Tag Archives: gender

What is Reality?: Pilgrim Visions

David Guterson’s 2003 novel, Our Lady of the Forest, calls vision, belief, reality and hallucination into question. It examines mendacity and power structures of the Catholic Church, which are mobilized by an itinerant mushroom-picking seer’s visions of Mother Mary.

Many of you have read Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. I shall not attempt to place Guterson in a genre, other than to say that he is an author of the contemporary American West (and possibly of other times and places, but I do not pretend to have read all of or summarize his work, only to give some anchor to those who entirely unfamiliar with it.) It is not fantasy or science fiction, but the Marian visions of the ill, impoverished teenage seer, Ann Holmes, do–as is typical of Marian visions–bring apocalyptic warnings. Guterson’s Mary warns, as did the Mary of Lourdes, of evil that will befall a humanity that has ceased to attend to her son’s teachings.

Mary’s dire warnings are accompanied by the nuanced and multi-vocal concerns about the environment. A checkered character, Ann’s spokesperson Carolyn Greer spars with representatives of a large lumber company. Greer is a complex and interesting character. She is knowledgeable about the devastation of heedless deforestation. She reduces the arguments of the lumber company reps to an empty chorus, when she vividly describes their unethical logging practices. The lumber company’s concern is only with the bottom line, and Carolyn’s caustic critique is spot on. Carolyn’s desire to use the forest as a pilgrimage path and site are, however, seemingly motivated by the same concern. The novel is set in the forests of the Northwest, in Oregon, where loggers joke of spotted owl pie and resent environmentalists who threaten their livelihoods.

The most richly drawn and conflicted character of the novel is the young and kind, but neither youthful nor particularly vital, priest, Father Collins. Father Collins is able to entertain the possibility of the miraculous transcendent and skepticism simultaneously. He is aware that he has fled to the priesthood out of fear of sexual rejection, and suffers from sexual longings, which inspire a mild, resigned guilt. He has an intellectually rigorous knowledge of the teachings and arguments of the Catholic Church through the centuries. Father Butler, the “inquisitor,” is sent by and representing the official Catholic Church, and even antiquated, anti-feminist doctrine. The debate between Father Butler and Father Collins will not only interest Roman Catholics, but anyone interested in the institutional religious doctrine versus religion as practiced on the ground. Father Butler’s name is, I suspect, a well-chosen play on words: he is a lackey of official, unquestioning, religion. His character, though drawn with some amusing quirks, never becomes multi-dimensional.

Pilgrimage is a practice of religion “on the ground” that has grown in popularity worldwide since the 1980s. Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists are today’s pilgrims. The atheist pilgrim with a personal mission to fulfill, is represented by Donald Sutherland, in a recent movie, The Way.

Despite normal human flaws, Father Collins is a likable character, concerned with the well-being of his parishioners, if shirking, now and then, interactions with the most difficult of them. Father Collins never shirks his duty for long, and despite self-doubts, is cast as a man eminently suitable for the priesthood.

Guterson addresses the questions of bodily practice–the physical aspects–of religion well. The “Inquisitor” focuses intently on Ann’s bodily habits, especially use of alcohol or drugs, from antihistamines to mushrooms, to determine whether she is a fit vehicle for visions of Mary. Her recent conversion and unbaptized state are less important concerns to Butler. Those pleading with Ann for help, plead for cures to physical ailments. The one complex exception to those pleading for a cure is that of a troubled logger who pleads for his son’s paralysis to be reversed. Tom is one of the novel’s central characters, so I will not reveal the outcome of his dire family and financial situation here.

Wrestling with one of the ultimate existential questions, “What is reality?” is difficult. Guterson acquits himself well in his very readable novel, which I recommend. Because of the philosophical nature of the debate at the heart of the novel, it is somewhat unsatisfying. But it was doubtless Guterson’s intent to leave his readers with more questions than answers.

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Embodied Religion

By Jule_Berlin (originally posted to Flickr as [1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ponte Maceira on El Camino by Jule Berlin (via Wiki Commons) Share Alike

I continue writing about pilgrimage: embodied religion in nature. Serenity itself? Yes. There is beauty in nature, and oneness with nature that those who don’t hunt or fish or climb mountains might not otherwise access. There is beauty and peace in nature, and even fear, in nature that those who go on an evening stroll might wish to deepen or face. In deepening one’s connection to the land, one may deepen one’s connection to a transcendental God, or to the immanental god within.

And all those pilgrim symbols, from staff to cross, and pilgrim paths, within European borders do other, less obvious work. They provide a moving tableaux, a visual demonstration of Christianity as a physical presence. European pilgrimages connect European nation to nation, not undermining the all-important nationalism or nationhood, but reinforcing pan-Europeanism. There is also, surprisingly, something dark that bubbles up in pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is not only a simple and age-old act of putting one foot in front of the other, and circumnavigating a region by foot. It is also often a political act. In some cases it is, and has been, a political act for the good. Sometimes a political act against gender constraints keeping women at home. At others a political act of defiance against circumscription by Vatican authority, commanding the laity at what place, and how, they must worship.

Pilgrimage in Europe, meditative walking, may be broadening, ecumenical, and inviting. It may also be exclusive. Going on European Christian pilgrimage generally does not exclude atheists, agnostics, and seekers. In most cases, however, pilgrimage in Europe is Christian pilgrimage and excludes those of other faiths.

Today, as in ages past, it is the pluralism of Christians and Muslims living together in Europe that is being worked out. Is walking an act of territorial inscription? Probably in part, yet it is much more, and adds much that is positive to the individual and communal good. Pilgrims are certainly more than border control
agents.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

And at last no arrest either! Women as well as men have the civil right to bare their breasts in public in New York. Why is this important? So what?

Be advised: those seeking titillation will be sorely disappointed in the content of this post about desexualizing women’s breasts.

The Memorandum, or prepublication synopsis of law defining this right is from 1992, so this should not be news, but it is (http://www.law.cornell.edu/nyctap/I92_0160.html.) The 1992 law grants women in New York the right to be show their breasts anywhere that men may show theirs. The language of the memorandum makes clear why this is important despite being contrary to public sentiment. Whenever an issue has to do with race, gender or other category protected by civil rights, the law may diverge from public sentiment and common social practice.

Even many of my most liberal friends think I am wrong-headed on this point. But though Ms. Van Voast is not directly doing the work of an organization like Amnesty International, her annual ritual of breast-baring and arrest is not unlike acts of protest against Jim Crow laws. She is advocating for women to have equal the same rights and privileges that men have.

As many of us read in a May 15, 2013 New York Times article by J. David Goodman, Ms. Van Voast will not be arrested this year. NYPD officers have now been trained not to arrest women merely because they are topless from the waist up.

Typically wrapped up like a mummy, this will only have an indirect effect on me. A friend at a recent gathering laughed at my son’s XL hooded Carhart coat and my Ugh boots donned on top of several other layers. I looked, she said, like the character from the movie Nanook of the North. However swathed and swaddled I may be, I applaud this step toward equal rights.

This weekend’s hate killing of a gay man in New York, and crimes committed worldwide against oppressed groups, are true tragedies. One important safeguard against tragic oppression–when upheld–are laws guaranteeing equality. Such laws are steps toward ensuring a greater measure of safety for all.

An earlier generation of women abandoned its bras. That era has passed, and we are more conventional now. However, in a limited area and arena, we have the freedom to peel off our t-shirts wherever men may legally do the same. This practice will probably remain rare, but its significance lies in its extrapolation to far more serious injustices.

Acknowledging the anatomical similarities of all human breasts must be liberating to men who have breast cancer as well as to those whose hormonal or genetic conditions cause them to grow larger-than-average male breasts. It should also serve as yet another liberating force in the LGBT community and for intersex persons.

Thank you, Ms. van Voast. My kids are grateful to you, too, as I have made idle threats of taking on such a campaign. Though suburban New Jersey does not seem ready for topless women at parks, pools, and playgrounds, hopefully fewer nursing mothers will be subjected to harassment. Then again, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not believe in waiting for the right time to fight for civil liberties.

TSA: Warning or Endorsement?

Sometimes I think I have had more wardrobe malfunctions than Janet Jackson! Many thicker leggings have zippers in the back. This sounds sort of sexy, but ends up being somewhat silly. For the sake of comfort, I prefer underwear with soft, lacy edges instead of hard elastic.

One day, while wearing my zipper-in-the-back leggings, I needed to use the ladies’ room at the hair salon. I was easily able to pull everything down, but was unable to pull it back up. It so happens that zippers devour lace. There I stood with pants & panties, now an inseparable unit, down by my knees. I had to call for my stylist’s help. She pulled and tugged to no avail, and finally took scissors and sort of disentangled the two items of clothing. I went home with a sweater tied around my waist. The hook and eye at the top of the zipper was missing the eye, so was also absolutely useless. Since I had recently gained a bit of weight, the zipper rushed down at my slightest move. Only “the power of positive thinking” and mincing Geisha steps got me to my car without further humiliating incident.

Not long thereafter, skin-tight leggings, requiring no belt & little imagination–underwear issues or not–seemed ideal airport wear. I couldn’t hide a credit card, not even a dollar bill, under those leggings. Wasn’t I surprised when I was selected for a TSA pat down! “Miss”–or was it the offensive ma’am?–“I am now going to firmly press your buttocks and thighs with my hands.” Huh? That was an extremely uncomfortable experience, and I am not disconcerted by human touch in the form of innocent, incidental contact in crowded spaces. The TSA officer’s unwanted touch brought back a confusing childhood groping experience, also by a complete stranger. In preparation for Zen airplane mode, and so as not to overreact, I tuned out what was happening to me. Guess I will go with my favorite muu-muu next time. My goal is never to end up in a private room with a TSA agent!

My daughter, who has short hair, a very athletic body type, and gender neutral look, had a unique experience on her latest trip: she was first patted down by a “dude,” who determined that there was some gender confusion on his part, and surrendered her to a female TSA agent for a second pat down. This agent was a bit more reserved than the one who patted her down the time before. That TSA agent asked whether she wanted to stay in New York and go to a party that night.

Ah, professionalism. Signs announce that one-third of Transportation Security Administration agents have served in the U.S. military. So has the Ft. Hood Army officer allegedly running a prostitution ring. This man was a member of the “Ft. Hood Sexual Assault Response Team.” The Air Force officer charged just last week with an alleged parking lot groping held a similar position, also created to prevent sexual assault. I now think I have been misreading a TSA warning as an endorsement.