14 July 2012

Tatter Tale

You'd need one big-a** altar
Somewhere between three and seven lifetimes ago, I hung with a bunch of pagans, or neo-pagans as they are more properly called. Neopagans teach respect for one another and the planet and that's cool. But the thing that really hooked me was that they use things in their rituals and I have a thing for things. Being a nature-based religion, Paganism personifies four elements, air, earth, wind and fire as sentient forces. (Pagans refer to these as THE four elements, but being a devotee of the Periodic Chart of the Elements, I take umbrage at this kind of blatant reductionism.) Each of the elements is associated with one of the four cardinal directions: earth/north; air/east; fire/south; water/west. And each of these pairs is symbolized in some way on an altar. Traditions vary, of course, but typically north is symbolized by a bowl of earth (known in urban areas as "dirt"), east by incense in a holder, south by a something which will burn (preferably inside something fireproof), and west by a chalice of water. (Note to my Unitarian Universalist friends: I'm pretty sure this makes the lot of you symbolic Southwesterners). As religious rites go, Paganism's are fairly straightforward thus easy to reconstruct if one forgets the finer points. Another point in its favor.

There is among Pagans a perennial debate as to what sacralizes religious artifacts, specifically the objects which hold the elemental substances.  There are the purists, who like kosher-keeping Jews, believe that any object employed in ritualistic acts should not be used for everyday, run-of-the-mill purposes, that to do so pollutes them.

There is another camp of believers who hold that objects are made sacred precisely because we do routinely use them in our lives which are also sacred.  So, for instance, instead of symbolizing the west with a never otherwise used goblet of crystal or gold, these self-named "kitchen witches" adorn their altars with a beloved deceased relative's favorite coffee mug or the like. For these folks, what counts is not how pristine the object is but how close a connection it has to the life of the celebrant.

good Old Glory
A similar dichotomy of sentiment exists among the boating community so I have discovered.  At issue here, however, is not the paraphernalia of religious observance, but the flag of one's country. Again, two mindsets persist.  There are the purists who believe that displaying a faded and tattered flag is a disgrace.  This, as it happens, is how Jane feels, owing, I presume to her military background.  Because of this, we have a back-up U.S. flag for the very minute our copy of Old Glory shows the first signs of material (pun intended) decay. Our current flag is fine other than that the dark blue field behind the stars has faded to a slate grey and Jane has misgivings about leaving it up even in this state.

We rather frequently see boats whose country flags are in much sorrier shape: faded, but more than this, prey to (three of those supposed four) elements for so long that as much as half of them are missing, gone, shredded. Jane is quite consistent in her aspersion casting upon these boaters.

In Marathon, we became friends with someone whose flag was in the kind of condition that so annoys her. One afternoon, half (at best) jokingly Jane chided him, remarking that allowing his flag to fly in its sad state was especially disrespectful coming from a veteran, as he was also. I imagine she expected to hear him, chagrined, explain that he'd been meaning to get around to replacing it and make some excuse as to why he'd overlooked it for so long. Instead, he said simply that he disagreed. This gave us both pause. He went on to explain that his flag accurately portrayed the effects of the many miles they'd sailed together. Listening to him, I had the clear impression that his flag was not just, not even primarily an emblem of nationality for him, but his avatar. That there was anything left of it to fly at all was a testimony to its--and by extension his--grit.

As with the discussion about what makes (and keeps) objects sacred, I find myself coming down squarely on both sides of this debate. There is an infallible internal logic to both arguments. Perhaps it comes down to a question of one's relationship to one's objects: are we a part of them or are they a part of us.  For Jane, I presume, a pristine flag signifies her pride in being able to claim membership in a concept that is larger than herself, her nation. For our friend, his flag symbolizes how he sees himself, it is a depiction of his history.

Me?  I'm--pardon the expression--torn. On the one hand I'm attracted to shiny new things, captivated by them, even. There is, I agree, an almost holy quality about things perfectly wrought and utterly flawless. On the other hand, I see the beauty in imperfection, in the chips and cracks, rips and tears, the scars that accompany being in the world. Japanese has a word for it: wabi sabi. All the more so if the boo-boos come with a good story. I've heard it said that it is hard to love God because He's perfect.  I understand that.  Perfection, being beyond our ken is worshippable, but not lovable, at least not in the same manner that we love our children, our pets, and all in our lives that needs our care.

So which one are you? A perfectionist or an imperfectionist?  What makes it sacred (interpreting "sacred" any way you like), its perfection or your affection? And if those aren't mutually exclusive for you, I really want to hear why.


  1. Ahoy Friend!

    It seems to me that you echo the question with which Plato wrestled, "Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?" [Plato Euthyphro]

    It sounds like we are still wrestling with that same question whether we're neo-pagans or sailors/travelers.

    When I was little, my family gathered for holidays at my grandparents' home. In their attic were family keepsakes and ancient treasures I loved to explore. My grandma would take me up and let me look only with my eyes so as not to defile or accidentally break old china, photographs, even a delicately painted doll belonging to a great- great- somebody. We spoke in whispers as she told me the stories of the people who had once owned these treasures. My great-aunt (grandma's sister), on the other hand, would take me up and let me hold each piece in my little hands, encouraging me to feel them and reminding me that those great- great- somebodies had once put their hands right where mine were.

    Concepts of sacred/holy/pious are defined as somehow being set apart but what's unclear to me is what we mean by set apart. Perhaps there are times we feel the set-apart-ness of something by keeping our grubby hands off of it and working to keep it as pristine as possible. And perhaps there are other times we feel the set-apart-ness of something by holding it especially close in our grubby hands.

    I think, like you, I land solidly on both sides of the fence which makes me think we've imagined a fence that doesn't actually exist.

    I think sacred happens through our attitude and reverence. And the outside physical expressions of that can and should vary person to person, object to object, moment to moment.

    How's that for a non-answer??

    1. Oh yeah, Pla and me, we go way back. I think he'd like your lack-of-answer. I fall on both sides of the fence of your fence argument, so thanks a lot. Conceptually, there may not be a difference if its set-apartness is what triggers in us a sense of an object's sacredness or holiness. Pragmatically, though, you either say, "oh, cool!" or "oh, crap!" if your chalice chips. But, can one have both an old, stained coffee mug and a flawless crystal incense holder on the same altar and regard them equally holy? Yes. That begs the question of whether or not most/some/any do.

      On the other hand (or on a hand on an entirely different body), I think our friend, Mike, doesn't feel his flag set apart from him. I suspect in his mind, it IS him, or maybe the more it reminds him of him the more he likes it. Were he not a proud of his service and his country, I would check myself thinking that maybe "sacred" is overblown in defining his relationship to the flag, but I do think he believes he is honoring it (I'll add that he is politically moderately right of center).

      How's that for a non-reply?

  2. As an aside , you are flying the US flag on Bastille day; Just well celebrated here in New Orleans with a parade of waiters and bartenders running racing through the quarter with large trays! Vive La France or something like that.
    Cheers LC

    1. Viva la Re-vo-lu-she-own! Oddly, they don't really make a big deal out of Bastille Day here in this former British colony.

  3. Flags what flags, or which flag, here we were in paradise surrounded with friends and those northern cousins whom did not put the same (if any) importance on their meaning of these emblems, the top one flying high and pristine in respect and reverence to the host country and the second let say was only a third (remember how i pronounce this:-) ) of what it was, one of those pesky northern cousin commented that we were only respecting one third of the country, and the other asked if we were separatists and showing our political beliefs, the third said we were lacking respect to the country.... to all i answered; It's gone with the wind.....

    1. Hey, we weren't pointing any fingers, Monsieur Is-that-a-Canadian-flag-I can't-tell-is-that-smudge-in-the-middle-supposed-to-be-a-maple leaf? But I never thought of it in quantifiably political or geographic terms before. Hmm. That opens up all sorts of possibilities for which I will need to obtain a large quantity of "blue-out."

  4. Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That's how the light gets in.