Saturday, 19 January 2008

On the Breadline

"It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."

(Matthew 4:4)
Fruit of the Earth

Here in the West it is hard to imagine life without bread. It is the fruit of the earth, the staple by which we measure physical sustenance, and the cornerstone of our very existence. It will always be here in its diverse forms. Well, maybe.

We often hear the phrase 'bread basket of the world', an indication of its importance in the world's economic machinery. Over millennia, we have called upon the pagan deities, offered sacrifices and invented a whole gamut of seasonal rituals to ensure a good harvest in the coming year. The annual Thanksgiving ceremonies are a testimony to the continuation of such rituals. Corn dollies and corn-sheaf bread are symbolic of the pagan infrastructure which still exists.

Body of Christ

Bread plays no minor part in the scriptures either, but has achieved dynamic status as a parable medium. Ravens brought bread to the prophet Elijah when he went into hiding. The miracle of the five loaves and two fishes feeding the five thousand is well documented and often quoted. And who has not learned of the importance of bread as a representation of the body of Christ at the Last Supper? This is one of the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church which maintains that the communion host is actually the body of Christ.

"...Take, eat; this is my body" ( Matthew 26:26 )

Leavened or Unleavened?

Leavening is the biblical word for yeast. Unleavened bread, therefore, contained no yeast and was somewhat flat, since it is the yeast which makes the bread rise. Leavening was also equated with sin and was to be avoided at all cost. Of course, this presupposes that you agree with the principle of sin. Hmm! Could be another article there.

St Anthony's Fire

If you've ever wondered how a belief begins life, this account might proffer a reasonable explanation. In the middle ages in Europe much of the bread was made from rye flour. But rye bread had a problem. It was prone to attack by a fungus called ergot. The result of prolonged consumption of the diseased bread was a painful burning sensation in the legs. It was known as St Anthony's Fire and those with the disease in its advanced stages would gradually watch their limbs turn black and gangrenous. Many sufferers in the early stages of the problem were advised, or felt the call, to travel far away from home to a shrine in order to be at peace with God and pray for forgiveness and a healing. Well, guess what? After a month or two they got better, which encouraged an even stronger faith in God. However, there was no one around at the time to tell them that by moving away from home, they moved away from the cause of the disease and simply lived on bread totally unaffected by the ergot.

My point is that here was a belief born of ignorance of the facts. You may be thinking - what does it matter how belief is arrived at or how faith is formed as long as it is there. If you are thinking along those lines, I would like to hear from you.

Write now!

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Curses: Ancient and Modern

The Tradition of the Curse

What do you think of when you hear the word "curse"? Long-forgotten fairy tales with stereotypical, ugly witches in pointed hats? Or biblical stories like this one?

"And he turned back and looked on them and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood and tare forty and two children of them." (2Kings 2:24 )

I have a big problem with this scripture. The story goes that Elisha, a 'man of God' was on his way to Bethel when he was followed by some children from the city. They mocked him, calling out "Go up thou bald head, go up thou bald head" (2Kings 2:23). Well, come on! Kids will be kids and they can be cruel sometimes, but to curse them with two vicious animals is a bit over the top don't you think? Wouldn't something more humane like temporary blindness or dumbness have been more appropriate? Or perhaps even forgiveness?

What makes it worse is that it was done in the name of God! Does God really hate children that much? Somehow I don't think so. This is not what you'd call good publicity.

In the 1800's Richard Harris Barham, in the Ingoldsby Legends, published his famous poem "The Jackdaw of Rheims". In this saga, the Cardinal Lord Archbishop loses his ring and suspects someone has stolen it. Out comes the bell, book and candle, plus a large helping of "holy anger and pious grief". The main elements are as follows:

He cursed him at board, he cursed him in bed
From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head
He cursed him in sleeping that every night
He should dream of the devil and wake in a fright

The curse gets worse and the big surprise is that nobody seems to be affected by it. That is until a sad, crumpled and limping jackdaw appears.

This is fiction of course but it demonstrates the ethos of power held by the clergy. Here is yet another man of God who would rather punish someone harshly than play the merciful card. The fact that curses are against the teachings of Christ seems to be irrelevant.

The Power of the Modern Curse

You may be thinking - OK, this is interesting historical stuff but nobody curses these days. You think not?

If you have had perfect parents and a truly excellent schooling you need not read further. For the benefit of the others who haven't, I would ask you to cast your mind back to childhood. Let's say you wanted to learn a skill such as building model aeroplanes or knitting, and in the process of learning you made a mistake. Your father, or mother, chastised you for the error saying something like "You'll never be any good at it, you haven't got what it takes." This whole sentence is a curse. There's no bell, book and candle but the effect is just as devastating. Why? Because children look up to their parents and see them as experts. In fact they see their parents as gods who know everything, are always right and always speak the truth. You only learn this is not the case as you get older.

The child with the modelling kit will give up the idea of making anything, and the wool and the knitting needles will probably be given away unused simply because of the curses. The terrible part about it is that the children's creative minds have been dealt a severe blow.

School is another danger area. How often have you heard it said, "You're useless at maths. You'll never pass your exam." The teacher is sadly right. He or she has laid down a curse of failure and without the curse being lifted by copious amounts of positive input (see last post), failure is the only outcome.

If you have your own tale of curses from the past, do write and tell me about them.

Incidentally, in case you don't know the poem, the jackdaw's curse was lifted and he was back to normal in the end.