Going Back to School

USM IDI have a feeling of glee because I am taking a class at the University of Southern Maine.  Well, actually I am auditing it.  I discovered that anyone 65 and over can audit classes almost for free (compared to actual tuition costs).  I had to pay a $55 “transportation” fee, and then learned that with my student ID (I have a student ID!) I can take the metro bus for free.  So many new things, and it reminds me of my excited feelings of going back to school when I was a kid.

But I am especially excited about this class, Wabanaki Languages, taught by Roger Paul, whom I got to know through the Decolonizing Faith project in which I am involved.  Roger is really fun and funny and is a native speaker of the language, and a fountain of history and understanding. We’ll be learning “oral history of Wabanaki languages and stories of Wabanaki elders passed from generation to generation,” along with vocabulary and pronunciation and the like.

For those who are not from this area, the Wabanaki peoples are the Indigenous people of Maine, and there are four distinct modern tribal communities, but as Roger tells us, they are not really so distinct.  It was Europeans who thought of them as different from each other.  The people lived in villages where the food supply would support them (mostly hunting, fishing and gathering) and when the group grew too large for that system, they would start a new village down river or at the next river.  So the languages are variations of the same tongue, and the people were identified by the places they lived, or by characteristics of those places.

Most of the students in the class are Wabanaki tribal members learning to speak their own language, as much was lost during the era of boarding schools.  Now there are efforts among children and adults to revitalize the language while there are still Native speakers.  Roger has been involved in teaching children on the reservation.  But why am I interested, as a white person, to learn this language?  Years ago, when I was first learning about the challenges that face Indigenous people, I got involved in the issue of cultural appropriation–the theft of Native spiritual practices by non-Native peoples, especially in New Age settings. (See more on that at Wanting to Be Indian.)

I remember one Indigenous writer saying, “If you really want to learn about our spirituality, learn our language.” I’ve learned a lot from Native authors such as Robin Wall Kimmerer talking about some of the key differences between Indigenous language and English.  Particularly, Kimmerer speaks about the idea of animacy and inanimacy as embedded in the syntax.  Trees, animals, plants, rivers are never referred to as “objects” or as “it” in her language.  They are alive, animate.  All the verbs and pronouns are organized around whether you are referring to something alive, or inanimate.  The language we speak affects how we think about our world.  The English language has colonized this place, made the land and water and creatures into “its.”

I want to learn Wabanaki Languages to better understand Wabanaki people and culture, and this place in which I live, the language native to this place.  I want to help decolonize my mind, and learn to think in a new way.

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Rune Carvings

Beech Tree Markings 133650002When I sat in the old copper beech tree, surrounded by the hopeful carvings of many human persons, I was reminded of the runes, the early carved alphabet of the Germanic languages. I had earlier taken up the study of runes, because I was curious about the culture and spirituality of my ancient Germanic ancestors. The traditional way of making runes is to carve them into small staves of wood cut from the branch of a fruit bearing tree. The rune letters themselves are sharp and angular, revealing their origins in the markings that blades can make in wood. Each of the rune letters is a symbol of some sacred power in the German understanding of the universe.

Runes were used for magic, for divination, and for communicating with sacred forces. According to some German and Norse myths, the runes were given to the God Odin, after he hung suspended for nine days and nine nights on the sacred tree of the world, Yggdrasil. Odin then shared the runes with humankind. The runes were a gift from a holy tree.

Runes DSC01305Two of the runes are specifically linked to trees. Eiwaz represents the yew tree and Berkana, the birch tree. The yew tree is a symbol for Yggdrasil and is linked to death and the everlasting realm beyond death. The tree is poisonous and its wood was used to make long bows for hunting and war. It lives to be perhaps the oldest tree we know. There is a yew tree called the Fortingall yew, which is situated in a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland. It is believed to be the most ancient tree in Europe, between two and five thousand years old.

The birch tree, on the other hand, is linked to birth and beginnings. It is one of the first trees to grow in an area after a fire has destroyed its vegetation. Birch branches were used in cheerful springtime rituals, a symbol of new life and the fruitfulness of spring. When Margy and I were looking for a home in Maine, we were feeling discouraged after May and June had passed without our finding anything. We did a reading of the runes, and pulled out Berkana—the birch tree rune. It could be read as a great indicator of prosperous new beginnings coming into our life. But we also decided to take it more literally.

We began to look for houses that had anything to do with birch trees. We noticed an ad for a house on Birchwood Road, and saw another house described as having birch cabinets, and a few others like that. So we came up the last weekend in July to check them out, and then found another house in the newspaper on the last day. The backyard turned out to be full of birch trees. It was also just what we were looking for.

Some people believe that the runes communicate magic messages. But what strikes me most powerfully about the runes is the magic of written language itself. What an uncanny ability it must have been at first—to communicate across distance or time in a way that talking could never match. The root of the word “rune” implies secret or hidden. A message could be carved out by one who knew the runes, and—sent via a messenger who did not know the message—it could be understood by another person far away. The ability of rune readers to communicate in silence with each other would have appeared magical to anyone who witnessed it. These messages could even endure beyond the death of their creators, to be received by those who came after. We have forgotten to be in awe of that power.

A Finger Pointing to the Moon

Moon in branches DSC02496The Zen Buddhists tell this story:

The nun Wu Jincang said to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, “I have studied the Mahapari-nirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

The patriarch responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.”

Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger…”

I want to call us to a deeper appreciation of truth—that we not be attached to any ideology in a way that becomes a kind of idolatry of the mind. Words and ideas about spirituality are not meant to be literal. They are like the finger pointing to the moon. If we spend a lot of energy debating the nature of the finger—what good will that do for us? If we defend the finger, or try to ridicule the finger, or argue about the finger—we’re missing the point. The point is that the finger is pointing to the moon. I hope that we might learn to shift our gaze, and discover that beauty and mystery!

Beyond Language

If God is God, if that concept is to have any meaning for me, then I need to go back to the language of mythos—the language that leads us through language into that which lies beyond language.

Karen Armstrong describes a ritual that used language in this way, during the tenth century BCE in India. The Indians of that time gave the name Brahman to the unseen principle beyond the gods, the sacred energy that held all the world together, and in fact was the all of reality. The Brahmin priests developed the Brahmodya competition.

The contestants began by going on a retreat in the forest where they performed spiritual exercises, such as fasting and breath control, that concentrated their minds and induced a different type of consciousness. [The] goal [of the contest] was to find a verbal formula to define the Brahman, [but then it went beyond that.] The challenger asked an enigmatic question, and his opponent had to reply in a way that was apt but equally inscrutable. The winner was the contestant who reduced his opponents to silence–and in that moment of silence, when language revealed its inadequacy, the Brahman was present; it became manifest only in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech.

How often do we carry language to the very limits of language, and enter that kind of silence?Sunlight in Water

I remember something I learned when I was an undergraduate student at Aquinas College. The very wordy Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas had said, at the end of his days, that all of his work was like grass, and should be burned in the fire. There was no way to put the true reality into words. I was lucky enough to grow up reading the words of the Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, who moved beyond the dogmatic Catholicism of their time and my time, into a relationship with the divine that was beyond all dogma, beyond all images.

One of those mystics was a Dominican preacher, Meister Eckart. In the pre-modern 13th century he wrote:

For if you love God as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person, and as he is image–all this must go! Then how should I love him? You should love him as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is–pure, unmixed, bright “One” separated from all duality; and in that One we should sink eternally down, out of “something” into “nothing.”

I think my experience was rather unusual for kids my age. But it reminds me that even in the most dogmatic of situations, that element of mythos is not totally lost from our world. Even among the fundamentalists, I know that there are people who move beyond narrow literal images into something beyond—something more silent and mysterious and expansive. So when I criticize that system, I do not mean to imply that there can be no authentic spirituality among them. I do mean to challenge the solidification of those images of God into an idol, and into a weapon to condemn those of us who choose a different path.

Quotes cited in Karen Armstrong, A Case for God