A case of the collywobbles

A case of the collywobbles June 29, 2014

Thanks to Blake Kirk of Huntsville, Alabama, I have learned a new word.

I guess somebody got the collywobbles,” Kirk said on Thursday, in one of those glorious moments when someone deploys just exactly the perfect word for the occasion.

Officials from the Massachusetts Bay Colony lead Mary Dyer to a public “prayer opportunity” on Boston Common.

The occasion, in this case, was the abrupt cancellation of Kirk’s invitation to open a meeting of the Huntsville City Council in prayer. Huntsville is, somewhat fitfully, trying to comply with the new rules for public prayer — or, rather, for what the Supreme Court has re-christened “prayer opportunities” in its ruling this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway. The city’s response to that ruling is understandably somewhat unsteady. Officially sanctioned, official prayers do not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition of “an establishment of religion,” the court said — even if those official prayers are explicitly sectarian. But — and this is the tricky bit — the court also suggested that such official “prayer opportunities” cannot be exclusively sectarian.

So Huntsville’s City Council meetings do not need to be secular, but they do need to be pluralistic. The council is free to open its meeting with a sectarian Christian prayer in which a local Presbyterian minister invokes the name of Jesus Christ and quotes from the New Testament, but if it chooses to do so, it must also offer the same “prayer opportunity” to representatives of any other sect.*

That’s where Kirk comes in. Blake Kirk is a Wiccan priest. And that’s what the original posted agenda for last week’s Huntsville City Council meeting said, listing the invocation at the start of the meeting and noting that it would be presented by Kirk, a “Priest of the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition of Wicca.” He’d been invited to do so by the city’s attorney and by a local Presbyterian minister, a leader in the city’s interfaith coalitions. Give those two some credit for apparently making a serious effort to make the council’s public “prayer opportunities” as pluralistic and inclusive as possible.

But not everybody in Huntsville was on board with that program, as Kay Campbell reports for the Huntsville Times/AL.com:

Kirk was un-invited, said city attorney Peter Joffrion, because of phone calls from citizens alarmed about Kirk’s faith once the agenda was made public on Tuesday. …

“We decided to pull back, to do some education maybe, and to introduce him more gently at another time,” Joffrion said, adding that the decision to rescind Kirk’s invitation aimed to ensure that the invocation would remain a time of focus and coming together, not a point of contention.

The meeting began with a moment of silence.

This despite the fact that this would have been Kirk’s second prayer opportunity with the council. He’d given the invocation at a meeting back in January, solemnizing the occasion by invoking “the gentle Goddess.” That was no big deal, but this time, Kirk’s invitation upset the sort of people who are perpetually looking for reasons to be upset.

And thus, as Kirk said, “Somebody got the collywobbles.”

Savor the perfection of that. That’s the precisely necessary word — perfect in its denotation, connotation and implication. That doesn’t happen every day.

“Collywobbles” dates back to at least 1823. It’s a whimsical, informal word describing a queasy anxiety or a perturbation in the guts. Think of poor Charlie Brown’s constant complaints about his anxious stomach. The “wobbles” part of the word, denoting unsteadiness, is clear enough. The “colly” bit likely derives from colic — an infantile form of physical distress. Or it may derive from “choler” — the bilious, ill-tempered bodily humor that can make one unwell. “Colly” is also an old slang term for coal dust, and some speculate that the wobbly discomfort of the collywobbles may trace back to sickness due to inhaling colly.

All of those etymological echoes resonate in Kirk’s lovely invocation of the word, grace-notes he emphasized in his further comments:

“I guess somebody got the collywobbles,” Blake Kirk said Thursday afternoon. “Although this has been an attempt by the city to increase the diversity of those delivering the invocations, apparently diversity only goes so far. But the fact is, the First Amendment protects my right to practice my religion as much as anyone else. And governments are not supposed to pick and choose or to favor one religion over any other.”

Kirk said he hopes the incident will be resolved in a way that helps people to see there is nothing “weird” or “threatening” about his faith.

Those who balked at recognizing Kirk’s equal right to religious liberty displayed an unsteadiness that reveals something amiss with their intestinal fortitude. Such timidity recalls the distemper of a crying baby, a choleric predisposition for bilious spite, or perhaps the effects of some sooty contaminant. Whatever the precise mix of those causes, the end result is that they’re wobbly — they’ve lost their balance.

“Collywobbles” is the perfect word for all of that, matching this precision of connotation with a precision of tone. It is, the etymological dictionaries say, a “fanciful” word — playfully composed and playfully utilized. Kirk’s diagnosis — “somebody got the collywobbles” — thus carries within itself a key ingredient of the remedy for what ails his patient. The word is whimsical, and those wobbly “alarmed” citizens of Huntsville are desperately in need of a dose of whimsy. A lack of whimsy is a gravely serious condition. It demonstrates a lack of proportion, leading one to an unbalanced view of the world. That unbalanced view makes one wobbly.

Yes, I’m playing with words here, but I’m also quite serious about the necessity of whimsy. Those who are incapable of whimsy are thereby in danger of making themselves incapable of love. Love, the apostle Paul wrote, “is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” The King James Version renders that as love, “vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked.”

When we get puffed up, we behave unseemly. We get irritable and resentful. We give ourselves the collywobbles. Whimsy reminds us that getting puffed up is absurd. It invites us to laugh instead, at ourselves first of all, and thereby to avoid such puffery. Whimsy, in other words, helps us regain our balance.

Blake Kirk’s diagnosis is perfect not just for the perpetually alarmed of Huntsville, but for frightened majorities everywhere who spend their lives seeking out an Other to give shape to their formless fears. Pagans and atheists knock them off balance. Schoolgirls with books — whether in Pakistan or at Georgetown Law — make them choleric and cranky. The thought of queer people in love makes them cry inconsolably like colicky babies.

It’s not just Huntsville, Alabama. It’s everywhere.

Somebody’s got the collywobbles.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I’m not entirely sure I’m summarizing the implications of Greece v. Galloway correctly because I’m not entirely sure that I understand the logic of this ruling, or that this ruling has a logic that can be entirely understood. I am, again, a Baptist, so the necessity of secular, non-sectarian government is engrained in my religious perspective just as deeply as it is in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

From the perspective of Baptist theology and Baptist history, the Supreme Court’s logic seems a dubious turn back toward the sort of thing Baptists once fled Europe and New England to avoid. By this logic it seems as though it might be perfectly fine for Lutheran officials to drown Anabaptists in the river, just so long as Catholic officials were afforded access to the same river for the opportunity to drown Anabaptists there the following week. Puritans would be free to put Quakers in the stocks on Boston Common, but only so long as other religious sects were also free to employ those stocks — or “stocking opportunities” — on subsequent occasions.


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