Saturday, October 11, 2008

Simony and NRMs, old and new


I'm up to Acts in my blitzkrieg tour of the Bible. (Clearly, there's a whole lot of prophets I've missed and will need to go back for--this Biblical literacy notion is not for sissies. )

I don't believe I've ever read Acts before. Though I was not raised Christian, still, I've dipped into the Bible once or twice over the years. I've done my time in Deuteronomy, having had it quoted at me by the soapbox preachers at my colleges; I've waded before through the Sea of Reeds (or the Red Sea--both are fine by me) with the Israelites heading out of Egypt--first in a children's Bible I read as a girl, and later in the King James I borrowed from the public library. (And with Charleton Heston, of course. How many of us owe our limited Bible literacy to the Omega Man?) I've skimmed the occasional psalm, and made it most of the way through the gospels thanks to an adorable little palm-sized book another campus Christian group was handing out for free.

But Acts is new to me, and has a freshness to it I hadn't expected.

It's the story, after all, of a long-ago NRM--New Religious Movement--and I have a personal sense of what it's like to take part in one of those. I recognize the excitement in the rapid pace--event after event after event--and the sense of being part of something that is growing too fast for the human eye to follow. Certainly, that's the Pagan history I know, from my own twenty years of it. So I read the breathless pace of Acts, and I nod my head. This, I can understand.

But Acts speaks to me in more ways than that. For instance, I read that, in the initial, heady days when the movement was starting to catch on in Jerusalem, not only did the sick and the troubled throng to the apostles for cures, but that the visitors to the city would actually lay the sick out along the streets, "so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by."

His shadow??? The dude was so revered, they thought his shadow falling on someone could cure what ails them?

I'm reminded of the John Lennon quote about the Beatles being "bigger than Jesus." After all, Jesus was only thought to be able to heal with the hem of his robe (and a little bit of faith). I don't think anyone credited him with shadow healing!

I find myself reflecting on what it is like to come under the intense adulation of a crowd caught up in that level of religious ecstasy.

I think I almost understand that position. I think I've seen it in action. I have not been the priestess at the center of a crowd of a five hundred ecstatic Pagans, but I've known a few of those in my time.

I've watched what happens to the leaders who get cloaked with spiritual numen and lit up by the enthusiasm of the crowd until they almost glow in the dark. I've seen how hard it is to keep your balance on that tightrope, and I've certainly felt myself wobbling with the few baby steps of that kind I've taken myself from time to time.

I've watched what happens to my friends when the crowds turn hostile, and I've watched the exhaustion that steps in when the borrowed glory goes home. The crowds are never done--they keep on pressing closer for that small brush of the hem of the robe, or the chance of a shadow blessing them as you walk by. But, avatars of the gods aside, human beings cannot sustain that voltage very long. Those who do not find a way to disconnect from the crowds and the heat and the momentum sometimes go mad, sometimes go bad, and sometimes (if they are lucky) fall down exhausted until a friend takes them someplace cool and dark to ground and find their center again.

So I'm not without sympathy for Peter (or John Lennon or James Naylor or George Fox, for that matter) because not only can all that intensity push you past the limits of human capacity, but it can really mess with your God-sense.

By which I mean, the excitement and the rush of the adulation is like a powerful current, ready to pull you off your feet. In the Pagan community, we call it "High Priestess disease" when it does so in obvious, ego-inflating ways, as it did for John Lennon. But it can mess with your center in less obvious, more subtle ways, too: when you spend enough time up on the mountain with God/the gods, the thin air of spiritual communion can make you a little giddy. Too much time graced by grace, and your humanness can start to show up in all kinds of disorienting little ways: getting cranky, getting clumsy, losing your common sense... losing not only your groundedness in reality, but your ability to recognize that you are losing your groundedness.

This, of course, is why Peter and I typically bring comic books to New England Yearly Meeting. Too much time in prayer, centering down as deeply as we can into the Light, we notice we get a little strange. Not a good, Quakerly-peculiar strange, either: more a, hey, let's step off the edge of a building and see if we can fly now strange. Yes, I'm exaggerating. But I really have no impulse to see by how much, so I try to bring along some very Mere Mortal things to do on such a spiritual occasion: hence, the comic books.

We need to find ways to recognize and honor our very limitedness, in the face of all that limitlessness, or we might begin to imagine very stupid things indeed, and think them wise.

I'm not saying that the apostles either had or needed comic books in the early days of the Christian church. But I do think that the rush of spiritual power and energy was overpowering for at least some of the new converts.

This is where Simon comes in.

My ears pricked right up when I encountered the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8:9. To begin with, it's a terrific name. (The old-style rendering, Simon Magus, is pretty awesome, too. I mean, talk about a great Dungeons and Dragons character name, right?) But also, I know Simon, at least by reputation; I've taught him--sort of--in the context of teaching Chaucer to 12th graders. One of the characters in Canterbury Tales is guilty of the sin of simony--so, of course, I had to learn what simony was and be able to offer that context when we discussed his tale.

The dictionary definition of simony is "the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges," and of course, it was a major concern for the medieval church.

But of more interest to me now that I've read the original story, is a more personal moral of Simon's tale. Let me sum the story up, for those of you who, like me until this week, haven't read it before.

Out in Samaria, in the time of the apostles, there was a magician who had built up quite a rep for himself as a miracle worker. That was Simon, and (like many another I know in the Pagan community) "he boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention... They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic."

However, the news about the new religious movement comes to town, and preachers show up talking about this Christ fellow. Phillip rolls in and starts working miracles, and eventually, there is so much enthusiasm in Samaria that the apostles send Peter and John out to help these crowds of enthusiastic new converts receive not just baptism but the Holy Spirit. Simon is there, and he watches as the apostles lay on hands, and he is just impressed as hell.

You might think that Simon would be annoyed not to have cornered the market on miracles and religious awe, having been the talk of the town (and pretty self-important, too) for years. But no: he doesn't want to compete with the newcomers. He can see that they have brought something new and wonderful to town, and he wants to join them, and to get whatever it was they had hold of.

Unfortunately, he sees new things through old eyes. When he saw what the apostles could do by laying on hands, he wanted the ability to do what they did--but he did not understand it. We know that, because he approached them and "he offered them money and said, 'Give me also this ability...'"

But the ability to pass along the real Spirit of any god is not a thing to be bought and sold. Peter rejected him. "...You thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God."

This is the part of the that story speaks to me. From where Simon is standing, what he's asking for isn't anything so terrible. He wants to be the guy laying on the hands. It's new, it's beautiful; he values it. He's willing to pay for it, after all. What's wrong with that?

What's wrong with that?

It is not so much about the money, per se. It's about commodification.

Spirit comes as it will. We love it, we seek it, we cherish it. But when we treat it as an object that we own, a commodity that we can possess or buy or sell, we forfeit it.

Just like love. Just as anyone who believes that they can buy (or sell) the love of another has no sense of that human relationship, so anyone who thinks that they can obtain, own, stockpile Spirit has lost the sense of relationship that is the core of that reality, too.

The sin of Simony, as I see it--as I see my own human temptations reflected in it, at least--is this: it is possible to become so drunk with admiration of spiritual fruits and goods that we seek them out as if they, the fruits, were the point of the exercise. We relate to the gifts of Spirit in that same old way we have always related to the world of objects and of things, rather than in the deeper way, the truer way. We cease to join in wonder with Spirit in relationship when we begin to grasp at the gifts of Spirit as though we could possess them, own them, show them off.

I hope I do not reduce God to an object. I don't think I often do, at least.

But I know how easily I can be tempted, particularly when I am already off-balance from an aura of spiritual exhilaration all around. With the best of intentions in the world, it is very hard not to go a little crazy when the voltage gets turned up, either in terms of the intensity of the contact with God or the intensity of attention from a crowd.

Perhaps this is one reason I am drawn to Friends, to a quieter way and a slower way, though a way, still of hopefully continuing to encounter Spirit directly, face to face, day to day.

I do not denigrate the work done by the talented and reverent Pagan priests and priestesses I know. But I also know that I am deeply relieved to belong to a community that worships corporately, collectively, so that the burden of discernment and of remaining centered and open to the Light--of not stumbling and getting lost in the mazes of my own self-importance--is one I share. For me, the Quaker way of worship is a better way.

8 comments:

Pitch313 said...

Did you say "commodification"?

Our culture constellation is oversaturated with money marketplace faith in buying and selling. Even all that we realize we cannot buy--like spiritual gifts--some offer to "sell."

And others will try to "buy."

Craft degrees, say.

Hey! Next thing, you'll be talking about the class structures of Neo-Paganism and the priest-kings expropriating spells from the witching class...

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Hey, Pitch,
Yeah, there's some sense in the Craft injunctions against accepting money for spiritual training. Though I also understand the class bias that is implied in the interpretation of that teaching as labeling all buying and selling of magickal services--divination, spellcraft, etc.--as morally wrong. It's a lot easier to dedicate your life to giving spiritual gifts freely if you happen to have a trust fund or at least health insurance!

I see both sides of that one. Actually, I see it as having more than two dimensions, and being worthy of a much fuller exploration than I'm inclined to give it here.

But it doesn't really go to the heart of the particular problem with commodifying the spiritual that I was driving at: the temptation to treat the fruits of our relationship with the spiritual world as if they were products--to see the spiritual world as stuff, as objects, not as a "thou" in the I/Thou relationship sort of a way.

Even though Pagans work really hard not to be reductionist, I think we fall into the New Age trap, sometimes, of thinking of our spiritual lives and actions as things, or of initiations, trance experiences, and techniques as objects to acquire.

To me, it's a slightly different question than the old buying and selling of degrees issue--though it's related.

As always, thanks for making me step back and think again. *grin*

anj said...

So often what I read at your blog causes me to slow down and tear up. I think it is the truth I read, that is in a worldview and a language that is different from mine, so it takes me a while to tease it out...but my heart always responds to your truth. Do I hear you saying, in a way, that we can fall into the trap of thinking we own Spirit, instead of Spirit owns us? And own is the wrong word, but manages is even worse.

I guess the word I am looking for is that of an I/Thou relationship that is not between equals. You know what I mean?

Anyway, thanks for your words.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Anj,thank you. I think you are understanding me perfectly--right down to the heart response that comes before I am fully able to take in the head response that I often feel,myself, when I read blogs written in the (to me) second language of Friends.

We don't have very many good words for that I/Thou relationship that is not between equals, do we? I think that is probably because we are so lousy at it. The nearest paradigm I have is the love between a parent and a child. Yes, the parent and the child are not "equals", but, from the parent's point of view, that doesn't translate to an emphasis on power-over in how the parent views the child. The parent wants the child to reach her full potential... just because.

Of course, as the parent of a former adolescent, I also know that kids can have this whole obnoxious entitlement thing they go through,where they simultaneously try to convince themselves or us (I'm not sure which) that they are our equals, in fact, that they know better than we do, and that it is our place in life to accede to all their demands (for car keys, money, cell phones, etc.). This can lead to a certain amount of shouting in my personal experience, and an angry sense on the part of the kids that the parent has become an oppressive, arbitrary, power-mad thug who expects obedience (of all things) to arbitrary demands like doing that homework "now, not when you 'feel like it'" or not going to the party at the house down the block where the parents are out of the country for a month.

I think that Christianity often focuses on Right Behavior toward the part of us humans that interacts with Spirit from that adolescent child place, and Paganism tends to put the relationship more at the less-conflicted 10--12 year old phase, where the kids are bright enough to be interesting conversation partners, but not yet suffering from a god-delusion.

(For though Pagans put an even stronger emphasis on the idea that Spirit is immanent, within us, than Quakers do, I have actually met few or no Pagans who believe they are on a level footing with, say, Yemayah, the Lady of the Ocean Wave, or of Odin and his Wild Hunt.)

Truly, though, all our analogies are inadequate. We are simply too small to grasp something as large as Spirit... which is OK, I think, as long as we don't let our personal understandings block out the ways that Spirit is reaching out to us all the time; as long as we avoid mistaking the map for the territory, I guess I'm trying to say.

In a way, that was Simon's error, too. (And mine,on many occasions, I am sure.)

Thank you so much for your words!

Yvonne said...

I don't think I'm on an equal footing with the deities in their domain (the numinous, nebulous, eternal, non-local) - they graciously allow me to access their form of consciousness; and in return I allow them to access my local, focused, finite, time-based consciousness. So no it's not equal - they're better at some things than I am, and I'm better at somethings than they are. It's a symbiotic relationship.

Meanwhile, saw this and thought of you - Quaker humour (by Quakers and for Quakers).

staśa said...

Hmmm. This was very good for me to read right now. Thanks, Cat.

Right now, I'm struck by the fatigue, fear, and off-centredness that can come when one is simply trying to live faithfully, trying to live a life in tune with Goddess/Spirit. It's not just "thud" that comes after the adulation, or after the high of spiritual connection... although gosh, am I familiar with those. :)

And as you say, as Friends, we're still prey to that... but perhaps we spread the burden around a little more equally.

fromspahnranch said...

Also keep in mind that the Simon theme in Acts was seen as a polemic against a gnostic current of that time also led by a dude name Simon. Early Xians identified both as the same and that may have been the intent of the author of Acts

Riverwolf, said...

Thanks for your take on Acts. I'm very familiar with it, but as they say, "familiarity breeds contempt!" So thanks for the fresh perspective.

As a newbie pagan, I'm already noticing folks who seem to show off their gifts: "I do channeling! Hey, i can do astral travel! I see star people!" Frankly, my head is spinning and I have an inferiority complex!

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