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Brushes with Orthodoxy

In my youth I never looked at what I was doing day after day as being “creative”. I was just pursuing “play” the only way I knew how. In later years I would recall the semantics lesson I received as a class in grade school at St. Ladislaus. When one of my fellow classmates used the word “create”, referring to something he or she had done, the nun, with all the authority her heavy black gown and starched white habit conveyed, jumped in quickly to correct hers and our thinking. “…man cannot create anything, remember only God can create”. I took that definition of making something from nothing to heart, much like everything else we were slathered with in Catholic school. It was only later, after an accumulation of available knowledge, did I appropriate the function of “creator” to myself and thus apparently assumed my rightful status as a deity in this world.

As I scribble these first words of my recollections here, I imagine I might subtitle this “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young God”. This exercise in free thought becomes just another tiny crack in a belief system which has been functioning now over 2000 years, god help us all! These traditional belief systems, as tenuous as they are, cannot be sustained without an intricate organization to perpetuate their goals of the care and management of the faithful. Yet even more necessary is the enlistment o f each of our powerful minds to accept the scenario. This is the function of the corporate structure of the secular church.

The church bears a striking resemblance to and is most likely the template for today’s multinational corporations. Overall direction flows from a CEO (Pope) at a physical headquarters (Rome) with consultation and advice from a board of directors (Cardinals). There must exists a vast administrative class (Holy See) to keep things running, smoothly or otherwise. There are executive vice-presidents (Archbishops) who have specific designated responsibilities. We have district and regional sales managers (Bishops) to preside over a given territory (Diocese). The sales force (priests) in those territories are spread out even further over town and country. Each salesman operates out of a neighborhood store (church) attending to the wants and needs of its’ customers (parishioners). We are told to believe this is all connected to the direct will of The Christ, a simple man who told others what he believed -- that judgement day was near. It was up to the desires of others to bring about Christianity.

The politics of the ambitious can be daunting but as in everything else, necessary to maintain power. Another unfortunate admonition from a teacher dedicated to the misguided ignorance of her faith, to a group of we students came prior to a holy week service in church. While waiting for the service to start we were kneeling in our pews praying with Rosary’s in-hand. As she was surveying her flock my third-grade lay teacher stopped in the aisle to address us. She told us not to allow the crucifix on the rosary to dangle from our hands as we said our prayers. In a scolding voice she leaned down and rhetorically asked “hasn’t Jesus hung enough? don’t let him hang even more”. Even then as a third grader I had never heard such a gross disconnect between reality and mythology as I did that day in church. The sad part of all this is that teachers hold a position of authority over the malleable minds of the boys and girls in those pews. It is generations subjected to the mendacity of church hierarchy that I believe has led to the growing alienation of today.

Foothills of Eden

I also recall a conversation later in life in which my perceived creativity clashed with a severe case of self-inflicted cultural blindness. In the 1980’s I had a client in the Hocking Hills, who hired my company to produce a video for area tourism. As I began to read aloud the first draft of the script I had written, the client representative asked me to stop. He seemed very uncomfortable about what I was reading.

The opening of the script read something like, “Our story begins three-hundred million years ago, when earth was still deciding what it wanted to be...”. He just hesitated and him-hawed around and finally said, “We can’t say that...”. I assured him I had done my research from multiple sources and felt very comfortable in personifying the earth the way I did. I also thought it was a strong imaginative opening statement which would grab the attention of the viewer. But it did not take long for me to grasp the reason he made his objection. I was in Hocking County Ohio, a beautiful spot at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, pristine and virtually untouched by the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. I was calling attention to the awe-inspiring beauty of the caves, forests and streams of southeastern Ohio. The very reason people were drawn to the county, freely spending their hard-earned dollars. But I was assigning a power of creation to something other than a supreme being. This went afoul of fundamentalist orthodoxy. I had brushed up against the frightening power of religion in my midst.

When I realized that my honest work was being judged and stunted by the unimaginative, my reaction was visceral. I had never before felt the hair on my neck stand at attention like that. The way you read about in stories. I felt cold all o ver and surrounded by emptiness. There were only the two of us meeting and I wondered to myself how in the world I got involved in this production. I felt I had just accidently ambled into the Garden of Eden and I wanted out as quickly as possible. It was such an uninformed affront to my being that I remember it vividly to this day. Not everyone thinks like I do. The result became a compromise of sorts. I retained the “three-hundred million years” reference but I would relinquish my poetic license to personify the earth. I would continue to periodically face these moments both personally and professionally. Each encounter fueling my unencumbered search for more knwledge and understanding, while it also served to incrementally separate myself from the population at large.

Carla and the Red Sea

The legitimacy of questioning the world of religious faith was made real for me during a passing conversation with my older cousin Carla one day on the farm. We were both in grade school when for some reason our conversation turned to the Bible. She was raised Lutheran. Wanting to ascertain my thoughts she said something like, “ you really believe the Red Sea was parted?” It caused me to stop and think about what I really believed. At that moment I knew that believing in something was much more than saying you did. I intuitively understood that answering “yes” to her question was weak because it was based on something everybody told me, not something I knew for myself. So, the word that escaped my lips fairly quickly was -- “no”. But my response left me psychologically jumbled. What did I believe and why? Why was it so easy for me to answer “no” to a question I had never considered before? From that point on, life had shown me more about myself, learning that I must demand more of myself if I was going to define my life by what I believed, not what others told me to believe.

For what some religions call heresy, people like you and me would be put to death because of what we thought or said or what we believed. Others though would identify this “sin” as a deep recognition of the call to conscience against the pull of tradition. Heretical views are a product of time, examination, consideration and then realization. They are all part of a process thoughtful beings should engage in as they mature.

Orthodoxy is merely what the majority of people believe what they are told to believe, it’s not synonymous with the truth, it doesn’t have anything to do with the truth. But I do think these traditions serve an important purpose in our lives. And heresy? It is just what fewer people believe, the minority. It’s not bad or wrong. If it is viewed as negative it’s because free thinking for one’s self is a threat to someone or something. That has always been the case in history. Jesus had his life taken by the state because he was engaging in what the orthodoxy of the time said was blasphemy.

In 1791 the U. S. Constitution’s first amendment rendered charges of blasphemy impotent. Today the words “heresy” and “blasphemy” carry no particular importance in most of our lives. Yet it persists in a shocking number of countries. For the most part orthodoxy has lost its power to shame us or command us to do anything because we chose to think for ourselves. There is no punishment under law in the U.S. for reading certain books. Popes no longer have the power, they once did, to raise armies against nations who believe differently than they do, says Thomas Cahill in his wide-ranging and insightful series The Hinges of History. As the late Joseph Campbell, an author and former professor of Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence College would say “Heresy is the lifeblood of a myth, orthodoxy is its’ death”. I believe Christianity owes its long and troubled life to its’ confrontations with heresy. If people like Martin Luther and others had not prevailed in speaking their conscience, I believe the Christian religion would have collapsed in on itself centuries ago. It’s all part of the organic evolution of any organization, however malfunctioning. Like G. W. F. Hegel’s dialectic theory: thesis, antithesis and synthesis, regardless of the perceived power of any orthodox position – it must change from within or it will be changed from without. Anyway, that’s a brief look how I began my lifelong search for knowledge.

A Towering Feeling

There is, I believe, some lifelong damage done to a person who puts great value on familiarity. Denying reality has consequences. It’s said that each persons’ comfort zone is a wonderful place but nothing grows there. It’s only upon leaving the confines of personal comfort that success is found. It’s not easy or simple – it’s hard, it’s difficult and scary but that’s how we grow.

Probably my greatest fear is from heights, I avoid them at all costs. Derived from the Greek, Acrophobia effects no more than five percent of the general population and twice as many women than men. That said, I did not bravely set out to conquer my fear but rather out of a sense of pure curiosity and the hunt for a perspective platform from which to capture video that I was driven to physically climb the 104-foot bell tower of St. Mary of the Assumption church –- from the inside. It was some years back now that I was granted my request by church administration. One day I followed a maintenance man to the top. I wanted to see the city from atop its’ loftiest tower.

Situated at 132 South High Street, the church predates its’ 1872 neighbor the Fairfield County Courthouse. The trek upward remains imprinted on my mind to this day. Because I did not know what lay ahead, my steps were taken with utmost caution. Proceeding up from the choir loft level by using a few legitimate stairs we entered the tower proper. We left behind the beautifully decorated sanctuary with its’ smoothly finished plaster, polished marble, carved wood and evocative statuary to enter into the stark unvarnished ether of Americas’ Civil War era. The bare red brick walls shot up into darkness. Aging wooden stairs were attached to the sides of those four walls, rising one flight after another. As the timber path rose in front of me, I leaned to my right as if that would make everything all right. Just recalling that precarious climb brings a visceral tension to my body now. The higher I climbed the deeper the pit to my left. My only confidence came from my single partner in this escapade. The custodian who graciously agreed to serve as my guide maneuvered the walkways as if he were shopping for groceries.

Now, high above the tower’s base we left the staircase and negotiated several large hand-hewn beams. Only a hint of natural light was available to manage squeezing under then over the girth of those timbers, each covered with decades of accumulated dust and speckled bird droppings. My guide finally reached a single wooden ladder, climbing its’ rungs and pushing upward to open the tower’s hatch. An airy shaft o f daylight immediately penetrated our dimly lit space which appeared to swallow my companion. I followed, emerging from the square hole onto the tower’s black rubber roof. It was eerily calm and bright. I could see the traffic below but couldn’t hear it. As if I were looking beyond the ramparts of a castle I felt secure yet alone. The custodian resealed the hinged door opening. For drainage purposes it resembled a black pyramid centered in the flat rooftop, looking appropriately enough like a priests’ biretta. I sat down with my back against one of the triangular sides. I was quietly taking in the views in all directions. I was thinking. Slowly, overwhelming fear began to obliterate the awe I felt only moments before. The thought of re-tracing my steps back down to the choir loft level had now seized my mind. I didn’t show it, I thought that would be ridiculous but a paralysis born of panic was setting in. Crossing my mind were things like engaging fire department ladder trucks or a helicopter with a dangling rescue basket. I had never fought with my mind like this before. I told my easy going guide I just needed a minute, I don’t think he could tell that I was trying to reason with myself. Just the thought of reentering that Escheresque space was beginning to overpower me. This was not a bad dream it was a reality I had to deal with. I was not about to wake up in my bed, heart pounding but grateful. I finally convinced myself that there was nothing left but to do it. This was my Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid jump-off-the-cliff-moment. I had to come to terms and just do this thing!

It was not easy. The more I tried not to think of the multi-story well that was awaiting me the more I thought of it. The only other time I can ever remember my mind working me over like that was on a sail boat excursion with the family on Lake Huron. It was my brother-in-law’s sailboat. I was fine until I realized at one point that I could no longer see land. My thoughts went immediately to the depth of the water we were gently floating on. In the end, safely returning to the ground in Lancaster a more satisfying achievement than reaching the top of St. Mary’s bell tower. The human brain is a powerful tool which I apparently wasn’t using properly even before I began my hike up the tower because I had not so much as taken even the smallest of cameras with me.

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