The eve of Saint Blaise

The eve of Saint Blaise

Today is Candlemas, when the Catholic Church blesses the candles to be used during its liturgy. Tomorrow is the feast-day of Saint Blaise, patron of ailments of the throat. Some churches still do the Blessing of the Throat, in which the priest uses the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of congregants.



Saints become patrons in peculiar ways. Clare had a vision on the wall in front of her and became the patroness of television. Joseph of Cupertino levitated helplessly, yelping and crying, and became the patron of aviators. Blaise miraculously made a child cough up a fishbone, thus making him Mister Throat.




The Church asks and answers the question: Why doesn’t God always cure ailments of the throat, even if you pray for it? Why doesn’t he cure everything, while he’s at it? It’s a mystery.




Mystery schmystery. It’s still a pretty good question.




Disclosure: Partner gave a Saint Blaise medal last year, which I carry with me religiously, you should pardon the expression.




What could it hurt?

DIY religion

diy religion

Back during chemotherapy, while I was lounging in my recliner imbibing toxins through a tube in my arm and Partner was watching “Let’s Make A Deal” on the retractable TV, a young hospital chaplain named Meredith came around to check on our spiritual needs. We politely let her know that we were all set, thanks very much, but she (like chaplains through the ages) was stubborn enough to chat with us for a while. She complimented us on being such a close couple, and quoted something I’d heard once before about “for better and for worse.” She left before she became too obnoxious, so I liked her. “Did you notice,” I said to Partner after she left, “that she never quite mentioned any one religion? Very non-committal and non-denominational.”

“I like that,” Partner said. “I could get behind a religion like that.”
“I think,” I said,” that there is a religion like that.”
So, a few weeks later, we both got ourselves ordained as ministers in the Universal Life Church.
Ordination is free; you need only provide name and email address. For a couple of bucks, they will send you gewgaws like a wallet card and an ordination certificate and a press pass (evidently for when I’m interviewing the Metropolitan of Constantinople). After that, you need only follow the church’s one dictum, which is “do only that which is right.” (They further define that you must peacefully determine what’s right in every case; no gunplay and no rassling allowed.)
Partner and I are both obnoxiously pleased about this. We are both in the process of determining the dogmas of our new church. Mine is going to involve wearing a lot of pink and purple. (I determined peacefully that I like both, and why not? Also, pink and purple are both perfectly nice devotional colors; look at the candles in any Advent wreath if you don’t believe me.) I will use a lot of multidenominational texts involving silence. (Examples: “Let all the earth keep silence before the Lord,” from Habakkuk in the Jewish Bible; “Sky says nothing,” from the Analects of Confucius; “The way that can be spoken of is not the true way,” from the Tao Te Ching; and maybe also “That which we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence,” the last line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.) My services will begin with maybe a piece of music, the reading of a text like one of the above, and then a kind of community silent meditation, the way the Society of Friends does it.
Also, did I mention the pink and purple?
Religion should be fun. It should be participatory, and it should be meaningful to the people who participate. If they crave mystery, well, life is crammed full of mysteries; meditate on a few of those. And if they crave certainty, there are lots of those too. Just think about them quietly, would you?
Partner has thought about his church too. He wants it to welcome all comers, and he would allow them to worship any god they please, and intends to forbid proselytizing.


(I hope it also involves hats. Partner and I both look good in hats, and I hope he and I can lead some ecumenical programs down the road, once we’ve established ourselves as pillars of our respective faiths.)

The heresy test

heresy test

Once upon a time, when the Internet was young – approximately 1996 – I had a funny little website which drew no traffic at all. (Almost like today!) It was mostly a nice way for me to practice writing HTML. I posted jokes, and had a family-history section.

I also had a nice heresy test.

It was very simple: five questions, multiple-choice. You were expected to answer from the dogmatically established Roman Catholic point of view. Otherwise, the test threw you out. You were a heretic and bound to burn in hell unless you renounced your heretical beliefs.

Here’s a sample question:



The Blessed Virgin Mary was the mother of Jesus. Jesus was, of course, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, which means he was God. If you follow this line of thinking, you will probably realize that this makes Mary (a human being) the mother of God (who is eternal).



How can a mother be younger than her own son?



A: Oh, to hell with logic. Mary is the Mother of God. Period. End of story.


B: Mary was the mother of the human part of Jesus. She’s not the mother of God; that wouldn’t be logical.


C: Mary is the mother of Jesus in some sense of the word, but not in every sense of the word. We shouldn’t try to define these things too precisely.

The correct answer is A. This was established (with some strife) at two Church councils: the “robber’s council” of Ephesus in 449, which claimed B to be correct, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (only two years later!) which reversed Ephesus and laid the Church’s path to the present day.

Did you get the question right?

I didn’t think so.

Burn in hell, heretic.

Book review: “How to Train a Wild Elephant (& Other Adventures in Mindfulness)” by Jan Chozen Bays

how to train a wild elephant

I have been a wannabe Buddhist for decades now. I love its core ideas, and I accept the Four Noble Truths, but I find it difficult to practice any of the devotions or the meditations. My mind is just too busy and clouded with samsara.

So I was pleasantly attracted by the title of this book.

The human mind – your mind, my mind – is the “wild elephant” of the title. It runs in all directions at once. How do we tame it? This book offers suggestions.

I’ve found some of them very useful.


Take three deep breaths. I close my eyes while doing this. Here’s the thing: don’t think. Slowly: inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale. Now open your eyes.

This is not just a calm-down exercise, or a “Serenity Now!” mantra. Just think about yourself, and your breathing, for a few seconds.

It works.

Whenever you see someone during the day, think: “This may be the last time I ever see him/her.” It reminds you of mortality. It keeps you from treating them slightingly or badly. And who knows? Once in a while it may be true.

Notice the color blue. This sounds stupid, but it’s very effective. Blue is the sky color, but it’s also everywhere. Take a moment and notice all the bits and pieces of blue around you. You’ll be astounded.

And the most difficult of all: When you’re eating, just eat. Take a bite, chew it, and swallow it. Do not take another bite until you’ve completely chewed and swallowed the first one. Make yourself aware of the taste of the food. Don’t read, or watch TV, or talk. Just eat, slowly and with appreciation.

Slowly, step by step, breath by breath, bite by bite, we may actually achieve nirvana.

The hundred-and-eight sorrows

108 sorrows

I am not a Buddhist really. (Just ask Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse about that, and he’ll agree.) But I know some Buddhist doctrine, and it has actually helped me stumble through life.

How many different ways to suffer are there, do you think?

There are exactly one hundred and eight.

There are six senses in the Buddhist world view: smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, and (the one we Westerners forget) the mind. Suffering can enter through all six of these.

What enters? The six stimuli: things we like, things we dislike, things we don’t care about, things that bring us joy, things that bring us suffering, things that make us feel nothing at all. Things we like may be bad for us (like alcohol). Things we dislike (like bitter medicine) may make us suffer, though they’re good for us physically. Things we don’t care about may be vitally important, but we don’t realize it. Joy is wonderful but it never lasts, and its departure causes suffering. Unhappiness is suffering itself. Indifference can lead to suffering later, through regret.

Six senses x six stimuli = 36.

All six stimuli can be past (remembering the six stimuli), present (experiencing them in the moment), or future (anticipating them).

36 x the three time periods of past / present / future = 108.

These are the hundred-and-eight sorrows.

In some Buddhist practices, there are commemorations of the number 108: 108 prostrations before the Lord Buddha, 108 circumambulations of his statue. Sometimes they ring a bell 108 times at the New Year.

Try this exercise: think of something you do, something you love or hate or don’t care about in the least. It will be one of the hundred-and-eight.



How about smoking? I smoked for fourteen years. I liked the way it tasted back them.



So: (sensation: taste) x (stimulus: liking) x (time: past).



And now I have throat cancer, almost certainly as a result of those fourteen years of smoking. (See also karma.)



The one-hundred-and-eight sorrows go on and on, endlessly, so long as there’s a single unenlightened being in the entire universe.



We need to realize them, and name them, and let them go.



Then we can move on to whatever comes next.

Love your enemies

love your enemies

When my mother was undergoing cancer treatment in the 1990s, she went through all kinds of interesting states of mind, way beyond Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s measly five.  Elisabeth would have been astounded.



One of the most unexpected was the “I’m gonna tell you what I think of you before it’s too late” phase. We discovered that Mom was calling up people from her past and telling them all the things she’d been holding back for decades: how they’d disappointed or betrayed her, how they weren’t good enough for their wives/husbands, how they’d made bad decisions. (Myself, I was surprised that Mom had ever held anything back – she could be a real loudmouth when she was wanted to be – but apparently she’d kept a lot of opinions back after all.)



I am my mother’s son. I am full of grudges and unsettled scores. I am terribly self-righteous, just as she was. I only hope that, as the cancer treatment weakens me, I don’t succumb to Mom’s let-‘em-have-it mentality



This is why I was bemused by something that showed up on my Facebook wall a while back: a serious discussion of why you shouldn’t have enemies. To wit:



  • Enemies take up a lot of your valuable time – whether you’re actually taking revenge, or just thinking about it. (This is true, and I hate the idea of wasting time, especially at this point in my life.)
  • Your enemies probably aren’t worth hating as much as you think they are. (Maybe. Some of mine are pretty loathsome.)
  • Most of the world’s religions tell us to be kind to our enemies.



This last one needs some scrutiny. Certainly Jesus tells us to love our enemies. But the God of the Old Testament certainly didn’t mess around with anyone who got in his way. And many modern Christians seem to act as if they loathe whole squadrons of people.



So what’s an unbeliever to do?



Well, I normally don’t like Saint Paul, but in Romans 12:20 he comes up with the perfect reason to do good to your enemies:



Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.



See? You can make your enemy ashamed of himself by being nice to him. And then, if he doesn’t make friends with you, he presumably goes to hell.



Doesn’t that make you feel better?



It does me a world of good.


Saints and talismans


I have cancer, and this is no time for quibbling about what helps and what doesn’t. Lots of people of different faiths have said they’re praying for me, and I accept their prayers gratefully. Why in the world would I be stiff-necked enough to say: “Nah, I’m an atheist. Save your prayers”?

And I am not un-superstitious. I read Tarot cards, after all, and I look at horoscopes, and find profitable information in them. (Not the newspaper ones, kids. The real ones.)

So who am I to scoff at talismans and charms?

When my father was diagnosed with cancer in 1975, I was in my sophomore year at Gonzaga and just on the verge of converting to Catholicism. As you can imagine, I became very devout in no time at all. I attended mass almost daily, and said novenas, and prayed like a banshee.

Dad died anyway, in May 1976, despite all my masses and novenas. But it didn’t stop me from believing, deep down in my soul, that prayers and talismans are effective, if you only use them correctly.

For years I carried two holy medals on my keychain: Saint Dymphna (who guards against mental illness) and Saint Peregrine (who guards against cancer).

Somehow both of them disappeared from my keychain some years ago. And look what happened!

I found Peregrine and put him back on my keychain a few weeks ago, and told him to get back to work.

Also: Partner, being a cradle Catholic and understanding my state of mind, recently gave me a medal of Saint Blaise (who guards against afflictions of the throat).

Whatever happens now, I’m prepared

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