Monks Making A Living

Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on May 29, 2010

CNN had a very good article recently about monks: “Monks making money: A business beyond prayer”. The article covers the history of Western monasticism and how monks today in the United States earn money to support themselves and their monasteries.

As the article points out, monks have some of the same concerns that we all do, including a slumping economy and rising health care costs. The monks also face a need to be entrepreneurial with their side businesses and yet also maintain a solitary of life of prayer.

Symbolic Height

Posted in: history by bill-o on May 24, 2010

For more than 150 years, the insignia of rank for officers in the United States military has consisted of stars, eagles, oak leaves, and bars. Veterans and current service members are well aware of these insignia and their significance as per authority and responsibility. These insignia is also where the past meets the present: History buffs of the American Civil War can see the same insignia for the same ranks on the officer uniforms from the Civil War Era as they would see on military uniforms today (with the exception of the gold insignia as discussed in a moment …). Insignia are living symbols, tying the officers today to the rich military tradition of the past.

What many people may not be aware of is that the origin of these symbols is not entirely clear. We do know that the gold insignia (2nd lieutenant and major in the U.S. Army, USAF, and USMC), as opposed to silver with all of the others, came after the Civil War in order to give these two ranks specific insignia like all of the other officers. We also know the years in which colonels received their eagles and captains and 1st lieutenants their bars. What we don’t know is the exact origin of the stars, eagles, oak leaves, and bars.

Yet a simple examination of the insignia, taken together as a whole, gives the right context for us. The highest ranks are the generals and admirals who wear stars. The more stars, the higher the rank. Stars are high up in the night sky. Multiple stars form constellations. Eagles, the rank of colonels, soar high above most other birds, but they are less high than the stars, of course. Oak leaves are next down the list of ranks, and leaves are the highest and most visible part of any tree. The remaining ranks consist of bars, which could be comparable to branches, the part of the tree that is lower and less visible than its leaves.

It’s this “symbolic height” that can give even the casual observer a sense of the rank of each officer.

Crop Mobs

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on May 23, 2010

The newspaper USA Today had a good article recently about the new phenomena called “crop mobs”: “Crop Mobs Sprout up on Farms”. Wikipedia also has a short article about crop mobs.

Evidently, crop mobs are a rural version of flash mobs. With crop mobs, people from suburban or urban regions network together, usually via social networking via the Internet, to congregate at a rural farm. They then spend the day working together as a team to help the farmer do things that he would not be able to do by himself. The farms are often organic; therefore, they are more labor intensive since they can’t use pesticides. The farmer therefore gets labor that he couldn’t otherwise afford, and the crop mob gets the chance to experience rural farm work and community.

Perhaps this renewal of love for the agrarian life is a symbol of the times in the Western world. Shadows and Symbols recently made an attempt to see one of the most famous agrarian authors, Wendell Berry, speak in person, but the venue was packed full so was unable to attend. Perhaps this too is is a harbinger of a return to an appreciation for farms and the rural lifestyle.

Bearing the Shame

Posted in: history by bill-o on

This Spring is the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, which was the last major battle in the American strategy of “island hopping” by capturing successive islands in the western Pacific Ocean from the Japanese Imperial Army. The battle lasted for two and a half months and resulted in the defeat of the Japanese by mid-June 1945. A total of 1/4-million combatants and civilians died on the island during the 82 days of fighting.

By this late stage of the war, the Japanese fighting forces had been reduced to a fraction of their capabilities four years earlier. Stepping into this increasingly bleak situation for the Japanese was the man who would become the primary strategist for the Japanese army on Okinawa. His name was Lt. Col. Hiromichi Yahara. Col. Yahara, a war college professor for most of World War II, knew that victory over the Americans on Okinawa was not possible. Therefore, the best strategy for his side was to use Okinawa simply to wear down the American and British forces as much as possible in order to make their eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands more difficult. In support of this strategic goal, Col. Yahara planned for a “defense in depth” strategy. With this plan, Japanese soldiers would engage the Americans only in defensive ways, even to the point of retreating backward to more defendable positions. Col. Yahara’s superior officers did not always listen to his recommendations, but his overall suggestions were adhered to throughout much of the battle.

In spite of Col. Yahara’s strategies, the Americans did succeed in securing most of Okinawa by the beginning of the Summer of 1945. By that point, Col. Yahara and his commanding generals were reduced to living in a cave. They were then each faced with the choice of surrendering, taking off their uniforms and trying to blend into the civilian population, or committing suicide. The cultural norm of the Japanese army was for its field commanders to kill themselves rather than accept the shame and embarrassment of being captured, so each of the senior officers in the cave were prepared to end their own lives.

But before Col. Yahara could take his own life, his superior officers ordered him not to. In the future, someone would need to tell the story of the battle from the Japanese side, and the generals in charge knew that Col. Yahara, as their strategist for the battle, was the best man to record that story for future generations. One of the generals told Col. Yahara that, yes, this would mean that he would have to bear the shame of being captured by the enemy. However, that shame would pass away in time, and that shame would be outweighed by the colonel’s chance to write down the stories of the battle for the sake of history.

Col. Yahara obeyed the order of his generals, even after they themselves had committed suicide. He took off his uniform, went out of his cave, and attempted to blend in with the surrounding population. Eventually, Col. Yahara was recognized and taken prisoner.

Years later, in 1973, he published his book on the battle of Okinawa. His book is now available in English as well as in Japanese. Col. Yahara died in 1981.

Body = House

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on April 16, 2010

My apologies for my long absence. It’s now time to get back to more shadows and symbols …

There is no question that the words body and house have symbolic significance. The terms “a house divided” and “royal house” come from ages past, and “body politic” and “body of knowledge”, “… of water”, etc. describe the completeness of things. As symbols, with both bodies and houses, one is either in or out but not both. And, if there is more than one person in a house, there can only be one head of that house, as there can only be one head directing the body. A house cannot be divided. There is an order in the household, and there is a brain on top of the body.

Yet, as you consider these words, … you may not have considered how these two terms, symbolically, can be interrelated.

For each of us personally, our bodies are not merely the physical display of our being in this world. They are the location in time and space of our spirits (our spiritual being). One could say that our bodies are not primarily who we are but, rather, where we are. Our bodies are, essentially, the mobile houses for our spirits. One could say that who we each are is a spirit (spiritual being) stuffed into a house of clay (our physical being), and if our temporal bodies die, our spirits go on into timeless eternity.

Just something to think about in the days ahead.

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Posted in: history by bill-o on March 14, 2010

This month is the 80th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi‘s March to the Sea or Salt March, which occurred March 12 to April 5, 1930. Gandhi and 78 other men made the historic 390-km or 240-mile march down to the ocean in order to perform a simple act: To boil off salt from sea water. Gandhi’s act of mass civil disobedience eventually led to the arrest of 60,000 people on charges of failing to pay the British salt tax. In spite of the skepticism of other leaders for Indian independence, Gandhi chose to initiate the protest against the salt tax because (1) everyone in India used salt and (2) this tax hurt poor Indians the most.

Salt is a symbol that everyone can understand. It is everywhere and used by everyone. The chemistry of salt is so simple that it is the one chemical molecule, along with water, that most of us will remember from chemistry class: NaCl. Unlike precious metals and jewels, like gold or diamonds, salt is for everyday use. And unlike water, a very small portion of salt (i.e. a “pinch of salt”) is useful, whereas water is heavy and cumbersome to transport.

Take a closer look at the phrase “table salt”: Salt is so common, it is found on every dining table, the place of communion for family and friends. Is there any other substance that is given such an honor? Even the word “table” here implies that the grade of salt is good enough to be eaten by people. And to further the symbolism of communion: Unlike the plate, knife, spoon, and fork, the salt shaker is shared by everyone at the table.

Eighty years later, salt is still a potent symbol: To free something that is shared by everyone is a symbol of bringing freedom to everyone.

Come As A Child

Posted in: Current Events,Spirituality by bill-o on February 20, 2010

The famous American author of the book The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, died on January 27 at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, USA. Despite the resounding success that he had found as a young author in New York, Mr. Salinger withdrew into seclusion in his adopted Connecticut River valley town about 55 years ago after negative experiences with an overeager public.

A recent New York Times article about Salinger’s life in Cornish notes how bossy strangers would ride into town demanding to see Salinger. The people of Cornish would always oblige their reclusive neighbor by sending these strangers in the wrong direction.

What the article points out is that Salinger was not entirely reclusive. He was generous to food servers at church suppers and friendly to his neighbors. One neighbor told the Times how Salinger always graciously allowed his children to sled down the hill in Salinger’s property and was concerned about the children’s welfare.

What example can we take from this story? Well, it’s simple: On our spiritual journeys, come as a child. J.D. Salinger rightly saw the children in his neighborhood as no threat to him, his family, or his privacy. Rude adults came from other places to disturb his peace and quiet just so that they could say, with pride, that they had met him. The nearby children didn’t care about any of that. They only saw Mr. Salinger as a kind neighbor and not as an object to be manhandled. Perhaps this is a lesson for us all in how we treat our neighbors.

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Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on January 26, 2010

Who will receive the greater honor? That is the question for any social event where two or more dignitaries are present. For example, at a formal dinner, who will have the honor of speaking last? You may not have realized it, but social planners have already prepared lists to deal with such contingencies. These lists are called orders of precedence.

The concept of precedence is distinct from orders of succession or formal chains of command. Precedence is the ceremonial order of respect. Being higher on a list of precedence does not necessarily imply having greater authority or power. In fact, someone high on a precedence list may have much less power than someone lower on that same list.

What precedence bestows is the greater honor. The list of precedence for the United States is at: You’ll find the list for England and Wales at:

Precedence echoes through great historical moments in American history. For example, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address after the featured speaker Edward Everett because the president had the greater honor. At inaugurations, the President is sworn in after the Vice President. The Supreme Court of the United States maintains its visible order of precedence with its seating order: The Chief Justice sits in the center, the most senior associate justice to his right, the next most senior justice to the Chief Justice’s left, and so on, alternating between right and left for all 8 associate justices as per seniority on the court. After all, to sit to the right implies the greater honor. Yet to sit closer to the center of the court is an even greater honor.

In England and Wales, proximity to the throne grants the greater precedence. Then, the greater titles take precedence. In the United States, a mayor of a city has the greater precedence while in his or her city than almost everyone else. For within the proverbial walls of the city, the mayor is the honorary king or queen, able to give the ceremonial “keys to the city” (the proveribal city gates) to others. Regarding mayors, the American order of precedence recognizes that a mayor is, in a sense, a monarch within one’s own home town.

And so it is with each of us: with the measure of spiritual rule that we have each been given. There will be others with more power, money, and authority in this world. Yet within our own homes, whether actual houses or within the lives of those few who are close to us, we are kings, queens, princes, and princesses. In a way, we each have a divine precedence given to us that takes effect within our own “personal kingdoms”. And that precendence is not given to us to “lord it over” others. Rather, it’s given to us for the sake of love.

Thoughts about “The Young Victoria”

Posted in: history,Popular Culture by bill-o on January 23, 2010

In the recent film The Young Victoria, HM Queen Victoria, presented in the movie at the beginning of her reign, and her husband, HRH Prince Albert, are surprised to discover that the royal household that the queen has just inherited is well-, let’s just say, not functioning in a way that would be fit for a monarch.

Cold. The scheduling and maintenance of fires in the palace fireplaces was completely out-of-order, leaving the queen, prince, and their servants sitting in the cold. This cold palace is a symbol of the coldness in our own hearts. The palace looked great on the outside and thus seemed to be a place where everyone would have preferred to live. Yet even the royal family struggled to stay warm through the winter. Will the love of our hearts grow cold, so that we look good on the outside but are frozen on the inside?

Windows. Window cleaning is sporadic in the palace. The outside and inside of the windows are never cleaned at the same time. The dirty windows make it hard for the royal couple to see outside their own house. This is a picture of a lack of clarity in the way that we see things looking out from ourselves to the world around us. These dirty windows represent “faulty filters” in our approach to how we view the other people in our lives. We have to adjust or clean these filters, the way that we see things, before we can truly relate to others in love.

Lunch. Prince Albert is shocked to find a servant preparing for a formal lunch for HM King George III and his officers, even though King George, Victoria’s grandfather, had died over twenty years before. There comes a point for each of us where old things must be “pruned” and pass away. They are no longer useful and need to be trimmed from our lives.

The Symbolism of Avatar

Posted in: Popular Culture,Reviews by bill-o on December 24, 2009

The 2009 motion picture Avatar is the clear box office winner in the United States and elsewhere this past week. Set on the mysterious moon Pandora in the year 2154, the film chronicles the story of marine Jake Sully and his interactions with the native inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’vi, through his avatar body.

The film is getting the most attention for its fantastic special effects. Yet the symbolism behind the story is also worth paying some attention to.

Avatar borrows from the symbols and ideas of many spiritual traditions. The name Pandora, for example, comes right from an ancient Greek goddess. I’ll focus here on a few of the symbols that I found notable.

Harsh Disorientation. When Jake arrives on Pandora in his wheelchair, he is told more than once, and somewhat harshly, to watch where he is going. Colonial Pandora is place where the weak and broken must make way for the large and robotic. Other marines unkindly refer to him as “meals on wheels”, insulting him for his disability. (This is also an insult to the elderly: Many poor, elderly people in the United States depend upon the meals on wheels program to provide them with food.) They see Jake only as a liability and not as a asset.

Home Tree. The Home Tree is the home for an entire clan of the Na’vi. Symbolic of the Tree of Life from, the Garden of Eden which in turn may have represented the unity of all humankind in connection to God. This tree represents Edenic humankind: The way that the world should have been before things went terribly wrong. Yet the knowledge of good and evil lies beneath the Home Tree, the valuable ore Unobtanium. The symbolism of Unobtainium is obvious (“unobtainable”). Yet the promise of the serpent of the garden, that Adam and Eve would become fully like God was also ultimately unobtainable. The Home Tree represents earth and the temporal, whereas …

Tree of Souls. … the Tree of Souls represents the eternal. Once their earthly home was destroyed, the Na’vi can only retreat to the only place that they know where to go: to the Tree of Souls. This sacred place, where outsiders are prohibited, allows the Na’vi to reach out and touch their mother goddess and their ancestors souls via iridescent strands, which may symbolically be prayers (the natural touching the divine). The Tree of Souls is the place of finality.

Diplomatic Solution? The corporate leadership on Pandora has charged Dr. Grace Augustine with finding a “diplomatic solution” re: the conflict between the colonists and the Na’vi. Grace is a spiritual word and that spiritual emphasis is given more weight with the name Augustine, the great Christian theologian of grace. The word grace means a gift and, even more specifically, a gift that enables someone to do something. At first, it seems as though that gift is Dr. Augustine’s avatars, which might enable a peaceful, diplomatic solution to be found. But a diplomatic solution is not seen in the film as something good or as something that is merely better than war. Rather, it is viewed as an evil in itself: An unwanted displacement of a native people from their home. It is, to put it somewhat theologically, a cheap form of grace. It is not the real thing (the real enabling gift, “grace,” of the colonists to the Na’vi), but it only poses as the real thing. And notice how Grace cannot make the transition into her avatar body: She symbolizes a grace that is not able to bring about salvation. Victory and salvation are the ultimate grace, enabling gift, for the Na’vi.

Humankind Expelled from the Garden … Again. Like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (the eviction of humanity from the Garden of Eden), most of the humans are expelled from Pandora (a new Eden) at the end of the movie. The immediate cause of this expulsion was the loss of the battle to the Na’vi. Yet the deeper cause was the people’s failure to learn the ways of Na’vi on Pandora. This was because the colonists were more concerned with their provision and protection than with having genuine openness to others. This ending scene in Avatar symbolically confirms why Adam and Eve had to be expelled from the garden: They were spiritually out-of-touch with their Eden.

Adam and Adam. Jake Sully is only able to access an avatar because his identical twin brother had died a violent death. The first man (“Adam” in Hebrew) was shot just a few days before embarking on his mission to Pandora, his brother Jake, another man (in this case, the last Adam), who is of the same image and likeness of his deceased brother, inherited the job. (Notice how another character in the beginning of the movie says that the avatar body looks like Jake, yet Jake says that it looks like his brother. Also, remember how someone points out to Jake that he and his brother have the same genome, the same biological likeness.) The second man becomes the replacement savior and lord for Pandora after the first cannot complete that mission.

Fully Incarnated. The story of Avatar is, in reality, the story of a man, Jake Sully in this case, becoming fully mature. Jake (“Jacob”) Sully’s name may mean sullied trickster. Unlike the corporation’s leader, Parker Selfridge (“the selfish”), who is greedy and never matures, Jake changes from an immature young man (someone with a pure heart but acts like a small child; someone who is just a “poser” for his dead brother) into a mature man and then into a leader. He goes through ritual stages of rites of passage. Jake gets to the point in the middle of the movie where he cannot tell what’s the dream and what’s reality (his human life or his Na’vi avatar life). This is a hint to the movie goers that Jake is undergoing a fundamental change. The story ends with Jake becoming “fully incarnated” into his avatar body, leaving his human body behind forever at the Tree of Souls. He is then no longer an avatar but completely “one of the people”. Notice that this incarnational transformation occurs on Jake’s birthday, thus symbolizing a new birth.

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