Monday, November 28, 2011

Russian superstition vs Cultural rooted western paganism (funeral practices).

One of the good things about stepping outside of your own culture is that after a while it is easier to question your own culture. This past week I raised some mild concern for a couple of people when I mentioned that I am not planning to point out the errors of a particular Russian superstition to my neighbour.
For starters, what is a superstition? A superstition is basically a habit or a ritual rooted in ancient pagan beliefs. All cultures have them. Often Christians try to avoid practising them because we know that our faith should be in God, and we should not be motivated by fear. Superstitions are always rooted in fear. If we do not follow through on a superstition, there is a fear that the spirits will do something bad.

I was there when my neighbour's husband passed away. I was privileged to read the scriptures to the dying man and to pray with him and his wife moments before he died. I then witnessed a custom I had never heard of before, and so I was a little unprepared, but I came through it just fine. The widow wanted to cover the mirror in the bedroom where her husband had just died. I helped her do it. I wondered what it was for at first, and then quickly realised it was a superstition (other wise known as an old pagan practice). I did not correct her, I even helped her. Why? In the midst of her grief, it would have been a very insensitive thing to do otherwise. I even helped her, and firmly believe it was a way of showing her love, even though I disagree with the practice.

I have been asked by two people if I intend to explain to her how our culture does things, whether I will seek an opportunity within the next couple weeks to explain to her why the superstition is wrong. My answer to that question is no, for a number of reasons.

1) The orthodox church already calls the practice a sin. Nearly all Russians practice the custom though. According to my Russian teacher, all  Russians practice it. To point out to her something which she already knows to be a sin is superfluous and self-righteous.
The practice is carried out because people believe that the spirit of the deceased may get confused and go to the wrong world through the mirror and get stuck there, unable to return and go on to heaven.

2) The Russian (eastern orthodox- yet also rooted in paganism) practice of mourning is involved and quite long. There are prayers for the dead on the third, ninth and fortieth days; then at three, six, nine and twelve months. Mourning lasts for a year. To interrupt this practice of mourning is also insensitive. To say anything would have been as insensitive as telling someone in my own culture not to wear black to the funeral of a loved one.

3) The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, not me. My neighbour would already be aware that the practice is a sin. So planning a conversation would simply be more head knowledge and not actually assist the Holy Spirit in his job. I have learnt from past mistakes not to get in God's way. However, I will say that if the Holy Spirit prompted me to say something and opened up the opportunity, I most certainly would. But I don't intend to seek it out.

4) The practices of paganism are deeply intwined with the common practice of orthodoxy in Russia. So there is no use chopping off individual branches of an entrenched world view. Superstition being based in fear, can only be removed by God's love. "Perfect love casts out all fear." I like the way John the Baptist put it, "the axe must be put at the root of the tree." To address this one practice would be to cut off one branch or perhaps even just a twig, where hundreds of other practices still remain. Only a complete surrender to God's love will remove all of the fear that causes paganism in the first place. This is obviously the desired outcome.

5) Questioning the practice in Russian culture of covering mirrors upon death caused me to question my own culture. Why do we wear black at funerals? Most people would say it is to signify mourning. A quick point of comparison is that nobody at the funeral yesterday was wearing black. I have often felt that it is not necessary to wear black at a funeral and wondered why we do it.
Well it turns out, that as most things we do habitually in our culture, there is actually pagan roots to the practice.

What are these pagan roots?

The practice of wearing black at a funeral comes from the idea of wearing a disguise. People would wear black robes and hide their faces from the spirits. This was so that the spirit of the deceased would not get confused and enter the body of a living person, therefore preventing it from moving on to the next world. It was also believed that black would make them invisible to the spirits. Roman funerals were held at night for this reason. The practice of wearing black actually comes from Roman paganism, carried on to the Roman Catholic church, still found in protestant churches today.

Our practice of wearing black at funerals is to keep the spirit of the deceased from getting confused and not being able to move on to the afterlife. Sound familiar? It is exactly the same as the Russian practice of covering mirrors!

We far too quickly assume that our culture is more Christian than another. Western Christianity is in fact plagued by many practices that the Bible does not teach at all. The real challenge is to not assume that our culture is more godly, but to honestly seek what true godliness is, and seek to implement a biblical world view, which by definition is different from all others, including different from a Jewish world view.

"Funeral Customs"- Springdale Cemetery and Mausoleum. 
"Where did the tradition of wearing black at funerals come from?" - Big site of amazing facts.
"What is the origin of wearing black to funerals?" -
"Why is black the colour of mourning in the western world?" - Funtrivia (This source apparently traces back to "Websters Encyclopedia volume 19, page 116.")

Barna, George, & Viola, Frank, 2002, "Pagan Christianity: exploring the roots of our church practices", Tyndale House. 

(I must apologise for what seems like scant and flaky internet research on this topic. Being in Russia I am far from good resources, and often have to rely on the internet to do my research. On this occasion I was surprised how hard it was to find information. I have no doubt that anthropological texts would cover this topic with a much higher degree of academia, but unfortunately this is the best I can do. But four different sources, and one of them being a cemetery, lead me to be confident I have found the answer.)

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