What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Lanterns for ancestors, Swithun on rain, and we gaze skyward on Apollo 11’s 40th

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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(July 13 to 19, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS IS A WEEK full of lights, spiritual creativity—and reasons to gaze up into the sky in wonder! We’ve got stories about Obon in Japan and Hawaii, St. Swithun’s day (and its legendary connection to rain), the big 40th anniversary of Apollo 11—and a Muslim holiday, too. Read all about it, below …

ON MONDAY, Buddhists in Tokyo pay tribute to their ancestors during Obon, a three-day festival honored throughout Japan at various times during the year. Many Japanese recognize Obon during August, but Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku region observe the tradition in July.
    During Obon, Buddhists clean their homes and present offerings at their household altars. Many Japanese return to ancestral family locations and visit the graves of their ancestors, concluding the festival by sending lighted lanterns along rivers and other waterways. By the light of the lanterns, Japanese Buddhists hope to guide their ancestors’ spirits back to the world of the dead.
    Obon, a shortened version of Ullambana, translates into “hanging upside down,” a term referring to the torturous suspension some spirits undergo when the journey to the spirit world can’t be completed. The festival began in remembrance of a disciple of Buddha who looked upon his deceased mother, only to find that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. This disciple asked Buddha how to alleviate his mother of this pain, and he followed the instructions to make offerings to Buddhist monks. This disciple saw his mother exit the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and performed a jubilant dance. Today, this dance is performed during Obon.
    Although most of the festival observers are in Japan, other countries—and states—honor this festival, too, at various times. In Hawaii, the large Japanese population makes for a great observance of Obon during the summer months. (The photo above is from Tokyo, but the photo at right is from the waters off Hawaii last year at Obon.)
    Interested in making an Obon lantern of your own? Follow these online directions.
    To read further: Here’s a summary from an online guide to Japan. And here’s another overview with a sampling of photos from TokyoTopia, another travel-related site.

WEDNESDAY: Many Christians will remember Vladimir Svyatoslavich the Great on this Ukrainian saint’s feast day. This prince of Kiev, who reigned until July of 1015, converted to Christianity in 988 and proceeded to baptize the Kievan Rus. Wikipedia has a helpful overview. The Wiki-like New World Encyclopedia also offers a biographical sketch. Then, here’s a “Saint of the Day” look at his legacy from the popular Catholic Online Web site.
    According to religious tradition: He was born to a housekeeper in an aristocratic household. But this wasn’t a typical “illegitimate” birth. This mystical housekeeper, a woman named Malusha, could predict the future. And, Vladimir wasn’t pushed aside—he came to rule his father’s lands. He went on to acquire more and more territories, and when he became interested in the religions of his neighboring countries (he had practiced paganism), Christianity caught his eye.
    The capitol of Christianity at the time, Constantinople, also drew Vladimir’s attention. The city’s great beauty greatly impressed him. Always politically minded, Vladimir also looked with favor upon friendship with those in the Byzantine Empire. Infamous for his lack of morals, Vladimir changed his ways upon converting to Christianity. His life began following a more sacred path, and he converted Kiev to Christianity, along with building churches and schools and donating to those in need. Vladimir is known as the patron saint of Russian Christians.
    Today, evidence of high regard for St. Vladimir is obvious: One of the largest and grandest cathedrals in Ukraine is named for him (the photo above shows the interior of St. Vladimir’s cathedral), Russians uphold an Order of St. Vladimir, and the United States houses Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Numerous Russian songs and legends also bare his name.
The colorful interior and breathtaking mosaics of St. Vladimir’s cathedral are revered worldwide. View pictures at this site.
    THEN, here’s a cool twist to a centuries-old story: Do you think that St. Vladimir and has anything in common with rock music fans of today? According to this modern deacon, there is a connection!

Also WEDNESDAY: Don’t forget to check the weather forecast! On the feast day of St. Swithun, legend has it that a rainy day will ensure 40 more days and nights of rain. Even the BBC reports that soggy legend.
    An English Bishop of Winchester, St. Swithun was known for constructing churches and giving to charitable causes in the ninth century. The most significant part of this story, though, didn’t come until years after St. Swithun’s death.
    Swithun requested that, upon his death, he be buried outdoors, where “the sweet rain from heaven may fall upon my grave.” But in 971, his body was moved indoors, and it’s said that after this move, a heavy rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights. Believers attribute the rainfall to Swithun’s wishes having been ignored.
    An English verse describes this tale:
    St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
    For forty days it will remain
    St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
    For forty days ’twill rain na mair
    Rather than marking the date of his death, St. Swithun’s feast day falls on the day his remains were moved. Swithun is currently known as a go-to saint in seasons of drought.
    A singer from the UK, Billy Bragg, attributed a song to St. Swithun’s Day. Read the lyrics here. It’s a modern love song interwoven with memories of the day, including the lines:
    The Polaroids that hold us together
    Will surely fade away
    Like the love that we spoke of forever
    On St Swithin’s Day

   Finally, for a little more information, here’s the Wikipedia page on Swithun.

THURSDAY marks the anniversary of Americans looking up to the sky—but not to check the weather, in this case. Forty years ago, Americans began craning their necks in the hope of spotting some sign of Apollo 11 up in the skies. That’s the day when the Kennedy Space Center sent its first rocket into space with a mission to land on the Moon.
     NASA shares some of that dramatic history. Plus, there are some stirring NASA images you can download.
    At 9:32 a.m. EDT, thousands of spectators watched as Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin rocketed into space. Upon landing on the moon, the report was: “The Eagle has landed.” The three astronauts had trained together for months prior to the space mission, and Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin “walked” the surface of the Moon, gathering samples and conducting experiments, while Michael Collins remained in the Command Module.
    Smithsonian Magazine offers a great firsthand account, written by a man who was assigned to cover the Apollo 11 launch 40 years ago. You’ll even see his photo of Americans—craning their necks skyward on that day.
    While the launch of Apollo 11 was viewed by citizens across the country, there are some people who still believe the astronauts never walked on the Moon. Conspiracy theorists argue that the landing was filmed in a studio, while NASA argues against the points made by theorists. What do you think? First, here’s a point-by-point outline of the conspiracy theory. Then, here’s a NASA rebuttal of those claims. Together, the two Web pages make fascinating reading.
    Months ago, ReadTheSpirit recommended a beautiful new picture book on the landing—”Footsteps on the Moon”—in this article about three ways to make fresh connections with our world.
    Whatever you believe about Apollo 11, NASA recently announced plans to prepare for another lunar mission. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has transmitted detailed photographs of the surface of the Moon, in preparation for further exploration.

SUNDAY at sundown, Muslims recall a major story within Islam that solidifies the Prophet Muhammad’s stature as the last in a line of prophets. This is Lailat al Miraj, a Muslim festival celebrating the Night Journey (called Isra and Mi’raj in Arabic), a miraculous event that Muslims believe took place during the seventh century. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad took a journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven on this night, along the way meeting other prophets that included Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
    The Quran notes that Isra began when Muhammad received a visit from the archangel Gabriel—the same archangel, according to Christian tradition, who visited the Virgin Mary with news that she had conceived Jesus. In the Muslim account, a powerful winged horse was provided so that Muhammad could visit other prophets in prayer and continue on to heaven. After meeting prophets in heaven, Muhammad was taken to Allah, where it was determined that Muslims should pray five times per day. Here’s a BBC summary.
    Muslims debate the nature of this journey—whether physical or spiritual, occurring in person or in a dream. There’s even some discussion about whether the far mosque visited by the Prophet Muhammad actually was in Jerusalem. Whatever the outcome of such dialogues, one thing is certain: This traditional story makes a powerful connection with Jerusalem for millions of modern Muslims, most of whom believe that this journey was to sacred sites in the heart of that holy city. (Here’s a brief look at this observance in the Jerusalem.com Web site.)
    Families celebrate Lailat al Miraj with storytelling, prayer, foods and the illumination of cities with lights and candles. Giving to charities and performing good deeds are encouraged in honor of this observance.

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