From a recent visit to the the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in rural Kentucky.
This abbey is set on 2,000 acres of farmland and is now largely sustained by sales of their famous bourbon fudges and fruitcakes manufactured by the resident Trappist monks. Here is a postcard I received that gives a glimpse of their factory:
Made famous by former resident monastic Thomas Merton, the abbey continues to be connected with his name and legacy. A few of his words follow these photos.
“In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because “God is not a what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. HE is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.” (from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation)
Five synagogues, worldwide, share the unique feature of having floors made of sand. One of these is Shaare Shalom Synagogue in the historic district of Kingston, Jamaica. There, the sands are carefully raked and maintained daily, with special consideration and care preceding days of worship. It’s no small feat.
The provenance of this tradition is debated. One common theory is that the practice resulted from Spanish-Portuguese conversos in Brazil during the 1600s, who wished to resume their Jewish practices but were barred from openly practicing. In order to be discrete, sand was poured on the ground of private gathering spaces, often homes, to obscure the sounds of prayer and activity.
The other synagogues with sand floors are located in Amsterdam, Curacao, Suriname and Saint Thomas. While I don’t have photos of those ones (yet) here are some more views from inside and outside Shaare Shalom in Kingston. Of particular interest to me were the large stone grave covers dating from the 18th century. These have inscriptions in Portuguese and beautiful imagery from the Bible.
The following is a brief response to a perennial question I find in feminist communities, both online and in popular discourse.
The question: : “Is religion patriarchal? Are women ‘kowtowing to patriarchy’ by participating in religion?”
This is a very tricky question, primarily because it assumes all religions can be evaluated as the same and that we even all agree and understand what religion “is.” Religion is not patriarchal because it’s not a thing–it’s a historical concept, a very recent one in fact. If you’re looking at something like the structural authority of a religion, such as Christianity, yes, it’s patriarchal because it reflects the societal organization in which it’s formed. But are male leaders the only ones informing religion? And should they be the only ones we look to when trying to understand a tradition? Absolutely not. Religious activity takes place on many levels, spaces, bodies and objects. Is a woman who prays in her home, wears ritual clothing, recognizes days of special important kowtowing to the patriarchy? I’d say no, at least not in ways more influenced by male control that any other activities one may participate in. If we take the example of Catholicism, which many see as patriarchal, we ignore the spaces in which women have traditionally and contemporarily maintained power and carried forth the tradition on their own terms. The idea of “religion” is the product of European colonial encounters as well as an intellectual discourse that privileges Protestantism as the model of what religion is or should be. It is preoccupied with religion as belief, creed, and social hierarchy when we now understand religion to be far more polyvalent of a concept. This is all to say that if we are to evaluate religion as patriarchal, we need to be very specific with what we mean by religion and whose ideas of that religion we are privileging. Often what I notice most as “kowtowing to the patriarchy” in terms of religion is continuing to forward understandings historically defined by men and fore fronting male experiences/interpretations rather than women’s or marginalized peoples’.
This is all even more important to understand because there is certainly violence, discrimination, and control of women or other marginalized peoples perpetrated by organizations that justify such treatment on account of their “religion.” But the thing is, they are taking advantage of a historically vague concept to veil their own responsibility as individuals. We see this, unfortunately, very clearly in cases such as Hobby Lobby and other pending cases of discrimination against LGBTQ people. So we need to hold PEOPLE accountable for actions that are harmful and discriminatory–not nebulous concepts.
Here a few selections from my postcard collection, which is mainly comprised of the category I refer to as “religious scenes.” Their subjects are varied but they all date from roughly 1950-1980. The first shows a passion play production in South Dakota (a performance that moves to Florida in the summer). The second postcard (one of my favorites) shows a small boy drinking from the La Source Miraculous (The Miraculous Spring) in Sainte Anne de Beaupré, Quebec. The third selected postcard is of a Billy Graham revival meeting at Madison Square Garden, with a pre-generated and signed message from Graham on the reverse side.
See more here.
Today I attended services at RiverRock, a Pentecostal church in Buffalo, NY. Together with the BMICF (Buffalo Myanmar Indigenous Christian Fellowship), RiverRock is now housed in a former Catholic church in the Black Rock neighborhood. It is also home to services provided by Jericho Road’s Vive Shelter.
Many of those at the service were refugees from Burundi but now live in Michigan. They graciously offered a wonderful performance for the congregation (see below for video).
The head pastor, Rev. Dr. Robert Rice, a member of the Seneca Nation, permits another pastor from the Congo to give the sermon each week. He is, naturally, French-speaking and owing to this another man must translate into English–no small feat. In addition to this, there are services in Swahili, Kurundi, and other languages as the community needs. In a city with a large refugee population, this flexibility and accommodation has become standard.
It was a pleasure to join this community. I want to thank my good friend and fellow historian Rebekah for the invitation. If you are part of a religious organization, ask a friend along. It’s always easier to go to a new worship service if you are accompanied by a member who can show you around and introduce you to community members.
Before I end, I also want to mention that Rebekah is doing great work aiding formerly- incarcerated men, fighting to decrease the maximum days New York state prisoners can legally spend in solitary confinement, and also teaching and mentoring refugees and returned citizens at Houghton College Buffalo. <– Check these organizations out.
Last Sunday, Beth Tephlilah Synagogue in Troy, NY hosted an open house during the city’s annual Victorian Stroll event. They served vegetarian matzoh ball soup and peach noodle kugel (my first!) before giving tours of their historic synagogue. For many years I lived and worked right near the synagogue, and was curious about the one building that remained, somewhat miraculously, in a sea of parking lots.
I was told the synagogue was an exact replica of one in Poland, although the details of how this came to be have since been forgotten. What remains, however, is the story of a man, newly-settled in Troy, who passed out upon first walking into the synagogue. When he went back the next day, he passed out again. Turns out the synagogue it was modeled after was the one from his home town. He, along with thousands of Jews, had fled Europe due to the anti-Jewish pogroms, leaving behind family members, familiar places, and dear sacred spaces.
Due to a problem with their furnace, and the small size of their community (around 50 people), services are generally held in a small basement synagogue. Visitors were told they could touch the Torah scrolls, sit on the perfectly-crafted benches, and linger as long as they desired without supervision. This was a welcome instruction, as its often unclear what one should or shouldn’t touch or do when in a sacred place.
The area surrounding the synagogue was the old Jewish neighborhood of Troy, which during its peak in the late 19th century was home to the highest population of Jews outside New York City. The streets were filled with busy kosher butchers and bakeries. Many of the Jewish families there were newly-settled refugees who escaped pogroms in the Russian Empire. I was told the synagogue was their sanctuary in many ways socially and spiritually. Whenever any threats arose it was the walls of the synagogue that many sought security within.
One noted threat was the neighboring Irish community, members of which repeatedly broke the synagogue’s windows. (Guests were reassured that not all the Irish were bad people, of course). Apparently the Jewish men retaliated and a skirmish ensued. Even though no more windows were broken after that, other anti-Semitic attacks and threats occurred. One particularly fearful event was when a Nazi rally was held at the since-closed Germania Hall only a few miles north.
If you’re interested in visiting the synagogue, they are hosting a Hanukkah party with “exotic latkes” on December 17 and everyone is welcome. There is also a reform congregation right around the corner you can visit, Berith Shalom–the oldest continuously used synagogue in New York, dating from 1868.