A priest had the duty of keeping the eternal flames going at two altars in a church/temple/cathedral/cave. They were fed by oil that was brought by the worshippers who put their gifts in front of the statue of the intended saint. One was for St. Peter and the other was for the Virgin Mary. Late one night the priest checked his flames and saw that there wasn’t enough oil to get through the night for Mary’s flame, but there was quite a lot of oil at the altar for St. Peter. So he just moved some of the oil over to Mary.
This made St. Peter very angry. He told the priest in a dream that when he died and went to heaven, he could surrender any idea of getting through the Pearly Gates! The humble little priest just bowed his head. When he died he appeared at the gate, but St. Peter turned his back, pretended he didn’t even see him -- much less intend to unlock the gates. The little priest put his hands up his sleeves and looked at his feet.
“Pssst! Psssst!” He heard someone around the corner trying to get his attention. It was the Virgin Mary, holding open her window! “There’s always a way!” she said, as she helped him clamber over the sill and into Heaven.
This story comes from a book called “Ordinarily Sacred,” by Linda Sexson. As it happened, this book and Alice Beck Kehoe’s book about shamans ended up side-by-side in my book reading box, where I try to round up what I’m reading until I’m sure it’s time to reshelve them. The two books are about the same size (125 pages v. 133 pages), both written by women who are professors -- one of religion and one of anthropology. Both books are well-loved and often quoted, but they could not be more different from each other.
Alice is a critical thinker, intent on accuracy. Lynda is an iconoclast, tipping over all the categories, breaking open all the eggs. In the end, they smile at each other over the debris and we -- a little dizzy -- are nevertheless enlightened.
Lynda Sexson is just retiring from the University of Montana in Bozeman where her husband Michael has also taught for many decades. Her book is packed with stories and quips, many of which come from what her children have said and done over the years. One riotous chapter evolves from an attempt (successful) of a religious education class of Unitarian kids inventing a play about gods (Jehovah and Buddha) struggling with creation and chaos which they manage with puns and improvised costumes. The professor/director stands by, merely naming and framing the goings-on, trying to keep up,
Lynda’s daughter was at first a great believer in the Tooth Fairy. Then later, enlightened, she realized that parents took the teeth and left the coins. But then she came to her mother to ask logically where the redeemed teeth were kept. She’d looked all over and couldn’t find them. (My own mother kept our teeth in a little aspirin tin, the kind that you used to open by pinching the corner, but she didn’t separate them, so you didn’t know which were whose teeth. The tin was in her jewelry drawer.) Lynda left the fate of her own kids’ teeth a little fuzzy, but tells us that lacking the historical teeth of the children, the daughter discovered her puppy’s milk teeth caught in the carpet, added it to an old buffalo tooth, and packaged them carefully to take to school for exhibit as any good archeologist would. A little later, when her father’s Ph.D. was awarded, she asked whether he would keep it under his pillow and how much he might expect as compensation. Some people are long out of a grad school before they seriously wonder about this.
So this book skips in and out of mistaken categories, misplaced concreteness, bait-and-switch and buyer-beware, somehow getting sense out of it all, or at least some sensible and -- in the end -- quite obvious holes in the culture’s theory of everything. Our culture, so locked into dyads and so locked out of wonder (St. Peter might have done it but more likely it was Paul!) has to look around for the windows of opportunity (“Pssst, pssst!”) but Lynda is confident that they are there.
In her own words she says: “This book attempts to illuminate the sacred quality of experience which on the surface is considered mundane or secular. In order to do so, I have drawn upon the most slender and ephemeral of our everyday experiences, which nevertheless resonate with the most profound of religious symbols. This is the work and nature of metaphor, a quality of experience manifested here by the little things we save -- the “stuff” in children’s boxes, by the things we say that get repeated -- our tests of our lives, by our jokes and our dreams, by the way we play. It is not that the natural is an analogue for the spiritual, nor is it, rather, that nature, spirit or any other category is perceived and conceived through mind as metaphor. This means that there can be, ultimately, no formal separation of art from life, or of religion from culture.’
And later: “Peculiar moments in ordinary lives, saturated by metaphor or personal symbol-making, are the stuff of religion.
One could accuse Lynda of practicing “Mommy Theology.” (We’ve had waves of Mommy Everything lately!) And then the impulse would be to assume that Alice was not a mommy since she's linear and rational. But I want to assure you (and I am NOT a mommy at all!) that this was jumping to conclusions. Decades ago Alice spent a day observing and taking notes of a ceremony for a Badger Tipi Bundle that came out of Bob Scriver’s dream. Her young son was instructed to take care of himself and so he did. But when he came out of the ranch brush to rejoin us at dusk (which was a little late for comfort) he had a fabulous tale to tell about the Creation of his Bumble Bee Bundle, assembled from the skins of small things, each with their meaning and aura.
These two books belong together, each coming at the fabulous and impossible from a different direction, but ending up together, forces for renewal.