Thursday, January 21, 2010

Public Displays of Devotion, a Diverted Flight, and Me

I've been wearing a crucifix around my neck for some time now. Since last Lent, if memory serves. It's not particularly large - a bit over an inch and a half high - but hard to miss. The priest with Our Lady of the Angels parish, here in Sauk Centre, recommended that we wear these, praying each day during Lent, then giving the chaplet (the crucifix plus the knotted cord it's attached to) to the person we were praying for. I gave mine to my father: the one I'm wearing now is an 'extra' the household had.

For me, that crucifix isn't a fashion statement. The jewelry I wear are functional, meaningful symbols: a ring to show that I'm married, a bracelet that identifies me as a diabetic - and now this crucifix, which identifies me as a Catholic.

At least, that's the idea.

One of the problems with the display of symbols to communicate is that not everybody knows what the symbols mean.

Like a passenger on USAir Flight 3079, run by Chautequa Air, here in America:
"Religious item led to false bomb scare on US plane"
Reuters (January 21, 2010)

"A bomb scare that led to the diversion of a US Airways (LCC.N) flight to Philadelphia on Thursday was caused by a mistaken belief that a religious item was a bomb, Philadelphia police said...."

"...A passenger was alarmed by the phylacteries, religious items which observant Jews strap around their arms and heads as part of morning prayers, on the flight from New York's La Guardia airport heading to Louisville...."

"Flight Diverted To Philly After Incident"
myFOX New York (January 21, 2010)

"A plane made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport on Thursday morning after an apparent misunderstanding over a man using a Jewish prayer device. There were fears the device was a bomb.

"The plane was headed from LaGuardia Airport to Louisville. The plane was USAir Flight 3079 run by Chautequa Air. The plane was described as a small commuter plane that holds 50 passengers. It's unknown how many people were on the plane.

"Sources now tell Fox News that a man on a plane was using a teffilin, a leather box worn on the arm and head during certain Jewish services and he was praying on the plane. Teffilin are a set of small cubic leather boxes painted black, containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Bible...."

Not All Phylacteries are Teffilins

In one sense, I'm wearing a phylactery, sort of, right now. It's a generic term that's gotten to have a very specific meaning in American English: "phylactery, tefillin ((Judaism) either of two small leather cases containing texts from the Hebrew Scriptures (known collectively as tefillin); traditionally worn (on the forehead and the left arm) by Jewish men during morning prayer) " (Princeton's WordNet) Merriam-Webster Online does a better job:
  • phy·lac·tery
    • "Pronunciation:
      • \fə-ˈlak-t(ə-)rē\"
    • Etymology:
      • Middle English philaterie, from Medieval Latin philaterium, alteration of Late Latin phylacterium, from Greek phylaktērion amulet, phylactery, from phylassein to guard, from phylak-, phylax guard
    • 1
      • "either of two small square leather boxes containing slips inscribed with scriptural passages and traditionally worn on the left arm and on the head by observant Jewish men and especially adherents of Orthodox Judaism during morning weekday prayers"
    • 2 (Merriam-Webster Online)
Today's passenger was wearing a tefillin. In American English, we call a tefillin a "phylactery."

Which, according to Merriam-Webster, is a sort of amulet.

Let's see what Merriam-Webster has to say about "amulet:" "a charm (as an ornament) often inscribed with a magic incantation or symbol to aid the wearer or protect against evil (as disease or witchcraft)". (Merriam-Webster Online) It's also the name of a hardcore punk band - but that's an entirely different topic.

Phylacteries? Amulets? How Superstitious Can You Get?

I can see where a nice, normal, all-American might assume that the crucifix I'm wearing is an amulet, sort of, in the Merriam-Webster Online sense of the word.

It's got inscriptions on it: "INRI" on the front and "Italy" on the back. Actually, the one I have has "INR" - the last "I" either got worn off - or didn't make it through the manufacturing process.

"Italy" is there, because that's where the pieces of metal were formed into their present shape. Nothing particularly magical there.

"INRI" - that's an acronym, standing for "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum", the Latin part of the sign on my Lord's cross. In English, it'd read "Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews." (John 19:19)

Nothing particularly magical about that, either: important, pivotal, vital, earthshaking (literally); but not magical. Except, maybe, in one of the definitions given by Princeton's WordNet: "...possessing or using or characteristic of or appropriate to supernatural powers..." (Princeton's WordNet [emphasis mine]) But, in my opinion, that's a stretch.

My Lord, Jesus? Yeah: as the Son of God, he's supernatural. in the sense of being above nature.

For that matter, I'm supernatural, too: and so are you. Every human being is a material body and a spiritual soul: both of which have a supernatural destination. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 360, for starters) Which is a whole different topic - and one that books have been written about.

But my crucifix isn't magic. Yes, it's been blessed: but that doesn't mean it's magic. It won't protect be from falling rocks, or keep me from getting caught if I decide to rob a store (I won't by the way).

On the other hand, it's pretty good for reminding me of who my Lord is; and what he did for me and all other people. (As I understand it, Jesus died for the salvation of all people - whether we take him up on his offer is up to each one of us.)

Who Told That Man to Wear a Phylactery?

Immediately, my guess is that the man on that airplane learned about wearing a teffilin from his father. The orders though, go back to God, as received by Moses.
"On this day you shall explain to your son, 'This is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.' It shall be as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead; thus the law of the LORD will ever be on your lips, because with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt."
(Exodus 13: 8, 9)
I think it's possible that some of the sons of Abraham have taken a metaphorical statement 'way too literally: but I've been wrong before.

Who is To Blame For Today's Incident?

Nobody, in my opinion.

USAir Flight 3079 would have gone more smoothly, if that passenger had recognized the teffilin for what it is. But not everybody is up to speed on the customs and observances of Judaism. And American culture isn't geared, again in my opinion, for understanding visual religious symbols.

After 9/11, and the attempted downing of an American airliner over the Christmas holiday: air travelers are going to be acutely aware of possible threats. (December 27, 2009, in another blog) It'd be nice if that were not the case - but it is.

I don't blame the man who was preparing for prayer for doing so.

I don't blame the passenger for being apprehensive and perhaps a trifle ignorant. Or extremely cautious.

Let's remember: it's possible to reschedule your itinerary, and apologize to someone for mistaking a pious symbol for a lethal threat. Raising a planeload of people form the dead? Not even the Supreme Court of the United States of America can do that.

It's a cliche, but "better safe than sorry" seems to apply here.

Still, I think there's room for improvement, in terms of Americans' knowledge of religious observance. Just a thought.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.