Tag Archives: religion

#102 “The Temptation of St. Antony” by Gustave Flaubert (#845 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony is a religious hallucination.  St. Antony of Egypt (cir. 251-356) was an ascetic monk that lived in the Libyan Desert; he is said to have experienced supernatural temptations. In Flaubert’s novel, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Greek gods, Lust, Death, demons, heretics, science, the Sphinx, and others tempt him.  Like the many paintings that St. Antony’s story has inspired, Flaubert’s work is surreal, spectacularly visual, and nearly impenetrably dense.

There are some pretty fantastic highlights.  The Greek gods appear in all their glory, with Hercules holding up Mt. Olympus; eventually Hercules is crushed by the weight of the mountain, and all the gods perish.  Later, Antony rides on the horns of the Devil as they fly into space, past stars and galaxies while the Devil argues science and reason.

When I was twelve years old, I went on a religious pilgrimage to the small village of Medugorje in the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia/Herzegovina), where supposedly the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to six children since 1981; this has not been confirmed nor denied by the Catholic Church.  While I was there, many other pilgrims experienced religious hallucinations: one person reported an out of body experience, others said their rosaries turned to gold, and yet others said that the mountainsides were lit up at night by brilliant supernatural lights.  I didn’t see any gold rosaries, and the mountains looked dark to me.  One American family claimed to see the ‘miracle of the sun’ in which the sun dances, splits, and changes colors and shapes.  I was sitting very nearby this family while they were experiencing this hallucination; I looked at the sun, but didn’t see anything.  I prayed and prayed to see what they were seeing, but the sun didn’t change.  I asked my father why I couldn’t see it; he told me, “If you stare long enough into the sun, you’ll see all sorts of strange things.” (Indeed, each member of the family described seeing a different version of the dancing sun.)  I felt like something was wrong with me- that my faith was not strong enough because I did not experience any of these ‘miracles’.  Later, I came to realize that I was a lot like the child that recognized that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  One of the things I did notice about all the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations- they were all quick to brag about the ‘miracles’ they had experienced, like it was a status symbol of their faith.  My own mother, the most religious person I know, did not experience any religious hallucinations on that trip.

At the end of The Temptation of St. Antony, Antony, having defeated all temptations, sees the face of Jesus Christ in the disc of the sun.  Finally at peace, he makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

I no longer hold resentment towards the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations.  Many members of other religions put themselves into altered states through asceticism like St. Antony to have religious hallucinations.  They seem to experience a great deal of joy from the ‘miracles’.  After all, the people all cheered with joy when they saw the Emperor’s new ‘clothes’.  I just hope that that American family didn’t experience permanent eye damage from staring at the sun for so long.   I choose to keep my health and wits instead of hallucinating to get closer to God.

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#100 “Aesop’s Fables” by Aesopus

by Michael Niewodowski

#100 Aesop’s Fables by Aesopus (#1001 on The List)

And the moral of the story is……

Human beings are problem-solving animals.  In a purely physical fight with any animal of equal mass, a human is sure to lose; what really sets us apart is our capacity for complex problem solving.  In Aesop’s Fables, many animals are given human problem solving characteristics.  The animals in the fables can to teach us a great deal about ourselves.

Many of the fables and lessons are familiar: The tortoise and the hare = slow and steady wins the race; the goose that lays golden eggs = don’t ruin a good thing; the boy who cried wolf = you can’t believe a liar even when he tells the truth.  However, what struck me while reading these fables is that many of the morals are in disagreement with each other.  One teaching that is universal, however, is that a person’s true character cannot be changed; for example, in the fable of the crow and the swan, the crow takes up residence in the water in hopes to wash away the black and become as white as the swan = although you change your habits, you cannot change your nature.

Aesop’s Fables originate in ancient Greece, and many of them deal with the Greek gods and goddesses, including creation stories.  We tend to dismiss the ancient Greek beliefs as mythology, although it is evident that most of the ancient Greeks took the gods quite literally.  Nowadays, we are much more intelligent and educated. We all know that death is a natural and inevitable phenomenon, and not a personified supernatural being; we know that the earth revolves around the sun, and that Apollo doesn’t drive the sun across the sky with a chariot; we know that Zeus didn’t create the animals and give them all their characteristics.  Right?

I believed in creationism until I was in my twenties.  This was not ‘intelligent design’, but full-on creationism- as in God blinked the humans, the animals, the earth, and everything in it into existence in six days.  Although I was raised Catholic, I attended a Fundamentalist Christian school.  We were taught from books called Evolution: The Big Lie and others.  Our World History teacher assured us that there was irrevocable evidence of ‘the great flood’, and that the proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed is many cultures’ legends of dragons.  I was taught and believed a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

My own father tried to educate me on this issue; I prayed for his soul.

When I finally learned and accepted scientific fact (thanks in large part to the Discovery Channel) it was a huge shock to my system.  Evolution was not a vast secular conspiracy to tear Christians away from their religious beliefs as I had been taught indoctrinated to believe.  I started to question all the truths and beliefs I had held so closely.  I am no longer resentful of this experience; rather I am thankful that it instilled a questioning and problem-solving nature in me (although, if we are to believe Aesop’s Fables, I ALWAYS had that questioning nature).

The Dalai Lama recently said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”*  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place is all religions followed this tenet?  To their credit, the Catholic Church has made huge strides on this issue (I think they learned a lot from the Galileo affair), however, they have a long way to go, and progress is slow.  The Fundamentalists, and many other religions, dismiss or re-write science, history, and reality to accommodate their beliefs, all while praying to the heavens for knowledge, wisdom, and guidance.

Aesop’s fable of the wagoner is a story of a man whose cart gets stuck in the mud.  He prays to the gods to help him; finally a god comes down and tells him to start pushing the cart, saying, “If you won’t lift a finger to help yourself, you can’t expect the gods or anyone else to come to your aid” = heaven helps those who help themselves.  If we ourselves are not willing to educate ourselves and sharpen our own problem solving skills, we deserve the ignorance so many of us are mired in.

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* http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/12/opinion/12dalai.html?pagewanted=all  The article is well worth reading.

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