I found myself more than usually burnt out after finishing the launch of Yeshua’s Loom, so I took an autumn break: hiking and photographing the changing forests in upstate NY. Luckily my brother Don came to visit, so we photographed the woods together!
One of my readers said that my photos looked as if I were trying to find windows into the One’s Spirit in the world. I mentioned that to Don, who said that was exactly what he did! Spending deep time with someone who’s known you all your life is incredibly nourishing. Here are some of my photos–taken by the writer at rest, with her brother. Click on individual photos to see a larger size.
The first album is from Ferncliff Nature Reserve in Duchess County:
The second album is from the Devil’s Peak Trail in the Indian Head Wilderness area above Woodstock:
This third album is from a very windy day along the Hudson River:
And finally, the Vanderbilt Estate on Halloween, after I took Don to the airport:
“If the people were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:40
The stones are speaking. Are we listening?
The memory of stone. People have spoken of it since humankind first wielded tools to chisel its surface. What stories might be locked in the smallest of river stones, the bedrock beneath the plains’ rich soil, the mountains crushed into gravel for our roads? Certainly we find there the record of the earth’s transformations, the bones and footprints of long-dead species, delicate traceries of plants, massive forests. But what about human lives? Have stones absorbed the fleeting touch of our lately-come species, the storms of blood, tears, laughter, prayer that accompany our kind wherever we wander? Do stones remember us?
I love stone. I have loved it from earliest childhood. I love the weight and feel of it in my hand, the warmth of it beneath me when I rest from walking, the magic of its kaleidoscopic patterns. When I can I travel to mountains and canyons and deserts to spend time in its company. Stone is alive, sentient in some way I can’t explain. I feel it most strongly in wilderness, where human busy-ness is limited—but it has also caught me unawares in urban alleys.
I am unlikely ever to hear a stone speak in human words, or a tree in propositions, or a dog in iambic pentameter. A stone communicates in the manner of stones, just as a dog communicates as dogs do. My experience of the speech of stones is deeply non-verbal, partly visceral and partly emotional, untranslatable. Sometimes I take a photograph or pick up a stone when I feel it; other times I simply let it be. The imagery comes later.
I am not a professional photographer, or even educated in photography. In the past I saw the images in a camera’s eye as an imagined canvas, in terms of shape and balance, tension and flow, light and dark. Now I find myself photographing scenes that pulse with the energy of subtle presence, and I let the rest take care of itself. Sometimes my pictures absorb a hint of that power, sometimes not.
What is a photograph? At its simplest it is a record of objects seen, events observed, people known. But like history, a photograph participates in the awareness of the one who watches and records. And like a scientific experiment, the photographer’s participation is a variable that must be considered. The same scene taken by different people with identical cameras at roughly the same time may be distinctly different—based on something I call “soul,” for lack of any better term. At times the camera’s eye appears to mediate an exchange of understanding? meaning? relationship? being? between photographer and subject, and this fleeting touch (or lack of it) marks the photo.
What are the stones saying with their images? I believe they are communicating their presence, no more. “Look at us!” they cry. “We are alive, in ways you have forgotten you ever knew. We are—as the trees are, and the waters, and the atmosphere that shields the Earth from the extremes of space. Truly see us—see all of creation—we who have been dismissed by your arrogance as mere commodities. See us, before only stones remain to see the sunrise.”
Slipping unseen along the fringes of consciousness, the temptation is always there—to “clean up” the images, make them perfect, adjust their proportions to fit more neatly into Western ideas of beauty. Sometimes I make changes without thinking, and then I have to destroy the image if I can’t undo the edits. We have an implicit understanding, the stones and I—that their images will remain as I find them, removed only from their matrix, and, at most, adjusted for contrast. After all, they are the language of stone, and much is inevitably lost in translation.
Many years ago I discovered a new word: panentheism. Not pantheism (many gods), not theism (usually one god separate from creation), but pan-en-theism—one Spirit present in all creation, without the great divide between spirit and flesh that seems unavoidable in most Western traditions. Perhaps this word can suggest a way to bridge the gulf between stones that speak and a planet of dead rock.
In Christian scripture the apostle Paul describes the perceptions of ordinary people: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly . . . .” These words could describe any human being who has lost her sense of kinship with the web of life in which she lives. We see the world distorted in a bit of poorly polished metal—and ourselves more prominently than all else. But unlike Longfellow’s Lady of Shallot, we have no curse to excuse our stubborn avoidance of the Earth’s true face.
Stone is patient. Stone does not envy or boast, and is neither arrogant nor rude. Stone simply is, demanding nothing. Stone is not false, but embodies the truth of creation. Stone accepts human abuse and awaits our healing. Stone endures all things, is always being transformed, yet is ever the same.
All the photos in The Stones of Easter series* were taken on my brother Don’s mountain during Easter week, 2010, when I was deeply immersed in writing the final chapters of The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat. Starting on the morning of Maundy Thursday and ending on Easter Sunday, each day I packed a lunch and water flask and set off up the mountain with my camera. In a very literal sense, I went in search of a vision.
The result of the vision that met me there is Yeshua’s Cat.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how This Madness of the Heart (and all the following Miranda Lamden Mysteries) fit together with my Yeshua’s Cats series–and why I feel certain the two series can coexist as books by the same author. But since my reasons are more feelings and instincts than logic, I’ve had trouble putting them into words.
So I did what I often do when I need to make sense of something: I created a piece of art (below). After all, what good is an art therapy degree if you can’t use it to clarify your own confusion? If I’m lucky, by explaining the image I’ll be opening up what lies behind it!
So, what are you looking at here?
First, I chose a Hubble image for the background: “Interacting Spiral Galaxies” . . . surely ideal for this project, since galaxies don’t often interact–anymore than churchfolk and professor-sleuths! It felt like a propitious beginning.
Three interlocking circles fill the foreground. The center circle pulses with a glowing gold and green light; the Christian Chi Rho emerges from its heart.
What is the Chi Rho? Like most symbols, it has different meanings across cultures, but for me it’s a symbol used by early Christians in the first three centuries after Yeshua’s birth–before Constantine transformed it into an imperial banner (the cross didn’t emerge as a Christian symbol until after the year 500).
The Chi Rho gets its name from the two Greek letters that overlap to create the symbol: Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, or Christ. In the image above, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega are added. I did experiment with using a cross in the center circle, but I like the visual effect of the Chi Rho better, probably because it has “rays” like the sunburst. Anyway, the central circle is meant to be the Christian faith–not the organized religion–but the living faith of all the individuals who hold themselves to be Christian.
The circle to the right is Mari, from Yeshua’s Cat, turning aside from a path in a green forest to investigate the central circle. In her circle she represents all of the natural universe. Creation. Everything that exists naturally, apart from the intervention of humankind. This natural order also includes human beings, since they’re part of the created universe–but not their civilizations.
The totality of the created world–as we know it on Earth–is flowing back from Mari’s search like the tail of a comet.
The circle on the left is where Miranda, my detective, lives. Her circle is the world of human civilization–urban, complex, multi-cultural, and often unsure exactly what they believe. Many, like Miranda, have their roots in Christianity, but have turned away from the church. Spinning out from her circle is a spiral of different world religions. But in her circle she, like Mari, has paused to examine something about the Christian faith that has caught her eye.
Both Mari and Miranda live outside the Christian fold, and they approach it from opposite directions. Mari moves from the non-human, natural environment, Miranda from a detached, urban, academic world. Still, both find themselves intrigued by the light in the center circle. Mari has the easier approach: Yeshua introduces himself by saving her life, and she joins him as a friend. But Miranda has been scarred by her Christian experience; she mistrusts the church and its agendas. As a professor, she sees all religions as examples of the human yearning toward the divine. Truth claims don’t enter the picture. She simply records what she observes, without making judgments. Her methods are catlike: she steps cautiously toward anything new, not committing herself, poised to slip back into the shadows if conflict threatens.
I knew a number of women like Miranda in my years apart from the church. Their worlds were full and rich, but they didn’t screen their experiences through a Christian worldview. Yet they were sometimes attracted by a light shining out from this tradition many of them had left behind.
. . . maybe the light shone through a person
a man like Elmus
or as comfort in the midst of evil
perhaps through the One’s presence in some crisis of their own
or simply in prayer and meditation.
But today we live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to say, “I believe.” The language is lost. What does it mean to believe? Who are we believing in? People who live in the secular world can’t respond to most Christian overtures–because they don’t understand the words anymore. God-talk is becoming literal non-sense to those outside the churches.
People like Miranda are who they are, just as cats are cats. Each responds to life according to their gifts . . . but for some reason those inside and outside the churches are drawing further apart.
Perhaps we might learn from the effort, and love, we put into cross-species communication with our cats (and dogs, gerbils, birds, and ferrets) . . . and look at the incomprehensible human beings around us as if they concealed inner selves as delightful, unique, and full of surprises as a cat’s. It’s not really such a stretch.
I happen to find the lives of alienated Christians intriguing, perhaps because I’ve been there myself. And if the polls are right, their numbers are growing. Their honesty is often fierce, like their determination never to be taken in again by faux-Christianity and self-serving lies. Sadly we don’t have to look far to find the lurking predators they’re avoiding. And that’s what This Madness of the Heart is about.
Miranda peers into the light of Christian faith–but she looks from a place apart. Her own experiences haven’t shown Christianity to be that promised “light to the gentiles.” So she watches, examines, records, and considers. In the meantime, I feel privileged to narrate her journey.
Click here to visit my Miranda Lamden Mysteries site.
I’ve loved this song most of my adult life, but always wanted it to say more, somehow. So I eventually wrote my own adaptation, below. It follows the original tune of “Simple Gifts,” with its erratic rhythm (the beats of the verses should be 13-11-11-11, and the refrains 8-10-8-10)
Bringing C. L. Francisco and Blair Yeatts Together
I imagine two women walking a little apart in an autumn wood where filtered sunlight hangs in the air like rainbows cast by stained glass windows. They might be sisters, although separated by many years: one has dark hair with ruddy highlights, while the elder’s hair shines silver in the shifting light. Both are tall, with the easy gait of serious walkers, loose denim skirts swirling around their legs as they stroll. Each gazes at the wood intently, reaching out to touch the trees . . . a beech here, an oak there . . . eyes shining with pleasure. The same surety of a benevolent Creator’s love undergirds both, rising up through the fallen leaves like an unfailing spring. But there they part ways.
The younger woman knows herself wounded and angry, torn from her roots, unable and unwilling to return to them. Life for her is a trackless horizon, where she must make her own way among a maze of confusing choices,
. . . a life rent by the emptiness of years alone, of stubborn search and dead-end roads, a renegade among the certain, a voiceless stranger in the garrulous crowds.
The older woman has made her peace with that old pain, accepted the paradoxes, and learned compassion for herself and the ghosts of her past. Her eyes dwell on the infinity of light surrounding her. She falls back into shadow only rarely, and when she does, she knows the light holds her still.
Yeshua’s Cats speak with the voice of the older woman. The Miranda Lamden Mysteries live in the younger woman’s world, overlaid with the hindsight of the elder. But they are both the creation of a single heart. I hope this post may help you bring them together. I’ll also say that, with the exception of a few creative details necessary to establishing a pen name, all Blair Yeatts’ memories and thoughts shared in posted interviews are C. L. Francisco’s own, although offered from the perspective of that younger self.
Blair Yeatts’ This Madness of the Heart was my first book, apart from a mammoth PhD dissertation and an unpublished memoir. I finished the original draft almost 20 years ago, as a way of venting my hurt and anger at the dirty tricks and character assassinations in the fundamentalist takeover of a conservative protestant denomination. As often happens in revolutions, a zealous minority overwhelmed a more moderate and less vocal majority, and then ruthlessly silenced those who disagreed with them. This previously loose-knit denomination had a cherished history of settling doctrinal disagreements locally: churches had simply split, becoming the 1st, 2nd, etc., churches in a given town. Dissent was in their blood, like the freedom of the individual believer. But this ultra-conservative minority targeted the whole assembly of churches in an iron-fisted power grab.
Once the coup was accomplished, dissidents had two choices: either bow to the doctrines of the new power elite, or leave the church. The denomination of my youth was swept away in a furor of self-righteous certainty. Pastors, professors, and church leaders were driven out. Hearts and lives were broken. Doctrine was narrowed, warped, and set in stone. Callings scorned and contracts withdrawn, women clergy left to find ways to minister among people with a wider view of God’s mercy. A few powerful men now controlled the hearts and minds of the denomination’s mostly oblivious members. There was nothing I could do . . . so I wrote a book.
Unfortunately, trying to read Madness’ original draft felt much like Harry Potter opening the screaming book in the Hogwarts’ library: the anger I’d poured into it flamed from its pages. I realized this at the time, and set it aside—for almost twenty years—until I could return and treat it as a mere story. Then I wrote most of the anger out, leaving a fast-paced tale about a slimy charlatan with an honorary divinity degree in a haunted hollow in Appalachia. The story is admittedly over the top . . . vengeful ghosts don’t play feature roles in most grifters’ lives. But where evil thrives, its deadliest mass tends to hide beneath the surface . . . often masquerading as holiness.
I found myself alienated from the Christian faith during two periods in my life: first for the decade spanning college and my early twenties; second, beginning with the fundamentalist takeover and stretching across another 10-15 years. I still find myself at odds with much of the organized Church. I wrote The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat as an expression of my own faith in a Jesus of Nazareth who speaks with love and compassion, untouched by the legalism he challenged. A cat’s voice seemed appropriate for the task. The first book has now multiplied into four, with a fifth on the way.
The Miranda Lamden Mysteries have roots in those secular years, as well as in my lifelong love of mysteries, starting with Nancy Drew and most recently Charles Todd. They are not Christian mysteries. Neither are they “cozies” (emerging from a cozy mystery feels to me like struggling out of wad of cotton batting back into the realities of life). Ugly or not, if a thing is part of human experience, it’s fit to write, and read, about. Violence is part of life, and so are pain and tragedy; they belong in novels, and you will find moderate amounts in mine. But I also write about what I call “spirit” or “faith” or “redemption”—pick whichever word you like: without it the unremitting darkness of despair grinds human beings into something subhuman.
I write mysteries I’d like to read: novels of danger and intrigue, with depths of love and pain, where characters wrestle with despair and disaster, and fight their way through to the light. They surmount capricious hazards without toxic overloads of violence or sex. Spirituality and questions of meaning drive both cast and plot. I don’t strive for great literature, but for a read an intelligent mystery-lover would welcome at the end of a long day—and have difficulty putting down. I don’t guarantee happy endings, but I never end a book with despair and shattering loss of meaning . . . endings may be bittersweet, but they’re always suffused with hope.
If you’re a Blair Yeatts reader, would you like Yeshua’s Cats? If you’re a Yeshua’s Cats reader, would you like the Miranda Lamden Mysteries? Here’s my take.
Yeshua’s Cats are intended for a Christian audience, although reviewers have repeatedly assured readers that their appeal is much broader. The two most recent books, The Cats of Rekem, and Cat Born to the Purple, have both been chosen for Indie Reader’s “Best of” new book list for 2015 and 2016 respectively. But if you’re a devout atheist, or not at all spiritually inclined, I suspect you wouldn’t like them. If you’re a cat-lover you might leap all other boundaries and enjoy them anyway.
The Miranda Lamden Mysteries are full of spiritual matters of one sort and another, since Miranda is a professor of religion and an expert on paranormal phenomena . . . they’re for spiritually curious readers. But if you’re a conservative Christian who thinks preachers can do no wrong, you won’t like the first book. If you believe that you’re in possession of the only truth, and don’t care to consider anyone else’s perspective, you won’t like any of the books in the series. Like Miranda, I’ve spent much of my life in institutions of higher learning, and I’ve seen too many people convinced of the unassailable rightness of their own opinions, mistaking the echoes of their own thoughts for the voice of God. That way lies the Inquisition.
So why did I reverse direction and decide to claim these mysteries as my own? I think the presidential election made my choice for me: the tragedy of my denomination is now replaying on the national stage, and my mysteries have become appallingly relevant. In Miranda’s words, from This Madness of the Heart:
How had we stood by and let such a man amass so much power? Why were the good people of the town not fleeing the contamination of his spirit? How could they not sense the heart of hate beneath his harangues? Any amount of violence might erupt from the bloodlust JJ was whipping up among God’s elect. Religion! Why did the search for ultimate love so often end in hate?
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
I realize that choosing a side in a divisive political—and religious—controversy may alienate me from some of my readers. I hope not. But for me this has become a matter of conscience, and keeping faith with myself . . . as well as with my faith.
Freedom of conscience has always been our privilege in America, but it didn’t come free: it was bought with the lives of people desperate for liberty, and its defense lies in our hands today. I pray we will have the strength and integrity to preserve the freedom our founders entrusted to us.
When I want to focus my prayer over time and through all my senses I create prayer as art–in my intent, in my praying, and in my prayer’s final emergence into the world. So here is the embodiment of the prayers I’ve been praying during an extended retreat for the last week or so, as I’ve grieved and prayed for the healing of the inhumanity I see steadily emerging in the patterns of our nation’s new administration. I believe that the reality that is taking shape there honors neither America’s historic democracy nor the Christian faith.
“A Christmas Prayer” prays that the incomprehensible divine love we celebrate at the Christmas season will fill all our hearts, from the smallest child to the nation’s leaders, and open our eyes to the wideness of God’s mercy, which encompasses the whole of Creation.
I, too, feel the times growing harder; the American dream seems to be slipping through our fingers. But I don’t understand how so many of America’s Christians could have gotten so muddled in their distress. How could we forget that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?
We must hold to these and other words that have shaped our faith:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”!
“What does the Lord require of you but to do do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jesus did not model the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” by narrowing the definition of “neighbor” to those whose race, language, skin color, birth country, and beliefs were identical to his own.
I grieve for us as a nation.
We have stumbled and fallen at the 3rd temptation where Yeshua stood firm: we have grasped for temporal power. These words are from Yeshua’s Cat describing his final temptation in the wilderness:
There was silence for a time. Then ben Adamah’s eyes cleared, he saw me watching, and he smiled. Now he was looking at a definite place, somewhere to the right of where I stood (my fur was bristling, and I was ready to spring away at any moment. Did I see something moving there in the moonless dark?).
“Oh, you evil fool,” the son of Earth laughed, “you have misjudged your game tonight! I have seen too many good men corrupted by even a little of that power to fall into its snare. The power I seek is the power to heal body and soul, the power of one who walks unnoticed among many, seeking the good of all: the power that binds creation together, not a power that consumes it. Burning through my heart is a power that rejects you and all you offer. I will have none of your thrones, your palaces, or your rich robes. No man, woman, or child will ever grovel before me in fear! Get out of my sight, corrupter of innocence. You have no place here.”
The night grew quiet then, the tension vanishing on a slight breeze. Whatever had been happening was finished.
“Come, curl up beside me, little mother,” ben Adamah said softly. “My vigil is over for tonight. It’s time to sleep.”
For those of you with a curious turn of mind, I’ll explain a bit of what’s going on in this digital mosaic. The overall pattern is based on the south rose window at Notre Dame of Paris. Literally thousands of tiny pieces of layers were combined to complete the whole.
At the very center is a spiral galaxy from the Hubble series, with a star superimposed, also from Hubble, and a close up of Mary and the baby Jesus from William Holman Hunt’s “The Triumph of the Innocents.”
Around the central image is a circle of 12 identical panels of the “Tree of Jesse” from a Chartres Cathedral window. The, tree, or root, of Jesse–Jesus’ human lineage (from the prophet Isaiah)–is often called the Tree of Life.
The round rose-window shapes in the next ring are 24 identical images of grape vines from another Notre Dame rose window, pieced together into rings.
The next circle out from the center is composed of elders from traditions all over the world, including Pope Francis, an Orthodox bishop, Rev. Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and many others from cultures great and small.
Behind each elder’s head is a plain aquamarine stained glass circle.
Above these circles are hands of different colors, each reaching out to help others and to the One in prayer.
Beyond the ring of hands are round stained glass windows framing the faces of ordinary people from ethnic groups around the world.
Interspersed between these portrait circles are small stained glass windows from Notre Dame de la Croix.
Around the outer edge of the circle are flowers from blossoming trees holding the faces of the world’s children, overlain with translucent spring beech leaves.
From behind each blossom the Bethlehem star shines out.
Throughout the whole circle the branches of the tree of life weave in and out of the pattern.
And overall, a rainbow of stained-glass light colors all the shapes beneath it, just as the One’s love embraces all Creation.
I wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving and Christmas, filled with gratitude for our many blessings, and with prayers for our leaders’ wisdom.
“Grace dances . . . dance, all of you!”
—The Acts of John
Heresy vs orthodoxy is the stuff that breeds wars, and Church history is full of it. Without getting into a discussion of Church councils and the creation of the Christian canon, I’d like to look at a 2nd C gnostic gospel that was pronounced heretical—and see what it might say to us today.
The Acts of John was condemned by Church fathers as docetic (docetism is the belief that Jesus’ humanity and physical body were an illusion). To modern eyes John can be a peculiar book, full of bizarre notions and unappealing ideas—particularly its contention that the spirit of Christ abandoned the man Jesus to suffer on the cross alone, while the divine essence stood apart, untouched by pain.
But if you can set that notion aside, The Acts of John offers a number of intriguing thoughts. Perhaps most familiar is a lovely passage known as “The Circle Dance of the Cross,” in which, the night before his death, Jesus invites all his disciples to form a circle and dance around him. Those of you who have read Yeshua’s Cat may recognize the last four lines of the quote below as part of Yeshua’s conversation with his mother before he left Nazareth for the last time.
Here is an edited version of the original text:
[Jesus] stood in the circle’s center and said, “Answer ‘Amen’ to everything I say.” Then he began to sing a hymn, saying: “Glory be to you, Father.” And we, moving around him in a ring, answered him: “Amen.” “We praise you, O Father; we give thanks to you, O Light where darkness cannot dwell.” “Amen.” “I would be saved, and I would save.” “Amen.” “I would be freed, and I would free.” “Amen.” “I would be wounded, and I would wound.” “Amen.” “I would be born, and I would give birth.” “Amen.” “I would eat, and I would be eaten.” “Amen.” “I would hear, and I would be heard.” “Amen.” “I would be thought of, being wholly thought.” “Amen.” “I would be washed, and I would wash.” “Amen.” “Grace dances. I would pipe; dance, all of you.” “Amen.” “I would mourn: lament, all of you.” “Amen . . .” “The Whole on high takes part in our dancing.” “Amen.” “Whoever does not dance cannot understand what is coming to pass.” “Amen.” “I would flee, and I would stay.” “Amen.” “I would adorn, and I would be adorned.” “Amen.” “I would be united, and I would unite.” “Amen . . .” “A lamp am I to you who behold me.” “Amen.” “A mirror am I to you who perceive me.” “Amen.” “A door am I to you who knock at me.” “Amen.” “A way am I to you a wanderer . . . “
Christian mystics down through the centuries have used the metaphor of dance to describe the human relationship to God, and I found John’s Circle Dance delightful.
Well, I mused, if The Acts of John can include the Circle Dance, what else might I find? So I examined the book more closely. Another idea present throughout the book is that Jesus appeared in many different guises while he walked the earth. I must admit that John’s list allows for a few more possibilities than the canonical gospels: a child, a young handsome man, a youth just bearding, a middle-aged balding man, a small ugly man, a huge heavenly man, a being of whiteness and light, a man with a soft yielding body, a man whose body was hard as stone, a body firm to the touch, and a body with no physical solidity at all. John describes the significance of these guises with the words, “. . . his great grace, his unity that had many faces . . . “
Those words reminded me of recent critics in the search for the historical Jesus who point out that people of every age have tried to mold Jesus into their own ideal of who he should be—thus hopelessly muddying the waters for anyone trying to discern the true historical person.
But here’s my thought: what if Jesus’ message right from the beginning was intended to be a message for all ages and all people? What if his message always had access points that could lead people along diverse paths to the One through him? What if he included embryonic possibilities in his teaching that could support every positive interpretation ever put on his original message? Everything from human rights, the light within, and justice—to caring for the environment and liberation theology? What if most Christian heresies, while diverging from the mainstream, have a unique glimmer of this truth?
Unfortunately, we as humans too often seize on glimmers of truth as if they were the final and complete word of God rather than single facets. Just so the Church has long been at fault for trying to narrow Jesus’ message to fit their limited understanding, enclosing it within a box made to their order. In the hands of the Church, too often the multifaceted diamond of Jesus’ message has been transformed into a stony concretion in crumbling stone—frozen and trapped beneath masses of accumulated tradition.
“His unity that had many faces . . .” is one insight from The Acts of John that we might wish to heed. What if one of Jesus’ primary goals—long obscured by human ignorance—was to bring healing to the shattered images of the One, fragmented for so long among human cultures? What if he offered freedom, and the brilliant unity of God’s countenance, to all people—and we have warped them instead into shadow and condemnation?
During the years after the wildfire, when I was first experimenting with possibilities for Yeshua’s Cat, I was living in New Mexico, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where the most common views were of low hills covered with Piñon-Juniper woodlands and sagebrush. Inspired by one such hill with an unusually clear pyramidal shape, I wrote an odd little preface for Yeshua’s Cat (that I never used) called “The Pyramid of the Bush King.” I came across it recently among some old files, and thought my readers might enjoy it. Just treat it as a fable, or perhaps a fairy tale . . .
Not so very long ago, nor so very far away, in a land much like other lands, a people lived in the shelter of a great mound. Those whose mothers and fathers had dwelt long beneath its shadow spoke of it as the Pyramid of the Bush King, an ancient monument erected to honor the memory of a glorious king. For uncounted generations their forebears had venerated this king as their ancestral guide. But as lifetimes flowed by, the details of the great monarch’s reign grew blurred, and a select group of elders took over the recitation of his deeds.
The Earth turned, and the world changed around the people of the Pyramid. Outsiders came and went, chattering excitedly about amazing new discoveries about their king, but the folk of the pyramid resolutely closed their ears and held to their old ways.
Then explorers digging down through crumbling ruins near the mound unearthed an older story, one both greater and smaller than the familiar tale. This story spoke of a mountain never raised by human hands. Rather than a temple to the great king, the hill was as old as Creation itself, worn down by the cycling seasons to its now-familiar pyramidal shape. The stunted bushes that had leant their name to the vanished king had once spread their branches above the heads of men—small trees, but graceful, fruit-bearing, generous in shade, their rustling leaves bending down to touch the fertile earth.
Last, and strange beyond the power of words to tell, the explorers discovered that the mighty king had been no king at all. He had never claimed royal estate, never laid down laws, nor even worn a golden crown. He had laughed and loved, taught and died—and some said lived again—a man beloved of many, yet never a ruler. His glowing words (long treasured through the ages) had somehow lost their fire in the elders’ keeping. And, sadly, as the people of the pyramid had crouched protectively over increasingly vague memories of their king, the trees had shriveled, the green mound had turned to dust, and the world had forgotten his wisdom.
“Listen,” the explorers cried to the mountain people, “we have news of your king! Good news! His words still burn with living fire!” But the old familiar story closed in like a fog on the people’s minds. It lay like pre-dawn mist on autumn fields, whispering of winter light and a sun too weak to pierce their clouded thoughts. So their story of the Bush King endured, unchanging, unending, its tired light casting grey shadows across their bleak lives.
Yet the story is still born anew—and forever old—to any who will look beyond the tattered veils of sadness toward the light. As long as the grasses grow and the rivers run, the king’s light will beckon us home. The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat is one voice reaching for the coming of that light.
Anyone who has studied the history of religions is aware of the shift in human consciousness that began sometime in the last millennium BCE and lasted into the early centuries of the Common Era. During those years human religious practice moved dramatically away from old communal forms and took on more personal expression. Individual human beings began to approach their gods in increasingly distinctive ways, and more and more spiritual teachers emphasized the value of individual human lives. Even C. G. Jung tried to explain the phenomenon in his Psychology and Religion West and East.
In India the sage Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, offered seekers a Middle Way to enlightenment between the extremes of asceticism and worldly sensuality. In Persia Zarathustra introduced the idea of the freedom of individual human beings and the importance of their choosing to labor with the God of Light, Ahura Mazda, against the forces of darkness and ignorance.
In Israel the prophets emerged, offering ethical virtues such as compassion and mercy as alternatives to the old sacrificial system; Hillel the Elder followed in the 1st C BCE with his Golden Rule, and his famous statement that “whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world, and whosoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Jesus of Nazareth, born around 4 BCE, brought a unique gospel of love and life to humankind, known for two millennia as Christianity.
All around Jesus, throughout the ever-spreading Roman Empire, Mystery Religions were attracting followers by the tens of thousands. In each of these Mysteries, individual men and women found hope of eternal life through initiation into secret knowledge unavailable to those outside their communities. Dionysian, Eleusinian, Cybeline, Isaic, Mithraic, and Orphic mysteries were but some of them. In many instances the secret knowledge was imparted through the initiate’s participatory experience in the death and rebirth of the god or goddess.
In the process of writing The Cats of Rekem, the third volume in the Yeshua’s Cats series, I wandered into the jungle of Greco-Roman Mystery Religions. I won’t try to offer an explanation of why they exploded into the ancient world, but they were spreading like wildfire across the Mediterranean basin in the years before and after Yeshua’s life. Early Christians were well acquainted with these religions, and in many cases they came to the Church from them.
Numbers of people have written countless volumes of material about the relationship between early Christianity and Mystery Religions, some scholarly and accurate, many biased and inflammatory. As a writer of historical fiction whose characters are rooted in the beliefs of their day, I came up against the question of Mystery Religions in a very personal way. In particular, I found myself needing to understand exactly how Yeshua’s original message differed from the message of the Mysteries. And I didn‘t want to expound the same old Christian apologetics and bland assurances that no overlap ever existed. It obviously did.
So I dusted off my books on Greco-Roman culture and began to refresh my memory. I took notes, and made charts. I even drew up a spreadsheet. I concluded that there were many, many apparent similarities between the practices of the early Church and the Mystery Religions; in fact, there were far more similarities than differences—baptism, equality of men and women, depictions of mother and child, separation of the community from the wider society, hope of immortality through the death and resurrection of a god or founder, ritual commemoration of that same founder’s death and resurrection. The list goes on and on.
But this left me with two troublesome questions. First, did these obvious similarities in the early Church really reflect Yeshua’s message? And second, allowing for the possibility that they might not, how did Yeshua’s message itself differ from the Mysteries? I even went so far as to wonder what he might have said to one of the Mystery devotees that surely crossed his path.
In the end I isolated several radically new ideas in Jesus’ message that found no parallels in the other religions of his day. In some cases these ideas didn’t survive very long in the young Church. Here they are, as I see them:
He preached a loving God who sought reconciliation with humanity—not justice, or retribution, or punishment
He brought this God into direct relationship with human beings, without priests or organized religions between them and the Deity who loved them
He offered his listeners a simple choice: accept God’s love and embrace the freedom growing out of that love, or turn their backs and lose themselves in their own darkness
He preached a peaceful, non-violent approach to life
He didn’t call for a system of initiates vs outsiders: the thrust of his message was always of mysteries revealed, hardened hearts opening to understanding, and truths simple enough for a child to grasp
Perhaps in contrast to the Mysteries, (which were celebrated in darkness) he characterized his message as one of light, revealed in the light of day for all to see
Rather than the emotional frenzy common to the Mysteries, where initiates agonized and suffered, imagining themselves suffering with their dying and rising god, he offered his followers a death accomplished, and new life freely given: where such participatory agonies have entered the Church, I suspect they may have come by way of the Mystery Religions, not Yeshua’s words
The first two hundred years of the Church were violent and chaotic, and the records are conflicting. Many stories lie outside the scope of the Bible. I believe that there’s room to question traditional understandings of the Church’s message–and to question the way the Church has interpreted the words of Christ.
But don’t take my word for it: look for yourself! If there’s a mystery, it’s hiding in plain sight.