Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Solstice: Still Bonfires to Jump (for Some of Us)

But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society (Thoreau, Walden, “The Village”).

Today's the summer solstice, the feast of St. John in the traditional Christian liturgical calendar.  The solstice and memories it evokes of the celebrations we used to see in our years in south Louisiana--bonfires lit along the levees of the Mississippi on St. John's night--have had me thinking all day long about the ancient pre-Christian roots of this Christian feast.  And of the similar bonfires we've seen being prepared in parts of Europe, including the small Bavarian village in the Oberpfalz from which Steve's maternal ancestors came and in which some of his cousins still live, when we happened to be traveling on St. John's day.

The following is an excerpt from something I wrote about this in June 2004 and  uploaded to the travel blog I keep elsewhere online.  Interestingly enough, though I've only now re-read and excerpted this passage, I actually wrote something very similar to it earlier today in a Commonweal blog thread discussing gay marriage.  Solstice thoughts, perhaps, particularly when debates about gay marriage (and so about including, respecting, and possibly loving gay human beings) rev up the barely suppressed blood lust of some Catholics (the Dolanites), even now, for those whom God makes different, makes gay . . . .

For what it's worth, here are my reflections on the solstice/St. John's day from 2004; the Walden quote at the head of this posting prefaces those reflections in my 2004 journal:

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, St. John’s eve. Am I correct in remembering it’s also Walpurgisnacht? No, I don’t think so. Those fires—do they go back to the Celts? Is this day somehow connected to Lughnasa? I remember we were in the Oberpfalz one summer as the evening neared, and could see the wood stacked for the fire.

It was eerie to see, and I was glad to be shot of it as the day itself neared. Shades of Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery”: we, the two Ausländer, the tight-knit little village with its Denkmal marking the spot where a sizable group of Hussites—men, women, and children—were slaughtered during the Hussite period.

There is that need of human communities to target someone: the thirst of the dirty institutions and desperate odd-fellow society to assure conformity, often by picking a hapless victim to demonstrate what will happen if one refuses to belong. That need makes one anxious when the tight-knit community with a history of slaughter celebrates rituals of belonging.

And with St. John’s eve competing with ancient memories like Walpurgisnacht and Lughnasa, Christianity with paganism, how can the fires not recall the Inquisition? We need our witches—someone to pin the blame on. We cannot permit midnight revels of scantily clad women. Allow that, as the sun shines at midnight and nature appears to have turned itself inside out, and anything might follow.

Catholicism has barely begun to reflect on these mechanisms, and the sin they so seductively enfold, because it has only begun to discover the social sciences. The great liberal theologians of the 20th century—Rahner, Tracy, Longergan, even Metz—all presume a model innocent of such social-anthropological insights.

As a result, their doctrine of sin is attenuated. Yes, celebrate God’s redemptive, sacramental presence everywhere in the world. But do so with an awareness of what original sin really means—of what it is we need to be redeemed from: not merely the sin that turns humans individually from the mark, but the sweet, sickening carrion whiff of corruption that inhabits all human associations, including the church. All are born in sin. Every human society is built, somewhere, on bones, on blood.

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