World of wonders, saints and sinners


It’s church day again. When the alarm went off at 7:00 a.m. and—wonder of wonders—I decided to get up instead of drifting back to sleep. I got dressed in the dark, grabbed a book, went outside and scraped the frost off the windshield and drove over to Tim Horton’s.

There aren’t too many people at Tim’s on a Sunday morning. Just a few weary old guys in ball hats and the bleary-eyed wait staff behind the counter. I ordered a two-and-one and sat down with my book. It’s one that I’m re-reading for the third or fourth time. It’s not that the book is that good, it’s just that I can’t quite absorb it all in one reading.

And it’s funny how synchronous life is. There I was on a Sunday morning, a non-church-goer, reading a book about religious belief. The particular page I was on had to do with Mayhayana Buddhism, which originated at exactly the same time in history as Christianity, but at opposite ends of a 1500-mile Persian military highway. This road stretched from the Mediterranean all the way to India, and was traveled by both Buddhist teachers and the early Christian saints. Maybe it’s no accident that there are fundamental similarities between the two religions.

This got me to thinking about the karma of place names. I live in St. Stephen. So who was our patron saint? Well, in Greek the name Stephen means “crown.” From what I read on the Web, Stephen was one of seven Jewish dudes who were chosen to distribute aid to elderly widows living within the early Christian community. Stephen was also a highly gifted Christian evangelist and preacher, which was probably the main reason he ended up being stoned to death and becoming the first Christian martyr. As an aside, it turns out that one of the leading stone throwers was Saul, who, on the road to Damascus, had a historic religious epiphany. He changed both his name and his life—and all our lives by reinventing Christianity. We know him as St. Paul. For his part, the “protomartyr” Stephen became the patron saint of bricklayers, stonemasons and deacons. Today, December 26 is recognized as the Feast of St. Stephen.

But I still haven’t answered my own question. What is this town’s karma? Maybe it means St. Stephen is a great place to get stoned. Or maybe it’s a good place to get born again. Who knows? But there is some karmic energy here, an energy that’s just a little different than anywhere else.

Take the neighbouring town of St. Andrews, for example. Their patron saint, Andrew, was one of Christ’s apostles and St. Peter’s younger brother. After Christ’s death, Andrew traveled east and north—along that same Persian military highway—from Palestine to Asia Minor as up far as the Volga River region, which is now known as the Ukraine. He founded the See of Byzantium, which later became the city of Constantinople. And finally he was crucified in Patras, a Greek town located 200 kilometers north of Athens. Folk legend has it (incorrectly) that he was crucified on an X-shaped cross, which shows up as the white “X” on the navy blue flag of St. Andrews. After his death he became the patron saint of Russia, Romania, Constantiople and Scotland. His Christian feast day is November 30.

So what karma might he lay on the town of St. Andrews? Well, he seems to have been more of a world traveler than St. Stephen, so that could explain the appeal of tourism in St. Andrews. He also seems to have been more popular than Stephen, and that, to some, might explain the difference between the two towns. However, the last time I checked the Romanians have been moving into St. Stephen and not St. Andrews (the town named after their patron saint). So go figure.

Wow, how the mind can wander over a coffee at Horton’s. It actually might have been easier to dress up and go to church to meditate.

When I got home I picked up the most recent copy of Scientific American. Once again I was confronted by the history of the cosmos, this time from a decidedly non-religious point of view. The cover story featured the end of the Big Bang theory and the creation of the Bouncing Ball theory to explain the beginning of the universe. According to cosmologists, our universe has been collapsing into a super-dense pinpoint and re-expanding into infinite space with predictable regularity. Or at least I think that’s how it goes. Once the chatter got too deeply into quantum theory I knew I was lost.

At the galactic scale it’s hard to separate the actions of the sinners from the saints. Really, did it matter whether Saul-Paul was a bad man or a good man? Or even a perennially conflicted man, as some theological historians speculate. Despite notions of good or evil, the world in which we live is a marvellous place. And that was one of the points being made in this book I’ve been re-reading.

The ancients knew it, too. They saw it in nature, and in their own inventions. Even before the time of Christ they had a list of the Seven Wonders of the World. In case you don’t remember them all, they were: the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. I know, common knowledge to any tourist, right?

Well, nearly 2500 years later only one of the original wonders remains. It’s the Great Pyramid, of course. Which goes to illustrate just how transient we are. Everything is a temporal illusion. Which, I suppose, brings us back to religion. Or more accurately, spiritual refection.

I remember sitting outside in the backyard last summer with the kids. An iridescent-blue-green dragonfly caught our attention. It seemed to be a newborn, perched on a twig, stretching out its wings to dry in the sun. Then, in a quicksilver flash, it was aloft. It did a slow buzzing circle, then landed on the same spot. Not expecting to see it again, we looked closer. We discovered that one of its four wings had broken off. On a personal level we felt the deep tragedy of its injury.

But in a world of wonders, even such imperfection is a work of absolute perfection.


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