Detonating Jonah

jonahWhen news broke this summer that Sunni extremists with ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had blown up the tomb of Jonah after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul, the shockwaves left a piece of me in the rubble from halfway across the world in Brooklyn.

Not that the trail of massacres, beheadings and forced expulsions by ISIS haven’t made for far more shocking news before and since then, as the gruesome executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff recently attest.

I can watch the online video of Jonah’s tomb blown to bits in a cloud of dust; but the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff I cannot.

Yet when I watch the former, I am revolted and I cringe. There it is one second, there it isn’t the next: the alleged resting place of my beloved Jonah.

Our beloved Jonah, inasmuch as he is equally revered in Islam as he is in the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Qur’an includes its own version of the book, “Yunus,”and Muhammad is said to have proclaimed, “One should not say that I am better than Jonah.”

Hence the “tears and anger” in Mosul, as reported by The New York Times, where the Sunni population’s initial embrace of liberation by ISIS from centralized Shiite oppression in Baghdad gave way first to resentment, and then resistance, as the city’s trove of treasured holy sites and rich tradition of interfaith compatibility were destroyed. [Read more...]

The Gift of Gravy Days

Education_Article_WildflowerMeadows_02Well, I’ve reached my three score and ten years.

It must sound positively ancient to those of you who are half my age—or even two-thirds. I know that when I was in my thirties, forties, even fifties, seventy sounded old: not only over the hill but way down toward the bottom of the other side.

“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong,” sings Psalm 90. I’m not strong. I have a chronic form of leukemia that could carry me off any day. In fact, when I was diagnosed with it just before my sixtieth birthday, my doctor said with an upbeat, encouraging voice “You can expect to live ten more years!”—which at the time sounded like a lot. So I had scientific confirmation that the psalmist’s sum of seventy years was indeed my allotment.

[Read more...]

The Gay Science and Nietzsche’s Prayer Rant

There’s a place in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science where he really lets Christians have it. Section 125 of Book III of The Gay Science is, in fact, where Nietzsche makes one of his famous pronouncements about the death of God.

Nietzsche puts the claim that God is dead into the mouth of a “madman.” “Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?” the madman asks, “Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

But the Section that struck me most recently is not about the death of God. It is, instead, Section 128 of Book III of The Gay Science. The heading of this Section is, “The Value of Prayer.”

“Prayer,” Nietzsche opens, “has been invented for those people who never really have thoughts of their own and who do not know any elevation of the soul or at least do not notice it when it occurs: what are they to do at sacred sites and in all significant situations in life, where calm and some sort of dignity are called for?”

It’s a good question. What are we to do at sacred sites and in significant situations that call for some dignity? How do we keep calm? How do we know what to do when we want to confront the sacred? [Read more...]

Inner Peace Part 2: Mirror and Furnace

Yesterday I traced the spirituality of a Zen Garden stroll, then of meditation based on the ancient Eastern insight that, as the Upanishads says:

This whole universe is Brahman… He who consists of mind, whose body is the breath of life… He is my Self within the heart, smaller than a grain of rice or a barley-corn… greater than the earth.

Mysticism is the general name for this insight: that, in a nutshell (or a barley-corn), God is my Self within the heart.” All major religions have their mysticisms, because all have believers who’ve experienced the transcendent God within their hearts. Islam has Sufis. Christianity has monastic life, with meditation its core practice: the discipline of disposing oneself for direct experience of the divine. Often called “contemplative prayer,” it’s widely practiced by ordinary Christians as well.

Though contemplation, meditation, and mysticism aren’t always interchangeable, they can be for my purpose here. All religions are definitely not interchangeable, but they all share the mystical spiritual experience. This is logical, since there’s only one God; and direct experience of God would be as unmediated as an experience can be. [Read more...]

A Jew Prays in Venice, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

On the pleasant train ride from Florence to Venice, my wife Laurie and I began to piece together a relaxed itinerary for our final days in Italy: the Jewish Ghetto—definitely; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection—pretty sure; the Doge’s Palace—we should (but haven’t we had enough history?); the Basilica di San Marco, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari—haven’t we seen enough churches?

As it turns out, we did make it into a church (more than one) in Venice, but it was only at Santa Maria della Salute—a church on which we stumbled while rushing to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection so we could see it and have plenty of time for the famous Jewish Ghetto in Venice—where I felt the tenacious need to maintain my separate, external, egotistic will relax.

There was a prayer to be said and I said it in this church built to honor the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from a plague that in 1629 to 1630 killed 47,000 residents; a third of Venice’s population.

In the presence of the Madonna of Healing, my eyes fixed on the sculptures above the main altar, fixed on one sculpted figure in particular: a woman below and to the right of the Madonna, her body turned away from the Madonna, her arms outstretched beyond the “frame” of the sculpture, into the void, in anguish, afflicted, her neck twisted so she could look back and up at the towering Virgin holding an infant in one arm.

[Read more...]


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