Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Turner spends a great deal of energy in The Ritual Process discussing the notion of liminality, including its occurrence in rites de passage, following van Gennep’s three-stage outline of separation, margin (i.e. liminality), and aggregation. He links the formation of communitas with liminality while attempting to analyze the peculiar phenomenon of socially marginal groups holding considerable sacral power.
Turner’s discussion of liminality has numerous connections to the notion of the regressus ad uterum discussed by Mircea Eliade: “The return to the womb is signified either by the neophyte’s seclusion in a hut, or by his being symbolically swallowed by a monster, or by his entering a sacred identified with the uterus of Mother Earth.” (Myth 80) Eliade then goes on to discuss the Indian upanayama ceremony, in which “the teacher is said to transform the boy into an embryo and to keep him in his belly for three nights,” (Myth 80) which symbolizes not only a return to the womb, but to the womb of a ‘male mother,’ an initiatory holy person who, holding together male and female, becomes “undifferentiated” and therefore himself a liminal figure.
In Turner’s words, “liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, to an eclipse of the sun or moon.” (Turner 95) Ritualized encounters with death in the belly of the beast typically enact rebirth as well, so that, “The initiatory cabin represents not only the belly of the devouring monster but also the womb.” (Birth 36) Anthropologist Martin Buss points out that the prophet or shaman in aboriginal cultures is typically a socially marginal person, and that such cultures watch their children for signs of such marginality, and are able to steer them toward shamanistic vocations. The unconventional figure might stand outside conventional gender roles: he/she may be homosexual or androgynous (which some Native American cultures see as “two-souled” and thus super-spiritual), or a celibate or eunuch. The shamanistic figure might be both haunted and gifted psychologically, which might lead to or flow from extended solitude or meditative distance which would lend itself to alternative modes of seeing reality. The possibility of physical handicap, especially blindness, also has a long history in the mythic tradition: the blind one is the one who truly sees, who is not confounded by the illusions of the senses, such as Tiresias, Oedipus, or the Stygian Witches. Eliade says by way of example, “In Siberia, the youth who is called to be a shaman attracts attention by his strange behavior; for example, he seeks solitude, becomes absent-minded, loves to roam in the woods or unfrequented places, has visions, and sings in his sleep.” (Birth 87) He then goes on to elucidate:
"the shamanic vocation often implies a crisis so deep that it sometimes borders on madness…
The total crisis of the future shaman, sometimes leading to complete disintegration of the personality and to madness, can be valuated…as a symbolic return to the precosmogonic Chaos…Now, as we know, for archaic and traditional cultures, a symbolic return to Chaos is equivalent to preparing a new Creation." (Birth 89)
This is in line with Jung’s statement that “the experience of the Self [that is, the true self] is always a defeat for the ego [that is, for the false self].” Although they are on different ends of a spectrum of “impressiveness,” to encounter one’s true naked and humble reality or to encounter the Numinous cuts the legs out from under the ego in favor of a more honest appropriation of who one truly is. The distance and social margination of which Eliade writes enables identification with the socially marginal or the ritually unclean, which then engenders critique of the religious symbol-structure itself, since the religion all too often enables and validates the purity code. As Turner puts it, “The shaman or prophet assumes a statusless status, external to the secular social structure, which gives him the right to criticize all structure-bound personae in terms of a moral order binding on all, and also to mediate between all segments or components of the structured system.” (Turner 128)
Turner says, “if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs.” (Turner 167) This has important implications for the concept of prophecy understood in keeping with Walter Brueggemann’s image of prophecy as a poetic imaginative rendering of alternative possibilities for the world beyond the data on the ground at any given moment. That is, the world need not be as it is, should not be as it is, particularly for those who are ground under the wheels of the machinery of social control; societas devoid of communitas is a structure devoid of humanity.
Nevertheless, for it to endure, the communitas must undergo some kind of structuring. “Nowhere has this institutionalization of liminality been more clearly marked and defined than in the monastic and mendicant states in the great world religions.” (Turner 107) Both are meant to be states of “permanent liminality,” despite the never-ending sine wave of renewal and decline that inevitably accompanies them. Thomas Merton taps into this idea of “deliberate irrelevance” in his image of monastic renewal: “Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being…The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life.” (Cunningham 227) The categories of people whom Merton linked to monks all stand outside of the conventions of the social order, have nothing left to prove, no claims to be made on their behalf by the structure of their culture. Similarly, Turner discusses the original communitas of Francis of Assisi and its later codification, pointing out that “Francis appears quite deliberately to be compelling the friars to inhabit the fringes and interstices of the social structure of his time, and to keep them in a permanently liminal state, where, so the argument in this book would suggest, the optimal conditions inhere for the realization of communitas.” (Turner 145)
Turner, discussing the nature of liminality, anticipates the later insights of René Girard on the paradoxical power of the seemingly powerless, those who seem to be below the system of social stratification but who nevertheless wield power over it. Often liminal persons and groups are at once despised and honored, seen as both powerful in their ability to pollute and reviled for being beneath the system. Speaking of the Greek figure of the pharmakos, Girard says, “On the one hand, he is a woebegone figure, an object of scorn who is also weighed down with guilt…On the other hand, we find him surrounded by a quasi-religious aura of veneration; he has become a sort of cult object.” (Violence 95)
In Turner’s mind this is because “from the perspectival viewpoint of those concerned with the maintenance of ‘structure,’ all sustained manifestations of communitas must appear as dangerous and anarchical, and have to be hedged around with prescriptions, prohibitions, and conditions.” (Turner 109) I would argue that, since the structure does not work for marginal people, they tend to create their own social organization, which necessarily takes the form of communitas, i.e., is egalitarian and generally dismissive of the distinctions such as property rights that enable structure to thrive. However, this non-structure is inherently subversive to the structure that says that existence apart from the structure is impossible, and so must be seen as poisonous to the health of the structure. Speaking of the “undifferentiated character of liminality,” (Turner 104) Turner comes very close to Girard’s view that liminality is dangerous to structure because it undermines “the very foundation of cultural order, the family and the hierarchical differences without which there would be no social order.” (Scapegoat 15) This would make sense in connection with the standard practices of allowing or forcing liminal people to transgress the usual conventions of the culture – initiates are sometimes allowed great sexual freedom or allowed to dress in clothing inappropriate to their gender and state of life, go about naked, or remain in solitude.
Paradoxically, this dangerous nature of communitas is also “almost everywhere held to be sacred or ‘holy,’ possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency.” (Turner 128) This, again, links with Girard’s notion that “the sacred embraces all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace.” (Violence 58) Hardly a predictable definition by our Christian standards, but interestingly in line with the imagery of the sacred-as-taboo (such as the prohibition against touching Mount Sinai in EX 19:12-3 because of its sacred character – “those zones of life that are inhabited by Yahweh in an intense way must be kept pure and uncontaminated.” (Brueggemann 192)) Turner and Girard both discuss how initiates into rites de passage “are kept on the periphery of the community or sometimes even exiled to the forest, jungle, or desert.” (Violence 282) However, Turner focuses on the goal of initiatory ordeals as “partly a destruction of the previous status [which, following Eliade, is essential for the rebirth of a new status] and partly a tempering of their essence in order to prepare them to cope with their new responsibilities and restrain them in advance from abusing their new privileges.” (Turner 103) Girard, on the other hand, claims that they “give the young person a foretaste of what lies in store for anyone rash enough to neglect or transgress prescribed religious rituals,” (Violence 285) that is, anyone who challenges the status quo of the structure.
Walter Brueggemann’s notion of Israel’s emergence from the hegemony of Pharaoh takes the shape of a new social phenomenon defined by communitas, in contradistinction to the faceless structure of Egypt, with the structure of the Decalogue defined precisely as a way to avoid Israel becoming that which it sought to escape. In this vein, following Turner’s insight that “it is the fate of all spontaneous communitas in history to undergo what most people see as a ‘decline and fall’ into structure and law,” (Turner 132) the prophetic tradition in Israel emerges as the structure of kingship begins to look more and more like that of Pharaoh, and the prophets oppose the kings as Moses did, with summons back to the communitas of covenant. Similarly, the monastic orders have been repeatedly reformed because of their ability to move away from the limen to the center of society, and the mendicant movements that emerged in response to the loss of liminality in the church quickly assimilated to the same kind of power and wealth against which they rebelled. Turner wants to hold structure and communitas in tension, and sees that tension as critical to sustaining the existence of a society while not sacrificing the esprit that makes it a community.
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortess, 1997.
Buss, Martin J. “An Anthropological Perspective Upon Prophetic Call Narratives.” Semeia 21
Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992.
Eliade, Mircea. Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1958.
---. Myth and Reality. NY: Harper and Row, 1963.
Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
---. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969.
Friday, October 26, 2007
In the series of readings from Romans that we hear this week, Paul is going on at great length about being free from the law by grace, about sin and death, and about life in the flesh vs. life in the spirit. Important themes, but confusing, and ones that we have heard, at least in caricature, so often that we can miss the depth of Paul’s understanding of our human condition. As I have written before, it isn't about seeing the body as bad and the spirit as good, but seeing the "bodily" (or better, the "fleshly") as bad -- living according to our passions. It isn't about seeing the world as bad, but about rejecting the "worldly" -- the attitudes and illusions of the mass mind. Unfortunately, our tendency is to see these texts through the mistaken lens of setting “the law,” i.e. Judaism and all the alleged nitpicky fussiness of their holiness codes, in opposition to “the gospel,” which, we say, is free from all that junk. All we need to do, so we say, is have faith, (which to our rationalistic mindset means to believe in a particular set of doctrines), and we’re good to go, we’re saved. [Note: Paul does not equate faith and belief -- faith is an existential stance, a manner of life, that generates and is generated by the ideational claims we hang on to.] Do you notice, though, that Paul talks several times about transferring our slavery from one master to another, but still being slaves? “For just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present them as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” (Rom. 6:19) “[Y]ou have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God.” (Rom. 6:22) Paul has no silly notion of freedom as being free from responsibility to other people, or just doing whatever you want, nor does he even see the law as bad. Quite the contrary: he explicitly says a few verses down the road, “So then the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom. 7:12)
A few months ago I heard a speaker talk about Paul’s notion of freedom this way: who is the freest person in the world on a golf course? Or on a basketball court? Tiger Woods, maybe, on the golf course, or Michael Jordan, in his heyday, on the basketball court. It isn’t the kid who just goes and messes around, “doing whatever he wants,” but the person who submits to discipline, training, learning from the masters of the game. Michael Jordan was so free on the court because he had disciplined his body and mind to the point that he had the skills to do just about anything he wanted out there. That’s freedom. In the realm of transformation of consciousness that means freedom to do good, freedom to not be ruled by the falsehoods of popular society or of our own passions. Just like with those athletes who are free because they submit to learning from the masters of their craft, striving towards freedom means yoking ourselves to the spiritual masters – Paul, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius, Thérèse, Merton and more – and watching them in action. We read their books, not so much to multiply ideas, but to visualize them in action and to learn from them how to be. You see that in cultures in which a mentoring tradition is still alive and well, and it isn’t so much about passing on ideas, pedagogy, as it is about having people sit at the feet of the master, bringing people into the experience itself, mystagogy. Before and after the little section we read tonight, Paul talks about the members of the community being dead to sin, sharing in the death of Jesus, that “our old self was crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6) and that they are “raised from the dead to life.” (Rom. 6:13) While instruction is a part of it, and right speech does matter (I teach theology, so of course I think it’s important!), Paul emphasizes that they have been brought into the mystery, taught how to die and rise as it were, rather than that they have gotten all the doctrines formulated correctly. May we be “free to die” and allow what feels like breaking down to break us through. You know what that means -- mercy within mercy within mercy...
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Saturday night. I have just arrived at the hermitage at Bethany Spring Retreat, now owned by the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, directed by Jonathan Montaldo, Merton expert and graduate of Cor Jesu, a Brothers’ school in New Orleans which became our present school, Brother Martin High. But I get ahead of myself…
Sunday, 21 October 2007
Morning in the hermitage was splendid; although there is heat and air conditioning, I left them off last night so I could feel the chill that lets me know that fall is finally falling. Not cold, but brisk enough to make me move through my morning ablutions with a purpose. The shower quickly ran out of hot water, reminded me of Klagetoh at Christmas, made me want to be out there again. A quick bowl of soup with a perfectly ripe avocado scooped in, a little poetry by Jalal-ud’din Rumi, and I was gone.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Monday, October 8, 2007
The next morning was a talk by Dr. Tobias Winright, one of the theology profs at SLU and one of my profs, followed by our major activity of the day, a canoe ride down the Huzzah River. The water was great, cool but not too cold, shallow enough that at points we had to carry our canoes, while at other places we could jump in from some of the little bluffs along the bank (see below). We were all pretty wiped out after that, so we had an hour or so of quiet for journaling/nap time/whatever before forging ahead. Dinner that night was fajitas, and the students who were assigned to me for that meal worked like troopers, and the outcome was that it was a truly memorable meal. The other support staff person, Patrick Devney, was a real rock star with keeping up with it all and making sure there was enough of everything. That night was caramel apples (a total mess to make, but wow, were they good) and s'mores around the camp fire. I was on for night prayer, so I kept it simple and read them Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, one of my favorite stories, and let the story speak for itself.
Sunday was pancakes and sausage, which was lots of fun, another talk, and then mass with Fr. Joe Fortier, SJ, who did a great homily on our place in the created world, followed by lasagna for our final meal. We got out by 1:30 and home by around 4:00, by which point I was pretty wiped out, so I came home to hide for a while. All that cooking took me back to my short-order days in high school, and how much I enjoyed juggling all the different pots and pans.
I know I have to put out a birthday post, so more soon...
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
This next weekend is the SLU Nature Retreat, and I can't wait. It is only starting to get cold in the evenings (50s), whereas last year at this time it was frigid (for a Southern boy like myself). Camping, stargazing, canoeing, and more are all on the menu for the weekend, and I get to be support staff -- cooking and behind the scenes stuff. As much as I enjoy cranking out speeches and doing "spiritual direction" with people, cooking eggs and pancakes for 3 dozen people is a nice change of pace.