Signs over North America

On April 14 a report arose stating that “a very frightful spectacle seen by numerous men and women” appeared in the skies. Globes of “blood-red, or bluish” color appeared in large numbers near the sun,

some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.

There were two great tubes in which three, four, and more globes were to be seen. They all began to fight one another. They all fell from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if all were on fire, fading away on the earth, producing much steam.

This appears to us like any other modern UFO sighting. But the April 14 in question came from Basel in 1561–the quotes are from reports at that time.

On August 7, 1566 a Samuel Coccius in Nuremberg recored that

At the time of sunrise many saw large black globes in the air, moving before the sun with great speed and turning against one another as though fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards went out.

Below are the images produced by these reports, first from Basel, then Nuremberg.

Carl Jung wrote, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies as attempt to deal with the phenomena of post W.W. II UFO sightings, most of which came from North America. As to the sightings, we usually divide into two camps:

  • The sightings are real, or at least a great many of them remain genuine, and therefore UFO’s are real.
  • The sightings are lies, distortions, etc. and UFO’s are not real.

Jung takes an interesting third position, stating that he firmly believes that “something is seen”–and those “somethings” are not weather balloons, experimental military aircraft, or some other natural occurrence. But at the same time, he remains skeptical of anyone seeing actual physical aliens.

Along with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung developed new theories of psychology in the early 20th century. Both men shared an aversion to the overt materialism of prevailing theories of their day–perhaps Jung especially. Jung looked for archetypal and psychic explanations for human personality problems. Eventually he applied these ideas to civilizations in general.

Jung first notes that a great number of sightings seem to fall within a similar pattern, including

  • They happen to people who are almost universally skeptical–before the claimed sighting–of UFO’s in general.
  • They involve circular or possibly cylindrical shapes.
  • They occasionally tend to produce apocalyptic dread, but often a sense of calm and inner contentment–one that brings with a “higher wisdom” that transcends current norms or beliefs.
  • Most sightings happen in North America.

Jung considers all of this in psychic terms, first considering the importance of the shape of UFO’s.* He argues that the circle or cylinder has deep roots in mythic structures of consciousness. Circles have always represented eternity and perfection–heaven as opposed to earth. Note below, the mother of the saint on the left, still living at the mosaic’s creation, depicted with a square halo, with the departed saints with the traditional circle halo.

As the Chinese proverb states, “The way of heaven is round, and the way of earth is square.”

Jung argues that the constant theme of circular shape strongly suggests the psychic desire of the observer for encounter, wholeness, and transformation. Of course, encounters with “eternity” will also frighten us and change us, possibly even shaming and exposing us. The fact that these appearances happen to initial skeptics heightens the power of this encounter, a Damascus road of sorts for the UFO observer. For Jung, the very skepticism of the observer creates the perfect mental conditions for sightings. Such people starve certain metaphysical aspects of their being, and then when these deep parts of ourselves finally break out, they do so in strange and overwhelming ways.

Of course possibly UFO’s actually exist, and by coincidence appear to people fitting a particular pattern. Maybe these UFO’s just happen to be circular. Maybe they appeared mostly over North America either by coincidence or for some unknown reason. Jung thinks otherwise, and takes particular interest in the question of, “Why North America?”**

The UFO movement for the most part started after W.W. II in America, just as we were grappling with world power status and the real possibility that this power and knowledge would destroy all of us, i.e., atomic weapons. Jung makes explicit links between the H-Bomb and UFO’s. It makes “psychic-sense” that we should be primed for UFO appearances amidst this existential crisis.

True, religion had a strong presence in America at that time. But aside from very traditional Catholicism or Orthodoxy–an especially small minority–American Christianity has almost nothing to do with the pre-modern. Influenced by democracy and Enlightenment values, American believers often focused on plain truths in a materialistic way. Instead of the traditional “one-storey” universe, we have added a second floor and banished spiritual elements “upstairs” and outside our experience. Jung would say we have ignored the subconscious and the deeper elements of being. We can ignore such aspects of reality for a time, but they will come roaring back–starved and ready to make up for lost time.

The strange sights in the sky in 16th century Germany fit this same pattern.

  • That era was dominated by thoughts of the end of the world either literally by divine intervention or figuratively via invasion of Moslems who had entirely taken over the Byzantine empire.
  • Germany found itself geographically at the center of religious and geopolitical controversy.
  • The Protestant world was not yet “modern” in their outlook, but they had perhaps (according to Jung at least) began to sever themselves from the mythic (which does not mean “false”) substructure of their faith.

For Jung, these manifestations reveal more about the people or civilizations that report them than what may actually be “out there.”^ Whether or not you agree with Jung on UFO’s I think he has some interesting thoughts for us as we manage our multiple crises as a nation. As to what follows, well . . . I’m no expert.

As we tackle the COVID crisis, I am hopeful that we have learned that we cannot treat public health only in terms of material physical health. Our approach to COVID mirrors the modern approach to religion in general–reductionistic and materialistic. We quarantined for weeks, “fasting” from communing with one another. After starving ourselves of this element of our being, the moment an opportunity came to “feast” on group interaction we did so. Alas that some chose to do so violently–surely a Jungian moment for our society. We see that strong societies have to foster regular and “healthy” interactions between people. When the next pandemic comes along, hopefully we now understand that telling people to simply play video games and watch Netflix fails in the long run.

So too our politics have become more and more totemistic. I have discussed before Trump’s symbolic status for his supporters. Recently Alex Morgan at The Atlantic argued that, “It’s as if Biden exists primarily as an idea, rather than an actual candidate.” All we need, she intoned, is for Biden to “stay alive.” “Democrats need little from the front-runner beyond his corporeal presence,” as the byline states. Politics always has contained certain symbolic elements. Pre-modern societies had strong symbolism woven directly into their political cultures, and so their politics could bear the necessary weight of psychic modes of being (to borrow Jung’s language). Certainly our founders had the opposite view. They created a form of government built on a philosophy quite wary of concentrating coherence of meaning, leaving that to the individual or local community.

But as our society has grown more connected, technocratic and incorporeal, i.e., more digital, we have seen strange apparitions. We have gone into our subconscious, a world both potentially more rewarding and more dangerous and open to temptation. Even rather anodyne statements about free speech have become actual debating points. And, no matter who wins the presidential election in November, America will see a strange symbolic presence above us in our “highest” office. It appears that try as we might, we cannot be quite as secular and “modern” as some might wish.


*Those interested in further reading on this may wish to consider Father Seraphim Rose’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. Father Seraphim had a serious background in mathematics and philosophy of the west and east, which may help buttress his overall conclusion for skeptical readers. Father Seraphim does not deny the possibility of UFO’s per se, but argues that it is very likely that many recent claims of sightings are demonic apparitions or temptations. His analysis differs from Jung’s, obviously, but has some interesting overlaps, including:

  • “Something is seen”
  • This “something” is primarily not a physical something
  • For Rose, the apparitions may indeed have something to do with the observer’s psychic or spiritual state.

Neither Jung, Fr. Seraphim, or myself discount the idea that UFO’s exist. They may exist, and perhaps just maybe some recorded sightings prove this. Rather, they both argue that the accumulated evidence on hand leads to a different conclusion.

If I had to choose, I would choose Fr. Seraphim’s analysis over Jung’s.

**I am discussing the parts of the book I found possibly persuasive. I am not discussing here Jung’s interpretations of dreams where UFO’s are encountered. I can believe that Jung might be onto something at least in part with his universal archetypes, but dream interpretations seem much more subjective and not a subject for argument. Alas that about 1/2 of the book involves his interpretations of different dreams of UFO encounters reported to him.

Jung mentions the possibility of mass hallucinations but never sets out to prove this is possible. A more full treatment of UFO sightings would have to include something about this. If Fr. Seraphim is right in his conclusions, he needs no mass hallucinations to explain the phenomena. To be fair to Jung, he would probably not term these sighting “hallucinations” but perhaps psychic projections. These “projections” would be entirely real, just as our psyche is real–though not materially so.

^Jung has an interesting psychological theory on why pilots often report UFO’s–too complex for me to understand–but essentially involving a psychic effect of contrasting the combination of precision mechanical instruments directly in front of the pilot in the midst of a vast open expanse.

The Secret of Fiery Women

Though issues surrounding COVID and race occupy our present discourse, we will likely see the question of women in our society revisited soon. Questions about patriarchy and equal pay have not played themselves out yet, and democracy, which often favors abandoning tradition and rapid change, will likely provide a platform for us to hash these issues out more fully.

Camille Paglia–certainly no conservative–has argued that women in traditional societies actually had a great deal of power, maybe even more than in the modern west. Coming from an Italian background, she observed large family gatherings and saw women deciding the course of events, the menu, etc. while the men mostly stood around and looked under the hoods of cars.*

We think of Rome as a masculine society, with its emphasis on conquest, the ‘pater familias,’ and their Senate. And yet, it appears that the most important job in Rome belonged to women–their Vestal Virgins.

We moderns might blanch at such a statement. We rarely talk about the importance of religion, and certainly never would dream of thinking about virginity as even remotely resembling a civilizational issue. But Robin Lorsch Wildfang (who doesn’t wish that their own name was Robin Lorsch Wildfang?) reminds us in her useful book Rome’s Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome’s Vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, that the Romans were not moderns. We have borrowed so much from Rome for our political and legal system. And yet, anyone perusing this book knows a vast gulf separates our two civilizations.

I give credit to Wildfang for telegraphing exactly the nature of her work. As a reader, one knows that the author will give you densely packed facts with gobs of footnotes, with little overall agenda. We read these books for enjoyment no more than we eat those sawdust-like “power bars” for the taste. But both deliver on their promise. So many other books fail on this account.

Several times Wildfang mentions that, “Without the Vestals and their cult, in the eyes of Romans there would be no Rome.” Roman Vestals had unique privileges among women in Rome especially regarding their property rights. They could also suffer the most severe forms of punishment. But their duties seem to boil down to:

  • Their maintenance of the sacred fire, which always had to stay lit
  • Their oversight of a secret storeroom/offerings of basic crops
  • The continuation of the virginity as long as they served (Vestals usually began their service between 8-10 years old, and had to serve for 30 years at least, but could leave after that time).

How we interpret these duties will say much about how one interprets the past.

For the fire . . .

Ovid, Cicero, Dionysius of Hallicanarsus, and Plutarch all agree that the Vestals maintained the sacred fire because fire consumes rather than bears fruit. The “dryness” of fire would be linked then with their virginity. The ancient authors talk of two fires, one of Vulcan, the other of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

But Wildfang looks for an alternative explanation. Rather than delve into the symbolism here for an explanation, she stresses the antiquity of the rite. Since the Vestal cult predated Rome’s founding, we should see only Rome’s desire to maintain its ties to antiquity, and the various associations some make to virginity and fruitfulness (or its lack) become unnecessary.

I admire Wildfang’s thoroughness and academic integrity, but I rarely approve of Occam’s razor as it applies to historical conclusions. Here at least, it just seems to convenient, too much of an “easy out” for us moderns.

I think that we gain interesting insights by taking these sources along with the scope of Rome’s history. This in turn might lead to understanding the sources in a different way. Wildfang mentions in a few places that Vestals entered into the order via “abduction” somewhere between 6-10 years old. This abduction rite happened with the father’s consent, as the girls were taken from their families in front of their father in a prepared ceremony of sorts. We may blanch at the fact that the girls likely rarely consented themselves, but this in itself gives an important clue as to the meaning of their order for Rome.

Of all the peripheral clues she gives as to the meaning of the abduction ceremony, Wildfang never deal with the story of Rome’s founding, which happened in part through the abduction of Sabine women. Romulus and his male cohorts invite a variety of women on the pretext of a religious festival. They then basically kidnap them and “marry” them–no doubt forcibly for many of them. In the telling Livy refuses to sugarcoat or condemn the deed. He seems to shrug his shoulders over it. Simply put, the Roman state could not have a future without families and children. Maybe this tale has within it some deep symbolism. Maybe the practical Romans just stated the facts and expected one to deal with it. Whatever the case, the abduction into the Vestal order mirrors this event rather evenly. This comparison makes more sense to me when we recall that Romulus’ mother Rhea was a Vestal herself, and begat her twin boys either through the rape/seduction of Mars or some other guy, depending on the tale.

Thus, I think we can say that the Vestals “married” Rome when they entered the order. So I am not sure that we should view the fire they had to maintain so precisely as “sterile.” If the Romans thought of this fire as “fruitless” why punish them so severely for letting it go out?**

If we think of fire as a “heavenly” substance of the “air” and we recall their duty to maintain the sacred storehouse of food, we might see these two elements as a reflection of marriage itself, a union of the masculine and feminine, of Sky father and Earth mother. Relations with another man would effectively then become adultery to Rome itself. The women maintain the fire possibly because women in general are the foremost keepers of the marriage institution. For example, Penelope worked harder to maintain her marriage than Odysseus did.

No Vestal rites means no marriage of heaven and earth, and so no families, and no “future” for Rome. Thus, the Romans took the extinguishing of the Vestal fire after the Battle of Cannae as a worse omen than the massive death toll of the battle itself.

We see Wildfang employ Occam’s razor again with another related issue. If the vestals had sexual relations, they faced a charge of “incestum.” Certainly by the time period covered in the book, the word had just the meaning we would assume–sex with a family member. Wildfang can’t grasp the sense of this. Why would having sex with average Joe Roman be specifically incestuous? Seeking clarity, she suggests that “incestum” didn’t mean “incest,” but “impurity.” The Latin for impurity is “incastum,” so it “makes sense” to Wildfang that, because incastum predates incestum as a word, “incestum” need not be a special, more horrible form of impurity. Best to translate “incestum” in this case as simply impurity, i.e., incastum.

Again, I protest. If “incestum” was not a such an unusual crime, why the unusual punishment of being buried alive? Also, let us assume the Romans meant what they said, when they said it. They had two different words, and distinguished between them. Whatever the original context, in the time period Wildfang examines they had different words with different meanings. Finally, I think the natural meaning of “incestum” could make sense within my interpretation of the vestals “marrying” Rome. Maybe, to have relations with any Roman meant, then, having relations with a family member.

Consider this line of thought above speculative. I am obviously no expert. But I think this makes certain odd pieces of the vestal puzzle fit together.

Wildfang talks briefly about the political influence vestals had on rare occasions. Normally they stayed out of politics, but every so often they intervened. Why didn’t the vestals intervene more, or if they had only a religious function, why intervene at all? If we think of the vestals as married to Rome, per my earlier suggestion, our own experience of family dynamics helps explain this difficulty Wildfang mentions.

I had one set of grandparents who had a lot of influence over family events and dynamics. This influence came not from frequent edicts. They had no need to issue them, and certainly they did not look to control anyone. Their influence came by our love and respect for them. My grandfather might occasionally make a pronouncement or two. Of course we listened, but with my grandfather, we might discuss or mildly argue with him.

My grandmother made “pronouncements” even more rarely than my grandfather, but when she spoke that meant the end of the matter. In my world, challenging or even disagreeing with my grandmother simply was not possible (though please understand that she was the sweetest person in the world–everyone she knew thought that they were her favorite person–she had that effect on people). When I found out that she was a Yankee fan around the age of 9-10 I could not have been more stunned, or had my world more shaken (my dad spent formative years in Brooklyn and we were Dodger fans by birth). With my grandfather, I might have argued the case. Yet, I received this news from my grandmother in silence. I could conceive of no other reaction.^

The vestals likely had a similar power, but if used too frequently it would likely have diminished. When a plant blooms, what secures its life lies hidden in the earth. So too, the vestals kept their symbolic fruits of the earth hidden as part of their duties. They likely thought that the power of women remained greatest when they chose to conceal rather than reveal. Even the masculine, patriarchal Romans seem to have understood this. Perhaps it was just this overt masculinity allowed them to see the importance of the feminine with clarity.


*Paglia, an self-described atheist and also a lesbian, can speak fondly of ‘tradition’ because of her appreciation for paganism. Perhaps these days, even a pagan could qualify as some kind of conservative.

**I criticize Wildfang for not trusting the ancient sources in regards to “incestum,” but one could throw a similar charge back at me in this instance. Ovid makes a direct reference to linking the flame with the fact that a vestal “yields no seeds.” Dionysius of Halicanarsus makes a similar suggestion, but asserts it only as a suggestion. Plutarch follows Dionysius in making this interpretation one option among many.

In my defense, I would say the following:

  • Ovid seems to play fast, loose, and as he pleases with his material. I see him as something of a prankster. This does not mean he lied or was inaccurate, but I would not trust him on a point of historical accuracy. That was not his aim.
  • Dionysius and Plutarch have more gravitas, but both of them give only “some say” credence to this interpretation.

I think that the general sense of the vestal’s history and Rome’s history guide us better than these texts by themselves. The “first” of Rome’s vestals, Rhea, did “bear fruit” in birthing Romulus. When we combine this fact with the parallel to the abduction of the Sabine women, well . . . that’s my argument for my interpretation. It may not fit with with Ovid, but I don’t think it absolutely goes against the others.

^Another story to illustrate this point . . . I collected baseball cards for a few years growing up. When my grandparents visited she would often take me to the local baseball card shop to make a purchase for me. I remember driving home one day from such a trip–I was about 11 years old–and we saw a beautiful motorcycle pass us on the road. She asked if I liked the motorcycle and I said absolutely I did. She stated, “Those are not safe. If you decide to buy a motorcycle, no more trips to the baseball card store.”

In one sense her comment did not make much sense. By the time I was old enough for a motorcycle she would not be taking me to buy baseball cards (nor would I be collecting them).

But her comment absolutely stuck with me. I put all thoughts of motorcycle riding out of my head immediately. I still hear her voice whenever I take wistful middle-aged man glances at a Harley. But in my 30+ years of knowing her on Earth, this was one of only two times she ever told me not to do something. She shot very, very few “bullets” but those hit their mark and left an indelible impression

Malleus Maleficarum

Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (translation–possibly, “The Hammer for Devils/Witches/, i.e., “Malefactors”) ranks way up there among the more strange historical documents I have read. Published in 1484, this tome tells one all about witches and other sundry works of the devil. It deals with the reality of the supernatural quite openly and frankly, and in this way strikes us as “pre-modern.” And yet, the “hammer” the title alludes to appears to strike hardest through the use of the farthest reaches of the logic parsing of the scholastic method. Those familiar with the Summa Theologica (dating more than two centuries prior to the Malleus) can testify to Thomas Aquinas’ clarity and brevity, even if he relies possibly too much on Aristotelian logic. Aquinas leaves a certain amount of space and room to breathe in his work. It is that mystical fringe that exists in Aquinas’ best writing that gives it its staying power.

Not so Kramer and Sprenger. Though grudgingly–I have to admire their ability to go on for pages on end, giving all counterarguments incredible deference and losing the reader in a labyrinth, before finally turning the battleship slowly round towards their correct conclusion. I firmly believe that Christians should take the supernatural seriously–much more so than many do today. However, one must wonder of the efficacy of extended discussion on “Whether Witches may work some Prestidigitatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be Entirely Removed from the Body”–which is only Question IX of Part One, of the First Part, or what final precautions should be observed in the trial of a witch in the eleventh action of the second examination (3rd Part, 2nd Head, q. 16).

At least one does get the sense that Kramer and Sprenger enjoy their work. Here is a very mild excerpt . . .

If it be accordance with the Catholic faith to maintain that in order to bring about some effect of magic, the devil must intimately cooperate with some witch, or whether, one without the other, that is to say, the devil without the witch, or conversely, could produce the same effect.

And the first argument is this, that the Devil can bring about an effect of magic without the help of any witch.  So St. Augustine holds . . . and we learn from Holy Scripture of the disasters which fell upon Job, . . . which the Devil himself was able to bring about, with God’s permission.  What a superior power has within itself to do, it may do without reference to a lesser power.

So too, an inferior power may work within its “sphere” to produce effects without reference to a power greater than itself.  For Blessed Albertus Magnus says in his treatise De Pasionibus Aeris that rotten sage, if used according to certain specifications and thrown into running water, will arouse fearful tempests and storms.  

Moreover it may be said that the devil makes use of the witch not because he has any need of her agency, but because he seeks the damnation of the witch.  We may refer to what Aristotle says in the 3rd book of his Ethics, where Evil is a voluntary act . . . 

But an opposite opinion holds, that the Devil, being unlike man, cannot readily do harm to man without the effect of material agency, such as the instrumentality of witches. For every act, some kind of contact must be established.  And many hold this to be proven by the text of St. Paul to the Galatians, where the gloss on the text who have singular, and fiery eyes, who by a mere look can harm others.  And Avicenna [Abn Ibn Sina] also bears this out, in Naturalism book 3, “Very often the soul may have an impact on the body of another, for such is the influence of the eyes.”  And the same opinion by Ali Ghaza in the fifth book of his Physics  . . .   St. Thomas too speaks of this in the Summa, part I, q. 117, whereupon he states that the influence of the soul may be concentrated in the eyes. 

Without any mental powers insensible bodies may produce effects, and so a living man, if he pass near the corpse of a murdered man, is often seized with fear though unaware of the dead body.  Moreover, it would seem that most extraordinary and miraculous events come to passby thte workings of the power of nature, and St. Gregory points out in his Second Dialogue. The saints perform miracles, sometimes by prayer, sometimes by their power alone.  St. Peter prayed and Tabitha was restored to life.  By rebuking Ananias and Saphira who told a lie, he slew them without any prayer.  Therefore a man by his mental influence can change the condition of another material body.*  

Can any doubt that a man with courage will warm his body, and a man with fear will cool and enfeeble his body?

St. Isidore in Etymologies calls witches guilty of greater sin, for they stir up and confound the elements with the aid of the Devil, and bring about terrible storms and tempests.  And Vincent of Beauvais, quoting many learned authorities in his Speculum Historiale, says that he who first practiced magical arts was Zoroaster, in the line of Ham, son of Noah, and according to St. Augustine in the City of God, Ham laughed aloud when he was born, showing that he would give service to the Devil.

When comparing Aquinas and these authors, I reminded of analogy used I believe by both Toynbee and C.S. Lewis–that bacon and eggs smells so much better when hungry at 9 am, as opposed to when satiated later in the day. Even in the text above, though I largely agree with the conclusion, the method conjures up the smell of bacon and eggs after one has eaten. The scholastic method has run its course.

That late-medievals thought seriously about witches should surprise no one. But to many moderns, the breadth of discussion, the familiarity with many texts both within and without the Christian tradition, will surprise many. When we disagree fundamentally with others, we assume that they do not have actual reasons for their belief. We assume their ignorance, selfishness, or some other such flaw. About 150 years later, an Ambrosian monk named Francesco Guazzo published a companion volume, the Compendium Maleficarum. In Book I, Chapter III he writes,

Any man who maintained that all effects of magic were true, or who believed that they were all illusions, would be a radish rather than a man.

This spirit of balance characterizes the work, which a modern must acknowledge even if one believed that witches and demons did not exist.

Of course the Devil works in various ways, both through physical and spiritual/mental means. I have no thoughts on the exact nature of the Devil’s work regarding COVID-19. What we can say in general is that the Devil always seeks to sow confusion, doubt, and fear. He is the accuser, the divider of the brethren. Just as he seeks to divide us from God, so too he brings death–a literal decomposition of soul from body, and of the various connections in our physical form. He seeks to “decompose” meaning as well, and we have certainly seen this in our society the last few months.

The uncertain nature of the disease relates strongly to this decomposition of meaning. But I feel sure that others factors must be at play, and I wonder at the manifestation of this confusion as it relates to masks. Some people, given their circumstances, probably should wear masks, but I am curious about the vast majority of us who have options and feel the tension between wearing/not wearing them. What motivates our choices, and why do those choices often divide along political lines? Liberals want more mask wearing, conservatives seem to wear them less–although the terms “liberal” and “conservative” lack a defined meeting. We should approach the subject with the method of the Malleus in mind, aware that not everyone who believes in wearing masks is a coward or out to control everyone, and those who eschew masks may not always be selfish jerks, or ignorant of “Science.”

I am sure that something else is going on, but not sure exactly what. Consider what follows speculative, and certainly incomplete . . .

Perhaps the most obvious connection might relate to debates over the last few years around free speech. Progressives want to limit certain kinds of speech in certain places to protect the “vulnerable” minority. Conservatives push against this. So progressives stress protection from the disease, even if this protection should extend far beyond those directly at risk. Conservatives who favor a more rough and tumble approach to speech might then favor the same approach to the disease. We should be tough, have thick skins, and so on.

Perhaps this might go some way to explaining the difference with mask attitudes now. But just 50 years ago, liberals championed free speech, not conservatives. And–liberals tend to prefer longer shut-downs of the economy, even though the shut-down obviously hurts the poor far more than the rich. Restrictions on the economy–favored more by progressives–also will hurt illegal immigrants–another progressive issue.** It makes sense that conservatives want order, sanctity, protection, and liberals would want freedom, and the knocking down of boundaries. But part of the confusion the world experiences lies in the lack of coherent meaning in our political designations.

With rates of abuse, depression, suicide, time on screens, opioid and alcohol use, etc. all going way up during the quarantine, we must realize that the temptation to go a bit nuts will significantly increase. And when our visible structures of decision-making and common institutions fail us–as they largely have during our various recent crises, we will revert to archetypal symbolic modes of being. When the visible symbols of unity fails us, we will retreat inward even subconsciously to find meaning and direction.

These subconscious symbolic actions make themselves perhaps most evident with masks. I have no solid thoughts here as to why they have caused such disagreement among good people. I think we have to go beyond politics (i.e., does the government have the right to order this or not?). And–let us borrow from the Malleus and assume that the Devil would like nothing better than to tear us apart. And to borrow again from Sprenger and Kraemer–no doubt both sides have good arguments that could fill many pages. I shudder to think how many the two of them could find to apply to the mask argument.^

When we think of masks, we should think of the use of veils, for masks function much like a veil. Veils have very little role in our society today. Even in weddings, very few brides today would consider wearing a veil. But most ancient societies used veils (or something like them) in many religious settings, and certainly for weddings. In the ancient world veils would be used to cordon off portions of a temple, for example. You would use veils as means of

  • Protecting the people from the power/holiness of what lay behind the veil, or
  • Protecting what was special/holy from intrusion by the people.

We live in a society that builds on a foundation of “openness”–trade with others, traveling from place to place with few barriers, free speech, etc. and so the notion of veils initially strikes us as odd. This “open” view of life is certainly part of existence. We cannot sustain our own lives. Whenever we eat anything, we take the life of something else into our bodies and incorporate into our own lives–this holds true for plants just as it does for pigs and cows. We do not generate life for ourselves. We must be filled from outside ourselves and ultimately, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

But . . . we must be “closed” to some things in order to survive. We cannot play in traffic, swim with sharks, or take candy from strangers. And other things are so powerful that we can only have a little bit of at a time lest it destroy us, like whiskey, for example. In ancient Israel the high priest went into the Holy of Holies only once a year, alone, with a rope tied around his leg to remove him in case he died from the experience.

As to veils for brides, both of the above purposes could fit. On the one hand, the bride is the most precious “item” of the day, and she is meant for her husband only. Thus she should not be “revealed” until the ceremony is completed. So too, to veil the bride is to honor her beauty and to protect us from it. This may not make sense historically or scientifically, but certainly it does mythologically–recall “the face that launched 1000 ships,” or Lucy’s desire in The Dawn Treader to say a spell that would make her “beautiful beyond the lot of mortals,” and have men and nations fight over her. In the medieval Marian office of “None” (the ninth hour) the antiphon before the psalms hearkens to the power of the beauty of the feminine:

Thou art fair and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in array.

Song of Solomon 6:4

To wear masks in public places may be entirely appropriate and necessary, but we should understand what it means. It means, in certain respects, that we cannot act as a community of trust that mutually shares life together. And this is not necessarily our fault, as the insidious nature of the virus means that one can have it and spread it without any knowledge. But neither is it a trifling thing. To “veil” ourselves means that we set ourselves apart from society. One cannot have a conversation with a mask on–one cannot really share life with another with a mask on. It is terribly ironic that we have to “come together” in such polarized times to essentially isolate ourselves socially from each other. As Jean-Claude Larchet writes,

Through our body we reach out and communicate with others–by exchanging glances, smiles, handshakes, and so on.  It is through our body that others gain their first impressions of us–our character, or our mood at the time.  Our body both reveals and hides us from others . . . 

I believe this accounts for much of the confusion about masks. Larchet rightly suggests that even small physical gestures of communication that we normally make at the grocery store become impossible with masks. Circumstances ask us to hold an impossible tension in our minds and we can’t quite do it. Telling the difference won’t always be easy.

In such times we may want to reach out and look for solutions and healing in what is distant from us–in our political leadership. These days we will not find it there, and likely were never meant to. We should return to our immediate center–our churches, families, and friends–a Malleus Malleficarum for our times


*I think Jonathan Pageau makes some good points here about the validity of the so-called “Evil Eye,” tradition, derided by some materialists.

**I have heard some suggest that those out of work should get checks from the rich/the government, and so what’s the problem? This strikes me as not ‘progressive’ in any sense. What about the ‘dignity of labor’ so hallowed by the Marxist tradition? I find the ‘just give them a check and they should be happy’ mentality degrading and paternalistic. Perhaps it is necessary–but don’t dismiss the cost to the soul.

^A brief parody of Kraemer and Sprenger (with all references entirely made up)

There are many who say that we should not wear masks in public. For has not Aristotle said in his Physic that, “to one is one thing, and another, like unto it, has the same properties” (B.V-8.12). So we see that all things “come unto all other things” (Averroes, De Civitate, Q. 12, p.4, S.4), so then it follows naturally that we follow The Almagest and declare that we maintain the motion of the “heavenly spheres,” which in this case means, our bodies. For Ptolemy has said much that many of the wise would hardly dare to gainsay.

And should not our bodies be compared to the heavenly spheres? For Plotinus has called us all a microcosm of the worthy cosmos, as have many holy men, though others have not agreed (Quintus, et al, Deus Mirabilius, Book II, p. 8). And is not the face the “bearer of all things” (Isocrates, Etymologies Part II, 6.7.8)? We bear with one another, then, for how else shall we live if we bear not with another, as Ulfin stated in Amor Arondus Ibid (Bk. II, p. 5)?

But others deny it, stating along with Avicenna that, “As things move, so they are distinct, for not all motion is equal (Figures, Book V.3-1).” Now if motion is not equal, than it means that motion must be set in a hierarchy, and to appear contrarian is not in the habit of the scholar, who seeks to have “all put in its proper place (Fabius, Magnus Opus, Bk. 1.3).” . . .