Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Old Man Halate

This story requires a preface, so bear with me.

The home of the Zuni people is the Pueblo of Zuni in western New Mexico. The region around the pueblo has been the tribal home for 4,000 years.

One of the Zuni traditions is the carving of small figures called fetishes, which usually depict animals. The carvings are small, rarely exceeding a few inches long. They can be made of turquoise, shell, marble, pipestone, antler, or some other material.

Fetishes are symbolic in nature. To understand the concept, consider that in Zuni culture, the world is divided into six regions, each protected by a guardian animal.

The mountain lion guards the north, the bear guards the west, the badger the south, the wolf the east, the eagle the sky, and the mole the earth.

The guardians, and other animals, as well, are said to have certain innate strengths and qualities. The bear represents power from within, the badger represents perseverance, etc. A fetish, the Zuni believe, empowers its owner with the characteristics of the animal it depicts.

Over time, the carving of fetishes evolved from a ceremonial practice into an art form. Today, Zuni fetishes are very popular, like Hopi pottery and Navajo jewelry.

On my many trips to the Southwest over the years, I’ve brought home 13 fetishes. They range from simple to intricate, from so-so quality to impressive works of art.


A sampling of my Zuni fetishes.

I chose each one for its aesthetic appeal, not the symbolism. I liked them, and the price was right.

Which brings me to the point of all this: the story of my favorite fetish, a bear.

This bear:


When I spotted the carving in a shop in 1999, I did a double-take. What is going on here?

The thing looks like a grotesque hippo. The ears and facial features are askew. The craftsmanship is sloppy, almost laughable. Maybe, I thought, a child carved it.

Intrigued, I asked the owner of the shop. And, as you might expect, it was a fascinating story. This is what he told me:

The fetish is a bear. In most respects, it’s a traditional carving, down to the prayer bundle on its back and the use of coral and turquoise for the nose and eyes.

And, yes, the work is crude and a bit funky. That’s because it was done by an aging “master carver” who had lost his touch. His eyesight and dexterity, perhaps also his mental faculties, were failing.

Out of respect for the old fellow, friends and family said nothing. He continued carving, and everyone pretended his work was still fabulous.

The story was both plausible and appealing, and it made me see the fetish is a new light. I bought it for $26.00 and made a note of the name of the carver.

Years later, I Googled the name of the carver and learned that the shop owner’s story was partly correct, but not entirely.

The carver, now deceased, is a well known Zuni artist. He is a big deal these days among collectors.

Leonard Halate (pronounced Hal-ah-tee) was born in 1914, and he herded sheep most of his life. In the 1940s, his uncle taught him the art of carving. In the 1960s, Leonard finally got serious about it.

Most of his fetishes were, like my bear, crooked and crude. But the work of “Old Man Halate” had a folk-art quality that made it charming, popular, and soon, highly collectible.

One account said Leonard paid local children to bring him any dead bird they found. He used the claws as horns on his dinosaur fetishes, or as deer antlers or alligator teeth.

Leonard died in 2001. For a number of years afterward, some carvers took advantage of his popularity and mimicked his style. Halate knockoffs became common. I’m confident I have a genuine Halate, since I bought it well before he died.

Today, Leonard Halate fetishes can bring hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands. And someday, my heirs might put my lop-sided bear fetish on the market and make a $26 investment pay off nicely.

But, for now, I like having the little thing at home where I can enjoy it. That silly expression, with two nostrils and one eye lined up on the same plane, amuses me greatly.


Old Man Halate.


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In Beauty

Over the years, I’ve spent a fair chunk of my vacation time in the Southwest, and I learned a bit along the way about the Native American cultures there — the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Havasupai, and others.

I don’t mean I understand them in great detail, but I recognize in broad terms some of their differences, similarities, and defining characteristics.

For example, I know that the Navajo prefer their space, and Navajo families tend to live dispersed. Conversely, the Hopi are more comfortable living together in villages.

I also learned that when Navajo males have a falling-out, an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation is unacceptable; but one of them might express his displeasure by shooting the other’s dog.

Then, of course, there is the element of religion. All native cultures have deep spiritual connections to nature. They believe in the central concept of maintaining harmony and equilibrium among all things.

Many of their religious ceremonies are prayers to a variety of gods, animal spirits, and nature spirits to maintain a proper balance between the tribe and the world around them.

The details vary. It’s interesting that most rituals of the Hopi and Zuni follow strict schedules based on the movement of the sun and stars; the Navajo perform ceremonies when the need is there — for rain, a successful hunt, or a cure to an illness.

To the Navajo, the proper spiritual path is known as the “Beauty Way.” In essence, they believe there is nowhere God is not, so therefore, all is Beauty.

Shil hózhó, the Navajos say — “With me, there is Beauty.”

Shii’ hózhó — “In me, there is Beauty.”

Shaa hózhó — “From me, Beauty radiates.”

Okay, so I’m wandering off into the religious weeds here, but you have to admire this concept for its simplicity, elegance, and positive spirit.

One of the major ceremonies of the Navajo is the Blessingway, which seeks protection from a range of ills, ailments, and mental contaminants (anger, jealousy, etc.). The ceremony is very elaborate and last for days.

The closing prayer/chant of the Blessingway is below. It’s often found on its own as a poem entitled (for reasons that elude me) “Night Way.”

Many variations of Night Way are out there, which is understandable because it’s an English translation. This version is a good one.


In Beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
Beautifully will I possess again.
Beautifully birds…
Beautifully joyful birds…
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With Beauty may I walk.
With Beauty before me may I walk.
With Beauty behind me may I walk.
With Beauty above me may I walk.
With Beauty below me may I walk.
With Beauty all around me may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of Beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of Beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in Beauty.
It is finished in Beauty.


Awesome. Simple and elegant.

It’s also wonderfully benign and hopeful, which is unusual for our species and quite a positive thing.

It’s a sad fact that most of the violence and atrocities in human history have been committed — are still are being committed — in the name of religion.

The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust. And religious zealots are still out there today, bombing and beheading non-believers.

Considering the way we humans are, and in light of our sorry history, the Beauty Way strikes me as a breath of fresh air.

The Navajo don’t try to convert you. They don’t send missionaries to proselytize among people of other faiths, trying to convince all those poor, misguided heathens to come over to the True Path.

Instead, the Navajo are doing it right. They have the maturity and good sense to cultivate their own garden.


“Preparing the Sand Painting” by Ira Moskowitz, 1946. The sandpainting ritual is part of the Blessingway and other Navajo ceremonies. The elaborate image thus created is believed to channel the healing power of the Holy People. After the ceremony, the sand is taken outside and returned to the earth. Very cool.


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Vantage Point

In this post, I want to make some observations about religion. Some of it is critical, but not all.

I hope no one is offended unless they deserve it.


Last month, my son Britt and his family invited me to attend Easter services with them. They belong to a non-denominational mega-church in a toney North Atlanta suburb about 50 miles from my fair city, Jefferson.

Britt and his wife and kids love the mega-church experience, thrive on it. The concept works for them.

Me, I’m not in tune with that vibe at all. I’m a product of small churches where you knew practically everyone — churches with no need for a traffic cop or parking monitor, much less a battalion of them.

When you arrive at Britt’s church, the parking lot operation is like a Disney theme park or a Boeing factory. The church has a congregation of many thousands.

God only knows how many.

Inside the main cathedral, the services feature professional-level theatrics — a Christian rock band (drums, several guitars, several vocalists), smoke machines, a TV camera swooping overhead.

Replaying the live feed for the faithful are dozens of giant video monitors and a vast array of criminally loud speakers.

Not my cup of tea at all. But it was Easter, and it was a chance to see everyone, so of course I accepted the invitation.

The shock-and-awe theatrics were as professional and overwhelming as I remembered from my last visit. The music blasted my eardrums as brutally as before.

To my surprise, however, the sermon was calm and traditional. In fact, the debonair young pastor came across as very genuine.

Clever boy.


My religious background is fairly untraditional. I was raised Methodist, but I grew up as a military dependent, so I have attended services at on-base and off-base churches around the world.

Sometimes, we Smiths went to the generic Protestant services offered on the military base. Sometimes, we went to a Methodist church in a nearby town. Either way, we attended regularly.

As I perceived it in my youth, the message being taught by those churches was simple enough: Be nice, don’t be evil.

Young Rocky totally agreed with that. And it was the right message — sensible, rational, positive, ethical, compassionate — for keeping the church-goers as happy, peaceable, and secure as reality allows.

And, in the world of religion, reality is a multi-faceted thing. In fact, it is a multi-dimensional coin with numerous sides.

God only knows how many.


My dad earned a BBA degree from the University of Florida. His major was Banking, and his minor was Religion. Years later, I asked him why he chose Religion.

He told me it was a scholarly matter. The study of religion appealed to him as a combination of many disciplines — history, philosophy, literature, and more. He said he found the courses rousing, entertaining, and thoughtful.

Dad also introduced a concept about religion that had not occurred to me. He pointed out how dramatically your beliefs about religion are influenced by your vantage point.

Your reaction to a hypothetical religious “event” will vary greatly depending on whether you are a cleric or a member of the congregation. Or a Catholic priest from the next town. Or a business traveler from Cairo.

Whatever your experience with religion, whatever your interaction, your vantage point colors your viewpoint. Fascinating.


By the time I went off to college, I felt I had learned thoroughly the lessons of my years of attending church. I understood the message. I believed I had taken it to heart.

That being true, there seemed no reason to keep relearning the lessons. I was on my own by then, so I stopped attending church.

Actually, another factor made the decision easier: I had steadily developed some displeasure with “organized religion.”

Gandhi reportedly said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

He had a point. Churches are run by mortals, and it often shows.


As a kid, I was distressed by the fact that most churches I saw had amassed, and merrily continued to amass, unnecessary wealth. Random small churches might be struggling, but the hierarchy above them certainly wasn’t.

Yet, at the same time, I saw pressing needs everywhere that went unmet, even unaddressed. The world was full of the poor, hungry, homeless, sick, desperate, and dying.

At about age 10, I concluded that, in fairness, individual churches should be allowed to keep enough money to do their work and remain solvent, but not a cent more. Surplus income should go to helping the people and the community.

Who would make and enforce the precise rules, I didn’t care.

Under my plan, if the church had excess cash in its coffers while genuine needs went unmet in the area they served, well, the case was exposed as one of ordinary greed, and the axe would fall.

Who would wield the axe, I didn’t care.


Years ago, when my kids were growing up in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, the doorbell rang one Saturday afternoon. I answered the door.

It was the “youth pastor” from one of the larger Baptist churches in town. He wanted to speak to Dustin, who was 13 or 14 at the time.

Standing beside the pastor were three leggy, giggly, pretty girls of Dustin’s age.

I told him I was Dustin’s father, and we were Methodists, and Dustin was content at the Methodist church.

Oh, he replied, this is just a social call. We just want to tell him about some of the good things we’re doing.

The contempt I felt at that moment was almost overwhelming. But this adult representative of the Baptist church came to see Dustin, so I went and got him.

Dustin came downstairs. When he saw the four of them at the door, the anger in his eyes was as palpable as my contempt.

My memory of the episode ends there.


Today, ironically, Dustin is Baptist. He and his wife and kids go to a Baptist church here in Jefferson.

I attend services with them on special occasions. The church is a pleasant, conservative, close-knit, small-town place that runs a crucial local food bank and takes the operation very seriously.

Theatrics-wise, these folks are happy with hymns, piano, and organ. You will hear contemporary Christian music now and then, but only in small doses.

They have a speaker system, but no smoke machine. That would be uncouth.

I spoke to Dustin once about what the church means, now that he has a family. He said the church environment is the best place in town to raise kids. You know personally the families and children with whom you come in contact, and they are good people.

He, Leslie, and the girls all have friends in the congregation. They appreciate the church for its community and social aspects.

But primarily, Dustin and Leslie see the church as a safe haven for their children.


I remember well the day, just a few years ago, when Dustin was baptized. The ceremony, the dunking, the cheering. It was a joyous event, made unique because Dustin was an adult.

Deanna and I did not baptize the boys when they were children, as our parents had done with us. We decided to let them chose their own time.

Had we baptized Dustin at, say, age 9, it would have meant little to him; this way, the memory matters.

I never doubted the decision not to baptize.


After the Easter services at Britt’s church, the five of us filed out of the cathedral shoulder-to-shoulder, jostling with the other church-goers. It was a happy crowd.

During the services earlier, I had watched the reactions of the individuals in the aisles in front of me. A few had remained passive, but most were animated to some degree during the singing.

For the record, I saw no displays of actual rhythm in the bones.

A few of the children in the audience looked miserable, but whenever I looked over at Britt and Terri and the girls, they seemed to have the spirit. They appeared happy and exuberant.

For them, the experience was fun. They seem to have found their niche.

We had attended a late afternoon service, and suppertime had arrived. We drove to a nice Italian place where Britt had reservations waiting. The evening was splendid.



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Pope Francis just got back from touring South America, and you can bet the papal minions earned their salaries. The logistics of transporting the Pope and his entourage around the world — the scheduling, the security, the politics — is surely daunting.

Makes me glad I’m not a minion.

All of that administrative stuff notwithstanding, when you hear that the Pope is venturing out on a trip somewhere to greet the assembled masses, what immediately comes to mind?

Why, the Popemobile, of course.

Here is Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, posing with the newest Popemobile, a modified Mercedes-Benz M-Class:


This dazzling, diamond-white, fully-armored Popemobile features a motorized lift for the papal throne (for better visibility) and a new addition, energy-efficient halogen lighting. It’s a beauty.

In olden times, before motor vehicles came along, Popes were transported via an elevated chair held aloft by 12 uniformed minions (12 Apostles, 12 minions).

That conveyance was called a sedia gestatoria (Italian for “chair for carrying”). Basically, it was a large, elaborately decorated armchair on poles.


But, now that we have the technology, motor vehicles clearly make more sense, and are far speedier, than 12 poor guys on foot.

For the papacy, modernity began in 1930, when Pope Pius XI became the first Pope to get his own wheels: a modified Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460. It featured a single elevated seat in the back.


At the time, the Vatican simply called it “the Rome vehicle.” It carried the license plate SCV-1, as did all Popemobiles thereafter. The SCV stands for “Status Civitas Vaticanae” (Vatican City State), and the 1 is for numero uno, the Pope.

In later years, as more Popemobiles were added to the fleet, the plates were numbered SCV-2, SCV-3, etc.

The 1930 Nürburg was in use for 30 years. In 1960, Pope John XXIII got a handsome replacement: a Mercedes-Benz 300D Landaulet with a convertible top.


At about that time, various countries began a tradition of providing the vehicle themselves when the Pope came for a visit. It became a matter of national pride to come up with something impressive and spiffy. The Vatican had no problem with that. It saved them the trouble and expense of transporting a Popemobile.

The first such locally-built vehicle was provided in 1965 by the United States. When Pope Paul VI came to New York, we met him with a special 1964 Lincoln Continental. It was a ragtop with a wind guard and a loudspeaker system, The Pope’s seat in the back could be hand-cranked into the air like a barber’s chair.


Over the years, popes used a variety of modified cars and trucks as Popemobiles. From 1980 to 1989, the primary Popemobile was a mother-of-pearl Mercedes-Benz 230 G. It featured a transparent cupola (know as the “greenhouse’) that was easily removable. This was the first vehicle in the classic Popemobile design that we know and love today.


In 1981, the Vatican also used a modified Fiat Campagnola, which is an off-road Italian Army vehicle.

But the Fiat was ill-fated. In May, as Pope John Paul II was passing through St. Peter’s Square with the cupola removed, a would-be assassin fired four shots, seriously injuring the Pope and two bystanders.

The Fiat now resides in the Vatican museum.


In the aftermath of the attempted assassination, all Popemobile cupolas were rebuilt with bulletproof glass. And, for security reasons, the cupolas are no longer removed.

Here is one of the first of the fortified Popemobiles, a 1982 Range Rover.


In 2002, John Paul got another new Popemobile, this one a tricked-out Mercedes-Benz G-Class in “mystic white.” The cupola featured a white throne with the Vatican’s coat of arms embroidered in the seat.

Apparently, John Paul was uncomfortable with news reports about the increasingly luxurious adornments to the vehicles. He declared that he found the term Popemobile to be undignified, and he asked people to stop using it.

(Popemobile, Popemobile, Popemobile.)

But no one ever came up with a better name. Further, Benedict and Francis, John Paul’s successors, haven’t complained about the term. So, Popemobile it is.

(Popemobile, Popemobile, Popemobile.)

Benedict resigned soon after the 2013 M-Class was added to the fleet. Pope Francis still uses it today for trips abroad.

But, as you know, Francis has taken pains to tone things down and minimize the regal trappings of the papacy. He has tried to present himself as a simpler man, a Pope of the people.

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires and later as a cardinal in Rome, Francis often used public transportation. When he became Pope, he had his official papal ring made with silver instead of gold. Things like that.

Accordingly, for local trips, Francis uses either an ordinary Ford Focus from the Vatican motor pool or his personal favorite ride, a vintage 1984 Renault 4.

The Renault was given to him by an Italian priest, Father Renzo Zocca, who put 200,000 miles on it while ministering to the poor in the slums of Verona.

They say Francis likes to drive the Renault himself. Good on him.


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Happy Independence Day. I have a story suitable for the occasion.

In 2013, I wrote a series of posts about “Local Heroes” in my adopted home, Jefferson and Jackson County, Georgia. Every place has its celebrities, and ours measure up very well.

After I wrote those posts, I learned about another local fellow who deserves mention: Rev. John Harrison, a longtime Presbyterian minister here who was born on the day America declared its independence, July 4, 1776.

Pretty cool, right?

John Harrison (1776-1847) was part of a proud Scottish family where ordination in the Presbyterian Church was a long tradition.

John’s grandfather, Henry Patillo, was a Presbyterian minister who emigrated from Scotland to North Carolina in the early 1770s. Henry’s daughter Ann married a Virginia fellow, and John was born in Virginia at some location lost to history.

Harrison continued the family’s association with the Presbyterian Church. As a young man, he was educated in the classics and trained in the teaching profession by a Presbyterian elder in Laurens, South Carolina.

In 1812, John began the study of theology, and in 1815, he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church. His long career of preaching and teaching began.

Soon after being ordained, Harrison married Margaret Stuart of Spartanburg (whose brother was a Presbyterian minister in Mississippi). In 1818, John and Margaret moved to Jackson County and settled along Curry Creek, just north of the village of Jefferson.

The Harrisons undoubtedly chose that spot for its location: next to Olney Presbyterian Church, where Harrison would serve as pastor for the next 30 years.

Olney Presbyterian had been founded in the 1790s by Scottish and Scotch-Irish veterans of the American Revolution who brought their families to North Georgia for free land.

Olney Church was so named because the members sang “Olney Hymns” that originated in the village of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. These were simple songs written for the common folk, rather than the more formal music heard in larger churches. “Amazing Grace” is the best known of the Olney Hymns.

From what I’ve read about those times, rural Presbyterian churches in the South carefully avoided any show of opulence or the trappings of prosperity. They chose to remain primitive and simple and were dedicated to the needs of the common folk, especially the poor and disadvantaged.

In 1828, Thyatira Presbyterian, a large church near Salisbury, North Carolina, recognized Olney Church for its years of community service. The recognition included financial assistance, and in 1830, Rev. Harrison and the Olney congregation were able to build a larger church a few miles from the old Curry Creek location.

In honor of its benefactor, Olney Presbyterian changed its name to Thyatira-Olney Presbyterian Church. In time, the community that grew up around the church became known as Thyatira.

Rev. Harrison served as pastor of the church until his death in 1847.

Thyatira-Olney Presbyterian Church today -- proudly primitive for two centuries.

Thyatira-Olney Presbyterian Church today — proudly primitive for two centuries.

Having been educated as a teacher, Harrison worked with a number of Presbyterian churches in the area to help establish schools.

In those days, long before the concept of a public education system, children were educated through the church, if at all. Adults who could afford it attended private schools or paid a tutor.

In that environment, John Harrison was much in demand. The first school he organized, and where he also taught classes, was Hebron Academy at Hebron Presbyterian Church near present-day Commerce. Like Harrison’s own church, Hebron had been established decades earlier by Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants.

Hebron Academy, started in 1819, was among the first church-affiliated schools in North Georgia. And more soon followed. Over the years, Harrison’s building plans, methods, and procedures were widely copied by other churches in the region.

But at Hebron, Harrison faced an obstacle. He wanted the school to be open not only to the children of church members, but also to the children of slaves. (With the slave-owners’ permission, of course.) The congregation said no.

This is where I became a fan of John Harrison. He replied that they didn’t understand the situation; the slave children would be included, or he would walk. You want a school, handle it yourselves.

In the end, they compromised. The slave children were allowed to attend the school, but were taught in separate classes.

A compromise, yes, but a great victory for Harrison. For any man at that time and place to stand as he did on the principle of educating slaves — it was gutsy and admirable.

Harrison’s “sabbath schools” taught the children to read and instructed them in the principles of the Presbyterian Church. He used the Shorter Catechism, a simplified version of church teachings designed for children and less-educated adults.

Harrison’s schools continued in operation long after his death, and they continued to educate the children of slaves. But, as the Civil War approached and outside pressure grew to eliminate slavery, the state legislature finally reacted. A law was passed that made it illegal to teach slaves to read. Harrison’s schools were finally closed to them.

John Harrison is buried near where he and Margaret resided along Curry Creek, on a small hill a few yards from the road. His grave is at the foot of a large tree, about a mile from my house. The grave stands alone. There is no evidence nearby of other burial sites, the Harrison homestead, or Olney Church.

And surprisingly, he is buried in a simple above-ground vault with a cap of stone.



Above-ground burials are seldom seen today. But they were popular in Europe in the 1700s, and many early American colonists maintained the tradition. Most are rectangular enclosures with capstones that may be flat, peaked, or arched. The fancier the treatment, the more important the deceased.

As the decades passed, later generations of Americans lost touch with European traditions, and above-ground vaults went out of style.

Sometimes, graves such as Harrison’s are decorative and not functional; the deceased is buried below ground, and the above-ground vault is added as an embellishment.

Whether John Harrison’s coffin is inside the above-ground vault or buried in the ground below it, I have no idea.

William Harrison, the son of John and Margaret, also became a Presbyterian minister. He served as pastor in the village of Eucheeanna in the Florida Panhandle, which was the first Scottish settlement in the Florida territory.

Margaret Harrison was 13 years younger than her husband, and she outlived him by 35 years. She died in 1883, age 94, and is buried in the church cemetery at Thyatira Presbyterian.

Today, Thyatira Presbyterian is 220 years old. Hebron Presbyterian is 219. The Hebron church, school, and cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Both churches are still active and still conduct services.

Happy birthday, Rev. Harrison. And thank you for your service.

Hebron Presbyterian Church, 2015. The present building, constructed in the 1880s, features separate entrance doors for men and women, a tradition I assume the church no  longer honors.

Hebron Presbyterian Church, 2015. The present building, constructed in the 1880s, features separate entrance doors for men and women, a tradition I assume the church no longer honors.

Classes were held in the main church building until 1909, when this schoolhouse was constructed next door. It was a primary community school until the 1930s.

Classes were held in the main church building until 1909, when this schoolhouse was constructed next door. It was a primary community school until the 1930s.

Hebron Cemetery was established in 1802 and features 15-20 above-ground burial vaults from the early days. 20 veterans of the American Revolution are buried at Hebron.

Hebron Cemetery was established in 1802 and features 15-20 above-ground burial vaults from the early days. 20 veterans of the American Revolution are buried at Hebron.

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In Athens recently, I stopped for lunch at Inoko Express, a small Japanese place where your meal is prepared hibachi-style on a grill. (In the kitchen, not at your table like Benihana.)

Inoko Express

The deal is, you place your order at the counter and go find a table. A server delivers your meal when it’s ready. Good place, good food.

So, there I was. I ordered my lunch, took a seat, and got out my phone to catch up on the news while I waited.

At that moment, the peace was interrupted when two grey-haired couples came through the door. They were nicely dressed and looked to be in their 60s.

They walked single file down the aisle leading to the counter. A tall woman in the lead was speaking a little too loudly over her shoulder to her companions in a measured, somber tone.

“… in our struggle against the forces of evil. The apostle Paul knew he had to guard against being unworthy. Paul said we need to help each other fight temptation as we strive toward our eternal home.”

The restaurant, which had been busy with conversation moments before, fell silent. The only sound came from two overhead TV sets tuned to a basketball game. All eyes in the place, I’m sure, were on the foursome.

When they reached the cash register, the young girl on duty braced herself and smiled nervously. “Dine in or take out?”

“Dine in,” replied the tall woman, looming over the counter. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

The cashier looked panicky. “Well, I…”

“The apostle Paul said, ‘Let the word of Christ swell within you.’ We must sing to the Lord Jesus with grace in our hearts.”

“Well, I…”

“Paul told the Corinthians we should admonish one another to be faithful. The world is filled with lusts and temptations. Our duty is to protect the souls of our brothers and sisters.”

“Yes, ma’am. Uhh… can I take y’all’s orders?”

One of the men behind the tall woman spoke up. “Helen, the grilled shrimp is very good. It comes with grilled vegetables and fried rice and your choice of sauces.”

Helen turned her attention to the menu on the wall, studied it for a second, and placed her order. She stepped aside and stood quietly while her companions did the same.

Then they picked out a table and got seated. They were directly behind me, my back toward them.

The room remained silent except for the drone of the basketball game. After a few moments, Helen resumed where she had left off.

“Paul told us to instruct our children in the ways of Jesus. If our children are trained instead in the ways of the world, they will be lost. The forces of Satan are experts at deceit.”

She continued until the cashier apprehensively delivered their meals. Everyone dug in.

At that point, the conversation drifted away from Paul’s admonition that we need to admonish one other. I finished my lunch, dropped off my tray at the designated spot, and turned toward the door.

As I opened it, Helen returned to her topic.

“Paul told us to remember the lessons of the Old Testament,” she intoned. “The mistakes of the children of Israel should be examples to us, or we will fall prey to –”

I missed the rest because the door closed behind me, but I got the picture.

St. Paul the Apostle in prison, writing an epistle to admonish the Ephesians.

St. Paul the Apostle in prison, writing an epistle to admonish the Ephesians.


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About January 1

Well, 2014 is pretty much shot, and another new year is drawing nigh.

You realize, I assume, that starting the new year on January 1 is an arbitrary thing. Technically, we could choose any day and rightly call it the beginning of a new year. 

And the truth is, the designated date has changed many times over the centuries. Traditions may be comforting, but traditions can evolve. Or get changed by some authority figure. 

Consider the story of how January 1 became the day we celebrate as the beginning of the new year…


Long ago, after humans figured out what a year is, the various world cultures individually settled on ways to mark when an old year ends and a new one begins.

In Mesopotamia in 2000 B.C., they decided that the new year would begin on the vernal equinox (March). In ancient Greece, they chose the winter solstice (December). The Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians picked the fall equinox (September).

In the Roman Republic, the new year began on March 1. That was convenient because Rome’s “civil year” began on March 15, when two newly-elected Roman consuls began their one-year terms.

But in 153 B.C., an uprising in the provinces obliged the incoming consuls to take office early and hastily, on January 1. That done, the ruling consuls decided it made sense to start the new year on January 1, as well. They decreed it to be so.

But not everyone in the far-flung republic paid attention. In much of the hinterlands, the traditional date of March 1 still prevailed.

A century later, in 46 B.C., consul and hero general Julius Caesar changed that.

Julius Caesar

Caesar introduced to his subjects the Julian Calendar, which, being based on the movements of the Sun, was more precise than the previous lunar-based system.

At the same time, Caesar decreed that throughout the Roman world, future new years would begin on January 1. To ensure compliance, he backed up the order with sanctions on bureaucrats who failed to comply. This time, everyone fell in line.

Fast forward to medieval times. The Roman Empire had come and gone. In Europe, the Roman Catholic church decided that the spirited celebrations on January 1 had become entirely too pagan and unchristian-like.

Party down

Accordingly, in 567, the Second Council of Tours decreed that subsequent new years would begin on Easter, not January 1.

The Council also ruled that any cleric found in bed with his wife would be excommunicated, but that’s another story.

For something trotted out in 46 B.C., the Julian Calendar had been relatively accurate. It only lost about 11-1/2 minutes per year.

But over the centuries, that added up. By the 1500s, the Julian had fallen behind the actual solar year by about 10 days.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII came to the rescue.

Pope Gregory XIII

Gregory’s real concern was that, owing to the 10-days-and-growing lag, Easter was drifting away from its traditional time near the spring equinox. His solution was a new calendar.

Amazingly, the Gregorian Calendar is off by only 26 seconds per year. That means it gains one day every 3,300 years — so accurate that the world still uses it today.

The Gregorian Calendar achieved its accuracy by setting up the system of months we know today (30 days hath September and all that) and by tinkering with the number of leap years per century.

As for the 10-day lag caused by deficiencies in the Julian Calendar, no problem. Gregory simply ordered everyone to skip 10 days. The Julian Calendar ended on October 4, 1582, and the Gregorian Calendar began the next day, October 15, 1582.

As you can imagine, that was pretty chaotic and disruptive. Some October paychecks were for 30 days, some were for 20. Some landlords gave a 10-day discount, some demanded a full month’s rent. Be glad you weren’t there.

In addition to creating a furor, Pope Gregory also re-restored January 1 as New Year’s Day. Gregory being the Pope and all, Catholic countries around the world complied.

But in Protestant countries, even though the Gregorian Calendar was a fine thing, the change was adopted only gradually and grudgingly.

Germany and The Netherlands didn’t adopt the Gregorian Calendar until 1698. The British, and their American colonies, stayed with the Julian until 1752.

Russia finally went Gregorian in 1917, Romania in 1919. Turkey and Greece accepted it in 1923.

Today, the only holdout is the Eastern Orthodox Church. They still follow the Julian Calendar, which now lags 13 days behind the Gregorian and the rest of the world.

I guess being proudly inaccurate can be considered a tradition, too.

Lastly, I probably should mention the Chinese calendar — or rather, calendars.  

China’s official calendar is the Gregorian, but most people also follow the ancient, traditional, and beloved Han Calendar.

In effect, the Chinese use the Gregorian for business and public matters, the Han for traditional and ceremonial stuff, such as selecting the date of a wedding, funeral, or other significant event. The Han also determines the dates of the country’s various festivals and the Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year, by the way, does not fall on January 1. The date is different every year. The next new year will begin on February 19, 2015.

And, actually, the new year won’t be “2015.” By Chinese reckoning, it will be 4713.

Go that?

Anyway, that’s how we ended up with January 1 as the official start of the new year.

For now, anyway. As history shows, traditions can change. Or get changed by some authority figure.

Pope Francis

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My recollection about sightings of the Virgin Mary in Georgia in the 1990s, strong evidence that truth is stranger than fiction, continues…

The Catholic Church did not sanction Nancy Fowler’s alleged Marian Apparitions. The Archbishop of Atlanta said he doubted their authenticity, and he urged church officials to discourage visits to Fowler’s home in Conyers.

Local police and health officials agreed with him. By the summer of 1991, the city and county threatened to block the pilgrims from gathering because of zoning violations and safety concerns.

Ultimately, the authorities backed down. In the final analysis, the hoards of pilgrims were orderly — and were a boon to local motels, restaurants, and stores.


On the other hand, Conyers tripled in population on the 13th, and that sudden influx of humanity had consequences. On one occasion, traffic prevented an emergency vehicle from reaching a local resident who needed hospital care. She survived.

In 1992, the water in Fowler’s Blessed Well tested positive for coliform bacteria, and warning signs were posted. Visitors continued to drink the water anyway.

In 1993, the county again threatened to declare the large crowds a public nuisance and again backed down.

Then in 1995, Fowler announced that the Virgin Mary would cease to appear to her monthly. Instead, Mary would leave one annual message on October 13th.

The city and the county, if not the local merchants, were greatly relieved.

Pilgrims in small numbers continued to visit Fowler’s farm on the 13th of each month. But on October 13th, crowds of 90,000-100,000 people flocked to the farm.

In 1998, Nancy Fowler and the non-profit had a falling-out over unspecified matters of fund-raising and publishing. Ultimately, their disagreements led to a series of lawsuits and counter-suits.

Eventually, the non-profit went to court and accused Fowler of filing frivolous complaints as a strategy to drive un up legal costs and force a settlement. The court threw out the accusation.

In fact, the court soon grew weary of the legal wrangling and ended it. The judge told the opposing attorneys, “The case is over. Take your medicine and swallow it and go home.”

In one proceeding, the presiding judge commented, “You know money was hauled off from out there in black garbage bags for years. It went somewhere. I don’t know who got it. Still don’t know who got it.”

On October 11, 1998, Our Loving Mother’s Children, Inc. officially opened the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church on the 30 acres adjacent to Fowler’s farm.

Two days later, on October 13th, after relaying a message from Mary to an estimated 100,000 pilgrims, Fowler announced that no further messages from the Virgin Mary would be forthcoming.

With that, the saga of Nancy Fowler and the Conyers Apparitions came to an end. As a public event reported to us civilians on the evening news, it was over.

Nancy Fowler quietly faded from public view. In 2012, she died after a long battle with cancer.

I have never doubted the sincerity of the multitudes who descended on Conyers in the 90s, or that of the small groups who still visit Conyers today. Moreover, I am in no position to know the motives or judge the actions of any of the players in the Conyers melodrama.

It is worthy of note, however, that even though the last Conyers Apparition occurred in 1998, little has changed at Fowler’s farm. Behind the scenes, the momentum of the non-profit, Our Loving Mother’s Children, Inc., has continued unabated.

Pilgrims still come to see where it all happened — to worship at the Holy Hill and drink from the Blessed Well. Nearby, daily prayer groups and weekly healing services take place in the Apparition Room of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church.

And recently, a campaign got underway to solicit donations to build a new and more splendid church.

The design submitted by the architect, a distinguished Washington, D.C. firm, will be costly. But the non-profit is undaunted. Its appeal includes this rationale:

This new cost estimate of 25 million dollars created quite a shock wave for us! After the shock wave passed, we started looking for ways to cut cost. However, as we prayed about how to do this, a warm and wonderful feeling became clear in our hearts… “How much is too much for Our Loving Mother?


The site of the Conyers Apparitions today.

Having been so close to the action as it unfolded, I have a host of fascinating memories and mental images of Conyers in those days.

But I possess only one tangible souvenir.

It is this magnificent bumper sticker, distributed in the mid-90s by an irreverent local merchant:



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Not being Catholic, I survived well into adulthood before I knew of the existence of “Marian Apparitions.” Catholic or not, it was a serious gap in my cultural literacy.

Today, I am more enlightened. I am aware that regular sighting of, visitations from, and conversations with the Virgin Mary have been reported around the globe since the Middle Ages. Thousands of alleged interactions have occurred, in big cities, remote villages, churches, homes, caves — you name it. The “seers” of Mary have been young and old, rich and poor.

As you would expect, sightings are made almost exclusively by persons of the Catholic faith. Also, when a sighting is reported, the Catholic Church is quick to step in, study the event, and officially approve or disapprove it. With two millennia of practice, I’m sure they proceed with great efficiency.

Generally speaking, the church classifies Marian Apparitions as (1) “worthy of belief” (thumbs up; possibly a genuine sighting), (2) “not contrary to the Faith” (can’t tell if it’s genuine, but it doesn’t conflict with church teachings), or (3) “not worthy of belief” (thumbs down).

Many outside the ranks of the true believers doubt the legitimacy of these sightings — consider them to be either deliberate hoaxes, hallucinations fueled by faith and superstition, or wishful thinking.

What outsiders think, however, is immaterial. To the faithful, a Marian Apparition is a huge deal, more likely to be embraced than questioned. Often, a sighting will attract religious pilgrims in great numbers.

These are the true believers whose ardor inspires their fellows, and whose money benefits both the church and the local economies.

As for me, I was introduced to the phenomenon of Marian Apparitions 20-odd years ago in Conyers, Georgia, a small town east of Atlanta where I worked at the time.

There, a local housewife claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to her a total of 49 times between 1990 and 1998.

As a truly surreal series of events unfolded, I had a ringside seat.

The housewife was divorcee Nancy Fowler, a transplant from Massachusetts. Described as a deeply religious person, Fowler claimed that during a religious pilgrimage to Yugoslavia in 1987, God told her she was a prophet.

Fowler said that when she returned to the U.S., a series of visions led her to a small house on the north side of Conyers. A vision instructed her to purchase it.

Claiming to be following explicit instructions from Jesus, she built an altar of stones and erected a wooden cross on a small hill behind the house. She said Jesus told her the hill was a holy place. He also blessed the well on the property.

Fowler told a reporter that she knew the hill was holy and knew the well was blessed because Jesus said so.

On October 13, 1990, Fowler went public about her visions. After passing along a message she said was from the Virgin Mary, Fowler announced that Mary would appear to her on the 13th of every month thereafter to deliver a new message.

Mary’s purpose, Fowler explained, was to bring more souls to Jesus. Fowler’s task was to share Mary’s messages with the world.

Instantly, word spread among the faithful. On the 13th of subsequent months, pilgrims converged on Conyers to hear Mary’s message, first by the hundreds, then by the thousands.


Many came from heavily Hispanic and Catholic areas, such as South Florida. They assembled in a large field next to Fowler’s home, prayed at the Holy Hill, drank water from the Blessed Well, and bought mementos at a small shop on the premises.

On the 13th of the month, traffic on the roads of Conyers was hellish.

Fowler’s practice was to receive the monthly messages privately inside her home, in the Divine Mercy Room. Mary appeared to her there as “a light on the wall.”

Later, Fowler would emerge onto her front porch and read to the assembled masses from hand-written notes.


Nancy Fowler appearing before the multitudes.

Usually, the messages were generic — advice to pray and live piously, admonitions against sin and war. Fowler usually spoke for half an hour or more.

On one occasion, she quoting the Virgin Mary as saying, “My crowning words are to be holy, to be witnesses, and to walk in my faith. I love you all, my dear children.”

At another time, Mary’s message was, “The future holds no concern to those who truly seek God and love him and remain in his favor.”

Another message was, “More natural disasters will come. See what will happen if you continue to offend God. I am sorry to tell you this.”

As the fame of the Conyers Apparitions grew, a non-profit organization, Our Loving Mother’s Children, Inc., was formed to help manage the activities. The non-profit also published and sold books and videos.

At about the same time, Fowler announced that the Virgin Mary wanted her followers to purchase the 30-acre farm next door, which was about to be foreclosed upon, and to build a church and a shrine there.

Two wealthy benefactors stepped forward, bought the property, and turned it over to Our Loving Mother’s Children, Inc.

The story of Nancy Fowler and the Conyers Apparitions will continue in my next post.


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The Triune Brain

In a previous post, I brought up the question of why so many people believe off-the-wall things — things a rational mind would reject as being wrong-headed at best, loony tunes at worst.

I’m referring to people who believe in Bigfoot, or UFOs, or the Bermuda Triangle. Or people who think the UN is poised to send in black helicopters to take away their guns — as if the UN were competent enough to conceive a plot.

The fact is, folks out there believe things and reach conclusions that leave you wondering how they got that way.

I was tempted to wonder if more people than we realize simply have a reasoning disorder, but then a more plausible explanation surfaced.

New research suggests that the answer may be genetic. Our thinking may be influenced, to a degree not yet determined, by our genetic makeup.

Not all brains are “wired” the same. The variations, encoded in unique ways in each individual set of gray matter, help guide the conclusions we reach and the beliefs we hold.

Further, the research suggests that our reasoning patterns are not that difficult to predict.

This insight (or, more correctly, this theory) comes from research into a subject that gets more blood boiling than anything except a soccer match: political viewpoints.

To appreciate the research of which I speak, it helps to understand a bit about the overall structure and operation of the human brain. A good summary is the “triune brain” theory of the late neuroscientist Paul MacLean, Chief of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health.

According to MacLean, the human brain evolved in three stages, and in effect, we have three interconnected brains inside our heads.

The first brain to develop was the primitive “reptilian brain” — the brain stem and related parts. This controls automatic body functions (breathing, circulation, digestion) and instinctive survival behaviors (hunger, reproduction, fight-or-flight).

The reptilian brain is all about physical survival. The instincts of aggression and territorial defense reside here. It is fear-driven and steps in when you perceive a threat.

Wrapped around the reptilian brain is the second brain to develop: the limbic or “mammalian brain” — so named because it emerged in the first mammals. This is the part of the brain that governs emotion, memory, and learning to make judgments that don‘t get you eaten.

The mammalian brain governs family ties, our behavior in groups, love/bonding, and feelings of empathy. This part of the brain evaluates daily experiences and classifies them as agreeable and disagreeable, so we know how to react when we next encounter them.

Wrapped around brain two is our third and most advanced brain, the “neocortex.” This is the seat of our higher functions — the center of awareness, abstract reasoning, problem-solving, and language.

As a bona fide human, you have a brain that is 75-80 percent neocortex. This is what makes you self-aware, curious about stuff, and capable of scratching an intellectual itch.

So — we have three brains up there which evolved in order. The three are intricately connected, but are capable of reacting independently and automatically.

Hold those thoughts until my next post, when I turn to the new research about how the internal wiring of our brain(s) affects our mental processes and opinions.

Triune brain

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