The Muppets go Mystical

I was raised as a Catholic. I no longer consider myself a Catholic – not least because of the many insane and often downright evil things the Church has done (and unbelievably, continues to do) – and these days consider myself a theist-leaning agnostic. Basically, I believe in a deity, and believe it is possible to have a fulfilling personal relationship with said deity, but happily admit that the existence of said deity is completely unprovable and thus I could very easily be completely mistaken about the whole matter. As such I refuse to judge anyone on the existence or non-existence of their religious or spiritual beliefs, so long as they’re not going around using their faith as a justification for killing, raping, or otherwise being a complete douche (or trying to convert me I suppose – I don’t try and convince them that I have the answers, I expect the same courtesy in return).

That all said, if I didn’t make it to church at least once over Easter my mother would probably disown me, so I headed up to good old Saint Columba’s on Saturday night for the Easter Vigil.

As Masses go, the Easter Vigil is pretty cool. It’s easily the most pagan of all of the Catholic Church’s ceremonies, having absorbed a lot of the “start of spring, return of the sun” symbolism from across old Europe. When it’s done properly it’s also really theatrical and dramatic – which is perhaps the most important aspect of big, collective religious ritual.

The symbolism of the Mass is the resurrection of Christ from death, symbolised by light and dark respectively. All the lights in the church are extinguished and everyone collects outside in the darkness where a fire is burning (unless the Priest is skimping on things and can’t be bothered – back when I attended church regularly one of our Priests use to just light a candle instead, which annoyed me no end. Bonfires have been lit at the start of the northern spring for thousands of years, a candle has no ancestral continuity). The fire is blessed, and then a big candle (the Pascal candle if you want to get technical), decorated with the the Chi-Rho symbol is brought forward. The Priest ritually inscribes the wounds of Christ on the candle, invoking some of the most mystical poetry of the Church with each cut…

Christ yesterday and today,
The beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
All time belongs to him,
And all ages,
To him be glory and power,
Through every age and for ever,

Call it Catholic brainwashing but even today – with the fire and the darkness and the crowd standing in dead silence – that still sends a shiver down my spine.

The candle – which will go on to symbolise Christ by being lit during every service for the following year – is lit from the fire, then the flame from the candle is passed out to the congregation, who are each holding a candle of their own. The candle bearing crowd then return into the church, and the Pascal candle is carried in in procession with the Priest intoning “Christ, Our Light!” three times, at which point – ideally – someone standing at the fuse box flips a switch and all the lights in the church crash on in a blaze of glory.

Regardless of what one thinks of the theology, when done well it’s mighty impressive.

Then there’s the reading of the Exsultet – a quite long, although very poetic prayer. It’s another bit of the vigil service that I always enjoy, as (again) it’s quite mystical and ritualistic, but it’s also happy. So much of the Catholic faith is sad and guilt ridden, going on about how everyone’s a miserable sinner, but for once this is the Church cheering about how it’s saviour kicked (theologically speaking) death’s arse and came back. It’s a moment of pure celebration and joy, which is not something the Catholic Church is generally very good at.

I’m tempted to include the whole thing here, but it’s quite long and up on Wikipedia anyway if anyone’s really interested, so here’s just a snippet…

The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
Washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
Brings mourners joy,
It casts out hatred, brings us peace,
And humbles earthly pride,
Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth,
And man is reconciled with God,

Now, this Saturday just gone the whole fire and candle thing was done quite well, although they decided to do the Exsultet by candlelight and not switch on the lights until afterwards. The Exsultet itself on the other hand was a mess.

It was sung, and sung to the most god-awful tune I think I’ve ever heard – two bars based around a descending scale over and over again. And with a four line chorus – sung to exactly the same two bars (repeated twice) – inserted every four lines. It drained the words of any poetry or feeling, sounded like a funeral dirge and took a good ten minutes, although it felt much, much longer. It was torture – by the end of it I was ready to set my hair on fire just to make it stop.

After that things went as they normally do – although it’s the first time I’ve set foot in a church since Pope Ratzinger re-translated the liturgy so I kept getting the responses wrong (when someone in a robe addresses me with “Peace be with you’, it’s a Pavlovian reaction for me to blurt out “and also with you” – not this new-fangled “and with your spirit” or whatever the hell else it’s meant to be).

The service finished up just before nine and I headed home, having not quite got my yearly fill of ritual and mysticism this time round. I wonder if the Buddhists down on Guildford Road are up to anything this time of year… 😉

4 thoughts on “The Muppets go Mystical”

  1. I spent 12 years in Catholic education, and though I describe myself as agnostic, I do sometimes miss the ceremony of the big Catholic occasions, so thanks for sharing your Easter Vigil with us.

    Spirituality is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I definitely don’t believe in a deity, or some kind of conscious “creator”, but I’m incredibly curious about how we came to be here on earth. I’m also pretty concerned about what the future holds for humans and how we might resolve some of the massive issues we face. After much thinking, I’ve decided that what I believe in is life itself. Life, in all its mind-blowing permutations, with its ability to meld into one finely balanced system, even though all points in the system are in constant cycles of growth and decline. I kind of think of “life” in the singular, with all the different species being multiple manifestations of the same thing. In this way, I think of every form of life as coming from the same source and see biodiversity as life’s way of protecting itself from extinction. Similar to genetic diversity within species, biodiversity seems like a strategy for ensuring life’s resilience in a variety of environments.

    So I’ve been thinking about biodiversity and evolution, and the thing that has really been fascinating me of late is altruism. Most religions uphold altruism as the single most aspirational human trait, but from a “survival of the fittest” perspective, true altruism (putting the genetic fitness of another ahead of your own) shouldn’t exist. Reciprocity can be explained, and altruism towards kin can be explained, but prioritising the needs of an unrelated other and expecting nothing in return is more difficult to account for. Yet this kind of altruism exists. Why does it exist and why is it regarded as important by so many different cultures? Any ideas?

    1. Yeah, generalised altruism is hard to explain from a purely Darwinian perspective. About the only way you can make it fit is to assume that in the human genome altruism is an all or nothing proposal. You’re either altruistic to everyone regardless of their relatedness to you, or you’re altruistic to no one at all. It’s not an entirely crazy idea – genetics can work that way – but some actual evidence to back it up would be nice.

      I suspect though that the key lies with sentience which I define as the ability to make conscious decisions. Humans have the ability to think about our actions and make choices, including choices that are irrational when considered in
      pure Darwinian terms. Basic natural selection is a mechanistic system of stimulus-reaction, where unsuitable reactions are pruned – the human ability to think about what we’re doing, and evaluate it in terms other than pure
      survival, short circuits that. We complicate matters by double-guessing our own actions and judging them in terms of what other people might think, and that acts as another layer on top of evolutionary pressures.

      There’s also empathy. That’s another human trait that may have evolved to be too expansive in terms of who it includes. Most people have the capacity to feel empathy for anyone – as long as they haven’t been trained out of it. We even feel empathy for non-humans. I suspect that has a lot to do with generalised altruism – if you feel for someone then you want to help them out.

      1. Thanks for this response, you make some great points.

        I am still pondering why altruism is upheld as such a virtue in most religions and by so many people (with the exception of Ayn Rand and some neoliberalists)… Presumably a society dominated by altruists would function better than a society dominated by egoists. And this is precisely what fascinates me. We live in a capitalist economy, the engine of which is egoism, or self interest – the complete opposite of what is supposedly our highest moral virtue. What’s up with that???

  2. Well here’s something unexpected, I just found a reference stating that Darwin “wrote that the highest moral achievement is concern for the welfare of all living beings, human and nonhuman.” and “This virtue [concern
    for lower animals], one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they extend to all sentient beings.”
    Perhaps Darwin was a Buddhist?

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