Christian Archeology

Interior of the Palace of the Archbishop, Lima, Peru

What shocked me more than anything during my 2014 visit to Peru was that the archeology of Spanish Catholicism in Peru was fully as interesting as the archeology of the Incas and other pre-Columbian peoples. The pictures here all come from my visit to the Palace of the Archbishop next to the Cathedral in Lima on November 9, 2014. I was guided through the Palace by a very cute young Peruvian nun who kept addressing me as “Gentleman.”

As I visited the Palace and the various churches and convents, I thought to myself that the Christian religion in Peru had passed its peak. What remained was partially syncretic, but in any case visually stunning.

Chalice Flanked by Two Monstrances

I have often thought that it was not the King of Spain who benefited from the wealth of gold and silver transshipped from South America, as much as Holy Mother the Church. The churches and monasteries in the historic center of Lima are glistening with gold, silver, and precious stones. At the Monastery of Santo Domingo are the remains of three 17th century Limeño saints: Rose of Lima, Martín de Porres, and Juan Macías—all of whom were affiliated with the Dominican Order.

Brought up as a Roman Catholic, I found myself spending a lot more time in the churches than at the Inca ruins. They were usually beautiful and peaceful, even if I wound up attending Mass a number of times. In fact, I felt myself more a Catholic in Peru than I do in Los Angeles.

Statue of the Blessed Virgin

Whatever their original colors, it seems as if the paintings and statues of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints are predominantly reddish brown. This is particularly true of the Cusco School of Painting which predominated at the time. At some point soon, I will repeat a past post on the iconography of archangels shown in Peruvian paintings of the Cusco School.

The Dalai Lama and I

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The circumstances behind my seeing the Dalai Lama in April 1991 are indelibly etched in my memory. I arranged to first meet my friend George Hoole at his girlfriend’s apartment in Santa Maria, and then we would both go to the University of California at Santa Barbara to see the Dalai Lama give a speech.

I had only been driving for six years at the time, and I did something that killed the engine on my 1985 Mitsubishi Montero. Instead of staying on U.S. 101, I decided to take San Marcos Pass to Solvang, where I would have lunch before making my way back to the 101. Unfortunately, I drove up the pass in second gear. By the time I got to the top of the pass, my engine was a smoking ruin. I arranged to have the car towed back to Santa Monica Mitsubishi for repair, which was no easy thing as ’85 Monteros with automatic transmissions were a rarity.

George came to pick me up in Solvang and I was his passenger for the weekend. We heard the Dalai Lama give a great talk in his broken English … and this turned out to be the beginning of a difficult period for me. I teamed up with George to start a new company called Desktop Marketing Corporation, along with several of my co-workers from Urban Decision Systems, where I had been working since 1971.

It never took off, and I had to live on my savings for over a year, Ultimately, I left Desktop Marketing and managed to get a job in a Westwood accountancy firm called Lewis, Joffe & Company. Plus I had to shell out several thousand dollars for a new Montero engine.

Things don’t always tend to go your way. The early 1990s were a time of career change and retrenchment for me. But I never regret seeing the Dalai Lama in person. There is perhaps no religious figure I respected more, not even Pope John Paul II. There was something about the twinkle in his eyes which helped see me through a difficult period in my life.

I’d see him again if I could, but I would definitely avoid San Marcos Pass.

Favorite Films: Winter Light (1963)

The Middle Film of Ingmar Bergman’s Trilogy on the Silence of God

The film is almost impossibly bleak. At the very beginning, a parishioner comes to the Lutheran pastor played by Gunnar Björnstrand and confesses that he is depressed because the Red Chinese have the atomic bomb, and they have no respect for human life. Because of the stresses of his own life, Björnstrand admits his own depression (he is a widower who has recently lost his beloved wife) and winds up sending him away even more depressed. Within minutes, we discover that he has committed suicide next to a roaring river by sending a rifle shell at his head.

It gets even worse. Björnstrand is being pursued by the local schoolteacher, played by Ingrid Thulin (in above photo). But the pastor remains stubbornly alone as, coming down with a cold, he must conduct a service at nearby Frostnäs. He goes there, with Thulin in tow, only to find that none of the parishioners have shown up. He gives the service anyhow, beginning with the words “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.”

Swedish Film Director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Bergman’s trilogy includes Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). These are, in no sense of the word, cheery films, as they deal primarily with God’s silence or even absence in the light of an increasingly disjointed world.

So why would anyone want to see such depressing films? For the same reason that they would see a performance of King Lear or read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that there is no laugh track in our lives. I keep thinking about what the Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote regarding the study of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche:

We live, so to speak, in a seething cauldron of possibilities, continually threatened by confusion, but always ready in spite of everything to rise up again. In philosophizing, we must always be ready, out of the present questioning, to elicit those ideas which bring forth what is real to us: that is, our humanity.

Although I do not consider myself to be an atheist, I do believe that no one can accurately describe God or God’s relationship to mankind. The Christians have this book which is several thousand years old and written by a number of authors. Some religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, do not even have a God in the Christian sense of the word.

So when a great artist like Ingmar Bergman is honest about his own doubt, I am refreshed by his honesty. The problem, to me, is not how to worship God, but how to make one’s way in this bewildering world without benefit of Providence or God’s love.

I used to be a devout Catholic. Then, in September 1966, I survived major brain surgery and moved to Los Angeles to begin graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. For a brief while, I felt grateful to God for my survival; then, I thought: Why did He try to destroy me with twelve years of excruciating pain? The only masses I have attended since then have been funerals and nostalgic visits to beautiful old South American churches.

10,000+ Saints

Saint Andrew, Patron Saint of Scotland

Today is All Saints Day, which neatly occupies a space between Halloween and the Day of the Dead (All Souls, or the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico). It is one of the Catholic “Holy Days of Obligation,” when the observant believer was required to attend church services, even if they didn’t fall on the Sabbath.

It is said that there are more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church. Just one grouping consists of St Maurice and the entire Roman legion he commanded, the garrison of Thebes in Egypt, consisting of over 6,000 souls, who had converted to Christianity and were martyred by decimation in AD 286 by order of the Emperor Maximian. I’m not even sure the Church knows the names of the members of that garrison.

When I was in grade school at St Henry (himself the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II who ruled from AD 1004 t0 1024), the Dominican nuns would reward us for good behavior with what we called holy cards, which are now called prayer cards. They’re still around:

Prayer Card for St Cecelia, Patron of Music

I remember once visiting San Cristobal de Las Casas (named after St Christopher, who is no longer officially venerated) during the Feast of St Cecelia held around the local church named after her. It was one of the best Mexican fiestas I ever attended.

When I visit Christian churches that are not richly decorated with statues, stained glass windows, and paintings depicting the saints, I feel that there is something missing. I often think the bare white walls could do with a few saints. After all, the Bible was written two or more thousand years ago: I see the saints as manifestations that the Christian God did not simply go on vacation after the Crucifixion to work on His tan.

In Lima, Peru, I visited the burial of three New World saints of the 16th century, one of whom, St Martin de Porres, was African-American. His feast day is celebrated on November 3, Election Day this year.

St Martin de Porres in the Chapel Dedicated to Him

If it seems strange to you that a non-practicing Catholic such as myself feels the way I do about the saints, I see it as part of the richness of the Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) religion that appeals to me. In their own way, the saints update Christianity.

I may not be a good Catholic, but I prayed to St Martin de Porres when I visited his chapel and saw where he was buried.

Serendipity: A Plea from the Pagans

Winged Victory (Nike) bronze statue against background of Trajan’s Column and dome of Santa Maria di Loreto church. Rome, Italy.

I have always been fascinated by the period of transition from the Paganism of Ancient Rome to the Christianity of the last days of the Western Roman Empire. It was in AD 313 when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire with his Edict of Milan; and it was in AD 476 when the Western empire fell.

Naturally, the transition was not sudden. In AD 375, the Emperor Gratian had the Altar of Victory removed from the Roman Senate, this despite the fact that most of the members of the Senate were still Pagans. On that occasion, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus complained to the emperor: “Grant, I implore you, that we who are old men may leave to posterity that which we received as boys.” He goes on:

All things … are full of God, and no place is safe for perjurers, but the fear of transgression is greatly spurred by the consciousness of the very presence of deity. That altar contains in itself the harmony of the members of our order and the good faith of each of them individually. Nor does anything so much contribute to the authority of the Senate’s decrees, as the fact that one body, sworn to the same oath, has resolved them. Greco-Roman Paganism is to us a ridiculous body of myths, but to the Roman Senators, making sacrifices to the Altar of Victory was not only patriotic but an act of piety.

Symmachus continues:

Let me use my ancestral ceremonies, she says, for I do not repent me of them. Let me live after my own way; for I am free. This was the cult that drove Hannibal from the walls of Rome and the Gauls from the Capitolium. Am I kept for this, to be chastised in my old age?… I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers, the native gods of Rome. It is right that what all adore should be deemed one. We all look up at the same stars. We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret. All this is matter of discussion for men of leisure. We offer your majesties not a debate but a plea.

This plea did not sit well with the new Christian orthodoxy of the empire. St. Ambrose wrote the official response, which was essentially that Christianity was replacing the old order of things.

Interestingly, it is now Christianity that seems to be on the defensive … to be replaced by—whatever.

 

War All the Time

Ball Court at Maya Ruins in Copán, Honduras

I have just finished reading Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. It was not an easy book to read, and it was a bit on the speculative side, but it brought forth a highly original interpretation of the fall of Classical Maya Civilization (approximately AD 250-800):

In their own way, the Maya thus acknowledged the terrible truth of war as statecraft: the authority of a small number of people over the many who must suffer and die in combat. But unlike our leaders, Maya rulers themselves went to war with the men they sent; and Maya kings and their noble vassals put not only their bodies but also their souls in jeopardy every time they clashed. It is no exaggeration to say that they lived for those moments of truth, those trials of the strength of their spirits. Every major political activity in their lives—the dedication of every public text, image, and building of royal and community importance—required the capture and sacrifice of rival peers. Only in this way could the proper rituals of sanctification be fulfilled, the gods nourished, and the portals of communication opened between the human and the divine.

When the Maya stopped inhabiting their ceremonial centers around AD 800, it wasn’t because they had disappeared: They found that there was too high a price to pay to maintain the god/kings in their position of rule. My personal belief was that certainly was one of the reasons why the Classical Civilization fell, but not the only reason

Macaw Markers from the Copán Ball Court

Intimately connected with the endless wars were a serious of gladiatorial combats in the form of … a ball game. Ball courts were scattered throughout Mesoamerica. At times, the games were friendly and/or ceremonial, but often they were played with the god/kings and nobles of other cities. The losing side was sacrificed to the gods. During the game, the ball could not be hit by the hands or feet: Only the thigh or hip could be used. The ball, made of rubber, was bounced against the sides of the ball court—but at no time was it allowed to touch the ground. If it did, game over—and lost.

Many a Maya god/king was sacrificed in this way, including the great 18 Rabbit of Copán, who was sacrificed at Quiriguá, which was a much smaller Maya polity.

 

The Talking Stones of Yaxuna

The Mayan Glyph Stairway at Copán

The Maya believe that certain inanimate objects, such as stone glyphs and statues had souls. The following excerpt, entitled “The Talking Stones,” comes from Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by archeologists David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker:

When I read Paul Sullivan’s book [Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars] it helped me understand something I had witnessed among the village people of Yaxuna who worked with me on the nearby ancient city. When excavation first began, the villagers were deeply concerned that we might try to remove stones, especially carved stones, from the ruins. I had difficulty understanding their anxiety. I explained to them that sometimes artifacts had to be removed for analysis, but that they would be returned faithfully when safe storage could be built for them. The matter was of such importance to the villagers that finally Don Pablo, the local shaman, took it personally  upon himself to ensure that no carved stones be removed from the site. There were some strained moments when the archeologists of the Mexican government insisted that carved stones be taken to safekeeping and the Yaxuna people insisted that they stay; but the tensions were finally resolved. The stones of Yaxuna are still there, under the watchful eyes of the villagers, and now I know why the matter loomed so large: such stones are likely k’an che’, seats of supernaturals.

I had one other encounter with Don Pablo and talking stones. One day in the summer of 1989, after he had done some work on the camp kitchen, I found a clear glass marble in the area. Thinking it belonged to Don Pablo and was one of his saso’ob, the “lights” he used when focusing spiritual forces, I took it next door to him that evening. He took the marble and inspected it carefully.

“Yes,” he said finally, “this is a stone of light.”

Then he smiled, “However, it won’t speak until it has been soaked in maize gruel, sak-a’, and then it will speak only Maya.”

I Go To See the Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

In April 1991, I drove up to Santa Maria to rendezvous with my friend and business associate George Hoole. The next day we were going to go to the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) to see the 14th Dalai Lama give a talk. My attendance at this talk cost me a great deal: Driving up the San Marcos Pass on State Route 154 in second gear, I burned out the engine of my 1985 Mitsubishi Montero. That was just the beginning of my problems with the Mitsubishi, which lasted another four years before being T-boned by an elderly woman who was afraid of being late to a doctor appointment.

Although I knew my visit was going to cost me dearly, I remembered the Dalai Lama’s talk with great fondness. It is the only time I ever saw one of the world’s great religious leaders in person. I have read several of his books since then and realize that he is a living treasure. When he passes on, which can be any time now, the world will be without a man of his spiritual stature. Of course, the Chinese will be delighted: They will simply choose their own Dalai Lama. Will the exiled Tibetans in Dharamshala, India choose their own candidate? Who knows?

Present at UCSB when George Hoole and I were there was the late Spalding Gray, author of Swimming to Cambodia, who did an interview with the Dalai Lama which was published by Tricycle. In that interview, the following appeared:

Do you ever entertain the distractions, invite them into your meditation and let all of these women in bikini bathing suits that you must see here out by the pool come into your meditation? As a monk, I have to avoid that experience, even in my dreams, due to daily practice. Sometimes in my dreams there are women. And in some cases fighting or quarreling with someone. When such dreams happen, immediately I remember, “I am monk.” So that is one reason I usually call myself a simple Buddhist monk. That’s why I never feel “I am the Dalai Lama.” I only feel “I am a monk.” I should not indulge, even in dreams, in women with a seductive appearance. Immediately I realize I’m a monk. Then sometimes in my dreams I see fighting with a gun or a knife, and again I immediately realize “I am a monk, I should not do this.” This kind of mindfulness is one of the important practices that I do the whole day long. Then your particular point, about beautiful things or men, women, things that attract: the analytical meditation counters that attachment.

For example, the sexual desire. It is very important to analyze, “what is the real benefit?” The appearance of a beautiful face or a beautiful body—as many scriptures describe—no matter how beautiful, they essentially decompose into a skeleton. When we penetrate to its human flesh and bones, there is no beauty, is there? A couple in a sexual experience is happy for that moment. Then very soon trouble begins.

I can see that if I ever wanted to achieve enlightenment, I have a long way to go.

 

Fending Off the Wrathful Deities

Another Eastern Holy Book I Forgot to Mention Yesterday

Memory is like that. You write about the importance of A and B in your life, and then you realize you have left out C. In addition to the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching, the other work of Eastern wisdom you have totally forgotten is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In many ways, it’s he most important of the three. The Christians have their Hell, the Jews their Sheol, the Muslims their Jahannam … but for the Tantric Buddhists of Tibet, Hell was a way station on the road to rebirth.

When one died, one entered an in-between state known as the Bardo. The goal for a Tibetan was to prepare oneself to be assailed by wrathful deities. By expressing fear at this confrontation, the departed soul was delivered over for rebirth. The wrathful deities are, in a way, like the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: They were there only for Scrooge’s benefit.

According to the Buddhist Weekly, one of the worst of the wrathful deities was Palden Lhamo, illustrated above:

With a world-shaking cry the figure, now blue black, starts to its feet… The giant figure pounds forward, wild hair streaming upward, tied around with snakes. The massive body, nearly naked, girt only in a tiger-skin, wears skulls—pretty, staring skulls—as jewels. Snake-enwreathed, fang-mouthed, three eyes glaring bloodshot from an awesome face, he marches onward bellowing challenge…

The goal in Tantric Buddhism is not heaven, of which there is no sign in the religion, but annihilation. That is the only true nirvana. To be reborn is a defeat of sorts.

In many ways—even before one dies—one is always fending off wrathful deities, be they Trump or one’s boss or one’s wife. In many ways, fending off the wrathful deities is not only important after one’s death, but also during one’s life.

 

 

The Bhagavad Gita

Arjuna and Krishna with the Pandava Army at Kurukshetra

Of all the deep books of Eastern wisdom, the two that have most influenced me are the  Tao Te Ching of Laotse and the Bhagavad Gita, a selection of some 700 lines from India’s national epic, The Mahabharata. Both are relatively short, yet abruptly different from the theistic traditions of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic faiths.

I was first introduced to the Bhagavad Gita in 1975, on the bus between Chichen Itza and Mérida in Yucatán. I was sitting next to a cute Canadian girl who, as I recall, berated me for being too pompous. (She was right.) She gave me her copy of the Hindu scripture as a corrective to my sense of self-importance. Since then, I have read it several times.

Arjuna is with the god Krishna at the battlefield of Kurukshetra. As he scans the Kaurava army arrayed on the field against him, he expresses doubts about his role in fighting the battle. The Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on the subject:

Look upon pleasure and pain, victory and defeat, with an equal eye. Make ready for the combat, and thou shalt commit no sin.

Krishna continues:

He who wherever he goes is attached to no person and to no place by ties of flesh; who accepts good and evil alike, neither welcoming the one nor shrinking from the other—take him to be the one who is merged to the Infinite.

In the end, Arjuna resolves to commit himself to the battle. This is all very different from turning the other cheek, and certainly a good deal bloodier.

The quotes above are from the edition I read most recently, the translation for Shambala Pocket Classics by Shri Purohit Swami.