Oct. 31, 2010

The Methodist and his Method

by Chad Sweeney

Underground in the cemetery
my grandfather preaches to the other corpses.
They clap inside their boxes

nicely arranged in Sunday clothes
in long rows like pews.
His words stir hope

that conditions may change.
Each man has been given his row boat,
he says,

to lie back in and watch the sky
braiding and unbraiding its light.
No one is safer than we are.

"The Methodist and his Method" by Chad Sweeney from Parable of Hide and Seek. © Alice James Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's Halloween, one of the oldest holidays in the Western European tradition, invented by the Celts, who believed Halloween was the day of the year when spirits, ghosts, faeries, and goblins walked the earth. The tradition of dressing up and getting candy probably started with the Celts as well. Historians believe that they dressed up as ghosts and goblins to scare away the spirits, and they would put food and wine on the doorstep for the spirits of family members who had come back to visit the home.

It's the birthday of the Juliette Gordon Low, born 150 years ago today in Savannah, Georgia (1860), who in 1912 founded the Girl Scouts of America.

Girl Scouts begin meetings by holding up three fingers of the right hand and pledging:  "On my honor, I will try: / To serve God and my country, / To help people at all times, / And to live by the Girl Scout Law." In 1993, the Girl Scouts of the USA voted by an overwhelming majority to allow girls reciting the promise to substitute the word "God" with "wording appropriate to their own spiritual beliefs."

Girl Scout Cookie fundraising began in 1917. During the years of World War II, Girl Scouts sold calendars because there wasn't enough flour and sugar to go around. These days, the cookies are actually baked by large cookie companies who contract with the Girl Scouts; one of these companies is owned by Kellogg's. In 2008, a 15-year-old named Jennifer Sharpe from Dearborn, Michigan, set a record for number of cookie boxes sold in a year: 17,328 boxes.

It's the birthday of writer Susan Orlean, (books by this author) born in Cleveland (1955), who's written for Vogue, Rolling Stone,and Esquire magazines, and has been a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine for the past two decades. She's the author of the books The Orchid Thief (1998) and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere (2004).

It was on this day that a German priest and theology professor named Martin Luther (books by this author) published his 95 Theses, an event that led to the Protestant Reformation. At first, he was not trying to cause a split. He was hoping instead that his statements would shame the Church into mending its ways.

He was upset by corruption within the Church, and especially upset by the practice of selling indulgences, which the Pope Leo X was then using to raise funds for the restoration and refurbishing of St. Peter's Basilica. But the selling of indulgences was actually the iceberg tip of a deeper theological issue: a debate over the doctrine of Justification and its role in salvation. The Roman Catholic Church's position was that man could not be saved by faith alone; good works must accompany the faith. And at the time, buying indulgences to save one's soul and help achieve salvation in the afterlife counted as something somewhere between good works and spiritual insurance.

Luther insisted that this was wrong, theologically so, because only God could grant salvation. The pope could not, Luther said; and the practice of selling and buying indulgences was harmful to Christianity because the false assurance misled people from being faithful Christians. His language grew stronger over time, and he wrote: "All those who consider themselves secure in their salvation through letters of indulgence will be eternally damned, and so will their teachers."

There were attempts at mediation and counseling by the Vatican, but slowly a virulent confrontation between Luther and Pope Leo X developed. He was excommunicated, declared a heretic and an outlaw. He was a hero of many German townspeople.

He went into hiding and translated the Bible from Latin into German, an act of great linguistic importance: It helped unify the different dialects of German. Goethe later said, "It was Luther, who has awakened and let loose the giant: the German language." He married a nun, breaking the chastity vow, and setting a precedent for married Protestant clergy. He continued to give Mass into his old age, but celebrated it in German rather than Latin.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the poet John Keats, (books by this author) born in London (1795), who was just starting his career as a poet in 1818 when a series of brutally negative reviews of his first two books appeared. And then, that same year, Keats learned that his brother was dying of tuberculosis. Keats spent the last few months of 1818 taking care of his brother, who died a few weeks before Christmas. In the wake of his brother's death, Keats moved into a duplex with a friend, and in the other half of the duplex lived a beautiful 18-year-old girl named Fanny Brawne, who became the love of his life. He declared his love to her soon after they met, but he decided not to marry her until he'd secured his reputation as a great poet. John Keats, who said, "Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance."

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