Monday, January 07, 2019


Some ceremonies have seemed to me to have major insights buried in them, if they can be explained.  Two were problematic for my conventional advisors though one of them was a world wide story -- still is, in the most Christian way possible.  The other one is barely known outside the anthropology world as it is a complex and foreign account of a tribe in New Guinea, one of the hardest places on the planet to stay alive.  I'll post about them tomorrow.

In all the time I've reflected on them, I've never thought of putting these two contexts side-by-side until I began to think about ritual as a way of keeping the equilibrium of a community alive so that it goes on existing.  I'll describe the two salvific ceremonies and then go to discussion.  This may take two days, but the actual ceremonies were already written out in the earlier "Bone Chalice."

Cannibalism has one of the "hard" taboos of humans, harder than any of the sex laws or even suicide.  There seems to be something built into brains that keeps us from eating each other though there are cases of people with brain damage who somehow "snap" and eat their seatmates on buses or whatever.  In places where hunger can drive people close to death, like some woodland winter environments where animals couldn't be found, a personification of the cannibal impulse can form, like the Windigo monster.

The crash of an airplane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team that forced the living to eat the dead is described in terms of Christian communion.  There are some scholars who suggest that before the bread and wine ceremony we know (both products of fermentation and therefore from sedentary villages), there were blood sacrifices and even hints that the enemy ate babies.  The idea is that when people went to agriculture more than hunting, they had to be persuaded that bread was as sacred as flesh and wine was equivalent to blood.  This is taken to be the origin of Jesus' request that he be the sacred source of this idea, sparing death.  It is part of the focus on compassion.

Less attention has been given to the rest of the world view of these Uruguayan people, mostly young men from an entitled class who were destined for roles as professionals, disciplined and logical, accustomed to taking hold of situations and developing strategies for success.  Their teachers included religious instruction alongside science without argument.

The young men had some practical givens that helped to sustain their lives.  There was unlimited water, though it was inconveniently preserved as snow.  They had sharp blades, razors and knives, so that they could handle the flesh of their comrades in a ceremonial and minimal way, depersonalizing it.  Some were pre-med and so could guide both healing and the protocols of surgery.  The plane's fuselage provided shelter though there was no warmth except for each other and the radiation of the sun in daytime.  Bodies were cold enough to prevent decay. No one was murdered.

The balance of community vs. individual was strongly tilted for the community but still honored individuals.  The ceremonies were not just those of communion, but also those of childhood and vespers, calming and reconciling, like the Rosary at bedtime.  Each of them had a grasp of a universe where other forces, all-powerful and parental, were there even though unseen.  If they died, they were assured they would survive in Heaven.

from my earlier manuscript called "The Bone Chalice."
This example is about a famous nearly unsurvivable event and how religious understanding became a life-saving near-liturgical way of going outside normal behavior. “On October 12, 1972, a Fairchild F-227 of the Uruguayan Air Force, chartered by an amateur rugby team, set off from Montevideo in Uruguay for Santiago in Chile.” (from the book entitled “Alive!” about the incident) So begins a story that is both terrible and inspiring. The airplane crashed very near the top of the Andes. Sixteen young men survived for 72 days until two of them eventually walked for ten days down out of the mountains. Until this extreme exertion, their means of survival was cannibalism. 
Not only did the youths survive well enough to recover good physical condition after their rescue, but also they managed to maintain sanity and morale while living jammed into the remains of an airplane fuselage with no amenities or even enough clothes to keep warm, since the tail section with all the luggage fell far from the rest of the plane. The source of their real strength was religious, “incarnational liturgy,” spontaneously arising from their Catholic culture. 
The first suggestion of cannibalism after the crash was when one of the boys, seeing how short the food supply was, threatened half-jokingly to fortify it with chunks out of the dead pilots, since they had made the mistake that caused the crash. This kind of ironic fierceness was characteristic of the boys. They were fighters, partly because of the South American macho tradition and partly because of their athletic training. Many were descendants of people persecuted and displaced by WWII who had endured much hardship. 
Also, their minds were shaped by their schooling with Irish Christian Brothers until they were a remarkable and resilient mixture of matter-of-fact practicality and poetic confidence in other-worldliness. The boys were the cherished sons of large, conservative, closely-knit families. Rebellion and scorn were not directed at their parents, but at those who fell short of family standards. Many of the families were ranchers, so the boys were used to coping with emergencies and knew meat for what it was. Two boys were first year medical students who immediately turned their attention to the wounds imposed by the crash. 
“For some days several of the boys had realized that if they were to survive they would have to eat the bodies of those who had died in the crash. It was a ghastly prospect. The corpses lay around the plane in the snow, preserved by the intense cold in the state in which they had died. While the thought of cutting the flesh from those who had been their friends and relatives was deeply repugnant to them all, a lucid appreciation of their predicament led them to consider it.” 
“... Finally Canessa brought it out into the open. He argued forcefully that they were not going to be rescued: that they would have to escape themselves, but that nothing be done without food, and that the only food was human flesh . . . He insisted they had a moral duty to stay alive by any means at their disposal. . . .“It is meat,” he said. “That’s all it is. The souls have left their bodies and are in heaven with God. All that is left here are the carcasses, which are no more human beings than the dead flesh of the cattle we eat at home.” 
One of the deeply Christian elements that emerged was a sense of obligation: willingness to give their bodies to the others. “I know,” Zerbino went on, “that if my dead body could help you to stay alive, then I’d certainly want you to use it. In fact, if I do die and you don’t eat me, then I’ll come back from wherever I am and give you a good kick in the ass.” 
The first eating of meat was ritualistic. Canessa, the medical student, cut twenty slivers of meat from the buttocks of one corpse and laid them on the roof of the plane to dry. He invited the other boys to begin and when no one would, he prayed and then forced down the first piece as an example. 
The boys wrote letters to their families and novias (fiancées) constantly and there was a testimonial feel to what they wrote. Even in such extremity the boys could say the equivalent of Prayers of Intercession for others. They felt part of a strong community. Some of the boys and an older married couple could not force themselves to take the flesh, in spite of progressing weakness and neediness. They died. 
Pedro Algorta was one of the two boys who had been dressed more scruffily at the airport than the others: as if to show that he despised their bourgeois values. . . . Algorta watched Canessa and Fito Strauch cutting the meat but said nothing until it came to the moment when he was offered a slice of flesh. He took it and swallowed it and then said, “It’s like Holy Communion. When Christ died he gave his body to us so that then we could have spiritual life. My friend has given us his body so that we can have physical life.” 
Exalted landscapes stretched away from the improvised camp, which soon became a foul and stinking charnel house since the boys had no strength to do more than a minimum of maintenance. At night the boys clasped each other tightly for warmth and reassurance, but in the day time they sprawled carelessly in the sun, half-blinded by the dazzling sweeps of snow. Every night Carlitoes Paez led Rosary. 
Despite their fears, after their rescue the young men’s decision to eat human flesh and their justification of it through the image of Communion was accepted. A Catholic curate who arrived at the hospital where they were first taken confirmed their wisdom in saving their lives, judged the cannibalism necessary and not sinful, and gave Holy Communion to those who wished it. Later the Roman Catholic church simply cautioned them that it was not a true “Communion” since the flesh was not in any sense the flesh of Christ. Thus the church maintained its dogmatic ownership of the concept. 
There was one question the priest could not answer for any of the boys. “Why was it that he had lived while others had died? What purpose had God in making this selection? What sense could be made of it? “None,” replied Father Andres. “There are times when the will of God cannot be understood by our human intelligence. There are things which in all humility we must accept as a mystery.” 
This is a very extreme example and deliberately so, partly because it is an excellent antidote to the notion that worship must be “pretty” or “aesthetic” and partly because it is an example of such strong emotional chiaroscuro that things normally taken for granted become more obvious. One rescuer could not accept any religious explanation. The skulls the boys had used as bowls were for him not at all bony chalices to hold melted snow water. 
A deeply felt metaphor can order the most chaotic and horrifying circumstances. This is how the early Jesuit missionaries in North America were able to sing while torturers cooked their still-attached legs and forced them to eat their own flesh. The need for such powerful metaphors in a society like ours is great though we are threatened by economic, political and geological shocks or the intervention of sudden catastrophe as in the case of this airplane crash. [This was written in 1982, before 9/11.] Torture exists on our planet everywhere. It is ritualized as vivid depictions in movies. 
In the weeks on the mountain, the young men from Uruguay were in a “liminal” state; that is, ordinary reality was bracketed by the crash and then the rescue. On the top of the mountains in the snow they were over the threshold (the limen) of reality. Says Victor Turner, the anthopologist who has developed this concept of the limen: “... liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibillty, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.” Initiates who are voluntarily conducted into the liminal state are “represented as possessing nothing... It is as though they are being reduced or ground down to a uniform condition to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to enable them to cope with their new station in life. 
One of the strongest aspects of liminality is its link to “communitas.” Turner himself uses Buber’s definition of “communitas.” “Community is the being no longer side by side (and one might add above and below) but with one another of a multitude of persons. And this multitude, though it moves towards one goal, yet experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the others, flowing from I to Thou. Community is where community happens.” 
Certainly the boys did not duplicate a social hierarchy but existed in a daily confrontation that was direct, immediate, and total. However, though at first there was no social structure as such, a time-structure soon developed. The base, as in any primitive culture, was day and night, the chores of preparing food and water, and the planning of expeditions. Formal worship appeared spontaneously at bedtime (Vespers), an element of structure that would be liminal in normal society but became an evocation of the known, loved and orderly in this context. 
There are two important aspects of the Vespers Rosary that are worth exploring further. The first is the fact that the prayer was at the transition of day into dark and the second is that the prayer was to the Mother of God, rather than the Son of God or God the Father, who could have been interpreted as precipitating them into this punishment for His own reasons. They were looking for fusion, not separation. Transitions, borders, boundaries are always mysterious and full of potential. They are the ground of duality. Huddled in the wreckage of the fuselage, subsisting on shreds of human flesh, not knowing if they would survive at all (especially after their radio announced the search was abandoned), and facing a night of cold and pain, twilight (the hour of the wolf) must have been intolerable. One more day passed without relief. One more ordeal of restless nightmare. Even in the best of times people have bedtime rituals. In the worst of times religious ritual is indispensable.  
This situation lays bare the ultimate religious duality: that between being and non-being. The most basic possible religious decision is whether or not to go on living. (There were no overt suicides in this catastrophe, though some seemed to give up.) Not until the decision is to live -- to be -- is the issue how to be, what to be, so that the decision becomes moral. Tillich said, “...religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself.” 
I take that to mean that the will to live is drawn from existence itself, both within and without the person. Tillich relates it to mysticism, saying, “In mysticism the individual self strives for a participation in the ground of being which approaches identification... all mystics draw their power of self- affirmation from the experience of the power of being-itself with which they are united.” 
Back to Tillich: “The mystical courage "to be" lasts as long as the mystical situation. Its limit is the state of emptiness of being and meaning, with its horror and despair, which the mystics have described. In these moments the courage to be is reduced to the acceptance of even this state as a way to prepare through darkness for light, through emptiness for abundance. As long as the absence of the power of being is felt as despair, it is the power of being which makes itself felt through despair. To experience this and to endure it is the courage to be of the mystic in the state of emptiness. 
[The formal term is Kenosis.]” 
The doctrinal backing of this view of worship, then, is that so long as a person exists at all, he or she carries within them their connection in the face of despair to find hope and courage. Even in total non-being -- death -- one is still embraced by the Ultimate Principal that Tillich calls the Ground of Being. Worship is acknowledgment of connection to the Ground of Being, whether we exist or not in the conventional sense, and the finding of worthy metaphors for that connection. Nando Parrado, one of the two boys who managed to trek out for help, found his strongest metaphor was his father, a model for refusing to give up. 
It is a mistake for worship to avoid non-being and despair, for it is facing these annihilating possibilities -- the Void, the Chasm, the Wilderness, the Whirlwind, the Labyrinth, the Abyss -- that our courage and hope are most strongly felt. Never to test our connection to the Ultimate Ground of Being is never to be really sure the connection is there. 
Anything less than a worship experience that acknowledges both the Void and the Cherished, has evaded its true role. If only easy existence, “being,” is considered to have value, the way is laid for idolatry, an attempt to impose one’s own desires over what exists. Paradoxically, to cling only to the known and familiar is to invite destruction and sorrow, for the only real permanence is change. Not to change is to die, as the survivors discovered in the most concrete way when they were forced to break taboos and do the unthinkable. 
Therefore, worship has the paradoxical obligation of helping us to find meaningful metaphors in cherished reality, but to face the possibility -- even the desirability -- of having them destroyed or lost, and then to help us find new symbols in a newly found view of reality. The rhythmic pulse or shift of focus in worship that we have already noted corresponds to this deeply human death and resurrection of meaning as we grow up and move through circumstances. 

Thus the core of worship has to do with the relationship between the mystery of non-being and the known-ness of being. Worship is most necessary in the boundary moments: birth, death, transformation, emotional extremes, creation. What was NOT comes into being. What IS passes away. All is transient and mysterious. Worship does not give us “scientific” answers about these things, but rather offers metaphorical meanings that engage our brains at some deeply felt, wordless level. These meanings are not to be found analytically, but emerge spontaneously when sensory cues reach deep into the neuronal networks of the brain to the most primal level. 

No comments: