Do Jehovah's Witnesses Celebrate Holidays?
Plus: My brother thinks he's God, and what to serve Catholics on Fridays in Lent
BY: Arthur Magida
Confused about how to behave in interfaith situations--or how to act in your own religion's ceremonies?Email us your questions.
A coworker who's a Jehovah's Witness brought her seven-year-old daughter to work on Valentine's Day. I didn't want to ask her why her daughter wasn't in school, but I'm wondering if it had anything to do her religious beliefs.
-- A.R., Washington, D.C.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe in love, but not necessarily in Cupid, who was a minor god of the Greeks. The real Valentine was a third century Roman who was tortured and finally beheaded in what was obviously a futile effort to make him renounce Christianity: It's hard to renounce anything if your head isn't screwed on tight. For about 150 years, Christians observed February 14 as the day on which Valentine was martyred. In fact, the phrase "from your Valentine" was how the slain saint signed a note he sent to the daughter of his jailor: the little girl had befriended him while he was in prison.
In 496 A.D., the pope merged Valentine's Day with the ancient Roman holiday that was celebrated on February 15 -- Lupercalia, which honored Juno, the goddess of marriage. Eventually, Lupercalia's theme of romance supplanted the original Valentine Day's theme of sacrifice and the image of little angels with bows and arrows replaced the more gruesome image of Valentine minus his head.
Jehovah's Witnesses stance toward Valentine's Day is part of their efforts to be faithful to the teachings of first century Christianity. In fact, they are so determined to do this that, while they respect the American flag, they believe that saluting it is an idolatrous act.
My brother started meditating two months ago and now he thinks he's enlightened. He's preachy and judgmental and acts not just like he's seen God, but he is God. How do I bring him back to reality? -- S.E.M., Boston, MA
In his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi said, "There is no you to say 'I.' What we call 'I' is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale [during meditation]. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no 'I,' no world, no mind nor body. Just a swinging door."
Your brother is hung up on the door and all its swinging -- back and forth, back and forth. Instead of being humbled by it, his ego is being swollen by it. That's not "spiritual;" that's narcissistic. Apparently, he hasn't grasped what St. Francis of Assisi was trying to get at when he said, "It's no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."
Arrogance makes for a bad teacher, but maybe you can appreciate that it's your brother's sudden enthusiasm for meditation that's turned him into his idea of a Buddha. Think about leaving a few books around that he can't avoid about spiritual moderation and the disorientation that can come from misusing certain disciplines: The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, Stalking the Wild Pendulum by Itzak Bentov, or New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton.
If all else fails, tell him what a 15th century Sufi and Hindu master, Kabir, said: "The Yogi comes along in his famous orange. But if inside he is colorless, then what?"
We have a potluck lunch in my office every Friday. About 10 people are Catholic and I know they have dietary restrictions during Lent. What are they? -- K.B., Brattleboro, VT
The Lenten diet is actually quite simple: no meat on Fridays, although fish is fine. Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent and Good Friday are fast days. That doesn't mean a total fast. Just that Catholics have three fairly small meals. (In fact, the rough formula is that two of these meals should be equal to the size of the third meal.)
The ban on meat is intended to remind Catholics of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. "Sacrifice," in this sense, has two meanings. At one time, when meat was the prime source of sustenance, abstaining from it meant that you were, indeed, making a major sacrifice. Also, the flesh and blood aspects of meat symbolized the flesh-and-blood Jesus' sacrifice when he was crucified.