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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pocahontas: John Rolfe's 'salvation'

(1616 Engraving by Simon de Passe)

Archaeologist William Kelso claims to have found the remains of the oldest Protestant church in what is now the United States.  Kelso told AFP that the large size of the church’s excavated post holes indicate the importance of its role within the original Jamestown colony.

And oh yes - it’s also allegedly the church in which Pocahontas married John Rolfe.

You may recall that Pocahontas was the beautiful daughter of Chief Powhatan, “the head of a network of tributary tribal nations in Tidewater Virginia.”  Wikipedia also reports that it “may or may not be true” that Pocahontas saved the life of Englishman John Smith by risking her own.

What is true is that she herself was taken captive in 1613 due to Anglo-Native hostilities. While in English captivity, she converted to Christianity and afterwards married “tobacco entrepreneur” Rolfe.  Newly-named “Rebecca” (a baptismal name which Wikipedia reports may have been a reference to the biblical mother whose sons, Jacob and Esau, represented “two nations”) and husband John Rolfe had a son named Thomas.  The family moved to England, and Rebecca died from a still-unknown cause at age 22.  Some ironically claim that it was from the “European disease” – smallpox – against which she had no immunity; others claimed that it might have instead been pneumonia, tuberculosis, or even poisoning.

Her husband was said to have been “a pious man” – “pious” having been partially defined as agony “over
the potential moral repercussions of marrying a heathen.”  In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to marry Rebecca, Rolfe had claimed that he was “motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation…”

Two former first ladies of the United States might have been grateful that Rolfe had convinced himself of all this - they being Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan (both descendants of Thomas Rolfe, the fruit of this “pious” union).


Coypright November 30, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mars: The ancient new frontier

Mars (Photo by A. Puggioni)
Space buffs are all in a flutter because Curiosity took off for Mars this past week.  Scientists are expecting to utilize knowledge gained from X-ray diffraction (say that three times fast) and infrared laser in order to discover just what makes the red (actually more like butterscotch-colored) planet tick.

A cheaper alternative could have been to bone up on Greek and Roman mythology.  If Ares (the original “bad boy”) didn’t have the answers, his
more “mature” Roman counterpart, Mars, might.  Whereas Ares thoroughly enjoyed destruction, Mars only resorted to military force in order to secure peace.  (This last justification is perhaps the greatest myth of all, but a myth that people have loved enough to name a planet after.)

So Father Mars (aka Mars Alator, Mars Albiorix, Mars Balearicus, Mars Barrex, Mars Belatucadrus, Mars Braciaca – and we’re only up to the Cs…) became the namesake of the fourth planet from the sun.  That - when added to his other duties of protecting the Roman citizens (Mars Quirinius),
carrying out public ceremonies (Mars Grabovius), insuring the health of cattle (Mars Silvanus), and avenging the assassination of Caesar (Mars Ultor) - made for quite an impressive resume.

Nevertheless, Mars continues to take his planetary responsibilities seriously.  After all, Ares is often thought to be linked to an entire zodiac sign (which is actually governed by Mars) – so it wouldn’t do for Mars to be
completely outshone by this upstart glimmer of his former self. 

That is why Mars finally agreed to disclose some of his most closely guarded secrets to modern humans who don’t even believe in him.  For if life can be proven to exist on his one planet – even by so humble a trail as methane gas – then, BINGO! 

Ares will turn from "constellation" to consternation in a Martian heartbeat…


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

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mass changes: Massive to some

1884 Edition (Photo by JoJan)

Once upon a time, the Catholic Mass was strictly a Latin affair.  After a priestly rendering of “The Lord be with you,” the congregation would predictably reply:  Et cum spiritu tuo.  The literal-English translation of this Latin response  
would be the following:  And with your spirit.  But for decades, English speakers have instead been answering:  And also with you.  Why so?

According to Tim Padgett in his article Heat-Seeking Missal? Fight on Liturgy Divides Catholics – although you can’t blame it on the bossa nova, you sure can point a finger or two at the “Kumbaya crowd.”  Back in the 60s, these “hand-holding, guitar strumming” worshippers wanted a more “accessible vernacular.”  One that lent itself easily to Central Park chants and Greenwich Village anthems…  Let’s face it – “And with your spirit” just didn’t seem hip enough at the time.

After four-plus decades of such liberalism, some Catholics were more than ready to leap back to the future.  There was an outcry for a more literal translation of the original Latin.  Thus, the Roman centurion’s 60s-version “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” is now once again a more angst-ridden (and grammatically clumsier) “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”

If the translation changes had remained merely linguistic, they might have been incrementally accepted with little to no fanfare.  However, words that attempt to describe the Holy Trinity rarely (if ever) can be divorced from their theological implications.  When Mass in English-speaking countries once again emphasized that Jesus was “incarnate” rather than “born” of the Virgin Mary” – and is “consubstantial” rather than “one in Being” with the Father – theological ripples were felt around the world.

Padgett dismisses these ripples as “petty semantics.”  Moreover, ripples such as these can (and have)become the stuff that Great Schisms are made of.  Should Catholics be concentrating upon the subtle differences between “consubstantial” and “one in Being” – or should they instead be focusing upon loving
God and one another?


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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Adventus: First and Second

(Photo by Joel Bez)
In Western Christianity, the Advent season derives its name from the Latin word “Adventus” (meaning “Coming”). 

There are many who associate Advent with the Nativity of Jesus, and they await this Coming with hope and joy.  As did the ancient Hebrews, they envision this Coming as liberation from oppression and relief from suffering.  Perhaps this might ultimately be the case, but a period of judgment might first occur.

Some say that anything worth waiting for is also worth working for.  Even if grace can never be earned, it can certainly be acknowledged through righteous efforts.  That is why an equally strong tradition of Advent penance has existed for centuries, especially within Eastern Christianity.  As Dennis Bratcher points out, “there is the problem of longing for vindication from an evil world when we are contributors to that evil.”  Eastern Christians therefore emphasize fasting and mourning within their Season of Advent rituals, somewhat reminiscent of Lenten observances.

The Greek word “Parousia” (to which the Latin word “Adventus” is strongly tied) often refers specifically to the Second Coming of Christ.   Bratcher cites the prophet Amos, as well as the Bridegroom parable, in order to convey the dual nature of the Second Coming.  Amos warns that the “Day of the Lord” will also be a “day of darkness” - and many bridesmaids within Jesus’ famous parable are caught unprepared (with dire results) when their Bridegroom finally arrives.

Go ahead, then… Eagerly anticipate the Nativity with all the fervor that a human heart can muster.  At the same time, remember that birth and death are inextricably bound together within this earthly realm.  When the Groom knocks again, will the brides be better prepared?

Advent is the season for contemplating such ultimate questions.


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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Frogs: Holy, Hula, and more

There have been many myths and legends concerning frogs.  One is that the Hula frog (in Israel, not Hawaii) is extinct.  This was recently proven wrong by Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority when one of its inspectors discovered that this “painted” frog (which “sports a dark belly with small white spots, and other colors”) was very much alive.

These “resurrected” frogs are denizens of Israel’s Hula Valley, a naturally-abundant area that was also nearly extinct due to human “improvements.”  This valley was once home to Lake Hula, which extended over 12 to 14 square kilometers before its drainage in the 1950s.  The Hebrew Bible called this lake “Merom,” and Wikipedia
reports that it was “the site of a victory of Joshua over the Canaanites.”

Although the Hula has reappeared on earth, many other frogs remain in mythological realms.  Aesop seems to have had a special fascination with them.  His fables tell of frogs begging Jupiter to send them a mighty king (watch what you ask for), frogs reminding boys who were pelting them with stones that “what is sport to you, is death to us,” and frogs that complained to Jupiter about the Sun’s tendency to dry up their homes.

The ancient Egyptians also took their frogs quite seriously.  Because the annual flooding of the Nile coincided (not surprisingly) with the birth of millions of frogs, these frogs became “a symbol of life and fertility.”  This symbolism was further epitomized by the Egyptian frog-goddess, Heget (aka Heket).  Wikipedia also reports that the “Biblical plague of frogs sent to curse ancient Egypt, like the nature of the other plagues, was intended to show the sovereignty of the God of Moses over the gods of Egypt.”

In today’s “truth is stranger than fiction” world, science has found a way to levitate frogs.  This frog levitation has been accomplished through the use of strong magnetic fields (and is largely due to the diamagnetic properties of water).


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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Uh oh... Darth Vader's back in town

Port of Odessa (Photo by Paganel)

Whaddya give Darth Vader when he strolls into the mayor’s office and demands a slice of the land-grant pie?  If you’re the mayor of Odessa, a Ukrainian port on the Black Sea, the answer is this:  Anything he wants.

At least that’s how the real-life Star Wars seem to be going these days… reports that “an Odessite dressed as the Star Wars villain visited the mayor’s office this week to claim a free land plot” -  following promises of such giveaways by city
authorities.  According to, promises like these had prompted public concern that “corruption” might be the driving force behind this unusual generosity.

Therefore, when the human entity aka Darth Vader went to cash in on this promise, he told this to the mayor’s officials:  …Knowing that many (local legislature) deputies and the mayor have switched to the dark side…  I have come for a land plot… for my space cruiser.  The official response?  “We are not on the dark side, we are light-sided people,” the mayor’s spokeswoman announced.  Nevertheless, she
accepted “Darth Vader’s” grant application and told Reuters that it “will be considered.”

Such is the power of old Darth.  His is the notoriety that just won’t quit.  It’s not enough that some Christians have already been advised to avoid him at all costs - nor is it enough that (also according to Wikipedia) he has become “a synonym for evil in popular culture.” 

Now he’s even dabbling in land speculation…


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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Devilish details: Hill of Hell's last gasp

Basilica (Photo by Georges Jansoone)
For years, there have been many mysteries concerning the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. 

It is called “Papal” because the cornerstone was first laid by Pope Gregory IX on 17 July 1228 – the day after he canonized Francis of Assisi.  However, whether construction had actually begun before that day remains a mystery.  Wikipedia also reports that the “uncorrupted body” of St. Francis was then brought to the Lower Basilica after its completion in 1230.  The location of his body was kept secret for fear that “St. Francis’ remains might be stolen and
dispersed.”  It wasn’t until 1818 that these remains were “rediscovered.”

Another mystery concerns the great works of art that are found within the Basilica.  It is known that many
artists contributed to these works, but their actual identities remain sketchy.  For example, the famous
frescoes depicting scenes from the life and death of St. Francis are usually attributed to Giotto di Bondone.
However, Wikipedia reports that “many scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was in fact the author of
the Upper Church frescoes.”

Nevertheless, a recent headline announced the following:  Devil found in detail of Giotto fresco in Italy’s Assisi.  This Reuters article goes on to report that “the devil was hidden in the details of clouds at the top of fresco number 20…”  The Italian art historian who discovered this hidden “figure with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns” must have also assumed that the devil looks like this. However, it is this assumption that may ultimately be more devilish than the painted figure itself.

That is because devil’s horns have been utilized as a stereotypical insult to both Neopagans and Jews. 
Wikipedia reports that depicting the devil with horns is a relatively modern occurrence, “and derives from Pan’s popularity in Victorian and Edwardian neopaganism.” reports that Jews have also been accused of having horns ever since Jerome’s Vulgate confused the Hebrew word “karan” (which referred to the radiance of Moses after he descended a second time from Mount Sinai) with the Hebrew word “keren” (which means “horns”).

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is how the “Hill of Hell” (a place where condemned criminals were once put to death, and where the Basilica now rests) could be transformed into a place of such beauty.  May this beauty never be marred by the all-too-human failings that are expressed within artistic stereotypes like these.       


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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

King James Bible: His and Hers

Although the King James Bible has been called the book that set the English language “on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since” - its original version is now ironically often characterized by translation and/or printing errors.

When a team of 47 out of 54 originally-approved translators are dealing with a collection of 80 books (39 from the Hebrew Bible, 27 from the New Testament, and 14 from the Apocrypha) that took more than 40 presumed authors (“including kings, prophets, poets, musicians, and fisherman”) over a thousand years to collectively write in three different original languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek) – there are bound to be some misunderstandings.

First off - the title is not “King James Bible,” or even “King James Version,” as many affectionately call it.  Wikipedia reports that the actual title of the very first 1611 edition was “THE HOLY BIBLE, Containing the Old Testament, AND THE NEW: Newly Translated out of the Original tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties special Commandment.”  (You can now see why modern folks simply say “KJV” when referring to this religious, historical and literary opus.)

And “opus” it was!  According to George Bernard Shaw (who knows a thing or two about good writing):  The translation was extraordinarily well done because to the translators what they were translating was not merely a curious collection of ancient books written by different authors in different stages of culture, but the word of God divinely revealed through His chosen and expressly inspired scribes.

Nevertheless, there have been a number of glitches along the way.  Some were due to printing errors and
rivalries – others to the intentional flexing of meanings to fit church doctrine.  One of the most famous original
glitches occurred within the Ruth 3:15 passage.  One of the 1611 editions stated that “he went into the city” –
the other stated that “she went into the city.”  These two editions are now often called the “He and She” Bibles.


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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blessed Kateri: She who bumped into things

Kateri Tekakwitha (By Father Chauchetiere)
“Things that go bump in the night” are often thought of as particularly threatening.  At the same time, they are imbued with a mysterious quality that some might call spiritual.

Kateri “Tekakwitha” (thus named “she who bumps into things” due to her impaired eyesight from a severe bout of smallpox) responded to physical, emotional and spiritual threats with equal grace.  She was born in 1656 C.E. to an
Algonquin mother and a Mohawk Chief in the then-Mohawk
village of Canaouaga or Ossernenon (now Auriesville, New
York).  At the tender age of four, Kateri’s parents both died
of smallpox – a disease that had been introduced into their
Native community by the European settlers.  Although Kateri survived the dreaded disease - she was not only left with compromised eyesight, but also with a “badly scarred” face.

Nevertheless, Kateri was extremely drawn to the Christian
faith of some of these settlers.  After her parents’ death, she was taken in by her uncle’s family.  By the age of eight, Kateri already knew that she wanted to dedicate her life to a Christian worship of God.  Therefore, when her foster family attempted to arrange a future marriage for her according to Iroquois custom, Kateri’s heart was not on board with the prospect.  She thus found herself not only bumping into physical objects, but also into the resistance of her own people.

When Kateri was ten, a “war party composed of French soldiers and hostile Indians from Canada” wound up destroying Ossernenon and other nearby Mohawk settlements.  Kateri and other survivors moved across
the river to the north side “and built their fortified village about half a mile west of the present village of Fonda.” also reports that Kateri lived there at Caughnawaga (site of the present Shrine)
until she was 20.

At the age of 18, she “began instructions in the Catholic Faith in secret.”  Although her uncle finally gave consent for her to become a Christian, Kateri was scorned, mocked and threatened by others.  Approximately two years after her baptism, she escaped to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier, “a settlement of Christian Indians in Canada.”  There she lived out the rest of her short life with a “vow of perpetual virginity.”  She was known for her great devotion - and for her service to those most in need.

During these years, Kateri also suffered tremendously.  When illness claimed her life at age 23, her final words were “Jesus – Mary – I love you.”  Witnesses also stated that “within a few minutes of her death, the pock marks from smallpox completely vanished and her face shone with radiant loveliness.”

She who had bumped into things all her life was now at peace.


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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Were the Pilgrims heretics?

(Painting by Robert W. Weir)
“Heresy” is a word that has been bandied about in this modern day and age.  Although historically it has been associated primarily with religious matters, these days it is often used in tongue-and-cheek ways to describe anything from genius to fraud. 

Wikipedia reports that the word “heresy” in the original Greek meant “choice.”  It is also defined as “a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma.”  Wikipedia points out that “heresy” is distinct from “apostasy” (“the formal denunciation of one’s religion”) and from “blasphemy” (“irreverence toward religion”).

Although “heresy” was originally not a legal offense, Theodosius I’s 380 C.E. Edict of Thessalonica put into
place a means by which the Church could prosecute those whom it deemed to be heretics.  This also meant
that the Church, in conjunction with the State, could now legally execute those who were pronounced
“heretics” by “various ecclesiastical authorities.”  According to Wikipedia, these types of Church (later including both Catholic and Protestant Churches) executions took place from 385 until 1826 C.E.  In fact, these practices poisonously mushroomed to include the elimination of entire groups of believers.

One of these was the group we today call “Pilgrims.”  Back in not-so-merry old England, King Henry VIII
(yes, that one) broke away from the Roman Catholic Church (why has been the fodder for many other far-
from-religious discussions) to form his own national Church of England.  Although this changed some Church rituals here and there, there were those who thought that way too much remained the same. These “heretics” (you decide) were the “Puritans” (who wished to purify the Church) and the more-radical
“Separatists” (who thought the Church of England was “beyond reform” and therefore “demanded the
formation of new, separate church congregations”).

According to, it is the Separatists who fled European persecution and eventually established
Plymouth Colony in New England.


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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Barefoot mantra: One, two, unbuckle that shoe

(By Lorenz Kerscher)
Walking from darkness to light can be greatly accelerated when doing so with bare feet.  That could be why some religions have stressed the removal of shoes for worship and other purposes.

Wikipedia reports that the “ancient Greeks largely viewed footwear as self-indulgent, unaesthetic, and unnecessary.”  Their Olympian athletes were not only barefoot, but also naked. It is therefore not surprising that their gods were usually depicted without footwear.  Although Alexander the Great’s barefoot army managed to conquer half the ancient world, the Romans believed that shoes (and clothing in general) were signs of civilized power.  This might partially account for the many biblical references to shoes.

What did President George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II have in common?  The short answer is that they both walked barefoot around the Raj Ghat monument to Mahatma Gandhi in order to show their respect for him.  Just as Romans Catholics often honor the Pope by kissing his feet, Hindus often honor the guru by touching his or her bare feet (the practice of pranam).  Muslims wash their feet before worship and prayers, and Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the time of The Last Supper.  Some Jews and Christians go barefoot while mourning.

Bare feet are also associated with vows of poverty and humility.  Thai Buddhist monk Master Jinshen walks 12 barefoot miles per day in order “to develop his Buddhist spirit,” as well as to remind people to “protect and be concerned for Mother Nature.”  The Book of Exodus tells us that God asked Moses “to remove his shoes before approaching the burning bush.”  Wikipedia also reports that there are barefoot or scantily shod Christian congregations such as the Discalced Carmelites, the Trinitarians, and the Passionists.

Contemporary Wise Woman Susun Weed, in her November 15, 2011 newsletter column, also sings the virtues of freeing those feet.  She states, “I love to let my bare feet inform me” - and then offers these explanations:  First, they let me know how my health is…  Second, my bare feet bring me the energy of the earth…  Third, my bare feet cause me to slow down and to pay attention to my surroundings…  Fourth, my bare feet remind me that every step is a blessing.

And the Fourth shall be First…

So, unbuckle up!


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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Richard Baxter: Puritan extraordinaire

(Richard Baxter)
Thanksgiving is situated just about midway between Richard Baxter’s November 12th birthday and his December 8th feast day.  This seems appropriate since Baxter was also one of the most inspiring leaders of 17th-century Puritan theology.

Wikipedia reports that “all forms of church government were regarded by him as subservient to the true purposes of religion.”  However, he was more moderate than radical in his stance regarding the Church of England.  His “non-separatist presbyterian approach” to church reform incorporated elements from various “doctrines of grace” that were at odds with one another.  Baxter therefore often found himself in the midst of controversy – and
worse yet, the victim of religious persecution.  At varying times he was banned from preaching, his possessions were seized, and he was imprisoned.  All because he sought to unite strands of an all-
too-divided Church...  Ironically, though, “his funeral was attended by both churchmen and dissenters.”

Before his death at age 76, Baxter had written a considerable body of theological works (some with compelling titles such as Jesuit Juggling: Forty Popish Frauds Detected and Disclosed, How to Spend the Day with God, A Saint or a Brute: The Certain Necessity and Excellency of Holiness, and Converse with God in Solitude.

While waiting on Eternity, consider this wake-up tip from Baxter regarding spending the day with God right here and now:  Let God have your first awakening thoughts; lift up your hearts to him reverently and thankfully…  Think of the mercy of a night’s rest and of how many that have spent that night in Hell; how many in prison; how many in cold, hard lodgings; how many suffering from agonizing pains and sicknesses, weary of their beds and of their lives...  How speedily your last night and day will come!  Observe that which is lacking in the preparedness of your soul for such a time and seek it without delay.


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

Friday, November 18, 2011

Silence of the whales: Can this be suicide?

The Suicide (Painting by Edouard Manet)
As a result of this week’s beaching of 61 whales, people have once again been wondering:  Do animals commit suicide?

Although it’s virtually impossible to know for sure what the motives of any creature are, we can nevertheless study behaviors. reports on the following examples of self-destructive animal behaviors that are thought to be possible suicides:  A “depressed” Newfoundland dog kept holding his head “determinedly” under water for several minutes; “other dogs drowned or starved themselves after losing their owners;” “a duck drowned itself after the death of its mate;” infected mole rats and bees abandoned their colonies “to prevent an epidemic;” and single-celled algae engaged in “programmed cell death when exposed to stresses that they’re fully capable of overcoming” (which then “promoted growth in the survivors”).

Yes, but are these examples of self-destructive behaviors actually suicides?  Wikipedia defines “suicide” as “the act of intentionally causing one’s own death.”  In humans, despair, mental disorders, substance abuse, interpersonal troubles, and/or financial difficulties are often linked to suicides.  Cultural factors also play a significant role.  For example, “during the samurai era in Japan, seppuku was respected as a means of atonement for failure or as a form of protest.”  Ancient Greek and Roman cultures did not necessarily view suicide as immoral.

However, some religions have a strong taboo against suicide.  Wikipedia reports that “suicide is forbidden by Jewish law,” although “the Talmud is somewhat unclear on the matter.”  Many Catholics consider death by suicide to be “a grave or serious sin” because “one’s life is the property of God… and to destroy that life is to wrongly assert dominion over what is God’s…”  Some Conservative Protestants consider suicide to be “self-murder” that “is the same as if the person  murdered another human being.”

It seems that the defining factors of “suicide” are therefore fairly dependent upon the societal context within which the act occurs.  Although the spirituality of animals is even more difficult to assess than their motives, it seems as though they do self-destruct with intentionality (and even altruism) at times.  Add to this the results of animal studies that show self-awareness capabilities (such as recognizing one’s image in a mirror) - and it seems very likely that animals can and do sometimes commit suicide.


Copyright November 18, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved