Happy Groundhogs Day.
On Thursday I dislocated my shoulder so I'm typing one-handed and will be brief except for cut and paste. There is no cure but time. I had my first chance to experience fentanyl but was unconscious.
A little earlier I discovered that there is man named Armin Geertz, not related to Clifford Geertz. Armin W. Geertz is a professor in the Department of the Study of Religion at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and has written several other books on Hopi religion and art. He is a key to the thought I've been pursuing, His field is related to the Lakoff/Johnson ideas. Below is what I sent to make contact:
There is a great hunger to know the ceremonies and understandings of the past, but it’s hard to convince these young people that ceremonies arise from experience in the ecosystem. To get that first hand sensory knowledge, one must get out of the pickup and spend a lot of time on the grass. I married a man born on this reservation in 1914. He was white, unchurched, and much attracted to old Blackfeet ways which he depicted in sculpture. Robert MacFie Scriver, or “Bob.” He began to have the dreams that point to Bundle-Keeping and we did that with the guidance and even urging of the old people. In the Sixties these elders had been born in the 1890’s.
I don’t know how much you are open to me sending you material. My method is blogging and my self-assignment is to write a 1,000 word essay every day, weekends included. [prairiemary.blogspot.com] When I’ve accumulated enough material for a book, I use Lulu.com to print-by-demand a form people can buy. But my thinking has developed so much in the last couple of years that this is more of a task than it was. For fifty years I’ve accumulated accounts of incidents that might or might not be considered “religious”, like the famous survival ordeal of the athletic team whose airplane crashed in the Andes or a favorite anthropological book by Gell about a cassowary-focused annual sequence of ceremony and so on. This little archive has kept me renewing my efforts to define what I’m thinking about.
For instance, vivid examples arose from serving in a Clinical Pastoral Education context that my denomination required. The hospital in Rockford, Illinois, was a major regional hub, especially for babies in trouble. Since my task was to support everyone, I was asked to feed a tiny black infant with a cleft palate, because it took a long time and the nurse was overwhelmed. I never met the baby’s mother but she asked — demanded! — in notes that I get her a rosary. She was not Catholic but had enough popular acquaintance to believe that it would help. When I went to the head of Catholic services, a nun, she balked, saying that people used things like the rosary as a fetish, a form of magic, and not at all attached to the real devotion it was meant to guide. Finally I talked her into it.
When I went back to the ward later where the baby was, it had already had surgery and was still unconscious. The rosary was attached to the crib. The nurse laughed bitterly. “This baby has been adopted by the rosary. We’ll never see the mother again." She was right. But I had acquired something sacred, an hour of attachment to a little scrap of humanity who searched my face with her eyes. The baby went to a recovery setting and I never saw her again, but that connection stuck with me.
There were two other examples of ceremony emerging naturally from incidents. One was a baby that had been brought in by helicopter with the father while the mother stayed in the distant hospital until she was stabilized enough to be moved. The baby had been born by C-section and was awake, merely premature. The father, the duty nurse, and myself stood by the isolette wanting to do everything we could. The nurse gave me a ball of cotton and a little bottle of sterilized water because the father wanted the baby to be baptized. He had no church — just had the idea that baptism was a saving act. Just as I dampened the cotton and squeezed a bit of water on the baby’s head, the east-facing windows of the infant ICU filled with sunlight from the dawn. The little prayer I invented began, “This is the day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice in it.” My mother always kept a plaque with that on it.
The last example is about death. A man had a brain tumor and partly because of that had been miserable to live with because he was so judgmental and punishing. His children were teenagers, four of them. His wife tried to buffer by rationalizing and forgiving. He was there on the neurology ward for a week before he died. I was on the ward at that moment and went to the room. The whole family was there. I asked if they would like to pray and they said yes, so we took hands around the bed. I saw that the teens on either side of the bed had each picked up their father’s still-warm hands, so that the circle included him. No one told them or expected them to do this — it was spontaneous, showing that the relationship with him was still there. I began to sing “May the circle be unbroken.” They all knew the words and we sang it together. This was better than words.
These are very simple and small events, but they show that among the welter of definitions of “religion” which are mostly in defense of existing and powerful institutions and bureaucracies, the sense of the sacred drawn from the experience of life is always ready to be kindled.
ps: In case you prefer classics.