Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Signs and Omens

Pagan Blog Project post for letter S

"Unless you people see signs and wonders," Jesus told him," you will never believe." John 4:48, New International Version Bible

"I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below..."
Acts 2:19
a, Revised Standard Version Bible

In the biblical account of Thomas meeting Jesus on the road after his death and resurrection and asking for proof that it is really him, Jesus obliges by letting Thomas put his hand into his crucifixion wounds and replies ( seemingly in exasperation), " Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed." Thomas needed more than merely seeing an apparition, he needed tangible proof to back up his spiritual beliefs. In my little part of Appalachia, there are certain churches of Pentecostal linage-namely the The Church of God with Signs Following-that practice snake handling, handling fire and drinking poison based on an interpretation of the following biblical passage:
"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." [Mark, verses 16:17-18, King James Version Bible.] The rattlesnakes and copperheads used during these ecstatic religious extravaganzas don't always yield to will of the faithful, and every now and then someone sustains a serious bite and dies or expires from drinking a kerosene cocktail. The Bible also states that God will not be tempted or tested-so much for cherry picking scripture.

We humans don't seem to be very good at believing without seeing. We are always asking for tangible proof that things exist, particularly if the thing in question is outside of our  personal experience or comfort zone. Citing the verses at the beginning of this post, it seems we've been demanding proof since ancient ages, and perhaps, since the beginning of time itself.

We need proof of the gods' higher nature and claims of omnipotence. We demand proof of those claims through gloriously impressive events. Show me that you're who you say you are, and I'll believe. Give me proof. Usually the gods oblige us and send a lightening bolt or some tamer bit of proof of their divinity. Humans are cheeky beings: for not only do we demand this proof once, we keep at it over and over. It's not that we forget, it is that we're all doubters at heart. It's not that we don't want to believe-we just need proof to satisfy ourselves.

Indigenous peoples have worked with and held the belief in signs and omens for millennia. Like many modern Pagans, they believed that this was the way Nature communicated with us. Those signs and omens may not be as dramatic as the lightening bolt but just as powerful: a song may come on the radio which is the answer to a question you asked about a relationship, conversation with a stranger may give you a new view point that leads to a breakthrough, a hawk suddenly swoops down out of no where and guides you along a road. It could be something as simple as the tiny white feather that always fell from the sky when Forrest Gump questioned the Universe. Albert Einstein reminds us that "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous";this was not the great scientist speaking religiously,but saying that reality is truly mysterious. Einstein had an abiding love of the mystery of Nature, and his way of framing that was to personalize Mystery in a way others could relate.[Religion as Art Form: Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs,Carl L.Jech,
Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2013.]

Signs often make themselves known in dreams. If you've been having a dream where a theme specifically repeats, or if a particular item keeps showing up in different dreams, then that item can be taken as a sign. Some signs are actually created in the subconscious and appear in dreams as a message for the dreamer to pay attention to the meaning of such an item. The meanings in dreams are not set in stone; one dream dictionary may list a differing  description than another. Because the meanings of dreams are explicit to the individual, you may be left guessing as to the actual meaning of a dream sign.

Omens are a little looser in definition and their meaning may vary by culture. The appearance of a black animal portends an unlucky event in some European cultures, but the appearance of a white animal will mean the same thing in a few Asian cultures. ( The Chinese believe that a black bat is a sign of wealth.) A butterfly entering the house portends the visit of an important individual; in other cultures it represents rebirth. The place you are located contributes significantly to means.

Working with signs and omens means paying attention to your surroundings; they are to be found everywhere.


All Hallows Eve: The Blessing of Every Soul

The other day I came into a discussion posted by a friend whose daughter had come home from CCD class upset because her teacher told the class that animals had no souls and when they died that was it...Kitty wasn't going to be joining them in heaven. A pretty heartless thing to tell a little girl especially in light of the fact that the elderly family feline had to be euthanized a few weeks ago and the grief is still fairly fresh. While I'm sure this teacher was only trying to relay the scripted answers and not deviate from the dogma of the Church written by Old White Men centuries ago was teaching from the approved syllabus, I fail to fathom was actually gained by coldly telling a child who was still in the process of mourning that her soul-less pet no longer mattered. It's not that she actually said anything wrong, because that's the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on the nature of the soul. ( And they are not alone, many Protestant Christian Churches share the same dogma.) This belief is based on the principle that all living things have a soul, and when that thing dies, the soul is separated from the body. In the case of humans the soul continues to exist because it is immortal because it is the seat of reason and intelligence, and therefore responsible for their actions. Animals, it is believed, have a different kind of soul because they do not share the intelligence that humans-made in the image of God, according to the creation story in Genesis. They are not self aware, and they act without conscience. They are not responsible for their actions. They choose neither God's will, nor their own.

I will debate most of the above until the day I die, despite my holding degrees in both theology and psychology, because deep in the place where I hold reason I know from personal experience that this bit of religious teaching is untrue. To begin with, dogma is man made written by Old White Men in long robes in the  age of ignorance.

Dogma is a creation of humans and not Deity.
  It is a set of principles written by religious authority who hold it to be true. In other words,dogma is nothing more than the opinion of a particular set of individuals given authority by a specific religious body which is based upon the sacred text of their group. Therefore, depending upon my own religious beliefs, I can argue that this particular dogma is right or wrong...or, because I am not a member of a particular religious group I can totally ignore the dogma because I am in no way bound to that belief system.

Oh, but wait...does an animal's ability to relate and seemingly to communicate with humans mean that the animal possesses an immortal soul which will survive after death? Most theologians will say no, and I will still argue the point despite the Biblical pretense that humans are superior to animals and have dominion over them, and here is why: animals are mentioned by both the prophet Isaiah and The Apostle John in regard to the new heaven and earth, after the Rapture. Isaiah 65:25 says, "The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox,but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord." John goes on to mention Christ and the armies of heaven "riding on white horses" (Revelation 19:14) Clues from the Bible about what actually goes on in heaven or the afterlife are sketchy at best.

And while you are sitting there with your eyebrow raised, consider this little twist: according to the Messianic law, Jesus had to die to save the souls of humans alone. And why is that? Because animals, which still received the breath of God during the creation story, are true to their nature, act without malice, and are, in fact innocent of the sins of humans...they did not require redemption, because animals are without sin in the eyes of God. By this time I think it's a bit like going in and bayoneting the wounded after the war, but I'm going to also point out to all those learned folk who dare to suppose themselves to be experts on the nature of God (that's what theology means) that the only creatures that disobeyed God and were put out of the Garden of Eden were the humans. The Creator did not kick out any cows, chickens or goats. Even the serpent was allowed to stay. The Bible says plenty about which humans aren't going to heaven, but there is no mention of animals. To say that no animals will be in heaven is an assumption and the opinion of the humans who wrote it all down. There is no comment from God on the subject, and maybe for a good reason: it's a moot point.

It has been over a decade since I was the caretaker of an animal companion, but there are things I will never forget. I will never forget the look of understanding in my cat Tinker's eyes when I needed to vent or cry, and that she often reached out to comfort me with a paw on my hand or face. I will never forget the look of fear when I yelled at her over something, or the joy she shared when we played together, or how she rolled around at my feet or called out to me when I came home from work. There was a wise old soul in her, and maybe she didn't have the same reasoning as a human, but there was something there knowing and holy in those green feline eyes. She instinctively knew when things were good and when things weren't going well. I saw that. Those eyes told me when she became old and sick, and when the life we shared became too much. They were the same eyes that told me when it was time to let her go, and that she would be fine wherever her journey across the Veil took her. People who know me know that I'm logical and a rational thinker and that I'm not prone to flights of the imagination; I know this about myself as well. So on the nights I have felt four little feet gingerly walk across the blanket and that small form curl up in the band of my knees, I don't believe for one minute that it's my imagination playing tricks on me. I have been wide awake when a strand of my hair has been pulled across the pillow by an invisible paw. Theologians be damned. They will never convince me otherwise.

We don't know what actually happens in the afterlife and we don't know the true will or mind of the gods. Perhaps will never know until we ourselves cross the Veil. I believe there are things purposely left unsaid by the God of Our Understanding for us to experience, believe and have faith in. Mystery is supposed to be just that, despite what is written long ago by Old White Men in long robes.  I have more faith in what comes from the Place of Deep Indwelling than in books of sacred texts.

At that still hour during the darkness on Samhain that the Ancestors cross the Veil to come back to join the living, there will be photos of all my animal companions ( with Tinker front and center) on my altar right beside my friends and relatives. Right where they should be.

Blessings to all of us- animal and human- on All Hallows Eve. Let us share another supper that night  together on this night outside of time, at a table which knows only the boundary of love, with a bounty that comes from the heart.