Thursday, September 30, 2010


All loves are a bridge to Divine love.

September 30 is the 803rd birthday of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, known more popularly to the West simply as Rūmī. As a Persian mystic and poet, he makes an excellent escort as we enter contemplation of the virtue Samā (Worshipful Listening).

What makes a virtue? One definition is “a kind of moral excellence,” such as the virtue of Patience. So far, most of the virtues I have profiled here at TTV have fallen into this category. To date I have described virtues from the Theravadan Buddhist, Asatru, Chinese Confucianist, Japanese Shinto, and Lakota Native American traditions, among others. For each, some cultural authority (and typically multiple authorities) held up the quality as an ideal of his/her tradition.

“Virtue,” however, can also mean “a particularly efficacious, good, or beneficial quality,” and it is into this broader category that Samā, as I choose to interpret it, falls. (So does Symphony, from September 12.) The term Samā refers to a specific form of Islamic prayer called dhikr, which at its simplest involves chanting the names of Allah (God). Samā is a unique ecstatic form of dhikr invented by Rūmī that involves multiple worshippers, in costume, singing, playing instruments, dancing, and/or reciting poetry and prayers.

Thus, while concise, translating Samā to its literal meaning of “Listening” seems woefully inadequate. Even “Worshipful Listening” leaves out oceans of meaning. Another English translation of Samā would be “Spiritual Concert,” which has some promise but even so is still like the tip of an iceberg. Samā involves the use of music and dance to allow the worshipper to leave the bounds of their ego and reach wajd, a trance-like state of ecstasy, through which they can connect with the Divine.

How did Rūmī create Samā? The Sufis, a mystical tradition of Islam of which Rumi was a member, tell the following story: Rūmī was walking through the marketplace in his town one day when he heard the rhythmic hammering of goldsmiths. Rumi heard the dhikr, "la elaha ella'llah" ("no god, but Allah") in the beating of the gold. In response to the pulse of the hammers, he entered an ecstatic altered state, and in happiness stretched out his arms and started spinning in a circle. The famed “whirling dervishes” of the Mevlevi Sufi order trace their birth to this moment:

I find it interesting that the practice of Samā arouses controversy in Islam, with some opposed to the use of music as being against the wishes of the Prophet Muhammed, and therefore bidah (heresy). So many religious traditions embrace the use of music as a form of worship, to eschew it seems baffling. And yet, in my own experience, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries also have a proscription against music and singing--with the exception of the chanting of mantras, which is done mostly in a guttural monosyllabic sussuration. (Still, one night at Kopan Monastery outside Kathmandu, I was privileged to participate in a group chant by the Western students that was magically beautiful, and to my ear certainly qualified as music.)

So, what does the virtue of Samā mean for a non-dervish, non-Sufi, non-Muslim reader? For me, looking at the many ways in which the term is translated, I suggest that to strive for Samā is to listen for the Divine in beautiful music, and when heard, to welcome the Divine with ecstasy and without hesitation.

May we see the gates of Samā, and perhaps make a home there.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The Lord prefers common-looking people. That is why he made so many of them.
--Abraham Lincoln to his secretary John Hay, in Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890)

Today, September 28, Czech Christians celebrate the feast of their patron, Saint Wenceslaus--the very same Wenceslaus memorialized in the popular Christmas carol. (Technically he was only the Duke of Bohemia, but got promoted to “king” by the Holy Roman Emperor after his death. Not sure that’s a great consolation prize for being martyred...) The Czech version of his name is Václav, a la Václav Havel, the famous Czech politician--who, like the Saint-King, gives us an excellent example of the Czech virtue of Lidovost  (Folksiness).

Lidovost refers to a sense of being ordinary, down-to-earth, and “of the people”--a value long observed within the Czechs by visitors to their land. Sean Hanley, an Englishman who lived in the Czech region of Bohemia for some time, noted an example of their Lidovost in the “ubiquitous tracksuit” sported by so many of his Czech hosts. Czechs don’t go for people putting on airs, and apparently the humble tracksuit symbolizes a value on Plainness, mirrored by Americans’ own love of our traditional blue jeans. Lidovost contains a good helping of the home-spun root virtue, Humility.

Czechs love a “common touch” in their leaders as well; part of why they adore President Havel is that you are as likely to see him down at a pub grabbing a brew with his buddies as you are to see him behind a podium on TV. (Havel actually worked in a brewery before the Velvet Revolution propelled him to the world stage.) Americans, too, appear to have a preference for “regular guys” in their Presidents--as shown by the popularity of “cowboy” George W. Bush (at one end of the political spectrum) and “bubba” Bill Clinton (at the other). (Whether either qualifies as a true “good ol’ boy” I leave for you to consider on your own.)  

Wenceslaus, too, had a common touch. The son of a Christian father and a Pagan mother, he chose the former tradition thanks in part to the influence of his paternal grandma, Saint Ludmila. When he ascended to the throne, the pious Wenceslaus reportedly planted with his own hands the wheat and grapes that he crafted into the bread and wine used in his chapel.  The historian and hagiographer Cosmas, who wrote of Wenceslaus a few decades after his death, recalls his piety and concern for the common people:

[R]ising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered... the father of all the wretched.

No wonder they love the guy! What a prince! Uh, I mean duke. King! King. And here we are, over a thousand years after his death, still literally singing his praises.   
Wenceslaus’ devotion to his people has gained such legend that the Czechs say in their darkest hour, his statue in Wenceslaus Square in Prague (pictured above) will come to life, summon a squadron of knights who lay sleeping under Mount Blanik, and with the sword Bruncvík shall smite the enemies. Now that’s awesome: A powerful magical saint-king who’s not only humble and pious, but also a military bad-ass. What’s not to like?

We can spot Lidovost in more places than we might think. Abraham Lincoln, for example, clearly shone with it. (Something about homeliness seems to help in acquiring Lidovost... No offense to Honest Abe, or President Havel...) I think I have a special place in my heart for this virtue, since the culture of medicine predisposes a lot of doctors toward a certain arrogance. One ability I’ve tried to hold onto as I move further into my career has been to retain the ability to speak to my patients in plain English, rather than a bunch of Doctorese. I’ve always felt my mother, Big Tree, has set a great example of Humility in her life and I try to emulate it. (Her nickname comes from another one of her virtues, limitless Generosity, reminding me and Kael, my twin, of Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.)

So today, touch the ground with Lidovost and contemplate being “of the People, by the People, for the People,” as Honest Abe would put it.

May we see the gates of Lidovost, and perhaps make a home there.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


There is the power we're all familiar with — power over. But there is another kind of power — power from within.

On this date in 46 BCE, Julius Caesar dedicated a temple to the Goddess Venus, his patron and purported ancestress, for her role in his victory at the Battle of Pharsalus. It was at Pharsalus, against all odds, that Caesar defeated his rival Pompey and established a dynasty that ultimately turned the Roman Republic into an Empire. The scene of Caesar citing his divine origins as he peaked in popular acclaim makes a fine backdrop to our discussion of the ancient Roman private virtue of Auctoritas (Authority).  

Auctoritas can be translated a number of ways. “Authority” to modern ears may sound simply like law enforcement, but the Romans had other words for this: potestas (power through coercion, such as police enforcement) and imperium (power backed by military force). Auctoritas had more of the sense of “moral authority.” As a personal virtue, Auctoritas meant “clout,” “influence,” or even “charisma.”

The 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote at length about the meaning of the term from the Roman perspective, emphasizing that Auctoritas, which shares a root with the English word “author,” comes from the Latin verb augeō ("to augment"). The person with Auctoritas transmits/augments power handed down from original founders--such as of a nation or religion. When an American politician cites our “Founding Fathers” as justification for or against certain public policies, for example, s/he is attempting to show Auctoritas. When Pope Innocent III attempted to decide which contender should be crowned king of Germany back in the 12th century, he did so on the grounds of Auctoritas--that he represented a religious power that superseded earthly rule.

It’s a tasty bit of mind taffy for me to suggest that a virtue esteemed by the most patriarchal of our Western forebears may be best explained by a feminist activist and Reclaiming Witch, Starhawk. Consider the full scope of her remark excerpted above:  

My spirituality has always been linked to my feminism. Feminism is about challenging unequal power structures. So, it also means challenging inequalities in race, class, sexual preference. What we need to be doing is not just changing who holds power, but changing the way we conceive of power. There is the power we're all familiar with — power over. But there is another kind of power — power from within. For a woman, it is the power to be fertile either in terms of having babies or writing books or dancing or baking bread or being a great organizer. It is the kind of power that doesn't depend on depriving someone else.

This sense of “power from within”--especially as coupled with the idea of power derived from one’s creative energy, from one’s role as an originator--I think this actually captures what the Romans meant by the moral authority of Auctoritas. And it makes me consider how, in conflicts with others, I resort to brute power plays when, by taking a breath and tapping into some awareness of Divine creative energy, I might find a way to meet in the middle and collaborate. Could manifesting my own calm, calm another? Could unleashing my own humor dispel an uncomfortable tension?

And so we return to our tableau, with the paterfamilias of the Julio-Claudian dynasty kneeling down and venerating (quite literally) that most feminine of goddesses, Venus Genetrix. And so, Auctoritas bows... to Love.  

May we see the gates of Auctoritas, and perhaps make a home there.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long.
--Mary Church Terrell, speaking in 1902

Today is the birthday of a phenomenal American, the suffragist and civil rights activist, Mary Church Terrell. As the child of two slaves, her educational accomplishments alone would have impressed me. But more importantly, Terrell used her abilities to improve not just her own life, but that of all her fellow African-Americans. It made sense to me therefore to remember her with a discussion of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination).

Kujichagulia (koo-JEE-cha-goo-LEE-ah) is one of the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) of Kwanzaa, the end-of-year holiday recalling African-American history and pride. It comes from the Swahili word meaning self-determination. Below, filmmaker and educator Masequa Myers explains what the virtue of Kujichagulia entails. (She also will teach you learn how to pronounce it!). (Sorry, I couldn't find the embedding code for the html, so you'll just have to go to the link.)

I find the idea of “naming oneself” very appealing. It taps into a certain aspect of Self-Possession (which my half-dozen readers know I consider a primal virtue). Naming of things is a very powerful form of magic. No less an authority on the virtues than Confucius himself emphasized its importance, and he cited Zhèngmíng (Rectification of Names) as a critical principle for those seeking to shape the social order. In the Analects, in fact, he states: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” 

Speaking out about the truth of things was the life’s work of Mary Church Terrell. Born in 1863 in Tennessee, her parents, who called her “Mollie,” emphasized the importance of educational achievement. Terrell went on to Oberlin College, being the only African-American woman in a class made up of mainly white men.

Terrell’s fellow students elected her class poet, and she edited the Oberlin Review. (It’s interesting to me how many social activists also excel in the arts; at some point remind me to visit Wen (Arts-of-Peace), yet another civilizing Confucian virtue.) Terrell became a high school teacher but also freelanced for numerous newspapers. Once she married, she considered leaving activism to focus on raising children, but orator Frederick Douglass convinced her to continue her work for African-American equality and winning women the right to vote. In 1904 she attended the International Congress of Women in Berlin as the only African-American; she gave her speech to the assembly in three languages.

It amazed me to learn in 1949, six years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Terrell fought against segregation of restaurants in her native Washington, D.C. Her lawsuit resulted in a 1953 ruling that white-only restaurants in the district were illegal. She died the following year, but lived long enough to see the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. the Board of Education, which outlawed the segregation of schools by race.   

When I consider everything Ms. Terrell managed as the child of two former slaves, I can only shake my head in wonder and admiration. What’s really important in her story is that she used her phenomenal talent and abilities to help her fellow citizens, seeking justice and greater opportunities for those shut out by prejudice.

Take a moment today to think about how you use your own talents to propel yourself forward in service of a greater cause or vision. What (or whom) do you lift as you climb? Who in your life has given you an example of Kujichagulia? Who around you is Rectifying Names?

May we see the gates of Kujichagulia, and perhaps make a home there.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of J. R. R. Tolkien’s landmark fantasy novel The Hobbit, and after a somewhat somber entry last time, I welcome a happier occasion as grist for the virtue mill. Today we’re going to entertain an aggregate virtue I’m hereby inventing, which I will dub “Hobbitude.”

For the two of you five readers who aren’t familiar with it (hi, Gram!), The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, an unlikely hero who at the behest of the wizard Gandalf joins a band of Dwarves on a quest. Bilbo is not a human, but rather a hobbit, which the book explains:  

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which allows them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow naturally leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it).

Tolkien himself at a later date admitted that, aside from stature, he himself exhibited many hobbit attitudes--or should we say Hobbitude:

I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.

In addition to their fondness for simple food, staying at home, and sleeping in, the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia lists some other virtues of hobbits: Shrewdness, Generosity, Patience, and Fortitude. The entry on “The Character of the Hobbit” deems them “neither ambitious nor introspective, but content.”  

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives us further insight into hobbit Contentment as he describes hero Samwise Gamgee. Sam shows not laziness, but rather self-sufficiency, satisfaction with what he has, and an absence of greed: “Deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense... The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.” Joseph Pearce gives a nice discussion of this “hobbit-sense” in his book Tolkien: Man and Myth.

So tonight, fix yourself a tasty plate of sauteed mushrooms and a pint of your beverage-of-choice, kick back on a soft couch, and raise a toast to the attitude of Gratitude: Hobbitude. Let us remember to be content with what we have, and that the greatest adventure is what lies ahead...  

May we see the gates of Hobbitude, and perhaps make a (very comfy) home there.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Better to die ten thousand deaths, Than wound my honour.
--18th century English playwright Joseph Addison

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Giles Corey, a victim of the Salem witch trials. His  story is told in Robert Ward’s opera The Crucible, based on the famous Arther Miller play. I will tell the tale below, but first, let’s consider the virtue his story brings to mind: Honor.

The Random House dictionary describes Honor as “integrity in one’s beliefs and actions”--implying a certain Fidelity to those beliefs, even in the face of threats (thus also Courage). It takes Discipline and Steadfastness in behavior, ladled over a heavy base Self-Possession.

If you barged into the kitchen while we cooked up a serving of Honor, you might sniff the air and say, “What’s in the oven? It smells... military!” You’d be right. Many of the traditions that feature Honor as, well, an honored virtue (ahem) are warrior traditions: The Asatru runic virtue Sowulo translates as such; so does the Lakota virtue Wayuonihan (also translated as Honesty or Integrity), and the Bushido samurai warrior principle Meiyo. Thorn Coyle’s Pentacle of Autonomy (sometimes called the Warrior Pentacle) also features the virtue of Honor.

Curiously, I thought we’d find Honor amongst the knightly virtues, but neither the Duke of Burgundy nor the Knights of St. John list Honor amongst their principles. They do list qualities, like Purity, that might substitute. And, importantly, the Knightly codes of conduct incorporate a hefty dose of Humility.

Does Honor necessarily involve the threat of violence? Psychologist Richard Nisbett in his 1996 book Culture of Honor suggests that societies that emphasize Honor rather than Law tend to be nomadic, or at least in settings where enforcement of law is weaker (like the Wild West). The prospect of violent vengeance for insults ensures the peace. That might explain Honor’s absence from Knightly codes, since Knights presumably acted to enforce the Law (we can debate whether they actually did so somewhere down the road).

This also explains why we distinguish Honor from Pride1. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but to take a warriorlike stab at it: Pride has to do with the self, whereas Honor upholds principles beyond the self. When we act with Honor, we not only do credit to ourselves and our reputations; we connect with something transcendent, an Order in the universe.

At least a pinch of Humility, in my humble (ahem) opinion, must flavor the recipe for Honor, but in some cultures that ingredient may be forgotten entirely. This shows why the greatness of Honor can be confused with Pride, the greatness of our self (small “s”)--to the point that Jewish rabbis actually declared Mitrachayk Min HaKavod - literally, “keeping far from Honor”-- one of the 48 middot (virtues) necessary to attain Torah (Jewish wisdom). Later this year, we will talk about Megalopsychia (Magnanimity), one of Aristotle’s virtues from the Nicomachean Ethics, which so mixes up the greatness of the Self with the greatness of self that modern Western people might no longer regard it as a virtuous quality. We might call it being “Stuck Up.”

What can the story of Giles Corey tell us of Honor? During the Salem witch trials, Corey, a local farmer and full member of his church, was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft, along with his wife Martha. Because he did not recognize the legitimacy of the trial, Giles refused to enter a plea of any kind. As described in Wikipedia:

According to the law at the time, a person who refused to plead could not be tried. To avoid persons cheating justice, the legal remedy for refusing to plead was "peine forte et dure". In this process the prisoner is stripped naked, with a heavy board laid on their body. Then rocks or boulders are laid on the plank of wood. This was the process of being pressed to death... After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, "More weight."

Finally, after 48 hours of torture, Corey called out “More weight!” one final time, and died. (I find it interesting that in a setting in which the force of law failed, Corey transcended this with Honor, which recognizes a higher Order.)

Few of us in life will find our conscience tested to the point of torture and death. But often the world does not need to throw that much at us before we cry out, “No more!” Sometimes I think giving in to fear is all that it takes for Honor to collapse like a poorly-cooked souffle, or a house on a flimsy foundation. Courage may be the secret ingredient to Honor. So today, meditate on the virtue of Courage. Make it a base on which to manifest your Honor. If you wish to do more, turn your mind to today’s prisoners of conscience, and consider donating to a group like Amnesty International working to free them.

May we see the gates of Honor, and perhaps make a home there. 

1 I will note here that in several traditions, Pride is a virtue, whereas in Christian traditions it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins. A consideration of this paradox awaits us further down the road...

Thursday, September 16, 2010


“It was a cool but sunny day by the lakeside in Yerevan. I was soaking up the last bit of summer sun while singing ashoughagan and folk tunes with some college friends. Ludvig had brought a duduk and was accompanying our friend Talin on her oud. As she strummed, the rest of us chimed in when we recognized the songs. Crowds of people were flocking to the water’s edge, and a jam-packed trolley bus inched its way towards us along the top of the dam.

“Suddenly, I heard a crack, like a gunshot. While I scanned the horizon, wondering if there was someone shooting, I heard a wail and screech of trolley wheels. We watched in horror as the bus flew off the tracks and into the water, and quickly submerged.

“Earlier I’d noticed a pair of men running towards us from the other direction along the lakeside. When the trolley fell into the water, they burst into a sprint, and as they came closer, I recognized them. The Karapetyan brothers were local celebrities; Shavarsh was a world-record holder in finswimming, and at the age of 24, just a bit older than I.

“The rest of us were frozen in disbelief, but Shavarsh and his brother Kamo dove into the frigid water without hesitation. The area around the bus was now murky with silt from the lakebed. I could see Kamo treading water, but Shavarsh had disappeared. Then up popped his head, and we could see he had a person in his arms. He passed the passenger, an older woman, to his brother, who swam towards the lakeside. By now, more people had moved to the lake’s edge to help.

“Shavarsh repeated the ritual, over and over. Every half a minute or so he would pop to the surface, sometimes empty handed, but usually to pass a body to one of the students who’d waded into the water to help. Then he would dive back down. One time he brought up an empty leather chair, and grimaced when he saw what it was. Remembering the faces I’d seen crowded against the windows, I estimated there must have been almost a hundred people in the trolley. Shavarsh just kept going. In the end, he saved 20.

“Some divers had by now showed up to help, but their air tanks were empty, and of course by then it would have been too late to save anyone else: The bus had been submerged for more than 20 minutes. When Shavarsh was finally dragged to the shore by his brother, we could see deep cuts along his well-muscled swimmer’s legs, streaking dark red blood. He collapsed and was taken to a local hospital. Our friend Narine was a student nurse there, and told us later he’d gotten pneumonia from the filthy water, and was in a coma for 6 weeks.

“The illness did not quite kill Shavarsh, but it killed his athletic career, as his lungs were never the same. This was in the Soviet era, so there was nothing in the papers about it. Later we heard there’d been a fight between a passenger and the trolley driver that caused the accident. The story of Shavarsh saving all those people came out only years later. Most survivors hadn’t even known the name of the man who’d saved them! Since he lost his athletic ability, Shavarsh had to try something else. I heard he went to Moscow and started a shoe company. He called it ‘Second Wind.’

“A friend of my father once commented on it. He said, ‘Shavarsh’s lungs and legs might have made it possible for him to save those people. But his great heart made it certain.’ “

On September 16, 1976, the champion swimmer Shavarsh Karapetyan saved the lives of 20 victims of a trolley accident on Lake Yerevan, Armenia. As an athlete, Shavarsh was used to a certain form of hero worship. The Lakota Sioux say that the virtues of the hero include Wo'hitika (Courage) and Wowa'cintanka (Fortitude). And on that day Shavarsh showed these. But that day Shavarsh Karapetyan showed us one more virtue of the hero. That day Shavarsh Karapetyan showed us the meaning of Icicupi (Sacrifice).

May we see the gates of Icicupi, and perhaps make a home there.