What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Recalling Beatrix Potter, Primo Levi, Lughnasadh and solemn religious fasts

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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(July 27 to August 2, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton


THIS WEEK, we remember some world-class heroes—from Beatrix Potter and Primo Levi to Thomas Jefferson, who led the nation’s first Census. Millions of Jews and Orthodox Christians will be fasting, Japanese will be purifying themselves and Pagans will celebrate. Read all about these observances …

TUESDAY, it’s the birthday of a very famous Potter—and we’re not talking about Harry! Beatrix Potter, the English author, illustrator, mycologist and conservationist most famous for “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” was born on this day in 1866. While many may associate Miss Potter with fond childhood memories of reading her books, there is a lot more to this woman’s story than her famous rabbit.
    Although born into a wealthy English household, Beatrix was informally educated by her governess and kept away from other children. In her loneliness, Beatrix often turned to her many pets for companionship and slowly developed a passion for the natural world. One of Beatrix’s favorite pets was a rabbit she had, in fact, named Peter, and she spent many hours sketching her pets.
    Until age 30—as yet unmarried—Beatrix’s family insisted she be caretaker of the house. Nonetheless, Miss Potter continued to nurture her love of writing by keeping a coded diary. While in her thirties, Beatrix was finally brought to public attention when “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” was published. The initial printing produced 8,000 books, and this tale hasn’t been out of print since. Here’s a short profile of Beatrix from her 2008 birthday.
    This is really cool! You can read some of Beatrix’s most popular books online.

    After Peter Rabbit was published, Beatrix bought a farm in the Lake District, a place she visited during childhood summers. Eventually, she preserved thousands of acres in that region. By the time of her death, Beatrix had published 23 books, overcoming the obstacles placed before career-oriented women during her time.
    Beatrix’s works have since been the inspiration for movies, a ballet, animation, music and more. The Beatrix Potter Society continues to preserve her works and her commitment to natural preservation. The most recent film depicting her life, “Miss Potter,” was released in December of 2006. Here’s a gateway to The World of Peter Rabbit, including activities for kids. And, if you’re interested in seeing the popular film about Beatrix’s life, you can click on the Amazon link at right—or to see a trailer of the film, visit the Miss Potter movie site.
    Among Beatrix Potter’s famous comments on the spiritual nature of life are these lines, depicting her unconventional yet all-encompassing perspective: “All outward forms of religion are almost useless, and are the causes of endless strife… . Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest.”
    If you’re interested in hosting a Beatrix Potter party today, find tips here.

WEDNESDAY at sundown, observant Jewish men and women begin to fast in commemoration of the saddest day of the calendar, Tisha B’Av. This fast day is so named because it falls on the ninth day of the month of Av, according to the Hebrew calendar. Here is Wikipedia’s extensive article on Tisha B’Av. For a contemporary perspective, Jewish writer Charles Weinblatt (who specializes in writing about the Holocaust) wrote this special essay on Tisha B’Av for ReadTheSpirit. (The photo at left was taken at the Western Wall in Jerusalem at an earlier Tisha B’Av.)
    According to tradition, the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem were destroyed on this same day in different years. Some also remember the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
    For three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av, beginning on the 17th of Tammuz, a period of mourning takes place. During these weeks, joyous events like weddings and parties are prohibited. The ark cabinet, which traditionally holds the Torah, is draped in black material.
    Ancient rabbis foretold that the ninth of Av would be a day of tragedy: According to the Talmud, when Moses sent spies to the Promised Land, the spies returned with worried reports. Witnesses wept at this, and God declared, “You wept without cause; I will therefore make this an eternal day of mourning for you.”
    The last meal eaten prior to the Tisha B’Av fast typically consists of eggs, lentils and other round foods, so chosen because the shape represents the cycle of life and mourning. After Tisha B’Av, a period of comfort begins, preparing the way for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

THURSDAY, Japanese who observe Shinto tradition follow a grand purification ceremony during O-Harai-Taisai. (English spellings of this biannual event vary.) Japanese regard this as a time to be purged of offenses committed during the past six months—and to restore the internal balance of the body. As purity and purification are central to Shinto practice, O-Harai-Tasai is highly regarded.
    Next to Buddhism, Shinto represents the largest Japanese spiritual tradition. Elements of this ancient discipline are as old as Japan, yet the customs are as central to Japanese culture now as ever. For example, nearly every Japanese factory and business still is purified by a Shinto priest upon opening. Here’s a BBC look at Shinto purification rites. The online Japan Guide also provides a summary of Shinto traditions. (The photo at right shows the entrance to a Shinto shrine in Japan.)
    The concept of purification draws from the legend of the god Izanagi no mikoto, who is believed to have washed himself after visiting his wife in the Land of the Dead. Shinto followers believe that humans are generally good, and that evil is the result of evil spirits: therefore, purification rites are performed consistently to ward off evil spirits.
    New online resources about religious traditions become available each year—especially the powerful new Google Books database. On Japanese spiritual traditions, here’s a link to the helpful book, “Shinto: The Way Home.” If you click on the link, you can flip and read pages of the book.


FRIDAY marks the 90th birthday of the late Jewish-Italian chemist and author Primo Levi. Although Levi died in 1987, his works live on as a major testament to the Holocaust. Born into a liberal Jewish family, Levi lived in Turin, Italy, for the majority of his life; the 11 months he spent in Auschwitz, however, transformed his life.
    “The camp was my university,” Levi wrote in his classic, “Survival in Auschwitz.”
    Levi wrote about his fellow prisoners and their heroism amidst the stages of dehumanization. Levi focused in his writing more on the behavior of Jews, rather than on the behavior of Nazis. “Survival in Auschwitz,” which originally was titled “If This Is a Man,” has been called one of the most important books of the 20th century.
    Of the 650 Italian Jews in Levi’s incoming shipment, only 20 lived long enough to leave the concentration camp. Events leading to his eventual survival included: Levi was aided in his survival with a base knowledge of the German language (a skill he learned from reading chemistry publications); a smuggled soup ration each day; a job as assistant in the Buna laboratory; and an illness that spared him the death march that killed so many of his fellow prisoners.
    The Primo Levi Center is dedicated to preserving his works and legacy. Among other helpful online resources are this publication by The Atlantic and an online study guide to “Survival in Auschwitz.”

SATURDAY, an Orthodox Christian Dormition Fast begins. This is a two-week fast that leads up to the Feast of the Dormition—the “falling asleep” or death of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox Church provides a concise summary of Orthodox fasting customs throughout the year.
    According to Orthodox Christian tradition, Mary was told by the Archangel Gabriel of her repose three days prior to the event. It’s believed that the apostles were transported to her side when she died, and that although her soul was taken up by Christ upon death, her body was resurrected three days later. A sweet fragrance is said to have been left behind after she was resurrected.

Also on SATURDAY, Pagans, Wiccans and many of Irish-Gaelic background celebrate holidays known as Lammas/Lughnasadh and Imbolc—honoring both the first wheat harvest of the year and a first festival of spring, depending on where one lives on the planet. Some in English-speaking countries in the Northern Hemisphere recognize Lammas/Lughnasadh, while those in the Southern Hemisphere recognize Imbolc.
    Lammas is related to Lughnasadh, the name of a traditional Gaelic holiday. It is a time of thanksgiving for the bountiful summer crop; in Medieval times, craft festivals took place, during which artists would elaborately show off their wares. In modern times, there still are fires and dancing for Lughnasadh (spellings of the term vary). Meryl Streep starred in a 1998 drama centering around the festival, called “Dancing at Lughnasa.” It’s a moving and even darkly comedic slice of village life, if you care to pick up a copy via Amazon (there’s a link at right) or your own Netflix service.
    In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s time for Imbolc, a spring festival. Some believe that Groundhog Day originated as Imbolc, and this Scottish Gaelic proverb details the day:
    “The serpent will come from the hole
    On the brown Day of Bride,
    Though there should be three feet of snow
    On the flat surface of the ground.”

SUNDAY marks the anniversary of the First U.S. Census in 1790, taken after the American Revolution under the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. If it sounds strange to think of a Census associated with a single date—August 2, 1790—well, consider that America was a lot smaller back then. Only 3.9 million people were counted. Today with about 300 million Americans, it’s a far bigger task. The United States Census Bureau already is collecting data for the 22nd census of 2010.

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