These are two more snapshots of the Virgin moving outside of the European sphere, this time from the Kongo. The first snapshot narrowly precedes Columbus’s voyage to the Americas in the fifteenth century while the second picks up the thread of her kikongo sojourn in the seventeenth century. I’ll share each one, then link them.
On a recent family trip to Boston, we spent some time walking through the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library. I wasn’t at all prepared for how spiritual experience it would be—my sister had suggested it because there were supposed to be some good murals to see. They were that, but the entire structure was wired for sound, built up like a temple as much, or more than, a library. By the time I got to the top floor, to the John Singer Sargent murals, my mind reeled with excitement. This was a place that anchored a peculiarly Euro-American vision in deep and old mysteries that transcend them.
I wonder if the place could be set in motion ritually, set to humming, or if it is primarily a place capable of triggering latent patterns in the person contemplating them, but either way it is an amazing structure. I overlooked the gallery dedicated to time, but hopefully there will be another opportunity. As it is, I want to talk about what I did see and start to unpack the wisdom packed into it. I do so first and foremost for someone who might go to the building and use this to intensify their experience of it. Secondarily, though, I hope that the insights will have some general application even for someone who hasn’t experienced the building.
To do that is going to take quite a long post since I will need to talk about both the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of each gallery. Please, avail yourself of the title links to look at the actual murals; the Boston Public Library has a lot of other material beyond what I’m linking, so let yourself wander a little.
I haven’t spent much time talking about what I imagine the lifeworld of these ritual practices to have been, what sort of events and intentions animated their organization as well as their dispersal and divergence. I want to correct that a little, starting with the Sefer Yetzirah (SY). This is speculative, driven by imagination and informed by historical and spiritual study. The image of the past derived from it serves a spiritual purpose, though, as something with which I can dialogue as I develop a framework of meaning that supports my work.
I want to start with some broad historical context and then proceed to the speculation.
When I was younger, I got onto a Central European literature kick. A friend of mine had developed an interest in things Russian and I traced my own path in sympathy through the Russian world. What began with some Russian literature (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Sologub’s The Petty Demon) widened into matters philosophical (a mixture of Mikhail Bakhtin, Nikolai Berdyaev, G. I. Gurdjieff, Roman Jakobson, P. D. Ouspensky), and religious (there was a small Russian Orthodox bookstore down the street from where I lived). That widened and wandered into a few Central European forays—Danilo Kiš, Milan Kundera, Milorad Pavić, a few others whose names did not stay with me.
I spend a fair bit of my time trying to parse out the Neoplatonic inflections from the Kabbalistic material I am studying, but it’s worth keeping in mind the antiquity of the interactions between the two streams of thought. In part, that is just being intellectually honest. In part, though, it is also because there may be useful Kabbalistic insights entangled in more syncretic models. So, two texts to share and briefly comment on, one from the medieval period, the other from antiquity.
The more I look into the Christian syncretisms that developed in Mesoamerica with American thought, the more comfortable I am in asserting that the syncretisms were rooted in the deep and understanding appreciation of the Mesoamericans for the Christian mysteries. This wasn’t naive or protective (hiding ‘real’ Mesoamerican deities behind Catholic facade), but a visceral awareness that the celestial mysteries animating their religious understanding also animated the Christian mysteries.
In short: it wasn’t a Mesoamerican syncretism so much as a Mesoamerican synthesis, one mutilated by the inability of Europeans to appreciate and reciprocate the Mesoamericans’ insights. It seems, too, like this insight is portable, to other instances of ‘syncretism.’ So that what we are seeing is not ‘cultural’ in the sense we use the term, but ‘scientific’ (as a 19th century German might have used the term)—rational, comparative, synthetic.
This will be another short post; I just have two developments that I want to flag for further consideration. The first comes from reading the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the second from a bookstore/museum synchronicity.
I’ve always liked this oldie but goodie from Runesoup. My partner and I have probably played the game a dozen times or more while talking about one thing or another, and I have often thought about doing a post themed on it. But I’ve never quite found the angle that worked for me.
I have one now. What makes this one different than the previous efforts is that it feels like something that could lead toward what I do, but also might lead elsewhere. It feels more open and genuine thereby.
Two things, the first is a quotation from Simone Weil expressing her wonderment at how quickly the spirit of Revelation was lost, how it passed from being something urgent and mystical to something obscure and subject to weak interpretations.
“The Church does not seem to have perfectly carried out its mission as the conserver of doctrine—very far from it. Not only because it has added what were perhaps abusive precisions, restrictions and interdictions; but also because it has almost certainly lost real treasures.
As evidence of this we have certain passages in the New Testament of marvellous beauty which are nowadays absolutely incomprehensible, and which cannot always have been so.
To begin with, nearly the whole of the Apocalypse.
Perhaps by the beginning of the second century A.D. all those who had understood had been killed, or nearly all.”—Letter to a Priest, section 34 (65–66, 70–71 in the 2003 Penguin editions)
Whether it is a matter of massacre as Weil speculates or something less dramatic and more bureaucratic (say factions eager to purge ‘impurities’ from the Church gaining power), this puts me in mind of Lapinkivi’s observation that sometime around the third century or so, Christianity started to gender the Holy Spirit as neuter or male rather than female.
Correlation not being causation and all that, but I do wonder if the two were related. Once you lose the gendering of Holy Spirit as female, you start to unwind the metaphor that animates the rituals of sacred marriage, and a sacred marriage is part of the core architecture of Revelation.
Suitably enough, after talking about pushing the apocalypse back into the subtle world where it belongs, I sat down this morning with Revelations. I mentioned a little while back that I was pretty sure a more apophatic approach to the Tree of Life could be brought to the text and this morning felt like the time to gently start that process, see if my hunch held up.