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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sage: Savior in the garden

Salvia Officinalis (Public Domain)
Sometimes God's saving grace is literally right under our noses.  The sweet aroma of sage seems to whisper:  I'm here to help.

Wikipedia tells us that the common name "sage," as well the scientific term Salvia, comes from the Latin word salvere (which
means "to save").  Salvia officinalis (aka "garden sage" or "common sage") draws the second half of its title from the officina
("the traditional storeroom of a monastery where herbs and medicines were stored").  This plant has been used to ward off evil
since ancient times.  Old-time herbals attributed "many miraculous properties" to it. 

Although native to the Mediterranean region, sage has long grown in many other places throughout the world.  Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor at the Lyceum, wrote about two varieties of sage:  wild and cultivated.  Pliny the Elder detailed some of its medicinal uses.  During the Middle Ages, sage was a leading
component of Four Thieves Vinegar (a mixture of herbs, spices and vinegar that was said to stave off the plague).  The virtues of Salvia have also been extolled by Charlemagne, the Carolingians, and Carl Linnaeus.

In her article Sage the Savior, Susun Weed lists many of its healing properties.  These include the following:  bone-building minerals, antioxidant vitamins, antimicrobial, digestive aid, head-cold preventive, lung healer, sleep aid, perspiration reducer, and anxiety reducer.  She then reminds readers of this traditional saying:  Why die when the Savior grows in your garden?


Copyright February 28, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Christian fashion: 'Modest is hottest'

(Western Fashion, 1794-1887)
Some might consider the phrase "Christian fashion" to be an oxymoron. Their logic might sound something like this: "If God wanted me to look taller (or shorter, take your pick), He would have given me a longer (shorter…) torso to begin with."

That kind of logic can be quite limiting.  It ignores the fact that our God-given bodies are constantly being transformed by the choices that we make.  The foods that we eat, the thoughts that we think, the actions that we perform – all leave their imprint.  Why then should the clothes that we wear
be any different?  We appreciate worldly gifts by wrapping them with fine ribbons; why not appreciate God's most precious gift of the human body by "wrapping" it with complementary fashion?

Shari Braendel is a nationally-known Christian speaker who specializes in
teaching females to appreciate their God-given beauty via fashion.  Unlike
some runway "experts" that put forth the message that "clothes make the person," Braendel is rooted in the premise that people are intrinsically beautiful.  Writer Judy James explains that Braendel's focus is to "help girls to dress in a way that lets who they [already] are shine through." 

This focus embraces the philosophy that "modest is indeed hottest."   Clothing should therefore "highlight her [a female's] entire being – rather than just a few suggestive regions…"   In this way "who she is and what she is saying comes through."


Copyright February 27, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Not a cardinal? Cast a pope vote anyway

Cardinals' Coat of Arms (PioM)
Recent "Headlines" of the Religion News Service (RNS) featured an article by Alessandro Speciale titled "Vatican mulling changes to election of new pope."  Ironically, a "Poll" section titled "Vote for the pope" was located practically alongside of this Speciale article.

Although the chances of papal elections being decided by popular vote are currently slim to none, polls such as this RNS one at least play a part in educating the public as to who the "candidates" are.  RNS' pontiff-
possibility short list is as follows:  Cardinal Timothy Dolan (United States); Cardinal Marc Quellet (Canada); Cardinal Peter Turkson (Ghana); Cardinal Angelo Scola (Italy); Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (Italy); Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy); Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer (Brazil); Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz (Brazil); Cardinal Leonardo Sandri (Argentina); Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras); Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (Philippines); and Archbishop Diarmuid Artin (Ireland).

Nevertheless RNS had the wisdom to add a choice called "Other" at the end of this papal-poll list.   That is probably because there have been a number of past surprises regarding actual choices.  Wikipedia gives the famous example of then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who "was not widely considered papabile [an unofficial
Italian term meaning 'a likely or possible candidate to be elected pope'] because he was not Italian and came
from the Eastern bloc."

Go figure…


Copyright February 26, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 25, 2013

Pope Benedict: Climbing onto the mountain

Sunset on Everest (Thomas.fanghaenel)
Reuters reports that during his final Sunday address
as pope, Benedict told the supportive crowd:  The
Lord is calling me to climb onto the mountain, to
dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church. Actually, if God asks this of me, it is precisely because I can continue to serve her with the same dedication and the same love I have shown so far…  in a way more in keeping with my age and my forces.

Now some may question whether it was God or Benedict himself who made this historic decision. Nevertheless, those who claim to live by the Bible might wish to review these words from Genesis 2 (NIV):  By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.  Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

This concept of withdrawing from many action-oriented tasks and focusing more upon prayerful contemplative ones is what many call "Sabbath."  If God is, indeed, omnipotent – was His seventh-day rest really a divine necessity?  If not, perhaps God was trying to tell us something – i.e., that holiness can be earnestly expressed in ways other than active work.  (The old line "Don't just do something, stand there" comes to mind…)

In his book Sabbath:  Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives, Wayne Mueller states: Like a path through the forest, Sabbath creates a marker for ourselves so, if we are lost, we can find our way back to our center

May the Sabbath path that Benedict (and/or God) has chosen lead him to the highest mountaintop…


Copyright February 25, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book of Esther: The whole Megillah

Megillat Esther (Photo by Chefallen) 
According to Merriam Webster, the current slang definition of megillah is as follows:  "a long involved story or account."

Certainly, the Book of Esther can be viewed through that lens.  Also called the Megillah (meaning "scroll" in Hebrew), this "action-packed" account leaves little to the imagination (except perhaps G-d, being the only book in the Bible besides – some say - the Song of Songs of Solomon  that does not explicitly mention G-d).

Part of the Ketuvim ("writings") section of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Esther "tells the story of a Jewish girl named Esther who became queen of Persia and thwarted a plan to commit genocide against her people."  Wikipedia also explains that this book "is the basis and an
integral part of the Jewish celebration of Purim."  It is not only read aloud during that holiday (which occurs on the 14th  or 15th day of Adar or Adar II), but is also often theatrically enacted in spoofs that have come to be known as Purim spiels.

Because the presence of G-d was allegedly "disguised" within the Book of Esther's story - and because there is a belief that G-d "has remained concealed (yet ever-present) in Jewish history since the times of the destruction of the first Temple" - and because of the Roman carnival's possible influence - a masquerading tradition of costumes and masks has become very much a part of Purim celebrations.

Wikipedia furthermore mentions that the Book of Esther marks the first use in the Bible of the Hebrew word for "Jew" - "thus denoting a distinction between the Hebrews, the Israelites, and their Jewish descendants within the diaspora."


Copyright February 24, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Elder Caritas: Applicable to all

(Photo by Marsyas)
If you're not quite sure what the word "elder" means, try looking in the mirror.  No matter what your present age might be, you are surely older in this moment than you were five minutes ago.  That literally makes you an "elder" version of your earlier self (at least within this time/space continuum).

Now that we've got that straightened out, perhaps you can better understand why information about elders pertains to us all. Whether you're 18 or 80, the sands of your hourglass are shifting.  It seems therefore important to begin discovering those "reset buttons" that can help make aging a fulfilling process.

As for caritas?  That's a bit harder to fathom since it extends beyond time and space.  To give you an idea of its vastness, here's a quote from 1 John 4:8: Deus est caritas (Latin for "God is love").  Although many have tried to relegate Saint Paul's use of the word caritas in 1 Corinthians 13 to weddings and valentines, it is often better translated as "charity" than as "love."  Paul's famous declaration would then read, "But the greatest of these [three virtues of faith, hope and charity] is charity [caritas]."

We're not talking about checkbook charity, or even about out-of-pocket dollars to homeless individuals. We are instead talking about a caritas that includes the love of God, neighbor, and sacred self.  This reverent approach to God and Creation is one that has been traditionally offered to society's elders.  Learning to once again appreciate the wisdom and experience of our collective ancestors (both living and dead) is what "Elder Caritas" is all about.


Copyright February 23, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 22, 2013

Leprosy: Then and now

Mycobacterium leprae (red rods)
Many biblical students are familiar with the story of Naaman, which has a miraculously happy ending.

2 Kings 5 (NIV) tells us that Naaman was "commander of the army of the king of Aram."  (Aram is now geographically located in central Syria.)  He was "highly regarded" by his people, "but he had leprosy."  Naaman's "wife" (actually a young female captive from Israel) suggested that he go see "the prophet who is in Samaria" in order to be healed of this disease.  Aram's king then sent a letter to the king of Israel (along with a great deal of silver and gold) urging that Naaman be cured.  Although Israel's king could do nothing, the prophet Elisha offered to help.  Elisha ordered the resistant Naaman to simply wash himself "seven times in the Jordan" so that he "will be cleansed" and his "flesh will be restored."

Elisha's response reflects the ancient view that "leprosy" [which was then an umbrella term for a host of skin conditions] was the outer reflection of unresolved sin.  In his article Leprosy in the Bible:  Quarantine
or Ritual? – Alan Shen reports that "the Hebrew word for leprosy, sara'at" means "to strike down."  This suggests the Israelite belief that "God was punishing a victim [leper] for sinning."  Even kings such as Uzziah (whose sin was "burning incense in the house of God") were subject to this type of divine retribution.  Banishment of biblical lepers was sometimes looked upon as a means of appeasing Yahweh.

The word "leprosy" within current medical terminology is much more specific.  It refers to a systemic condition that is caused by the Mycobacterium leprae/lepromatosis (aka "leprosy germs").  The infectious spread of these germs is generally  viewed scientifically rather than religiously.  The "cure" is more often viewed pharmaceutically than spiritually. 

Copyright February 23, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Brooklyn love: 50 years and counting

Marty Markowitz (by David Shankbone)
Although Brooklyn, New York isn't usually thought of as the love capital of the world, Borough President Marty Markowitz might
be changing all that via his yearly parties for couples who are married longer than 50 years.

According to MSN News, this year's celebration was held at the El Caribe Country Club in Mill Basin.  Over 300 couples were expected to partake in the festivities, which included music, cake and champagne.  Kisses were - of course – encouraged as Markowitz (himself married a "mere" 13 years) declared the guests to be "married forever."

But every party has its price…  In this case, spouses were urged to reveal their "secret formulas" for marital longevity.

72-year "marital veterans" Fortunato and Maddalena Corso had this to say:  You've got to love each other and you've got to work at it together.  Their daughter (who currently lives with them in Bensonhurst) added:  You don't go to bed madThat's what he [Fortunato] believes in.

Faina Shamrakov, married 58 years to husband David - whom she met when they were both medical students in the Ukraine, explained:  We have the same interests – we worked together…  We do everything together.

Murray and Esther Redlitz, Holocaust survivors, have been married for 66 years.  Murray advised:  You've got to know each other for a while and then compromise.  Think what the other thinks.  Don't be selfish.

Getting to know these wonderful couples has helped Marty Markowitz to conclude:  Here's the secret: Happy wife, happy life.  It's as simple as that…  It makes your life so much better if they're happy

Copyright February 21, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Daniel Fast: Vegan and then some

Daniel refusing meat/wine (O.A. Stemler)
Seeds of the Daniel Fast can be found in Chapters One and Ten of the Book of Daniel (KJV).

Chapter One explains that after Jerusalem was besieged by Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar requested that certain of Israel's children be brought to him.  One of them was Daniel. The king then ordered that they be given "a daily provision" of meat and wine.  Daniel refused to "defile himself" with these provisions and instead requested "pulse to eat, and water to drink." He was allowed to try this alternative diet for a period of ten days.  At the end of this period, Daniel appeared "fairer and fatter in flesh" than those who partook of the meat and wine. 

Chapter Ten reports that Daniel was later in mourning for "three full weeks."  Daniel described this experience as follows:  I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled. tells us that today's Daniel Fast is rooted in these biblical passages, as well as in "typical Jewish fasting principles."  Health permitting (medical clearance is encouraged), it consists of only water to drink – plus fruits, whole grains and vegetables (i.e., "pulses") to eat.  Sweeteners, "chemicals," caffeine, alcohol and leavened breads are not within the Daniel Fast parameters.

The Daniel Fast is considered to be a spiritual practice and is often undertaken for 21 days during Lent. When utilized "for strictly health purposes," it is instead called the Daniel Diet.


Copyright February 20, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Copernicus: Priest or heretic?

Conversation with God (Matejko)
Although Wikipedia describes "polymath" Nicolaus Copernicus as a Catholic priest (as well as an artist, mathematician, polyglot, diplomat, translator, jurist, physician, scholar, astronomer and economist), the Catholic Encyclopedia is somewhat less emphatic about his clerical role. reports that no document exists to prove that Copernicus "ever received higher orders."  Nevertheless, "the fact that in 1537 King Sigismund of Poland had put his name on the list of four candidates for the vacant episcopal seat of Ermland, makes it probable that, at least in later life, he [Copernicus] had entered the priesthood."  Copernicus had also served as administrator of the Frauenburg diocese.

However, goes on to conclude that "these various offices…  could not distract the genius of Copernicus from "the main thought of his life" (i.e., "astronomy").  The tower at Frauenburg became one of a number of observatories for "his great work 'On the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies'…"  He spent
countless hours studying the solar system.

At the time, these astronomical pursuits did not interfere with his good Catholic standing.  On the contrary, Pope Leo X (via Bishop Paul of Fossombrone) requested his input regarding "the reform of the ecclesiastical calendar."  Copernicus' subsequent observations concerning "the length of the year and of the months and the motions of the sun and moon" served 70 years later as "a basis for the working out of the Gregorian calendar." explains that opposition "against the Copernican system" was first raised "by Protestant
theologians for Biblical reasons" (and continues to be sporadically raised from time to time).  However,
Catholic opposition did not commence until 73 years later, "when it was occasioned by Galileo."

The Catholic Encyclopedia currently concludes:  His [Copernicus'] genius appears in the fact that he
grasped the [heliocentric] truth centuries before it could be proved.  Nevertheless, Copernicus had also
"set his face against the reformers of religion." 

Copyright February 19, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 18, 2013

U. S. presidents: Religious types and hypes

Washington (U. S. Capitol)
United States presidents have often been portrayed as being across-the-board mainline Christians.  This has been accentuated by the fact that – to date – none
has been a member of any well-known "minority" groups such as Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Hindus or Sikhs.

Wikipedia reports that "a specific affiliation" with "a particular church or religious body" can be "assigned to every president from Garfield on."  Before then, "formal church membership" was often "forestalled" until the president left office.  For example, James Knox Polk's "deathbed conversion" to Methodism is well documented.  Prior to that, he had attended Presbyterian services mainly to please his wife and mother.

Wikipedia also explains that "the inner beliefs of the presidents are much more difficult to establish than church membership."  Because of the highly political nature of the president's role, "patterns of churchgoing" and "religious references" within speeches might not be reliable indicators of true beliefs.  Because some also changed their beliefs within the course of a lifetime, out-of-context religious quotes from different periods of their lives can be misleading.

The Secular Web, which bills itself as "a drop of reason in a pool of confusion," presents a work by
researcher Franklin Steiner titled "The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents."  Steiner is described as "a student of the subject for over 40 years" - this work is described as a "thoroughly documented" and "straight-forward trustworthy account…"  In the preface, Steiner himself contends:  History and biography, if written at all, should be written truthfully.  

He also contends that much of what is said about the religious beliefs of U. S. presidents can be attributed to "The Myths of History" – along with stories about "Washington praying in the snow" and "Lincoln and his cabinet on their knees in prayer."


Copyright February 18, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Great balls of fire: Is this the end?

Leonid Meteor (Photo by Navicore)
End-time theology (or for those who prefer to chew on tougher words - "eschatology") is often not that pretty a picture.

Wikipedia reports that it usually involves "a crisis that brings an end to current reality and ushers in a new way of living/thinking/being…"
This crisis can be a war, a pestilence, or "a change in the environment"  (as in fireballs recently zooming towards Earth at breakneck speed).

Different religions have different end-time prophecies.  Hindus predict that "the tenth and last avatar of Vishnu" (named Kalki, and
often depicted atop a white horse with wings) will dissolve the Kali Yuga universe and usher in the new age of Satya Yuga.  Islamic end-time teachings include the following signs:  "smoke… strange noises from the sky…  three huge earthquakes…  and the reversal of the natural..."  Muslims furthermore assert that Jesus Christ will
return, "the Qur'an will be taken to heaven…  and the dead will return to life…"

The Jewish Torah and Talmud contain many prophetic passages regarding eschatology.  The Book of Daniel is especially focused upon that theme.  There are great battles between good and evil, and the righteous are finally triumphant.  Zoroastrian doctrine also speaks of a final period in which "evil will be destroyed, and everything else will be in perfect unity with God (Ahura Mazda)."   Christian end-time teachings draw upon the Book of Daniel, as well as upon the Book of Revelation.  The Book of Revelation again deals with "the ongoing struggle and ultimate triumph of good over evil."

Perhaps the end is truly nigh – but perhaps that's not as ultimately terrible as it sounds.  Most major religions seem to agree that evil will eventually succumb to the Greater Good.  However, the interim "battle" could be
quite fierce.


Copyright February 17, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Loving large: What happens in vagus

Pair of Lovers (Liebespaar, 1480s)
Elvis chapels aside, it turns out that love occurs more in vagus than it does in Vegas.

Kristin Wong of MSN Living reports on a new book by social psychologist Barbara Frederickson called Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become.  In it this award-winning scholar presents an array of impressively footnoted facts about love with a capital "L."  Frederickson draws not only upon her own research findings, but also upon those detailed in weighty sources such as the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Frederickson's contention is that love is a "micro-moment of positivity romance" (try adding that to a valentine). Too clinical sounding?  Perhaps.  But Frederickson also contends that this definition expands, rather than shrinks, the parameters of that which we all long for…

Although "micro-moment" might seem far removed from "unto death do we part" – a host of micro-moments could add up to a lifetime of love.  Amazon reviewer Robert Biswas-diener explains that in Frederickson's
estimation "love is not one long gush of emotion but, rather, a chain of linked moments."  Amazon reviewer Todd B. Kashdan adds:  "Instead of limiting love to a small number of profoundly intense relationships where our innermost sense of self feels cared for, accepted, and validated by another person, she defines love by those 'micro-moments' when we feel connected to another human being with a sense of vitality, deep affection, and there is a mutual investment of attention and respect."

This does not rule out the benefits of a long-term monogamous relationship.  Frederickson's research indicates that "vagal tone" (associated with the vagus nerve, "one of three biological factors responsible for the feeling of love") can increase through such practices as Buddhist "loving-kindness meditation."  She also states that commitments such as marriage can "create foundations of safety and trust that support more
frequent experiences of positivity resonance, which over time help each partner become their best."      


Copyright February 16, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 15, 2013

Benedict's retirement: Peace be with him

(Photo by Antiedipo)
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is being widely compared to that of Pope Celestine V.

Both pontiffs made the courageous decision to choose a more peaceful existence during their twilight years.  Celestine cited "the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the
perverseness of his people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life" as reasons for his resignation.  Benedict cited failing strength of "mind and body" as the reason for his "incapacity to adequately fulfill" his current ministry.

Hopefully, here is where the comparison ends and the peaceful retirement of Benedict begins.

Celestine's decision was met with a great deal of hostility.  Wikipedia reports that he was not allowed to remain in his beloved solitude.  To prevent any feared competition from a living ex-pope, the new Pope Boniface VIII had him imprisoned in a castle located 65 km from Rome.  Celestine died there 10 months later (some believe that he was murdered).

Benedict has often indicated that he, too, longs for a more reclusive life.  However, NBC News recently
asked:  What's next:  Can Pope Benedict really quietly retire? Thus far we don't know much.  Nevertheless, "a brief statement Monday from the Vatican" said that Benedict will eventually "take up residence in a former cloistered monastery in the Vatican."

May the blessed peace that he seeks be with him there.      


Copyright February 15, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Kiss of Peace: Holy communication

Saint Augustine of Hippo (Public Domain)
The Kiss of Peace that was practiced by ancient Christians is nothing like the Kiss and Make Up that is practiced by modern romantics.

When Jesus walked this earth, it was already the custom within Judea and the western Mediterranean for men to greet one another with a kiss on the cheek.  This custom was both intensified and imbued with a special spiritual significance by the early Christians (who greeted one another mouth-to-mouth according to primary sources, allegedly because Jesus and his
disciples did the same).  The New Testament therefore advises faithful followers to greet one another "with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16, I Corinthians 16:20, II Corinthians 13:12, I Thessalonians 5:26) or "with a kiss of love" (I Peter 5:14).

A few centuries later, Saint Augustine of Hippo described how the Kiss of Peace had then become part of the Eucharistic liturgy.  During an Easter sermon, Augustine states:  …after the consecration of the Holy Sacrifice of God… we say the Lord's Prayer…  After this, the 'Peace be with you' is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss.  This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his.  Hence, these are great and
powerful sacraments.  (Note:  This Kiss of Peace was only exchanged man-to-man or woman-to-woman.
Wikipedia reports that "men and women were required to sit separately" in order to "guard against any abuse
of this form of salutation.")

These days, many Christian worshippers prefer to extend a hearty Galatians 2:9 "right hand of fellowship" (either via handshakes or hugs) to their neighbors in the pews.


Copyright February 14, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lent begins: Sackcloth gone, ashes remain

(Public Domain Photo)
Ash Wednesday, a moveable feast that can occur anytime from February 4th through March 10th, marks the beginning of Lent.

Lent in turn marks Christianity's "40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting."  Wikipedia explains that this period symbolizes the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert.  As the name implies, Ash Wednesday includes "the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents."  During ancient times, ashes were used to express "sorrow for sins and faults."  The prophet Jeremiah (6:26), in calling for repentance, cried out:  O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.

Sackcloth and ashes have long been associated with one another.  The Jewish Encyclopedia describes
"sackcloth" (Hebrew: sak) as "a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat's hair."  It was "chiefly worn as a token of mourning by the Israelites," but was also considered a sign of submission.  Prophets, too, sometimes wore it.  Some theorize (without conclusive evidence) that it was "shaped like a corn-bag with an opening for the head" – others believe that it "originally was simply the loin-cloth."

In any case, few to none don sackcloth these days in honor of Ash Wednesday.  Ashes remain the predominant symbol of penitence.  The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that the Hebrew word efer is often translated as "ashes," but could also mean "dust."  As "dust," efer can refer to "insignificance or nothingness…"  This is associated with humility in Isaiah and Micah, and with mourning in Job. 

Daniel 9:3 tells us that the prophet "turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes."   It is heartening to know - after all this time – that two out of three of these sacred practices still popularly reflect the essence of Lent.


Copyright February 13, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shrive, shrove, shriven: 'Penitent Tuesday'

St. Peter in Penitence (Artist: El Greco) defines "shrive" in the following ways:  "verb (used with object) to impose penance on (a sinner), to grant absolution to (a penitent), to hear the confession of (a person); verb (used without object) Archaic to hear confessions, to go to or make confession; confess one's sins, as to a priest."

Thus "Shrove" (simple past of the verb "shrive") became the name of the Tuesday right before Ash
Wednesday. describes Shrove
Tuesday as "a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins" (hence its other name "Mardi Gras" - meaning "Fat Tuesday").

The tradition of receiving absolution is a centuries-old one.  Wikipedia explains that absolution not only "forgives sins" - but also "allows the valid and non-sinful reception of the sacraments," as well as "full
participation in the life of the Church."  In Roman Catholicism it is an integral part of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (aka "Confession") - without which a person could be condemned to Hell.

Even the "Mardi Gras" component of Shrove Tuesday has a spiritual function.  Because wasting food is often
considered sinful, cooking and eating pancakes became a means of using up the "fats, eggs, and milky foods"
that would otherwise spoil during the 40 days of Lent.  And what better way to appreciate these God-given
goodies than with a bit of meat and fish on the side…  

As for the "mob football" and pancake races?  Let's just say that all those calories have had to be dealt with


Copyright February 12, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 11, 2013

Benedict resigns: Shades of Celestine?

Pope Celestine V (Public Domain)
Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world today by announcing his resignation - effective February 28, 2013.

According to Reuters, he explained that because his "strength of mind and body" have deteriorated within the past several months, he no longer feels able "to adequately fulfill the ministry" entrusted to him.  The Pope therefore stated:  For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.

Reuters also reports that "the last Pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for only five months…"  Known for his asceticism and penitential practices, Celestine had become a Benedictine monk at the age of 17.  Wikipedia states that he had also shown "great intelligence and love for others" since childhood.  During his
brief reign, Celestine issued a decree declaring "the right of any pope to abdicate the papacy."  He soon afterwards exercised this right, citing "the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of his people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life…"

Because of this resignation, Celestine is said to be "the nameless figure" that the epic poet Dante Alighieri "saw" in the "antechamber of Hell."  These lines are from Dante's Inferno III, 59-60:  I saw and recognized the shade of him   Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.

The great medieval "Father of Humanism" Francesco Petrarch (aka "Petrarch"), however, did not view Celestine as cowardly.  He lauded Celestine's historic decision as "a virtuous example of solitary life."    


Copyright February 11, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mary had a little lamb: Colette and Clement too

(Photo by John Workman)
When we used to sing "Mary had a little lamb…" back in grade school, who knew that it was fraught with religious significance?

Apparently some people did – such as the author of this Wiki Answers explanation:  Jesus is the Lamb of God, Mary is his mother…  Jesus "followed Mary to school," meaning He preached in the Temple.  It was against the rules – the Pharisees and Sadducees had Him persecuted because Jesus (the Lamb) was preaching against them.  Still, "It made the children laugh and play."  The people were happy because Jesus brought them salvation…

It turns out that Mary wasn't the only one who was privy to a blessed lamb.  In his book Saint Francis, Nature Mystic, Edward Allworthy Armstrong tells us that "Saint Colette, the reformer of the Poor Clares, had a pet lamb which, like Lady Jacopa's, knelt at the Elevation of the Sacrament."  Born
Nicole Boellet, Colette was so named because her previously-barren elderly mother gave birth to her after praying to Saint Nicholas for a child.  Because of this and other miracles associated with her, Colette "is venerated as the patron saint of women seeking to conceive, expectant mothers, and sick children."

Saint Clement of Rome was allegedly banished to the Chersonesus (in the modern-day Ukraine) and sentenced to hard labor in a stone quarry. When he found that his fellow prisoners were tortured by thirst, Clement knelt in prayer for their relief.  Upon looking up, he suddenly saw a lamb on the hillside.  The Apocryphal Acts tell us that Clement went over to where the lamb had been and struck the ground with a pickaxe.  Clear water came gushing out from that very spot, and many of the local Pagans subsequently converted to Christianity.  Unfortunately, this resulted in the martyrdom of Clement – ironically via water.  It
is said that he was "tied to an anchor and thrown from a boat into the Black Sea."


Copyright February 10, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Obama at 2013 National Prayer Breakfast: Faith is a process

(President Kennedy at the 1961 Prayer Breakfast)
Many Americans eagerly associate February with Valentine's Day.  Far fewer realize that a different type of "lovefest" – the National Prayer Breakfast – has been held on the first Thursday of every February since 1953.

Wikipedia reports that this breakfast, now held at the Washington Hilton (aka "Hinckley Hilton" since this hotel is also the site of Hinckley's assassination attempt on President Reagan), is attended by approximately 3500 guests from around the world.  There are typically two featured speakers at this event: a "mystery guest" (whose identity is not revealed until that very morning), and the President of the United States.  Every United States president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has participated; 2013 marks President Obama's fifth time.

Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service presents a transcript of Obama's 2013 address.  After his opening acknowledgements, Obama was quick to remind listeners that "faith is something that must be cultivated."  In other words:  Faith is a process.

This theme resurfaced again and again.  With regard to an earlier-read passage from the Book of Hebrews ("He [God] rewards those who diligently seek Him…"), Obama emphasized that this seeking must be a lifelong quest (during "every moment, and every day").   He nevertheless admitted to worrying that "as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we've been talking about the whole time at the prayer breakfast seems to be forgotten…"

The cure for such spiritual amnesia?  In Obama's estimation:  humility.  He further advised that "those of us with the most power and influence need to be the most humble."  


Copyright February 9, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cupid: More putto than cherub

Sleeping Putto (by Leon Bazile Perrault)
Although the medieval version of Cupid often epitomized spiritual as well as romantic love, he is certainly no angel.
Nor is he the cherub that people mistake him for – since cherubs are simply four-faced, four-winged members of 
the angel hierarchy…

Purportedly the son of Venus (goddess of love) and Mars (god of war), Cupid turned out to be quite the mixed-up kid. Wikipedia reports that he is "frequently invoked as fickle, playful, and perverse."  Often sticking his arrows into other people's business, Cupid eventually became trapped within his own web of passion.  Thinking he would trick the beautiful Psyche into falling in love "with the vilest thing in the world," he wound up pricking himself with the arrow meant for her (thus falling hopelessly in love with his intended victim).

It's complicated.

Nevertheless, one thing seems perfectly clear.  Cupid is far more the putto than he is the cherub.  According to Wikipedia, putti (plural of putto) are "secular, profane and present a non-religious passion," whereas cherubim (plural of cherub) are "biblical angels."  Although putti tend to resemble human babies, they are far from innocent.  In fact, manipulative cleverness is their strong suit.  They have even managed to charm their way into the works of high-caliber artists such as Donatello, Raphael, and (yes!) Walt Disney.

Copyright February 8, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Popularity 101: Lovingly likeable

(Photo by Tobias Wolter)
For those who assume that leading a righteous life automatically spells "WALLFLOWER," here's some good news.  Today's likeability tips sound somewhat like scriptural exhortations on humility and compassion.

Jeff Haden of recently described "6 Habits of Remarkably Likeable People."  His article includes a photo of an interaction between
Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, both of whom "get it right" as far as Haden is concerned.  Within this photo Clinton is leaning in towards Mandela and clasping his hand.  Mandela's pose is relaxed with arms outstretched.   The two international leaders are gazing happily at one another as if they had all the time in the world.

Haden's analysis of what makes for likeability includes the following:  lose the power ploys, utilize non-sexual touch sensitively, focus the conversation upon the other person, show some vulnerability, drop the networking agenda, and wrap up encounters with displays of genuine appreciation rather than with chirpy clich├ęs.  Some key words that Haden uses are these:  deferential, genuine, complimentary.

Overall, Haden's approach to human relations sounds a bit like this one from Luke 14 (ESV):  But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher.'  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.   


Copyright February 7, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spinning the Rota Fortunae: Before Sajak

(Illustration by Boccaccio)
Although Pat Sajak (like the rest of us) is getting along in years, he's still quite a bit younger than the Rota Fortunae.

Rota Fortunae is Ancient Roman-speak for "Wheel of Fortune."  Allegedly owned by Fortuna, goddess of luck (these days known as Vanna White), the three-dimensional Rota Fortunae  is somewhat akin to the Bhavacakra (the Buddhist "Wheel of Life").  Both reflect the fickleness of fate – for luck can be good, bad, or a capricious blend of both.

Images of the Bhavacakra can be found on the walls of Buddhist temples throughout Tibet and India.  It is said that Buddha himself designed the first one in order to explain his teachings to the general public.  This Wheel of Life is layered:  within its hub are "the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion" - while other layers represent karma, samsara, impermanence and liberation.

These words from the 13th-century Latin poem Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (meaning "Fortune, Empress of the World" - the authorship of which is attributed to disgruntled clergy) reflect the Rota Fortunae philosophy:  Fate – monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, status is bad, well-being is vain always may melt away, shadowy and veiled you plague me too…

Nevertheless, there must be some reason for Vanna White's perpetual smile.  Perhaps her secret lies in these tips from MSN Living.  In an article titled "Be Happy:  How to Make Your Own Luck," Women's Health claims that improving your luck can be "as easy as adjusting your attitude."  Such attitude adjustments include expecting good outcomes, cultivating positive energy, practicing flexibility, clearing your mind, taking more risks, trusting your gut, breaking familiar patterns, and brushing off failure.   

Copyright February 6, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ed Koch: Bloodshed for Israel

Ed Koch (Public Domain, 1988)
Although Ed Koch described himself as secular, he nevertheless identified strongly with both Judaism and Israel. explains that Koch's prewritten tombstone epitaph includes these words from journalist Daniel Pearl (spoken shortly before Pearl's execution by terrorists in Pakistan):   My father is Jewish.  My mother is Jewish.  I am Jewish.  Koch and Pearl ironically both died on February 1st – Pearl in 2002 and Koch in 2013.

Wikipedia reports that Koch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland.  He was an avid film patron who had once quipped that religion wasn't the opiate of the masses, but movies were.  Another of his famous quotes is this:  If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me.  If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.

No stranger to controversy, Koch went with his gut rather than with what was perceived as politically correct.  He alienated a lot of Democrats by ardently backing George W. Bush because of Bush's support of Israel.  He shocked a lot of Jews by declaring the following in 2012:  The best ally we can have is the Catholic Church.  Oh, you can go back in history when they were not great allies.  But they proved to be.  It started with Pope John XXIII and Pope [John] Paul II.  We have to reach out to them.

JTA described Koch as a "passionate Jew till his dying day" and describes an incident that occurred during a tour of Jerusalem.  A Palestinian activist threw a rock that struck Koch in the head.  Although the injury was not a severe one, some bleeding ensued.  Koch "mopped up the wound with his handkerchief" and afterwards would say:  I shed a little blood for the people of Israel


Copyright February 5, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mindful caregivers: Rewired for love

(Public Domain)
Caregiving has often gotten a bad rap.  Cindy Laverty, who founded a "first-of-its-kind" talk show about this topic, points out that caring for loved ones is generally perceived as "stressful and awful."

In an article titled The Lighter Side of Caregiving: Appreciate the Humor, Marlo Sollitto recommends giving up "the role of the martyr."  Whereas caregiving can certainly be fraught with heavy-duty challenges, it doesn't have to be a constantly morose experience.  Feeling "overwhelmed and exhausted and without
hope" is what Laverty calls "a recipe for disaster."  Therefore, Sollitto urges caregivers to "lighten up" and enjoy some of the humorous occurrences along the way.  Laverty explains that this type of humor is not belittling.  You're simply laughing "because the moment is funny."

In her book Rewire Your Brain for Love, Dr. Marsha Lucas reports on meditative practices that can greatly facilitate a shift from martyrdom to mindfulness.  Lucas, who "specializes in the neuropsychology of relationships," states that increased mindfulness can assist "neuroplasticity – the mind's ability to change the physical structure of the pathways in the brain."

She primarily defines mindfulness as "paying attention to the present moment."  This involves being non-judgmentally aware of the thoughts, feelings and sensations that accompany emotions such as anger, resentment and grief.  Lucas states that mindfulness is a learned skill – one that can be enhanced by checking in with yourself throughout the day.  These self-examinations of "where your mind is and how you are feeling"
are akin to hitting mental re-set buttons.  Although your mind will inevitably tend to wander - mindfulness training will "help you be more emotionally resilient," as well as more empathetic.


Copyright February 4, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Yorick's gut: Belly laughs and all

Yorick's Skull (Eugene Delacroix)
Perhaps the most poignant scene within all of Shakespeare's many plays is the one most commonly referred to as "Yorick's skull."

Yorick, a beloved court jester from Hamlet's youth, is now deceased.  When his skull is exhumed within the adult Hamlet's presence, an opportunity for philosophical angst of the gut-wrenching kind has now begun.  Hamlet stares death right in the bony face and cries:  Alas, poor Yorick!  I knew him…  a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now…  Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.  Where be your gibes now?  Your gambols?  Your songs?  Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Had Yorick's pelvis instead surfaced during that famous graveyard scene, would Hamlet's words have been nearly as quotable?  Probably not – for it is only within recent times that pelvic organs are being equated with "second brains."

In a February 2010 Scientific American article, Adam Hadhazy discusses the "often-overlooked network of neurons lining our guts…"  He contends that this "little brain in our innards, in connection with the big one in our skulls [and Yorick's], partly determines our mental state [including merriment] and plays key roles in certain diseases throughout the body."

Could it therefore be that Yorick's songs and kisses [and perhaps death] were at least partly attributable to his intestines?  Could it be that Hamlet – for all of his wavering wisdom – was just too much a product of his times to lament (out loud) the empty space where once a jejunum quivered with delight?

Alas, poor reader!  Even second brains (and third eyes) might never fully know the answers to these
interminable questions…


Copyright February 3, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 2, 2013

2013: Year of the Black Water Snake

Northern Water Snake (by Beades)
For some who are mathematically inclined, this is the Gregorian calendar year 2013.  For others who are astrologically inclined, this is the Chinese Year of the Black Water Snake. (along with its disclaimer citing no "affiliations with any official Chinese government agencies or government sponsored business") tells us that this Year of the Black Water Snake will begin on February 10, 2013 (which just about coincides with the new moon in Aquarius).  The Snake sign (sixth of the Chinese Zodiac) is said to be "enigmatic, intuitive, introspective, refined and collected."  This sixth sign is also associated with a sixth sense.

"Snakes" in general tend to be rather mysterious (some might call it sneaky).  They like to feel safe, secure and protected - often mistrusting others and relying mainly upon themselves.  Their ambition and determination, if left unchecked, can result in egotism and conceit.  Although they can hang on to money with a stingy grasp, they can also spend it faster than they earn it.  Their own attractiveness, coupled with their love of beauty, can sometimes be quite disruptive of traditional family life.

The "Water" element of this Year of the Snake can temper things a bit.  Water Snakes "are lucky with
finances" and "always seem to have money flowing their way."  They "love to socialize" and are known to be "very thoughtful and considerate of others."  The "Black" element, which is associated with "Space, Arctic night, darkness on the Abyss… a color of deep waters" tends to shake things out of their comfort zone.  The Black Snake will therefore "bring people unexpected changes, instability, and changeability."  Careful planning and caution is advised during this potentially profound period.


Copyright February 2, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved