The Life and Times of a Galloping Nandina


My Favorite Coleus
Last week, Peggy and I celebrated our first outing since mid-March by visiting an outdoor nursery from which we emerged with a coleus, fifteen marigolds, a basket of violas, and eight variegated lamiums. Except for the coleus, we planted everything outdoors. 

Peggy's bedroom has green walls and no plants. My bedroom has pink walls and up to forty-four plants. It is my favorite place on earth, and my GQ handsome Ollie must agree because when I call him to bed each night, I can hear him galloping from three rooms away.

My last bedroom addition was a Gulf Stream Nandina that I named Tommy in honor of my father, and which I moved indoors last fall. It was Tommy's fourth move since he entered my life in 2016. The first was from the nursery to my yard. When that didn't work out, I put him in a pot and switched him seasonally from deck to patio. Still he struggled. Then one night while Ollie and I were cuddling, I longed to have Tommy beside me, so I vainly searched the indexes of fifteen houseplant books for advice. Mystified but undeterred,  Ollie and I welcomed Tommy into our bedroom two days later. His health improved so fast and so dramatically that I've since concluded that, like Ollie, Tommy would have galloped to join me if only he could.
  
Ollie Used to Make it Hard for Peggy to Get Off the Pot
Looking at my plants is the last thing I do each day and, because my grow-light burns all night, I get to see them afresh in the wee hours and then again when I awaken in the morning. Next to Peggy and our five cats, plants are the most important things in my life.

Some Thoughts about Trump and the Pandemic as of Today, April 21




"Trump news is so terrifying I can barely stand to read it." 
--from a British reader and friend

Trump news is terrifying, not just because of the things he does but from the disastrous effects on health, human rights, and the environment, that are posed by the people he hires and the judges he appoints. For instance, yesterday, a court upheld Texas' efforts to prevent abortions during the pandemic, and the day before that, another court forbade the governor of Kansas from banning church services during the pandemic. 

When Trump took office, I wondered if this was what it was like to live in Germany when Hitler came to power, and the feeling has intensified. The only hope I can find is that his approval rating has generally been in the low forties, but sadly it is now at 49%. I, of course, can't see what there is to approve of, but when he turned his daily pandemic briefings into lie-strewn taxpayer-financed political events at which he boasted of how well he was handling things, blamed the Democrats and the Chinese for the pandemic, and insulted reporters when they asked such questions as, "What do you have to say to people who are afraid?" his popularity increased among those who favor "strong man" regimes. Last week, he even boasted: “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total." Although his supporters claim to favor a weak federal government and strong local governments, they didn't object to this, suggesting that they actually like a strong federal government when their candidate is running it. 

The fact is that the laws that are supposed to protect America from would-be dictators only apply if the people of America respect those laws. A man like Trump will override them to the extent that the people allow him to, and with federal judges in his pocket, he won't even encounter resistance from that quarter.

Now, there is enormous pressure here to go back to pre-pandemic behavior, and much of that pressure is coming from Christians, from the far-right, and from the gun crowd (there being overlap among the three). Most governors are trying to prevent this, but Trump has been countenancing insurrection against them through such tweets as, "Liberate Michigan," "Liberate Minnesota," and "Liberate Virginia." It's also true that some governors are themselves backing a return to pre-pandemic behavior. For example, the governor of Georgia didn't bother to consult with his state's mayors before decreeing--today--that Georgia return to business-as-usual. If the medical authorities are right, this will lead to disaster, but here's what I think.

A week or two ago, it was reported that black people, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans die of Covid-19 in much higher numbers than Americans of Northern European ancestry, and it has long been known that sick people and the elderly are at greater risk, so is all this pressure to reopen society inspired by the thought that, "Hell, this virus probably won't hurt us much, and here is our chance to rid society of all the undesirables who are sponging off the government and draining "our" Social Security. Let's get out there and spread this thing around before scientists come up with a way to prevent it"? I suspect that, in the minds of millions (a third of Americans favor a return to what they refer to as normalcy), this is true, and my suspicion is intensified by the sight of guns (in states with open-carry laws), the Gadsden Flag (see image), and Confederate Battle Flags at these rapidly growing demonstrations. These are not people who care about the "rights" of anyone but themselves and their select group.

Another factor is that many Christians imagine that Jesus will keep them from getting sick (as the signs proclaim, "Jesus is My Vaccine"). Ironically, the parts of America in which evangelicals are dominant are the same parts that have a high incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, problems that make Covid more deadly. So, on the one hand, you have people who see the pandemic as a way to rid society of "undesirables," and, on the other, you have such Christians as imagine themselves immune.

Part 3 of Cats and Humans: Cats Under Islamic Rule


Istanbul mosque. Photo by Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Some authors of cat/human history claim that patriarchal rule results in the hatred of both women and cats. According to this view, men's desire for women makes them feel weak, and they externalize their weakness by blaming it on women. These same men claim that God blessed them with strength, and women with weakness, and that men should therefore rule over women.

But why hate cats? Since ancient times, feline beauty, grace, sensuality, and mystery have been compared to the same qualities in women. Moreover, just as women's menstrual cycle reflects the lunar cycle, cats' eyes reflect moonlight. Worse yet, neither the world's strongest man nor its mightiest army can force obedience from its weakest cat, and what patriarchs can't control, they must destroy.

This view ignores evidence to the contrary. For example, ancient Judaism ignored cats, and for its first millennium, Christianity held cats in high esteem. Most notably, Mohamed loved cats, the result being that Islam is strongly ailurophilic. Some evidence:

(1) Mohamed told of a woman being consigned to hell because she tied her cat to a post and left it to starve. (2) When the call to prayer came while Mohamed's favorite cat, Muezza, was asleep on his sleeve, he severed the sleeve rather than disturb her. (3) When a tabby saved Mohamed from a cobra, Mohamed blessed all tabbies by leaving the mark of his fingers on their foreheads; and he blessed all cats by petting the back of his rescuer, thereby insuring that falling cats land on their feet. (4) Mohamed's favorite wife, Aisha, taught that the cat is the only animal that can drink from ritualistic water without rendering it impure. (5) While the Catholic Church was killing cats in the 1200s, a Cairo sultan started the world's first sanctuary for homeless cats, and it still exists. (6) Cats are free to come and go from mosques.

Only the French have expressed cat-love as eloquently as Muslims: 

When sorrows press my heart, I say: Maybe they'll disappear one day, when books will be my friends at night, my darling then the candlelight, my sweetest friend, a kitten white.
Ramiri, 13th century theologian

She has so bewitched me with her darkness and light that she appears to be made of ebony and ivory.
Ibn Tabataba, 10th century spokesman for Mohamed's descendants

When a cat dies, the dervishes bury her in a grave that is in line with Mecca. They bury her and say, "Go on my friend, may God give you peace and peace for us." On that grave, they put a stone and cry hot tears.
 Custom of Moroccan dervishes

Rosebuds surrounded by thorns.
Mother cat carrying babies in mouth.
 Rumi 13th century scholar, theologian poet, and mystic

My sorrows will be over when I find companionship in a cat.
 Ahmad Ibn Faris, ninth century scholar

Those who love cats have a strong faith.
Turkish proverb

The cat sleeps on the sheik's lap, and on the prayer carpet is she at home.
Attar, 13th century, mystic


The grammarian, Ibn Babshad, was eating with friends atop a Cairo mosque. When a cat appeared, they gave her some morsels. She took them and ran away only to come back again and again. The scholars followed her to a roof on which a blind cat was sitting. The cat placed the morsels in front of her. Babshad was so moved by God's caring for the blind creature that he gave up his belongings and lived in poverty, completely trusting in God until he died in 1067.
Ancient tradition recorded by Dimiri in the 14th century


Religious cynic that I am, I can't help but reflect that had Mohamed despised cats as he did dogs, their fate might have been just as tragic. So it is with all religions in which the founder's virtues and vices are enshrined as the will of God. On the bright side, because Mohamed liked cats, they have been far better treated in Islamic nations than Christian ones. To see this for yourself, google cats in mosques, and click on images.

Part 2 of Cats and Humans: Cats Under Christian Rule


St. Gertrude

Ancient Israel being a nation of herdsmen, cats are only mentioned once in the Bible:


“The idols' faces are made black with the smoke that is in the house. Owls, and swallows, and other birds fly upon their bodies, and upon their heads, and cats in like manner.”  Baruch 6:20-21


Likewise, Bastet's holy city only appears once in the Bible--in a failed prophecy:

“The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword, and the cities themselves will go into captivity.” Ezekiel 30:17

Initially, Christian painters honored the cat's role as a fertility symbol by including cats in paintings of the Virgin Mary. According to legend, Jesus' mother and a cat gave birth at the same time in a Bethlehem stable, and when Mary was unable to lullaby her baby to sleep, a newborn kitten crawled into the manger and purred him to sleep.  



Saint Gertrude became the patron saint of cats, and Saint Agatha turned into a fierce cat when angry.  Naturalistic cats were carved into church furniture, represented in gargoyles in Notre Dame, and appeared in illustrations in the 700 AD Lindisfarne Gospels, and in the 800 AD Irish Book of Kells. Christian Europe had laws that placed a high monetary value upon cats, punished anyone who abused or neglected a cat, and awarded the family cat to divorced wives.


In the ninth century, an Irish monk wrote endearingly of his cat in a poem entitled

“Pangur Ban (the title means A Fuller White):


“Pangur, white Pangur, how happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat.
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me it is study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice when your claws entrap a mouse.
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live without tedium and envy.”



By the 13th century, the Catholic Church was experiencing growing disillusionment within its ranks combined with a permanent split with its Eastern branch. Pope Gregory IX blamed the church's problems on Satan worship, and because the church regarded women as morally and intellectually weak, and associated cats with Bastet, Artemis, Diana, Hecate, and Freya, women and cats became targets of the church's wrath. The resultant persecution was based upon the Bible and upon Pope Gregory's 1233 Vox Romana 



“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22:18
 


“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” I Timothy 2: 13-14
 


“Then all sit down to a banquet and when they rise after it is finished, a black cat emerges from a kind of statue which normally stands in the place where these meetings are held. It is as large as a fair-sized dog, and enters backwards with its tail erect. First the novice kisses its hind parts, then the Master of Ceremonies proceeds to do the same and finally all the others in turn; or rather all those who deserve the honor. The rest, that is those who are not thought worthy of this favor, kiss the Master of Ceremonies. When they have returned to their places they stand in silence for a few minutes with heads turned towards the cat. Then the Master says: 'Forgive us.' The person standing behind him repeats this and a third adds, 'Lord we know it.' A fourth person ends the formula by saying, 'We shall obey.'” Vox Romana

So it was that the little predator that had symbolized divine fertility; lulled Jesus to sleep; and was lauded for its protection of food, health, books, manuscripts, bedding, and altar candles, came to be regarded as the associate of Judas. In the eyes of the church, the cat not only represented Satan, the cat was the embodiment of Satan, and the screams of tortured cats came to be regarded as music to God's ears. But it wasn't just women and cats who were persecuted, the church ascribed cat worship to all its enemies, and under torture, its enemies confirmed that this was true. Nor was the persecution limited to Catholics--England's Queen Elizabeth I celebrated her 1558 coronation with the burning of a cat-filled papal effigy. The  church's hatred of cats even infected medicine and academia.


“They who keep cats with them in their beds have the air corrupted and fall into hectics and consumption. The hair of cats eaten unawares stops the artery and causes suffocation.”
Edward Topsell, The History of Four-Footed Beasts, 1607


“The cat is a venomous animal which infects through its hair, its breath, and its brains.” Ambroise Pare, French surgeon 1510-1590

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared: The cat is the devil's favourite animal and the idol of all witches. Witches, he argued, could shape-shift into cats, so he ordained that both witches and cats be burned. The last public killing of cats occurred in Ypres, Belgium in 1817, although the city's celebration continues to this day with toy cats. Yet cats were never universally despised even among leading churchmen, most famously the kitten-loving cardinal Amand Richelieu who left his kittens well provided for in his will although they were murdered after his death by the Swiss Guard. In his 14th century Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: 


“Lat take a cat, and fostre him wel with milk, And tendre flesh, and make his couche of silk, And let him seen a mous go by the wal; Anon he weyveth milk, and flesh, and al, And every deyntee that is in that hous, Swich appetyt hath he to ete a mous.



In the 1700s, couples in the French court wrote love letters to one another under the pretense that they were written by the couple's Turkish Angoras, as did America's premier wit, Benjamin Franklin. By the 1760s British poet Christopher Smart could safely write:



“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.


For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way....” 

And of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), his cat-hating biographer, James Boswell, wrote:



“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.” 



But what of modern Catholicism's attitude toward cats? I don't know of a single church that concerns itself with the welfare of non-humans, but only the Catholic Church condemns them to suffer until such time as all human needs are met:



“It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery.”
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2418

Although recent popes have apologized to various of the church's many victims, cats were not included despite constituting the majority of the aggrieved. Because St. Francis of Assisi referred to non-humans as brothers and sisters, one might hope that the current pope might do the same, but perhaps he took his name from some other Francis. In any event, upon learning how much money people spend upon their pets, Francis complained:



“After food, clothing and medicine, the fourth item is cosmetics and the fifth is pets. That’s serious.” 



But on a positive note, he broke with numerous popes, including his immediate predecessor, by declaring that animals possess immortal souls and will live alongside us in heaven. The Bible agrees:



“The wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat...the lion will eat straw like the ox... Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain...” Isaiah 65:25 



Despite this enlightened view, the prescribed relationship between animals and humans was determined within the second page of the Book of Genesis:



“God blessed them and said to them, 'Fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.'” Genesis 1:28

Rule over cats? Good luck! When cats' observation that ours is a large and heavily armed race of homicidal maniacs didn't suggest to them that we deserved their homage, what did we do? What could we do? We could kill them, and kill them, and kill them. We could dance like King Louis XIV danced as caged cats were slowly lowered onto Parisian bonfires, and, when burning them grew stale, we could flay, crucify, eviscerate, draw-and-quarter, and throw them from towers while Christians cheered, happy in the knowledge that the same Jesus whom a kitten had once lulled to sleep had since realized that kittens were demonic.


We, the hideous, the loutish, the churlish, and the clumsy, destroyed the free, the noble, the brave, and the beautiful, and then came the rodent-carried Black Death. Our defenders being dead, and our sadistic god's maniacal laughter grown strangely silent, our bodies turned the color of blackened catfish before our putrid corpses were cast high upon meat-wagons. Now that the Plague is a distant memory, Christ's faithful can again celebrate him in song: “I've got joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my soul today.” If I were a praying man, I would sing too, a song of my own invention. It would start with the words Hail Bastet, and I would sing it whenever I remembered that what Christianity was to cats, the Black Death was to Christianity. Happily, cats survived that long ago reign of terror to grace our homes today, but, sadly, the religion of Christ also survived.

Christianity's last public killing of cats occurred in 1817 in Ypres, Belgium, where they were thrown from a watchtower. Today, as part of a family-friendly festival, toy cats are cast from that same tower. Would the pubic consider it just as amusing to draw-and-quarter Jews, or, in the minds of the many, is it more entertaining to watch cats die?

Kattenstoet, Ypres Belgium

Part 1 of Cats and Humans: the Cat Goddess Bastet


Felis silvestris lybica, Ancestor of the Domestic Cat

Between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, human hunters bred domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) from a now extinct species of wolf, but the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) didn't appear on the scene until after 12,000 BC. The reason it arrived when it did was that the advent of farming in Iraq's Fertile Crescent brought on a rodent invasion that dogs couldn't address, so humans enlisted the aid of a nine-pound wildcat known as Felis silvestris lybica. Ferrets and mongooses also served in the rodent wars, but the wildcat became our closet ally because it was: easily domesticated; self-cleaning; made its toilet outdoors; bred prolifically; and, like ferrets and mongooses, killed the snakes that accompanied the rodents.

The oldest known remains of a domesticated cat were found in a 7,500 BC grave on the Island of Cyprus, but no people ever loved cats like the early Egyptians whose association dates from at least 4,000 BC, and who gave the cat goddess, Bastet, a major place in their pantheon. By 1,500 BC bejeweled cats were depicted as eating beneath the chairs of Egyptian women and accompanying the man of the house on bird hunts.
 
“The name of the god who guards you is Cat.”

Egyptian Book of the Dead, 1250 BC


Egyptians shaved their eyebrows when the family cat died; fed cats during times of famine; and killed people who killed cats. They also kept pet dogs, birds, baboons, and the aforementioned mongooses and ferrets (among others), but only cats were mummified in the hundreds of thousands. Sadly, few exist today because Victorian England imported countless tons of them for fertilizer (one company alone imported nineteen tons).
 
“Oh peaceful one, who returns to peace, you cause me to see the darkness of your making. Lighten me that I can perceive your beauty, turn towards me, O beautiful one when at peace, the peaceful one when at peace, the peaceful one who knows a return to peace.”

Inscription to Bastet on stele, 1200 BC

Contrary to common belief, the ancient Egyptians didn't worship animals, but neither did they regard them as inferior. Because they didn't feel the need to demarcate between our species and all others, they didn't even have a word for animal. The fact that they portrayed many of their deities as all or part animal, was simply due to their belief that gods assume the outward appearance of such creatures as reflect their inner natures. True to her cat nature, Bastet's hieroglyph means Devouring Lady, but because cats are also loving,
loyal, polite, playful, and gentle, Egyptians added a perfume jar to distinguish Bastet from the frightening and unpredictable deities that clothed themselves in the form of the big cats.
  

Bastet, circa 664-322 BC
When Bastet was first worshiped in the mid-third millenium BC, she did appear as a big cat--a lion. As the Egyptian's love for the domestic cat grew, Bastet transitioned to having a lion's head on a woman's body. She next metamorphosed to having a cat's head on a woman's body, and finally to being all cat. The Greek traveler and historian, Herodotus, joined a pilgrimage to her holy city of Bubastis in the fifth century BC:


“When the people are on their way to Busbastis, they go by river, a great number in every boat, men and women together. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women, and the men, sing and clap their hands. [2] As they travel by river to Bubastis, whenever they come near any other town they bring their boat near the bank; then some of the women do as I have said, while some shout mockery of the women of the town; others dance, and others stand up and lift their skirts. They do this whenever they come alongside any riverside town. [3] But when they have reached Busbastis, they make a festival with great sacrifices, and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole year besides. It is customary for men and women (but not children) to assemble there to the number of seven hundred thousand, as the people of the place say.”*



“Her temple is of this description: except for the entrance, it stands on an island; for two channels approach it from the Nile without mixing with one another, running as far as the entryway of the temple, the one and the other flowing around it, each a hundred feet wide and shaded by trees. [2] The outer court is sixty feet high, adorned with notable figures ten feet high. The whole circumference of the city commands a view down into the temple in its midst; for the city's level has been raised, but that of the temple has been left as it was from the first, so that it can be seen into from above. [3] A stone wall, cut with figures, runs around it; within is a grove of very tall trees growing around a great shrine where the image of the goddess is; the temple is a square, each side measuring an eighth of a mile. [4] A road, paved with stone, about three eighths of a mile long leads to the entrance...this road is about four hundred feet wide, and bordered by trees reaching to heaven.”*



“O cat of lapis lazuli, great of forms...grant the beautiful West in peace...”

funerary papyrus, 900 BC

Bastet devoted herself to avenging wrongs and protecting the defenseless. She reigned over cats, romance, women, perfume, purity, fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, children, music, the arts, festivity, and warfare. Her heavenly symbol was the moon as reflected in cats' eyes, and she was a combination of motherly gentleness and tireless ferocity. It was she who made each day possible by her nightly slaying of the snake god Apep, whose kingdom was built upon darkness and deceit, and who sought to plunge the world into everlasting darkness by killing Bastet's father, Ra, as he rode his sun barge through the twelve caverns of the underworld from west to east, and hence toward new day. Each night, Bastet's battle with Apep would be renewed; each night, she would behead him; and each night, she would do it again in her endless war against evil. 

https://ferrebeekeeper.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/9102d1158653520-bast_kills_apep-jpg.jpg
Bastet Slays Apep, papyrus, circa 1280 BC

What Job, Earthworms, Tree Squirrels, and Mark Twain's Wife Have in Common


Even if PEW is right about 15% of liberal Episcopalians being nonbelievers (see last post), that leaves 85% who are. While I doubt that most liberal Episcopalians believe in the virgin birth, the triune God, or that Christ died for their sins, I would imagine that they do believe in some nebulous force for universal good, a view that I daresay lacks currency among earthworms, earthworms being creatures that I reflect upon quite a lot this time of year. The reason for my reflection is that western Oregon gets almost daily rain each winter, and in order to breathe, earthworms must take to the pavement where there's nothing to eat, and they are subject to being run over or stepped upon.

Another case in point. I feed tree squirrels, so it sometimes happens that I witness their suffering. One recently lay on my porch with a skinned leg, and although I fed him, he soon disappeared. I should think that a God who is capable of creating stars by the trillion could save, or at least euthanize, suffering tree squirrels, but God does not, and this leaves but eight possibilities: (1) God does not exist; (2) God is ignorant of the suffering of tree squirrels; (3) God is indifferent to the suffering of tree squirrels; (4) God is unable to help suffering tree squirrels; (5) God allows tree squirrels to suffer for some unimaginable good; (7) Descartes was right, and only humans suffer; (8) the Judaeo-Muslim-Christian religions are right, and God became so disappointed in human beings that he made the whole earth suffer in retaliation. 

If you're a believer, which option do you choose, or do you simply throw up your hands and say that everyone must have faith in something, and your faith is in the Rock of Zion. Yes, we all must have faith in something, but I would offer that your argument has a serious problem in that faith must be based upon a record of reliability. For instance, I have faith in my wife because my wife has shown herself reliable, but upon what record of reliability do you base your faith in God, and when you answer that question, how do you know that God deserves the credit?

Mark Twain's wife was a devout Christian until her father and small son died, after which she regarded God as unreliable, her faith in God's reliability having remained constant through other people's losses. The faith of the Biblical character Job was not so shaken. In that account, Satan told God that he could make God's rich, devout, and happy servant, Job, curse God to his face, upon which God said prove it. Satan then killed Job's children, destroyed his home, made him a pauper, and afflicted him with boils, but Job remained steadfast. Where the story fails is that it gives the reader no understanding of Job's constancy and no reason to prefer the morality of God to the morality of Satan, since both had conspired to wreck Job's life--and kill his children--simply to prove a point.

In a very limited way, I go to church; I benefit from going to church; and I have no intention of not going to church; yet there remains an incalculable gulf between most churchgoers and myself. This means that my welcome at church is conditional upon keeping my mouth shut regarding scores of objections to the very concept of religious faith. Sadly, I have been in a similar dilemma in other groups, not because I'm generally unpleasant, but because I find it nearly impossible to remain silent about things that make other people cringe. Socrates was killed for asking uncomfortable questions as was, perhaps, Jesus Christ, only they died knowing that they had made a positive difference, while I can't tell that I have ever made such a difference. I simply anger people, and then I leave, and the more I come to trust a group, the closer I get to the day of my departure.

Winning Salvation



In 2018, I started re-attending the Episcopal Church, a denomination that I joined in 1972, after abandoning the fundamentalism of my youth. I have since become the most regular participant at a Gregorian Chant Evening Prayer service, and I am among the sextons who provide building security. I volunteered for the sexton job because I felt obligated to do something for the church; because I wanted 24/7 access to the sanctuary and library; and because I needed the trust that goes with having a key to the building.

I have shared the fact of my atheism with those church members who are important to me, most notably the head priest, Bingham, and the layman, Max, who leads the evening prayer service. Bingham has shown me unfailing warmth and acceptance, and Max complimented me by saying that I approach church with a purer spiritual intention than that of many believers.*

The Episcopal Church has long embraced liberal theology, modern Biblical criticism, and archaeological advances. While other mainstream churches buried their heads in the sand during the 1960s, Episcopal priests marched in support of Civil Rights (one was killed) and in opposition to the War in Vietnam. In 1974, the church ordained its first female priests. In 2003, Gene Robinson became its first gay bishop, and, in 2010, Mary Glaspool its first lesbian bishop. The Episcopal Churchs courage and integrity has cost it many members and led other churches within the Anglican Communion to advocate for its expulsion.

Since the time of Martin Luther, most Protestant Christians have defined faith as belief without evidence, and preached that salvation is by faith alone. They claim that this view frees believers from the onerous requirements of the Mosaic Law, but ignore the fact that no one can believe that which he considers nonsensical. The logical conclusion of such a belief is that the worst person who ever lived will go to heaven if he professes faith in Christ at the moment of death, while the best person who ever lived will go to hell if she does not. An alternative definition of faith divorces it from what a person believes and places it upon how he lives. In the common vernacular, by attending church regularly, I am practicing my faith. In terms of pleasing a deity in which I dont believe, the proper definition of faith is meaningless, but in terms of being able to attend church with integrity, it makes an enormous difference.
  
When people lose any semblance of belief, they also lose their fear of hell, but when, at age eleven, I entered the netherworld of agnosticism (as Christina Rosetti put it, the twilight that doth not rise nor set), I was besieged by periods of abject terror that lasted for two decades. The more afraid I became, the more I hated God for making me afraid, and the more I hated God for making me afraid, the more afraid I became. Shame kept me from sharing my torment with any other person because my church believed that doubt constitutes the unpardonable sin.

Given the misery that religion caused me, what possible reason could I have for going to church--any church? I go because I hunger, and while the god of my boyhood church was like a stone, the god of the Episcopal Church is like an apple. Just as one need not be a Hindu to practice Yoga or a Buddhist to practice Vipassana, I need not be a Christian to appreciate the solace of evening prayer. I sit amid the glow of stained-glass windows, absorb the light from flickering red votives, and praise the long-dead priest who hand-carved the altar. I recite the ancient liturgy as though it were a beloved poem, and no matter how my day was going when I entered, I am soon awash in the pastel light of joy and peace. But is my non-belief not an obstacle? If I were among those who believe in the monstrous deity that much of the Bible portrays, it would be, but the the beliefs of Episcopalians tend to be amorphous, and they consider it bad form to even talk about their private theologies. This reluctance is one reason that the churchs evangelical and Catholic critics castigate Episcopalians (and other liberal Christians), for practicing a watered-down, cafeteria-style version of Christianity that allows its members to take the dessert and leave the meat(the meat being passages which support conservatives belief in hell and portray God as sharing their sexism, racism, tribalism, and homophobia). 

The church’s critics are correct regarding its theological vaguity, but wrong in that the Episcopal Church is quite specific on issues of social justice. It is not the evangelicals, or the fundamentalists, or the Catholics, who welcome such outcasts as I, but Episcopalians. Just as the Biblical Samaritan made no demand that the man he was helping give proof of right doctrine, neither does the Episcopal Church expect it of me. When my local parish gave me, an atheist, a key to its building, I offered it as much of my heart as I can offer any group.**


The Parable of the Good Samaritan

...an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
 
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply, Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So, too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw the man, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. Look after him, he said, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have. 

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” 


* In researching this post, I learned that 16% of politically liberal Episcopalians describe themselves as atheists or agnostics: https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-denomination/episcopal-church/political-ideology/

** I limit my loyalty to groups because groups are unable to give loyalty in return. Also, the Episcopal Church has taken a few stands by which I am appalled. Namely, it: (1) opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia; (2) teaches that only human life is sacred; (3) opposes laws that would restrict abortion, yet expresses moral opposition to most abortions; and (4) professes a reverence for nature, but neither conserves resources nor takes measures to protect non-humans.