Friday, November 10, 2006

dark machine of superstition

In a recorded talk I was listening to by Fr. Hopko, he spoke highly of the writings of Karl Stern, a Jewish-converted-to-Catholic psychologist. I decided to see what I could find by him in the library and ran across (among other things) his autobiography, The Pillar of Fire. I've been puttering at it lately, mostly when I'm riding the bus and it's not convenient to use my computer, or when I can't muster enough energy to do anything else. I'm really enjoying the book so far. One passage in particular just jumped out at me. After explaining his lengthy morning prayer routine, he goes on:
I kept strict dietary laws, as much as I could in a household as impious as that of my parents. I kept even my own set of china and cutlery, and soon I was surrounded by a cloud of ascetic detachment like a yogi. At dinner after having eaten I would remain at the table and, with a black skullcap, say the long benediction which follows every main meal. They all tried to get up before that, or to look away. They behaved very much like a family of which one member has gone insane. . . . It was as if I had turned on some dark machine of superstition upstairs in my room every morning (55-56).
A couple of pages later Stern comes to the conclusion of this phase in his life:
As far as my stab at [Jewish] Orthodoxy was concerned, I very soon yielded to the pressure brought upon me by my family. I have a strong suspicion that I used it as an excuse to discontinue Morning Prayer, Afternoon Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the sacrifices involved in the dietary and the Sabbath laws. I had an alibi: it created too much friction and unrest in the family (58).
I can certainly sympathize. Although in my case the problem is not an irreligious family but one of different religious persuasion, I still feel there's some question as to my sanity and little doubt about my "dark machine of superstition." I've also felt the pressure to discontinue various practices for family's sake, and have in fact done so at different points in my journey. Indeed, it was the realization that this pressure would continually exist that led me in search of a community that would share my ascetic struggle. In Orthodox Christianity I've found a good deal more than that, but I needed at least that for starters. As I prepare to enter the second-longest fast season of the year (and perhaps the most taxing, because there is so much outside pressure to eat), I need to know that I'm not doing this alone.

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