Monday, December 5, 2016

Smudging the lines

Smudging ceremony crosses the line into the realm of the sacred
Imagine if a public school put up a nativity scene to teach students the Christian view of Christmas, and invited a priest to bless the figurines, the school, and the school community.  Parents would accuse the school of promoting Christian beliefs. They would see the blessing as an imposition of those beliefs on their children.  



The parents would be justified in objecting.  The school would have blurred the lines between culture, traditional practices and spiritual beliefs. 

When a Port Alberni school held a smudging ceremony, it did just that.

Candice Servatius, a parent at John Howitt Elementary School (JHES), is taking the school district to court. In September 2015, JHES held a smudging ceremony. A teacher told Servatius’s daughter that she must participate. Servatius maintains that the smudging ceremony was religious in nature, that the school violated her religious freedom and breached its duty of neutrality. The Justice Center forConstitutional Freedoms is acting on her behalf.

The school district maintains that the smudging was cultural. It argues that the ceremony fits the mandate of incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into the British Columbia curriculum.  

I spoke with an Elder here in the Kootenays  about smudging. “It’s cultural, not religious,” she said. She went onto explain that smudging was not (and is not) a universal practice. In some communities, it was practical.  It cleansed the air of unpleasant odors and the smoke drove insects away.  It may be that the spiritual connotations commonly associated with smudging developed over time.

Niigaan Sinclair, Associate Professor and Acting Head of the Native Studies Department at the University of Manitoba, has a different understanding of smudging.  Speaking on the CBC radio show The Current, Sinclair called the ceremony spiritual, but not religious. He described smudging as the taking and burning of medicines to bring them to a person’s emotional, mental, physical, and, usually, spiritual side.  He described bringing the smoke to one’s self as a way of committing to a relationship with the Earth. 

Whether the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging at JHES was cultural, spiritual or religious, the school imposed a set of beliefs on its students.   This is evident from the contents of the letter that the school sent home to parents to explain the reasons for smudging.

“Nuu-chah-nulth People believe strongly that “Hii-Suukish-Tswalk,  (everything is one; all is connected). Everything has a spirit and energy exists beyond the end of one school year and into the next. This will be our opportunity to…experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom and previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us.”  

When a school begins to talk about cleansing spirits, it is moving away from something that is strictly cultural in nature into the realm of the sacred.

A group of figurines in a stable tells a story about a baby sleeping in the hay surrounded by animals.   There is nothing inherently religious about that. But, blessing the scene illuminates the Christian belief in the incarnation, in God becoming human.  An innocuous tableau suddenly becomes a place of reflection for Christian belief. 

Smudging to cleanse the air of odours or to chase away mosquitoes falls under culture.  Smudging to cleanse spirits communicates a specific set of spiritual beliefs.  It crosses the line between culture and religion, between the ordinary and the sacred.

When the City of Saguenay, Quebec insisted on reciting the Lord’s Prayer before its council meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the state could not use culture, heritage or tradition to justify a religious practice in the public domain.

Public schools, like other state institutions, have a duty of religious neutrality.

It will be unfortunate if this case pits two cultures against one another, and hampers the work of reconciliation. This case is not about whether schools should teach authentic Aboriginal content. Rather, the question is how to appropriately present that content.

Canadian schools can best support the national task of reconciliation with meaningful, well-developed curriculum.  This can include presentations but children do not have to be directly involved. Children can learn about aboriginal traditions without participating in a ceremony that blurs the lines between culture, religion and spirituality. 


When JHES held its smudging ceremony, it imposed a set of spiritual beliefs. And in doing so, it breached the duty of neutrality.  

Images: Nativity scene by Gustave Dore

Thursday, November 24, 2016

BC Court of Appeal rules for Trinity Western University

When tolerance becomes intolerance
Sometimes a well-intentioned defense of one group’s rights becomes an expression of intolerance towards another group.  Such is the case with the Law Society of British Columbia and Trinity Western University.  TWU is a privately funded, evangelical Christian university seeking to establish a faith-based law school.

TWU has faced an uphill battle since it first submitted a proposal to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.  After conducting a thorough review of the proposal, the Federation granted its approval for a faculty of law at TWU.  However, the law societies of BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia declined to accredit future graduates of the school.  There have been court challenges in each of the three provinces, with differing results.

In April 2014, after a rigorous debate of the issues, the Benchers of the LSBC approved the school. A few months later, they reversed their decision in response to pressure from members of the Society.  The matter went before the BC Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Both courts found for TWU.
The Appeal Court, in its November 2016 decision, found that the LSBC resolution not to approve the proposed law school at TWU would have a “severe impact” on the religious freedom rights of the faith-based community.  LSBC has said it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. 
The cause of all of this litigation arises from one clause in the university’s Community Covenant.  The controversial clause defines marriage as between a man and a woman.  Critics say the clause is homophobic and discriminatory.

The clause may deter students in same-sex marriages from applying to the faculty of law. In this sense, it is discriminatory.  However, this does not mean that the TWU community is homophobic. In fact, hateful attitudes, speech and actions against LGBTQ individuals would violate the covenant; the covenant stresses the innate, God-given dignity, and worth of every individual. 

The innate dignity of the individual is a basic principle of Christianity and is crucial to the Christian identity – an identity that the TWU community takes seriously.

The evangelical Christian identity is founded on a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus was a friend to the marginalized, the rejected, and the despised – in short, to the “other”.   While he may not have always approved of an individual’s choices or lifestyle, he always honoured and respected the individual. When members of the TWU community sign the covenant, they are also pledging to be more Christ-like towards those that are “other”.

TWU’s view of marriage goes against the grain of contemporary society. Nevertheless, the TWU community must be allowed to uphold its Biblical view of marriage. There is nothing inherently discriminatory or intolerant about a group that makes a distinction between sacramental and civic marriage.

The Appeal Court noted that there is no “downstream” effect flowing from the TWU covenant. In other words, there is no evidence that TWU graduates are homophobic. There is nothing to suggest that TWU would turn out bigoted lawyers incapable of upholding the laws of the land. 

In their well-intentioned defense of LGBTQ rights, some Benchers and members of the Society described the TWU biblical view of marriage as “abhorrent”, “archaic”, and “hypocritical”.    This is strong language.  Its intent may have been to show support for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ human rights. Still, it reveals an intolerant attitude towards religious sexual morality, in general, and the TWU community, in particular. This makes the Society’s decision not to approve the proposed faculty of law at TWU seem punitive.

In our attempts to protect one group’s rights, we run the risk of becoming intolerant towards another. A society serious about promoting tolerance must allow a minority group to hold an unpopular view (providing it causes no harm to the public interest).


In the words of the Appeal Court,  “A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society – one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal.  This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism, can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.”

Rituals around death may help us live better

From Halloween on October 31 to All Soul’s Day on November 2, death gets a cultural nod from us.  Does this cultural nod at death fulfill some deep seated human need?

We don’t have to be historians to recognize that Halloween is connected in some way with death and dying.   Just walk around any neighbourhood in the days preceding Halloween and you will notice graveyards springing up on front lawns and ghosts flittering among the trees.  Walking around a tony Toronto neighbourhood last week, I spotted a macabre Halloween display that would have made a fitting set for a horror flick.

The foundations of today’s celebration of Halloween may go back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Roman feast of Feralia.

The Celts celebrated Samhain as autumn gave way to winter and vegetation died.  The Celts believed that for one night a year the spirits of those who had died the preceding year roamed the earth.  They needed to entertain and feed the spirits, as well as protect themselves from any malevolence.  They dressed like witches, ghosts or goblins to deter evil spirits from taking possession of their bodies, and they left treats on the doorstep for good spirits.

The Romans celebration of Feralia, like Samhain, was a time to commemorate the dead. The Romans honored the graves of the deceased with wreaths made of tile, and they left grain, salt and bread soaked in wine to nourish the shades.

As Christianity spread through the Roman world, people began celebrating All Hallow’s Eve on October 31, the night before All Saint’s Day.  By the 16th century in France, children were dressing up in grizzly costumes to perform the Dance of the Macabre. In this allegorical dance, a skeleton rose from the grave and led both the dead and the living in a dance.  The dance was a reminder that Death claims everyone, regardless of a person’s station in life.

In 998, Odilo, abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France designated November 2 as a day to pray for the deceased members of his community.  Odilo’s idea took hold, and by the 14th century, November 2 had become the Feast of All Soul’s Day.

While prayers for the dead are a staple of All Soul’s Day, people still observe other traditional rituals that commemorate their deceased loved ones. When I grew up, communal prayer at the cemetery on All Soul’s Day was common, as was leaving flowers at the grave of the beloved.  In some countries, people leave food at the gravesite, or set a place at the table for their deceased loved ones. 

The similarities between ancient pagan practices and our rituals around Halloween and All Soul’s Day are obvious.  While we might think some of these rituals are superstitious, morbid, silly or good old-fashioned fun, they have endured in some form for millennia. This suggests our rituals serve a purpose of which we may be unaware.


The creepier Halloween decorations may serve a function similar to that of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Bruno Bettleheim, in the seminal work On The Uses of Enchantment, posited that gruesome fairy tales played an important role in helping children resolve inner conflict. Perhaps menacing Halloween graveyard scenes are a subconscious attempt to gain mastery over our fears about death and dying, as well as other things that we cannot control.

And what of the rituals around praying for the dead?   As a child, I found the rituals a bit odd.  I never considered that I would die so visiting the cemetery didn’t make much sense to me.  But as I age and death gets closer, my thinking has changed. These rituals can help us accept our mortality with a bit more grace, especially since we live in a culture obsessed with youthfulness, a culture that some describe as “death denying”. 


Unless the ebb and flow of life forces us, we don’t typically give much thought to death.  For a couple of days a year, as we harvest the last pumpkin, as the leaves fall from the trees, as children excitedly traipse around in costume collecting treats, and as the faithful visit the graves of their beloved, we give death a nod. That nod might just help us become better at the act of living.  


Rituals around death may help us live better

From Halloween on October 31 to All Soul’s Day on November 2, death gets a cultural nod from us.  Does this cultural nod at death fulfill some deep seated human need?

We don’t have to be historians to recognize that Halloween is connected in some way with death and dying.   Just walk around any neighbourhood in the days preceding Halloween and you will notice graveyards springing up on front lawns and ghosts flittering among the trees.  Walking around a tony Toronto neighbourhood last week, I spotted a macabre Halloween display that would have made a fitting set for a horror flick.

The foundations of today’s celebration of Halloween may go back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Roman feast of Feralia.

The Celts celebrated Samhain as autumn gave way to winter and vegetation died.  The Celts believed that for one night a year the spirits of those who had died the preceding year roamed the earth.  They needed to entertain and feed the spirits, as well as protect themselves from any malevolence.  They dressed like witches, ghosts or goblins to deter evil spirits from taking possession of their bodies, and they left treats on the doorstep for good spirits.

The Romans celebration of Feralia, like Samhain, was a time to commemorate the dead. The Romans honored the graves of the deceased with wreaths made of tile, and they left grain, salt and bread soaked in wine to nourish the shades.

As Christianity spread through the Roman world, people began celebrating All Hallow’s Eve on October 31, the night before All Saint’s Day.  By the 16th century in France, children were dressing up in grizzly costumes to perform the Dance of the Macabre. In this allegorical dance, a skeleton rose from the grave and led both the dead and the living in a dance.  The dance was a reminder that Death claims everyone, regardless of a person’s station in life.

In 998, Odilo, abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France designated November 2 as a day to pray for the deceased members of his community.  Odilo’s idea took hold, and by the 14th century, November 2 had become the Feast of All Soul’s Day.

While prayers for the dead are a staple of All Soul’s Day, people still observe other traditional rituals that commemorate their deceased loved ones. When I grew up, communal prayer at the cemetery on All Soul’s Day was common, as was leaving flowers at the grave of the beloved.  In some countries, people leave food at the gravesite, or set a place at the table for their deceased loved ones. 

The similarities between ancient pagan practices and our rituals around Halloween and All Soul’s Day are obvious.  While we might think some of these rituals are superstitious, morbid, silly or good old-fashioned fun, they have endured in some form for millennia. This suggests our rituals serve a purpose of which we may be unaware.


The creepier Halloween decorations may serve a function similar to that of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Bruno Bettleheim, in the seminal work On The Uses of Enchantment, posited that gruesome fairy tales played an important role in helping children resolve inner conflict. Perhaps menacing Halloween graveyard scenes are a subconscious attempt to gain mastery over our fears about death and dying, as well as other things that we cannot control.

And what of the rituals around praying for the dead?   As a child, I found the rituals a bit odd.  I never considered that I would die so visiting the cemetery didn’t make much sense to me.  But as I age and death gets closer, my thinking has changed. These rituals can help us accept our mortality with a bit more grace, especially since we live in a culture obsessed with youthfulness, a culture that some describe as “death denying”. 


Unless the ebb and flow of life forces us, we don’t typically give much thought to death.  For a couple of days a year, as we harvest the last pumpkin, as the leaves fall from the trees, as children excitedly traipse around in costume collecting treats, and as the faithful visit the graves of their beloved, we give death a nod. That nod might just help us become better at the act of living.  


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"In the Middle of Things: The Spirituality of Everyday Life"


I first met Paul Crawford one Sunday after Mass about a decade ago.  I knew something was different that Sunday before I walked into the church.  I could hear the organ and it sounded like a concert in a cathedral.  After Mass, I introduced myself to the man who was able to coax such beautiful sound out of our parish's simple instrument.

Paul is not only a musician.  He is also a writer.  His new book, "In the Middle of Things: The Spirituality of Everyday Life" takes a different approach to popular books on spirituality which frequently fall into the "how-to" category.



“In the Middle of Things" is a broad and comprehensive discussion of spirituality. Crawford preaches no creed. Rather, he draws on the wisdom of the major religious traditions to illustrate that spirituality is a natural human capacity for finding meaning in life. Infused with quotations from scientists, artists, sages, and sacred texts, “In the Middle of Things” reflects the author’s extensive academic background in interdisciplinary studies, as well as his life experience as a musician, teacher, and person of faith.  “In The Middle Of Things” is a book of big concepts and deep thought. 

Unlike much of contemporary, popular literature on spirituality, the reader will not find clich├ęs, platitudes, or techniques for developing his or her spiritual nature. “In The Middle of Things” does not provide the reader with a path to follow. Instead, the author invites the reader to delve deeply into various questions with him as he explores his own thinking.  Do we have what we need? Why do we get in our own way so often? Why is an end always a beginning?  He invites the reader to decipher the mystery of being. Are we able to see with the eyes of paradox, to find light in darkness, completeness in incompleteness, strength in weakness, life in death?  

As I read through its pages, I frequently found myself in dialogue with “In The Middle of Things”.   I was able to take the dialogue one step further when Crawford and I sat down one afternoon to talk about the book.  I had planned to ask Crawford a bunch of questions, but our conversation proceeded quite differently than my attempts to orchestrate.

The structure of “In The Middle Of Things” reminded me of a musical composition.  This is no accident coming from an author who is also a musician.  Our conversation, like the book, was non-linear.  It did not move sequentially from point to point. It flowed from idea to idea, and circled back upon itself to clarify a thought, to add a new insight or to promote an exchange.

“Spirituality does ask something of us”, said Crawford. “It asks that we be life-long learners” but not in the sense of acquiring objective facts and knowledge.   Our culture, with its emphasis on scientific inquiry and reliance on technology, conditions us to doubt our spiritual capacity.  “We think that things that are corroborated by science are more authentic.  We can’t accept a piece of knowledge unless we have scientific evidence.”   Yet, we intuit the transcendent, and know it in those ineffable “take-our-breath” away experiences.

“We learn from love empowered experiences” when we are centered in the present and when we recognize our interdependency.  Interdependency is not a popular idea; we prize autonomy and independence.  Crawford uses the title of a 1981 film, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” to reflect on personal autonomy and interdependency. Do we have the right to act as an autonomous individual, without regard for the effect of our actions on others? Or, do we have a responsibility to act as a participant in the whole of life?  

Living in the present gets a lot of attention in books about spirituality.  Perhaps this is because we have difficulty allowing life to unfold from moment to moment.  “We want to interject. We need to learn how not to do, so we can really live in the present.” 

The next time you are shopping for a book, take a few moments to browse the spiritual titles in the self-help section.  You will find a lot of spiritual gurus.  Crawford suggests that we don’t need a guru.  Why? “The fundamental reality out of which we come is love.  We already have everything we need.  The reality of God is within us.  The truth dwells within.”


In a famous essay, 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” More philosophical than the standard fare on spirituality, “In The Middle of Things” gives the reader plenty of food for thought. 

"In the Middle of Things: The Spirituality of Everyday Life" by Paul D. Crawford is available from both Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.