After a series of long shifts at work, on Christmas Eve I went for a walk along Spring Garden Road, a popular street with small coffee shops, diners and restaurants, and a very eclectic mix of stores. It was surprisingly quiet that day; coincidentally, the news mentioned that there were fewer people visiting Bethlehem on that day.
Anyway, people seemed fairly relaxed and quiet, and there was no real hint of frenzied shopping. One image that caught my eye was a velour-clad Santa Claus playing his beautiful saxophone with a nice jazz beat. The song was “I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus” which brought a smile to my face, since it had probably done the same thing to Santa! Then he played some more traditional songs, and he was excellent; Santa’s a great musician, which probably helps when he chooses violins and tin whistles for the kids.
Then I headed towards St. Mary’s, the local Catholic Cathedral. I was hoping to shoot some stained glass before sundown, but it turned out to be too cloudy for my purposes. Also, I was disappointed to hear no bells, and there was no sign of Bing. However, there had been some decorating going on. A wall hanging showing three wise men and shepherds caught my eye, and I tried for a shot, even though it was a bit blurry to shoot without a tripod.
I had heard once that the pillars and arches of the great Cathedral in Chartres were designed to give the feeling of a great forest, with the pillars and arches evoking the massive trunks and branches of the sacred grove that had previously existed on the site. St. Mary’s also has a feeling like this, and as I was leaving along one of the aisles I looked behind me and saw this small Christmas tree between two of the massive pillars.
Initially I found the image to be striking, with the small, fragile, yet brightly lit evergreen cone against the dark and massive grace of the unlit white pillars merging into the branching arches of the nave and clerestory. Then I started thinking about the multiple levels of symbolism in this image. The Christmas tree at the time of Yule has a long history as a pagan religious symbol before Christianity added it to their culture (as they have added so much from other beliefs and cultures, including the date for the birth of Christ). Yet here it was prominently displayed in the centre of religious authority for the Archdiocese of Nova Scotia, and probably is similarly displayed in almost every Christian church in the Western World. This made me think about how the incorporation of this symbol into the Church could have occurred hundreds of years ago, but would probably not occur now.
The way that the early Catholic Church absorbed and melded other beliefs with their own (as long as the other beliefs were not antithetical to the core Christian doctrine) helped them immeasurably to convert much of western Europe. While the motives of the Church were probably often not altruistic, the attitude of using similarities in belief and religious practices to get to a meeting of minds where possible, and in trying to maintain local cultures and practices where these did not contradict fundamental Christian beliefs, was encouraging. This was probably related to the Roman policies of the time, where peoples who had been annexed were allowed to maintain their cultures, and attain citizenship, insofar as this did not conflict with the security of the Empire.
It is a shame that this flexibility and ability to look for similarities rather than differences is not really practised any more by most Christian denominations. The rigidity of beliefs and intolerance of other beliefs in the Catholic Church started in the Dark Ages and continued until modern times. The reformation movements that produced the Protestant and other Christian denominations were sometimes tolerant and adaptable, but many were as rigid or even more authoritarian than the Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic and Protestant inquisitions were primarily directed at heretics rather than witches, and were as dark a period in Christian religious history as the Crusades.
A fairly extreme example of compromising with local customs and beliefs was in Ireland, where the Irish Catholic Church had developed many beliefs different from the more Roman Catholic centre in York. These differences started after the Romans left England until the Irish Catholic Church came to a compromise with York and Roman Catholicism late in the Dark Ages. Part of the divergence was a willingness to compromise with local beliefs, and part was due to the long isolation from close links to Rome. Difference included allowing priests to marry, and monasteries and abbots had much more power than bishoprics and bishops. In fact, monasteries and abbots in one kingdom would occasionally war against those in other kingdoms. Also, they were willing to read and to collect any knowledge, in contrast to the self-imposed censorship of much of the church; this is one of the main reasons that so much knowledge during the Dark and Middle Ages were preserved in Ireland, and also why it was a fount of scholarship during the same period. The Irish church was also much less authoritarian and accepting of individual difference; for example Brigid was made an Abbess and accepted as such. Many of the monks and priests were not from the aristocracy, and there was a belief that ability and talent were as or more important than a birthright. The Irish were also the first to establish private versus public confessions, and to allow repeated absolutions (for example, on the continent if you stole, were absolved, and stole again you were excommunicated without the possibility of forgiveness).
The idea of coming together is currently being practised by some great people influential in religion and in the world in general. Ex-president Jimmy Carter is a good exemplar of this; he considers himself a Fundamentalist Christian, but he tries not to focus on arguments about differences in doctrine, but in coming together over the core elements that most denominations agree on. For example, he argues arguments about beliefs in Creationism versus Evolution are unproductive, and he will not argue with others about this. Instead he will focus on where his beliefs are identical with or can be reconciled with others. He also had great respect and admiration for John Paul II, and willingly met with him; while disagreeing with him on many areas of belief, he was able to work with the Pontiff on humanitarian issues. Carter was also able to work with integrity within the American constraint that matters of Church and State should be separate; while personally opposing abortion, he did not act to reverse Roe versus Wade. What he did do was to promote programs that encouraged safe sex and planned parenthood, and that made it easier for unplanned babies to be adopted or fostered. Rather than fight over whether abortion is wrong, he tried to prevent the problem and the resultant suffering from occurring in the first place.
John Paul II was one of the most conservative Popes in the Twentieth Century, but he also cared for and understood people regardless of their beliefs. When I was a teenager, I experienced the phenomenon of his link to young people, and his great energy. His influence on the events and people in Poland helped cause a peaceful revolution in Poland and eventually in the Soviet Republics that rivals Ghandi’s liberation of India. He made a major beginning in redressing old animosities with the Jewish faith, exemplifying what it means to hold your beliefs but to still come together with others with integrity.
Christmas is a time to come together, and the little tree in the cathedral gradually reminded me of this. Carter and John Paul II showed me that even strongly fundamentalist people can come together with hope and integrity. They show that people who are consciously fundamentalist and who act intelligently with integrity (rather than being blindly fundamentalist) can do a lot to bring the world together, and to exemplify the fundamental (and liberal) ideals of compassion, empathy, and courage.
Here’s hoping for a better New Year!
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