I’ve been reading about the reality lived by people of late-medieval Europe who were inclined to interpret the phenomena of daily existence as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Caught, as they were, between the beginnings of a science-based understanding of the physical world and the ancient beliefs they held about the potency of the supernatural, these folks tended to lean most heavily on the latter, which unfortunately led to ill-conceived practices detrimental to their existence: bloodletting and exorcism to name just two.
Not so easy, though, to dismiss the magical thinking of those earlier times: many of us still conjure images of evil entities responsible when bad things happen. As much as we might like to think ourselves intellectually superior to our medieval forebearers it would appear their ancient beliefs still inhabit our psyches.
I guess the idea of transcending one’s reality has always been imagined by the contemplative mind. For many who seek such adventure religious engagement may provide the pathway to that other world imagined to be beyond painful relationships, workplace power struggles or battles involved in securing a bit of personal dignity, in realizing a certain respect from others.
In the past those truly committed to rise above mundane reality had been known to tax their physical health to the extreme, nearing death in order to weaken their natural self-serving propensities in favor, hopefully, of achieving enlightenment, sensing a divine Ground of Being where original virtue is realized, a state of existence where ego is lost, replaced by an inner serenity.
I do like the idea of rising above mundane reality on occasion, to find serenity, but the means to such an end would be more attractive if it didn’t involve masochism.
It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the proliferation of bad news I’m constantly bombarded with these days. I’m made aware, daily, of impending disasters awaiting me around nearly every corner. Attacks are perpetrated and battles are waged on multiple fronts by various actors, in various ways, stressing the limits of my abilities to realize some semblance of peace. The psychic discomfort I experience from following the news makes it difficult to maintain any sort of optimistic outlook, any sense of an ultimate ‘happily ever after’ scenario ever becoming possible in this life. If only I could glimpse even pinpricks of light passing through the shroud of impending gloom I might be able to catch a breath, slow my heart rate down a bit.
Of course, I’m thinking these things as I sit here sipping hot chocolate while reclining in the living room of my home where I will soon take to bed to catch my regular 8 hours and rise in the morning to read of another day’s multiple disasters.
I’m not sure how to think about such contradiction.
I’ve been reading about the many visionary women living during times of particular religious fervor who the Catholic church eventually endowed with sainthood. What made these women special was, that from an early age, they experienced altered states of consciousness, euphoric experiences during which they were able to channel God, were able to perform miracles, heal the sick and provide life affirming insights to those in need.
Catherine Emmerich was an 18th century mystic who received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, which must have been a credibility producing event beyond doubt. Catherine of Siena, through rigorous fasting experienced a mystical marriage to Jesus at which time she received the ring of his foreskin (providing, I suspect, motivation to require circumcision of all males in the future). Bridget of Sweden, a practicing ascetic experienced over 600 visions in her life. Dorothea of Montau, a 14th century mystic, became an Anchoress, spending her life confined to a cell attached to the cathedral in Kwidzyn in what is now Poland.
What all these women seem to have in common is deep sense of religious mystery that led them to extreme commitment to God and the Church even at the expense of their own physical well-being. There’s small doubt there are commitments people ruin their bodies for these days that are far less significant.
I’ve been reading aphorisms by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. E. C. was an extreme misanthrope of such pessimistic belief it led his distraught mother, unable to understand his negativity to tell him she wished he’d never been born, that had she known what he’d become she’d have aborted him.
As I seek something enlightening (or at least redeemable) in his writings I find him relating that, while life is a misery, chronically painful, that suffering is universal and never ending and that most people are too pathetic to do anything about it, sustainable existence may lie in hope and the distractions engaging in arts activities might offer. But for the talentless, the disaster which is reality will be overwhelming. E. C. thinks better to give one’s life to heroic acts since there really is nothing to live for. The talentless hero can at least have a sort of remembrance.
As for me, I’m not sure how fair it is to reduce the heroism of, say, a combat troop who falls on a grenade to save his comrades to lack of talent. Still, it’s hard to imagine that an inner life of some sort wouldn’t keep one from diving for cover in such circumstances.
I’ve been thinking about the influence Christianity had over the people of the Middle Ages. The fact that the peasants, poor as they were, would sacrifice to enrich the church and volunteer back-breaking labor to erect the cathedrals must have meant extreme piety. Their most important event of the year would have been Easter, celebration of the resurrection.
I’ve been reading, though, that perhaps religious experiences, the visions, messages from God so common to these medieval folks might have had something to do with chemistry; an inadequate diet brought on by Lenten fasting as well as the hallucinogenic effects of the ergot that formed in the grain bins as supplies ran low in the spring.
If such was the case for the medieval peasants, any means of tempering the harsh realities of their existence might certainly be thought of as a gift from God.
I’ve been reading, lately, a treatise by the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant in which he determines through his meticulous thought processes that man is evil by nature. He reasons that, while man is aware of moral laws, that there are morally acceptable behaviors toward others one knows should be followed, there is at the same time a natural inclination to favor personal interests above moral concerns for others that may, when push comes to shove, result in evil behaviors.
So, I guess everyone is naturally inclined to be evil, although I suppose one could quantify degrees of evilness: whether one’s self-interest completely undermines rules of morality resulting in despicable behaviors, as opposed to those of us who occasionally find ourselves exaggerating reality for personal gain if we think we can get away with it. The latter doesn’t seem to me to be evil, exactly, but probably merits a certain sense of shame, at least a guilty conscience.
I wonder if Kant thought himself to be evil in any sense. I understand he was pretty reclusive, hardly left his home but for a daily walk around the neighborhood. He probably didn’t have the opportunity to be too evil.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about what art is. A common understanding of art, I guess, will specify that it reflects our visual world and offers insights into our common human experiences. The idea is that art codifies our existence, how we understand who we are. A museum visit invites us to look into our collective psyche, to view clearly our values, beliefs and limitations.
What happens, though, when the consumption of the art that popular culture imposes in the forms of literature, movies, music, not to mention social media platforms becomes so ingrained that we begin to mimic the stereotypes, become the actors art invents? I suspect most of us, by the time we pass adolescence have discovered a solid enough sense of being that we can see past superficial identities so as to not become something other than what we know ourselves to be. Still, it seems there’s a powerful inclination for most of us to slide into a persona, the roll we wish to play in the story of life.
Even though I’m aware of this conundrum I wonder to what extent my identity is altered by the popular culture. It makes me think I need to temper my media consumption.
TV ads these days have made me aware the country’s demographic is changing. Savvy advertisers are using more people of color and those living alternative lifestyles to sell their products. It only makes sense of course; old white guys are dying by the droves due not only to covid but to natural life span.
One doesn’t have to look too hard to see the desperate war of resistance the aging white population is waging. The political realm is rife with frenzied folks upset about the changing status quo, opposing the surge of youthful, socially and racially pluralistic energy, which is slowly, steadily driving the conventional beliefs of a previously white cultural dominance into extinction.
There are aspects of the new tolerance for fluid gender identity and sexual lifestyles that are difficult for me, given the social structures I have grown up with, to integrate. I firmly believe, though, change must happen. I sense in the young a positive life force asserting itself; one necessary to overcome the difficulties maintaining life as we know it will require.
As things began spiraling out of control she wondered if belief in God was a viable option.
Well, maybe belief was the wrong word. It seemed to her unlikely one can suddenly ‘believe’ something not believed or at least had taken to be credible at some earlier time in life. Something, some idea, introduced to her, possibly in childhood that kind of drifted along in the sub-conscious for years until some sort of existential shock brought it (the belief) to the surface and seemed suddenly to be just the things the extraordinary times required.
So maybe it was more like expedient, practical to seek and find a supernatural entity to appeal to in these dire times when her resources were strained and uncertainties about her very survival constantly pressed. She had settled, after all, as she had thought about it over the years, on an enlightened agnosticism not a hard atheism. God as a concept was elusive but not easily dismissed in totality and now seemed the time to, if not make re-acquaintance, at least allow the embedded idea to come a bit closer to the surface. There is something comforting about the idea of a benevolent overlord, protector, benefactor in these uncertain times.