinating herself to either a man or to a zealous creed.”


Copyright June 26, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, June 25, 2011

George Orwell: The elephant in the room

Orwell's Grave (By Brian Robert Marshall)
Sometimes an elephant is just an elephant.  Sometimes, however, an elephant is that which is so overwhelming as to be blatantly ignored.

George Orwell’s elephant was both.  In his famous essay, Shooting an Elephant, Orwell painstakingly describes the agonizing death of an elephant that had grown murderously out of control.  No one wins in situations like that.  The destitute laborer whom the elephant had just killed was lying dead in the street.  The terrified crowd was crying out for blood vengeance.  The officer of the law seemed stripped of all choice.  The elephant was doomed to die by this authoritarian hand.

An excerpt from this chilling tale reads as follows:  When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick – one never does when a shot goes home – but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd.  In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant…

Orwell also explores this “mysterious, terrible change” in his essay, A Hanging.  The crowd-condemned being in this essay was human, and the execution was carried out per rope rather than bullet.  Again there were mixed feelings on the part of the narrator, but again doom marched on unimpeded.  The inexorable “change” is described in this manner:  It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it
means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.  When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide…  He and I were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and
in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

Death, per se, is not the enemy here. 

The true enemy is hubris – and the tragedies that inevitably unfold when mere mortals cloak themselves in godlike powers.


Copyright June 25, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ambrose Bierce: Nothing matters

(Ambrose Bierce and ?)
There aren’t that many famous people in this modern era with a biography that ends like a mystery novel.  But then again, not much else about Ambrose Bierce was conventional either.

Being a descendant of William Bradford might have been the closest Bierce ever came to aligning with mainstream religion.  His Devil’s Dictionary seems aptly named for it spares none in its cynicism.  Some of his religiously-linked “definitions” are as follows:

Adherent   A follower who has not yet obtained all that he expects to get.

Bacchus  A convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk.

Clairvoyant  A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.

Deluge  A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world.

Evangelist  A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

These are actually some of his milder comments (and just think – he’s only up to the letter “e” thus far).

However, “Bitter Bierce’s” trademark attitude that “nothing matters” might have stemmed from the horrific reality of his Civil War experiences.  He was honored for his brave rescue of a fallen comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain, fought in the hellish Battle of Shiloh, and received a serious head injury at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.  Civilian life wasn’t that much happier.  Both his sons died before him – one in a brawl, and the other of pneumonia.  He and his wife divorced, and she died a year after that.  There is much speculation that Bierce’s own life ended tragically – either by his own, or by an executioner’s hand.


Copyright June 24, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Russian Orthodox Saints of North America

St. Peter the Aleut (By Paul Drozdowski)
According to the All Saints of North America Russian
Orthodox Church website, a Protestant Reformation never
occurred in the Eastern Orthodox Church because there was never a need for one there.

The explanation then given is that Western teachings about
purgatory, indulgences, the primacy and infallibility of the pope - plus the West’s “subtle change” of the Early Church
Creed - were never adopted by the East.  The website states:  There was no need to resurrect the ancient Faith, because in the East, it never died!

Although this Russian Orthodox Church is dedicated to All
Saints of North America, the biographies of six saints are
particularly highlighted on the website.  The following brief summaries of these biographies are being presented in order to whet the appetite for more in-depth readings.

He was first a hermit monk, then a great ascetic who was
always barefoot in the far North.  He “advocated for and defended the Aleuts against sometimes oppressive authorities.”

He was also a great ascetic who slept for only an hour or two on the floor.  Like Moses, he had a speech impediment, and therefore felt unworthy to serve God when called to do so.

After travelling 2,000 miles over the course of a year to get to Alaska, he then built a church there with his own hands.  He also developed the first written alphabet for the Aleuts, then translated the Bible into their language.

He was the first Orthodox martyr of the Americas.  He had baptized “more than 700 Chugach Sugpiag Indians” and “later many Athabaskan Indians.”

He was the Patriarch of the Russian Church prior to and during the Russian Revolution.  He served as Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, and was also associated with cathedrals in San Francisco and New York City.

He was a native of Kodiak Island, who was enslaved and tortured by Spanish priests in California.  He thus
became another Orthodox martyr of the Americas.


Copyright June 23, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

First Nations: The long road to reconciliation

(Canadian Indian School Photo - Circa 1921)
Canada’s indigenous people are now categorized into three major groups:  Inuit (“The People” of the Arctic, formerly called “Eskimos” by many), Métis (“Mixed” ancestry, indigenous plus European), and First Nations (those indigenous people in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis).  First Nations includes such varied tribes as the Skw­xwú7mesh (originally from the Pacific Northwest) and the Anishinaabe (originally from the Great Lakes).

Back in 1857, Canada passed a bill called the Act to
Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in
this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians.  This longwinded title was often shortened to the Gradual Civilization Act - which could have been further shortened to just one word:  Trouble.  It was this prejudicial Act that paved the road to the hellish Canadian Indian residential school system.

The first of these residential schools began in the 1840s, and the last didn’t close until 1996.  They were established with the main intention of “civilizing” indigenous people by forcing them to become English-speaking Christian farmers.  According to Wikipedia, some of these forcible methods included removing children from family homes against the will of their parents, physical and sexual abuse, plus bans on speaking native languages and practicing ancestral faiths. 

Although these schools were funded by the government, they were run by the churches:  approximately 60% by Roman Catholics, and 30% by the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada.  Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist churches had also been involved.  Canada’s CBC News has reported that three of these Churches have issued formal apologies for such involvement – “the Anglican Church in 1993, the Presbyterian Church in 1994 and the United Church in 1998.”  In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology on behalf of the Canadian government.

In April 2009, a delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations met with Pope Benedict XVI for half an hour.  During this historic meeting, the Pope expressed “sorrow” and offered them his “sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”


Copyright June 22, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Litha: A Midsummer Night's Beam

A Solstice Fire (By Jon Sullivan)
Those dancing beams that light up the Midsummer nights might not be from June bugs.  They might instead be from Litha bonfires.

As part of his painstaking calculations regarding the date that Easter should fall on, the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede wrote a treatise called De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time).  In it, he referred to the approximate months of June and July as the “early Litha month” and the “later Litha month.”  According to
Wikipedia, the term “Midsummer” can either refer to the summer-solstice time period, or to the many traditions that are associated with this magical time of year.

Pre-Christian Midsummer traditions were especially prevalent in Northern Europe. reports
that ancient Litha rites were “boisterous communal festivities” that included “dancing, singing, storytelling,
pageantry, and feasting,” as well as after-dark bonfires and torchlight processions.  The power of the Litha fire was thought to bring “prosperity and protection for oneself and ones clan.”  The charred embers from these fires were kept long afterwards and utilized as charms to ward off ill luck.  Homes were also decorated
with “birch, fennel, St. John’s Wort, orpin, and white lilies for blessing and protection.”

When Christianity came to regions that celebrated Litha, practices from the two traditions began mixing.  Because Luke 1:36 reports that John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth was already six months pregnant when Jesus was conceived, St. John’s birthday is traditionally celebrated on June 24 – six months before Christmas. 

Because this is also the time of Litha, St. John’s Day events have often incorporated elements of Litha celebrations. tells us that St. John was often portrayed as a Pan-type rustic character, sometimes even “with horns and cloven feet.”  The ancient Litha Sun God who sat on a greenwood throne (Jack-in-the-Green) began appearing in church architecture as a face “peering from countless foliate masks.”  Bonfires have continued to shine their beams for all to bask in.


Copyright June 21, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 20, 2011

Emanuel Swedenborg: Talking with angels

(Emanuel Swedenborg)
Many on earth have preached about the virtues of heaven, but few have claimed firsthand knowledge.  Emanuel Swedenborg was one of those few.

Swedenborg didn’t begin life with such claims.  His father, Jesper Swedborg, was the family theologian – impressing the King of Sweden with his sermons, and later becoming the Bishop of Skara.  Jesper’s theology, which was filled with talk of angels and spirits in everyday life (and diverged sharply from the mainstream Lutheran beliefs), must have made a deep impression upon the young Swedenborg.  It took half a century, however, for this impression to fully germinate.

Swedenborg therefore primarily spent his first 55 years as a scientist and inventor.  He was heralded for his insights into the smelting of copper and iron, for his nebular hypothesis (which explained the formation of solar systems), and for his
studies of anatomy and physiology.  Within these latter studies, Swedenborg focused upon the central nervous system.  Wikpedia reports that he had “prescient ideas about the cerebral cortex, the hierarchical organization of the nervous system, the localization of the cerebrospinal fluid and the functions of the pituitary gland.”  Sweden’s royalty was so impressed with the Swedborg family contributions that Queen Ulrika Eleonora ennobled Jesper’s children and changed their surname to “Swedenborg.”

Although Swedenborg’s life was certainly full in the worldly sense, he had also always had a penchant for philosophy.  Even before his intense spiritual awakening, he had begun a series of investigations into the nature of the soul.  This he combined with his scientific bent, the result of which were mergers of disciplines
such as geometry and cosmology.

These investigations became firsthand experiences when, at age 56, Swendenborg’s spiritual dreams and visions began occurring.  He began prodigiously writing about these experiences (some say because he was a stutterer, and was therefore too inhibited to preach aloud).  One of his most famous works, Heaven and Hell, reads like a travelogue of his personal visits to both.  While in heaven (or heavens, according to Swedenborg), he talked with angels.  He writes:  Whenever I have talked with angels face to face, I have been with them in their houses.  And how do angels talk?  Pretty much like humans, only “more intelligently than we do because they talk from a deeper level of thought.”


Copyright June 20, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Juneteenth: Celebrating self-evident truths

(General Gordon Granger)
On July 4th, Americans celebrate the “self-evident truths” that Thomas Jefferson so eloquently wrote about:  …that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.  However, Thomas Jefferson – like George Washington and so many other revered Americans – “owned” slaves.

That is why it is so important to also celebrate Juneteenth.  For it is not until all have equal rights that these Jeffersonian truths will finally become self-evident…

Juneteenth (short for June 18th -June 19th) marks the two-day period in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger, along with 2,000 troops, ordered Texans to finally abide by Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.  Granger is said to have announced the contents of General Order No. 3 while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa.  These contents, while decidedly a big step forward, are far from sounding like unalienable Liberty.  This Order asserted that “all slaves are free” – yet immediately began qualifying that freedom by “advising” all freedmen to “remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages” (not exactly a self-evident pursuit of Happiness). 

It’s no wonder that slaves, as well as so-called “freedmen,” relied heavily upon faith in Kingdoms other than those of this world.  Juneteenth celebrations were not only a time for fishing and barbecues, but also a time for worship and prayer.  Dr. Charles Taylor tells us that religious faith reassured many slaves and freedmen that they were, indeed, “created equal” by God.  He states:  The Black Church provided a haven from the daily oppression slaves faced, but after freedom it was also the center of social activities including the sponsorship of the annual Juneteenth Celebration.

However, all was not rosy within the overall Church.  Social reformer and ex-slave Frederick Douglass had this to say about the historical Church’s unfortunate role in oppression:  I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Copyright June 19, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved