I am a professor of Religious Studies and a pilgrim on the path of self discovery. What I seek is an earth where silence can be manifest by simply seeking it, not having to hunt for it.

Homepage: https://spiritualparadigms.wordpress.com

Crestone, Colorado

In a space miles way from the hustle and bustle of daily living, miles from the nearest major highway, a onetime Colorado gold-mining town seems like an unexpected space to find a growing spiritual community. Yet Crestone today boasts a higher number of high Tibetan lamas than would normally be found in Tibet, and that’s just the beginning. Roman Catholic Carmelites, Islamic Sufis, Mystical Jews, Hindus, Zen Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, and American Indians have all infiltrated Crestone.

The story behind the formation of this eclectic Spiritual community began in the late 1970s, when a wealthy visionary named Hanne Strong, who along with her husband, Maurice, owned 200,000 acres around Crestone, donated most of the land with the intention of creating a spiritual sanctuary for the world’s religious.

The result has been remarkable, with diverse spiritual groups living in close proximity and intermingling. At a Christmas mass held at the Roman Catholic monastery, whole rows were taken by Buddhist monks in flowing robes. Hindu nuns in saris umpire local baseball games. When American Indians held a medicine wheel ceremony one summer, the offerings to the four directions were made by a Shinto priest, Catholic and Buddhist nuns, and a Hindu yogi.

This exotic blending of spiritual traditions exists amid an American western landscape straight out of the Old West. When the first Tibetans arrived in Crestone in 1980, the  mayor at the time was asked what he thought about them. “Better than a those squatting New Yorkers,” he replied. Now, 30+ years later, the area embraces two distinct variations of the spiritual life—one traditional, the other free-form.

Buddhist scholar, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche finds that having so many masters  living in residence makes the area one of the world’s best places to practice and meditate. As one Crestone visitor puts it, “Why go to India and get dysentery? No where else in the world you would ever find such a large concentration of world renowned teachers, less have direct access to them.”

One of the many Carmelite nuns living in the valley at the NADA Hermitage , finds it validating to live in the midst of so many faiths. When she wakes before dawn to pray, she sees a fire already lit at the Hindu ashram along the hillside and knows she is not alone: Others are devout; others have made selfless vows and aspire to the same sanctity she has chosen for herself.

Lorraine Fox Davis, an Native American tribal spokeswoman, observed that people change when they reside for a time in a wintry, isolated setting. She says, The people here need to become more self-reliant to survive and, since no one can survive here alone, they eventually become an integral part of the community. Free of the hassles and stresses of urban life—those living in Crestone leave house doors unlocked, car keys in the ignition—people invariably “soften.” Most importantly, Davis says, everyone who visits here has a deep sense of connection to ‘Mother Earth’.

This sense of connection between the inner and outer landscapes. Self-reliance. Community. This softening of the heart. All are hallmarks of the religious life. In Crestone, this sense of  interconnectedness is achieved predominantly without benefit of clergy. With 19 major religious groups represented, even the air people breathe—brings with it a feeling that you are living in a larger universe.

Rabbi David Cooper, author of the bestselling God Is a Verb, notes that  Crestone is the next great step in cooperative spirituality: “postreligion,” in which one can benefit from a given faith without being a believer/congregant. Fifty years ago, the eastern traditions that now reside in the valley were all but unknown in America; today,  their insights about compassion and mindfulness inform even the secular mindset in Crestone (and elsewhere).

Crestonians tend to treat one another well, recognizing not only the individual person, but the goal they are here to achieve. That energy brings together believers and nonbelievers alike, an ideal of seeking enlightenment. “People who visit ‘spiritual’ places behave differently;  actually better than they seem to elsewhere,” many visitors observe. “In Crestone, life truly does become that place where Heart, Mind and Soul connect to bring a sense of Peace and Harmony to those who walk her hallowed pathways.

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The Hajj

Alone, out of all the major pilgrimages in history, the Hajj survives with its vitality unimpaired. Great Christian pilgrimages are but memories; they have vanished with the passing of the Age of Faith, leaving cathedrals and chapels to mark routes once annually traversed by thousands.

The practice of pilgrimage has roots in the notion of inherent sacredness, which accounts for the universality of pilgrimage. Sanctity attaches to specific places through decisive events which have occurred there. For example, the Buddha Gaya near Benares in India, scene of Gautama’s enlightenment; Jerusalem (meaning the city of peace), the scene of the alleged resurrection of Jesus’; and Canterbury where the Archbishop, Thomas a’ Beckett was martyred. Any site of martyrdom (mashhad: martyrium) attracts pilgrims in its own right; witness the way pilgrims gravitate towards the scene of Hamza’s (the Prophet’s uncle) martyrdom at Uhud, or the city of Karbala which grew as a result of Imam Husayn being buried after he was martyred there.

_41178306_hajjgetty1Pilgrimage is a communal yet very personal event; climaxing in moments of collective contemplation, inducing a heightened awareness of fellowship, yet always surrounding itself with a sense of quiet transcendence. The goal, if indeed there is one, is the journey itself which becomes a sort a preparatory purification, readying the pilgrim to experience another dimension of their being. Pilgrimage, therefore, corresponds to a deep spiritual hunger present in all of us, offering the possibility of transcendence to those who might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience it.

At the same time, this concentration of ethnically diverse people of the same faith coming together in such great numbers, strengthens the community of believers both socially and economically. Goods are traded, friendships made, marriages contracted, deaths occur – these and many other instances of social interaction arise from the opportunity presented by performing a pilgrimage. It is the spiritual as well as the worldly which account for the popularity of pilgrimage within all cultures.

Pilgrimages also are outlets or spiritual remedies, passed from one generation, tradition or culture to another. When one religion supplants another, it frequently inherits its predecessor’s pilgrimage site, making the ritual and symbolic sometimes difficult to comprehend because of the comingling that has taken place. This may happen more than once in a culture or tradition’s life cycle. In Islam, it has happened twice, as Abrahamic sites and rites were perverted for non-monotheistic usage, later to be reclaimed by Islam. When this happens, the site witnesses a purification of historical accretions (cf. Qur`an, 17:81).

1230Throughout history, iconoclasts have tried to suppress pilgrimage, while governments fear it because of its popular character and the irrepressible manifestation to which it can give rise. The focus of pilgrimage is also liable to shift under the impact of political or economic change: site the Papal monarchy diverting Christian pilgrims from Jerusalem to Rome; in Islam ‘Abdul Malik building the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to attract pilgrims away from Mecca as part of his efforts to undermine Ibn Zubayr’s rebellion, which would have been funded by pilgrimage revenue.

Islamic pilgrimage, or Hajj, shares with other traditions the basic features of intention or consecration, separation, passage, sojourn (at the shrine or sanctuary), and fellowship, whereby the individual becomes aware of his place as part of a larger social body transcending frontiers, class, culture and language. The reintegration of the pilgrim into his community upon returning from such a journey enriches the community through the pilgrim’s experiential transformings; which alter not only the individual’s perception of themselves; but also that of their family, nation and the cumulative relationship they share with all of them. The hajj uniquely exhibits all these characteristics in very marked and curious ways.

Politically, Hajj constitutes the annual congress of all Muslims, since it is the nearest believers come to a single corporate presence in one place. For peoples of diverse social and cultural origins and backgrounds, coming together with a common purpose promotes not only spiritual awareness but also a sense of solidarity. While mediaeval Christian pilgrimages like Canterbury or Glastonbury promoted national unity, the Hajj promotes international ‘life trade’ and reflects unity of purpose and direction into the lives of its unique community of believers. The Faithfull’s commitment and humility before God, are made sacramental through the seamless ritual garment worn (the ihram) by all.

Spiritually, the outward journey to Mecca precedes the inward journey of Gnosis (ma‘rifah) that follows. The Holy city of Mecca is both location and spirit. Above the visible Ka‘bah are eight other invisible Ka‘bahs disposed along a single axis around which the entire cosmos rotate. The act of circumambulation (tawaf), performed counter-clockwise, makes the Ka‘bah an axis mundi, representing the point of rotation of the spiritual universe.

The Ka‘bah also forms the intersection of two planes, the vertical plane of the spirit and the horizontal   one of human existence. The qiblah axis (the direction of the Ka‘bah in Mecca) used in prayer and which   determines the orientation of all mosques is the horizontal plane, and the cosmological axis of which the Ka‘bah is the visible point is the vertical one. Prayer can be construed as use of the horizontal axis to relate oneself to the vertical plane of the spirit. Thus salat (prayer) and Hajj form but two acts of a single purpose and orientation.

Of the Five Pillars, four – salat (prayer), siyam (fasting), zakat (alms-giving), and Hajj – are secondary to the central one: shahadah (witnessing), which leads to total awareness. The Muslim Ummah (nation) as a whole enterprise (ummatan wasata) focuse on the qiblah in various ways: through daily prayer, posthumously in burial, and, at least once in one’s life, in Hajj. The qiblah is therefore the Ummah’s centre of gravity and its point of convergence.

The performance of Hajj is an obligation (fard ‘ayn – that is, the individual is duty bound to perform it), as opposed to a collective or conditional obligation (fard kifayah – that is, when part of the ummah or community fulfils a specified obligation the individual is relieved of the necessity to perform it). This differs from the other Pillars in that its performance is based on possessing the material and physical experiences. Muslims perform different types of pilgrimage such as ziyarah, but Hajj and ‘Umrah. Ziyarah (visit to a holy place) are the only types of Islamic pilgrimage that have a similiar look and feel to the pilgrimages found in other traditions; Hajj and ‘Umrah have no connection to other traditions being particular to Islam. Hajj is fard (obligatory), ‘Umrah is Sunnah (tradition) and ziyarah is neither, albeit meritorious (mustahabb). The addition of Madina to the Hajj, though standard practice, falls into the category of ziyarah.

The rites of Hajj are essentially Abrahamic, being a re-enactment of certain events on the life of the Prophet Abraham In studying Hajj, we have to consider both the Abrahamic core and its Muhammadi transformation, and fulfillment through prophecy. (cf. Qur`an, 2:127-9).

The occurrence and recurrence of events in specific localities endow them with a significance beyond their mere placement on a geographical map. Mecca and its environs can best be understood as a sort of divine theatre where this encounter between God and man takes place. Each rite is tied to a particular locality. The sa‘y, which commemorates Hagar’s anguished search for water for her son Ishmael, is performed at the mas‘ah between the two hills of Safa and Marwa. The stoning at Mina commemorates the points at which Satan successively appeared to tempt Abraham. Both relate to the prophecy of the birth of Muhammad in the Qur`an (2:129). The Qur`an refers to Safa and Marwah as sha‘a’ir, signs or evidences attesting to what had taken place in these areas, making Mecca the scene of divine action (Qur`an, 2:158). The well of Zamzam is a third such sign.

The ordained rites (manasik) are both Abrahamic and Muhammadi, but the Muhammadian component is by far the most important, as Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) completes the work of Abraham. This explains why ritual of wuquf (standing) at ‘Arafat constitutes the primary rite of the pilgrimage, without which the performance of the Hajj is invalidated. The wuquf is also a commemoration, in this instance, of the Farewell Sermon which the Prophet preached from atop ‘Arafat (also called the Mount of Mercy or Jabal al-Rahma) and of the descent (tanzil) at the close of the sermon in verse (5:3) of the Qur`an.

plain-of-arafatDuring the Farewell Pilgrimage, the Prophet substituted the lunar calendar to regulate the year. The lunar year focuses and heightens the sense of fellowship, for the climax of that year, the Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice of Abraham on the 10th of Dhu’l-Hijjah, coincides with the corresponding rite in Mina on that day. This makes all Muslims spiritually present along with the Hujjaj in Mecca at that moment, so that Muslims, wherever they be, form a single communion. The celebration of Eid al-Adha merely reproduces locally what Muslims are doing in the vicinity of Mecca that same day, so that salat and Hajj coincide.

Islam is a way of life and as such incorporates the political side of human nature. Hajj is, therefore, its political/spiritual festival. Properly understood, the Hajj, throughout history, is both popular assembly (majlis) and a forum for the interchange of ideas and cultures. It was at Mecca during Hajj that Amir ‘Abdul Qadir, the national hero of Algeria, and Imam Shameel, the national hero of the Caucasians, met to discuss the Islamic resistance in the 19th century. In Islam it is not possible to disentangle the spiritual from the political or the cultural from the economic. Islam is a path of unification and a total way of life.

medinah_470_470x312Pilgrimage routes have traversed the Muslim world, from Scutari on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, through Anatolia and Syria to the Hijaz. Many a caravan has come from Iraq or Yemen; yet other routes wer utilized by the North African pilgrims, while an oceanic route from the Far East was finally completed. Monuments all over the Muslim world attest to the religious and economic importance of pilgrim traffic; for example, the Selimiye in Damascus is one the most beautiful of the many facilities provided by a beneficent administration for comfort, as well as the safety of the pilgrims. The facilities includ rest-houses, fortresses and assembly facilities. The reason the square in Scutari is so colossal, relative to the size of the city, is that this was where the annual Hajj caravan formed. At a later stage, the construction of the Hijaz railway (opened in 1908) was but an up-dating of this route. It also formed the lifeline of the Ottoman Empire, and this overlap in function merely reproduced an aspect of the pilgrimage that has always been present, that is, the economic, for trade routes and pilgrimage routes always seemed to converge.

The Hajj has been described as ‘the most important agency of voluntary, personal mobility since the age of the great European discoveries,’ one which ‘must have had a profound effect on all the communities from which the pilgrims came, through which they traveled, and to which they returned.’ People, particularly the merchant class, would avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the pilgrimage to defray in whole or in part, the expenses of the journey for themselves and their families. Everyone returned spiritually uplifted, intellectually (and sometimes materially) enriched. The transformative effect of Hajj on societies, even if only a few of whose members went on pilgrimage, must not be underestimated. Both the Almoravid and Almohad revolutions in North Africa were brought about by hujjaj who realized the religious backwardness of their own societies through coming into contact with Islam. The British and other colonial nations, recognized the dangers of such dynamic interaction and exchange and in some places, notably Nigeria, went to extraordinary lengths to restrict the number of pilgrims to maintain their control over the population.

Today the Hajj may have increased in quantity yet in the eyes of some, has declined in quality. In the past, scholars would spend months or years on Hajj, not only staying near the Ka‘bah precinct but also stopping off at centers of learning en route; today’s pilgrim is not so taken with this same desire to attain knowledge, yet  the Hajj has become a vehicle of cultural diffusion, helping to bind different parts of the Muslim world into what some might call the single ‘Nation of Islam’. No other pilgrim journey can boast such a claim.


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Process Thought

Adam and Eve Driven out of Eden, by Gustave Do...

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Heaven and earthThe Problem of Evil

Traditional Thought verses Process Theology

The Problem of Evil has consistently been one of the most significant topics of discussion within the sphere of religion. For centuries, evidence vis-à-vis the relationship between the presence of evil in the world and the temperament of the divine have been used to argue against the existence of God. Do established reactions to this question really address the issue? Can the Problem of Evil be resolved at all? Process theology – a fairly new philosophy which embraces a naturalistic deity – might finally offer an amenable answer to this mystifying problem. This treatise will examine both traditional and common responses to the Problem of Evil and the proposed solution through a process perspective, arriving (hopefully) at a conclusion.

Western Theology has long struggled with evil as one of the more mind boggling problems humanity has encountered. The problem arises from the apparent contradiction of an omnipotent and benevolent God who is coexistent with evil. The contradiction flows from the concept of an all-loving deity, who should perpetuate the absolution of evil, but instead allows it to stand toe-to-toe with Goodness.  How does one reconcile belief in a God whose persona flows from love, while simultaneously allowing the existence of a darkness that permeates the human experience.

Traditionally, Western thought has characterized this dilemma in one of two ways: the “free will defense” originally presented by Augustine or the rejection of its existence (evil) all together. Both provide insight into the Problem while presenting compelling and clever positions in their arguments. However, both fall short in that they have weaknesses that thwart their acceptance, thus perpetuating the debate of this age-old topic.

The Free-Will Defense is the most commonly presented argument, attacking the premise that God doesn’t actually want to banish evil, even though it is believed he is capable of doing so. This argument lays the burden of evil firmly in the process of human immorality and God’s gift of freedom to them. In this defense, evil exists because God has endowed humanity the ability to make moral chooses freely, without His interference. Here, the Creator chooses not to step on mankind’s free will to prevent evil because he has voluntarily promised to surrender some of His authority to the world. This defense presumes that free will is of greater value to God than a world without evil, and based on this hypothesis, he would not want to prevent evil in the world.

This response has several obvious weaknesses. First, it does not explain the existence of accepted evils (those that exist outside man’s active control like natural disasters or disease), which account for the majority of evil in the world. Another valid critique is the belief that free will is so wonderful that even the darkest of evils are worth its existence. While some may find this an acceptable assumption, I find it quite suspect.

11b- CrucifictionAnother popular proposition concerning the Problem of Evil is simply to deny that genuine evil truly exists. The premise here is that we make a distinction between prima facie evil and genuine evil; the former being things that only appear evil (and therefore, are not truly evil in the greatest sense) and the latter being that which is deemed truly evil. Folks following this line of thought state that all evil is prima facie and actually perpetuate the greater good. God wills evil because he uses it to bring about changes that over time help mankind recognize evil as a necessary part of the human landscape. For example, a tornado that kills many people may appear evil, but might not be considered genuine evil because the survivors experience a growth in strength that outweighs the damages. Since genuine evil is nonexistent in this model, proponents suggest there is not really a “problem” of evil. It is important to note that another form of this defense involves redefining evil as simply the absence of goodness, making it not an issue but a logical necessity. This solution, too, suggests that evil is only a problem on a minute scale that simple minded humans cannot see past.

This line of reasoning creates several problems. First, it marginalizes the outrage of evil (illusionary or not) by implying that it must exist in order for humanity to understand goodness. While this might seem satisfying on the surface, on a deeper level it is not; most Holocaust victims would not find comfort in the idea that such a horrible event was for some greater purpose in God’s divine plan. It is especially problematic because it creates the impression that God is a cruel god; what kind of Deity would require something like genocide to attain a greater purpose? If genocide was the only rational methodology for achieving both God’s will (and I challenge this premise itself) and some greater purpose for humanity, why would such an omnipotent being knowing what the future holds, bother creating humanity in the first place? Opponents of this argument cede that it would be better to just skip creating man in order to avoid such an enormous risk in the first place.

Any argument allowing for an omnipresent creator who lives on the outside looking in, while jumping in on a whim is also problematic in this discussion.  Why would God choose to jump in and save some people and not others? Is this merely a case of mankind’s limited insight into the fabric of time? If so, why would an all-knowing God create a world in which the lives of horrible people hold more value in the end than those who were just and ethical? Is more value to be found in God’s keeping Hitler healthy than there would have been if he had jumped in and stricken him with a fatal illness?

Does God always stay outside the schema, never jumping in? If so, does God truly embrace an unconditional love if he  sets up the system to let it run amok? David Ray Griffin uses the example of Superman: “If Superman could prevent evil but refused to do so – perhaps on the grounds that doing so would ‘prevent opportunities for human growth’ – we would certainly question his moral turpitude. Superman, of course, could not prevent all genuine evils because being finite, he cannot be everywhere at once. But the God of traditional theism… does not have this excuse”

Another response to the Problem of Evil is the rejection of the Judeo-Christian concept of God altogether. This leads the responder to either find a home in another faith or in atheism. While this argument is obviously not a traditional religious response, it is commonly used by a large contingent of atheists as the primary source of their non-belief. Deists’, supposing this was the best possible world He could create, point to the traditional idea of God as flawed. Ironically, this premise holds some weight, for if He truly wants mankind to come to know Him, why has He created a system that makes belief in his existence so difficult. Embracing this argument can explain why so many people find not believing in God so palatable. If this is so then God has failed in objectifying his Divine design.

GhetsemaniWhere does this leave us? Must we choose between weak apologetic answers and atheism? I think not; there is another option for those grappling with the manifold issues of Evil and a loving deity – a promising response, at that. Process theology, a philosophy redefining the way we see nature, religion and science, offers a much more fulfilling answer than any of the options previously discussed.

So, what is this new approach? Simply put, it is a philosophical model that offers a new way of viewing the world from a landscape of change. It is a world of process. The universe is constantly changing, growing; every moment is a step toward a new moment. Reality is the linking of interdependent events, a series of ongoing experiences. How does this relate to the Problem of Evil?

Process theology presents a whole new way of looking at God. This system of thought is complicated and diverse, but I will attempt to touch on the primary points of this new philosophy. The main objective is its placement of God as a naturalistic deity, rather than as a supernatural one. Instead of working outside the system of nature, God is a part of it (this is different than pantheism which says the system is God). Within this model of thought, God is in process (as is the world), as He actively experiences the world through the sharing of our experiences with us, influencing us as we influence Him.

This naturalistic notion of God binds Him within the constraints of nature; here God cannot defy natural law, since he is part of the world. God, like the rest of the universe, is bound by nature, time and change (however, His change is not in his nature itself). Just as traditional thinkers are comfortable binding God to logic (He cannot create a square circle), Process thinkers are comfortable binding God to nature.

This process God does not possess omnipotence in the traditional sense. His power is not to coerce but persuade, utilizing nature as his drawing board. Unlike our traditional conception of God, He cannot override free will; it is not that He won’t but rather that He can’t. Unlike humans, God does not have arms to reach out and alter reality; instead, He must use His skills of persuasion to change the natural world through things that have a capacity to do so. Here, he  can simply lay out the possibilities and try to draw humanityl toward the righteous option, the one that most realizes His will. In this respect, Jewish author Harold Kushner likens God to fire; “That’s why, so often in the Bible God is portrayed by fire – at the Burning Bush, in the Eternal Flame before the Ark, etc. Fire is not an object: fire is a process, the process by which the latent energy in a lump of coal or a piece of wood is turned into actual energy. God is like fire, liberating the potential energy in each of us”.

It can be pointed out that using traditional theology, the Process concept of God appears to be significantly weaker, maybe not even truly omnipotent. However, it is much more accurate to say that Process Theology has a different definition of “omnipotence.” As David Ray Griffin puts it, “God is all-powerful – not only in the sense of being the supreme power of the universe but also in the sense of being perfect in power, having all the power one being could possibly have”. The key is the phrase “having all the power one could possibly have”; this excludes the ability to foresee the future (the future being, by definition, unknown) and other supernatural functions which traditional religion often attributes God the power to do. God is still omnipotent; He just works within a different framework in this model of thought.

An important question: does this limited power make God unworthy of worship? Process theologians are quick to say No! Why is this? It’s because power is not the defining characteristic in determining admiration, and certainly not human existence. C. Robert Mesle, a Christian process theologian writes, “Is it the power to lift rocks that earns worship? Is it the power or love of God that leads you to love God, to worship God, to be willing to commit your life to God’s service?” From a religious perspective, the true reason God is deserving of worship is His infinite love (Mesle 14). So it is no wonder that process theology – which assumes that infinite love and infinite power are mutually exclusive in light of evil – suggests that limiting God’s power is far more reflecting of a God we should worship than limiting his love?

So why did God create a world in which he had such limited control? The process answer would be that it was the only kind of world He could create. Here it should be noted that process theologians also reject the popular concept that God created the world out of complete nothingness (also called creation ex nihilo). In process thought, God created the world out of chaos – near nothingness – and established order. Mainstream religion has God creating the world out of absolute nothingness, while implying that all metaphysical and natural principles are the result of God’s will. Therefore, the existence of evil in the traditional model requires that it was created by God as God willed. However, from the process perspective, God created it out of something. Because something (as limited though it was) already existed, God had to work within principles that already existed, establishing order and injecting novelty. Part of this included the possibility for good and the potential for evil. This means that God did not will the potential for evil; the potential was part of the basic existing chaos that He created from.

Where does the Problem of Evil fit into all of this? As one may have already guessed, process theologians point to the premise that an omnipotent God is incapable of removing evil from the world. With a newfound definition of omnipotence in this model and the assertion of creation from chaos (and subsequent rejection of creation ex nihilo), it becomes clear that the presence of evil is not inconsistent with God.

Evil exists because it must exist; in order for the world to have choices to make, there must always be the potential for evil, just as there must always be the potential for good. God is not capable of destroying or preventing evil in the traditional supernatural sense, though He can use humanity as a team in fighting it. Nor is God responsible for the creation of evil. Instead of banishing the evil from afar, God works within the system, persuading the universe to step away from evil.

Does the argument offered by process theology adequately solve the Problem of Evil? I believe yes. Not only does it remove the responsibility of evil from God, it creates the ability to restore faith to those who have struggled with the problem of reconciling evil’s existence with God’s love. Those who subscribe to process thought can rest assured that God is with them through evil, as he suffers with the world. There God acts, silently beckoning the world to move away from the darkness of evil toward His will for us.

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Isle of Mull, Scotland (topographic)

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 Home of Celtic Christianity – Iona

As we ferry out of Oban Bay, the sky opens and rain thunders down. The droplets are so huge they force many a passenger to scurry for cover. Though it may be true that the rain is part of the allure of these isles, I’m relieved when the clouds fall away and glistening rays of sunlight outline for us the picturesque Sound of Mull.

iona-st-ronans-bayThe ferry ushers us west across Mull where we must take a bus to Fionnphort, then depart by tug to the Isle of Staffa. It is here that we board a passenger only ferry to the small 5.5 kilometer Isle of Iona. Upon disembarking onto the pier in St. Ronan’s Bay, it becomes quickly apparent that you are in a place that deserves a sense of deep reverence. The main road leads past an old post office to the crumbling remnant of a 13th century convent. All that remains today are the chancel, nave and parts of the chapel roof.

Iona holds historical and spiritual importance out of proportion to its size, for it was here in 563 AD that the Irish monk Colum Cille or Columba, founded the Abbey that would become the home of Celtic Christianity. Like many before him, Columba was seeking an island haven as base for his community of ascetics. This small grass covered rock that seemingly crumbled loose from the west coast of Mull became the first Christian settlement in Scotland and a place of spiritual power for centuries to come.

iona-abbeyWith his twelve companions Columba set about building Iona’s first church, made of clay and wood . It was written that Columba had great physical and mental strength, garnered thorough religious training, and had become a persuasive speaker with a ‘genteel touch’. He was greatly beloved, if not a little feared, by the increasing number of followers who began to spread the Christian message amongst the settlers of the adjacent isles. Columba brought his spirit to bear on all he met during his extensive travels and ministry, resulting in Scotland’s embrace of Christianity.

Nothing of Columba’s original abbey or settlement buildings now exist on Iona. However, to the left side of the Abbey entrance a small roofed chamber can be seen, believed to be the site of his tomb. Columba died on Iona on 9th June, 597AD. St Columba’s biography was written a over a century later by the Irish monk Saint Adòmnan. Adòmnan died in 702AD, having been made Abbot of Iona in 679.

inside-cc-on-alien-cinemaThe earliest surviving building on Iona is the Chapel of St. Oran, erected as a family burial chapel in 1100 by Lord Somerled, Lord of the Isles. The burial grounds nearby, known as Reilig Odhrain, are rumored to contain the relics of 48 Scottish kings including Macbeth, Robert the Bruce and Duncan I. Beyond the north wall lies the “Street of the Dead,” which leads to the Abbey. In front of the west door stands a carved cross commemorating the 4th century bishop Martin of Tours. Tucked behind St. John’s Cross is St. Columba’s Shrine. Once inside, the church reveals itself to be brighter than you might imagine, and features a prayer corner, and an effigy to Abbot J. MacKinnon.

Passing through to the cloisters, warm sunlight caresses the arches of perfectly manicured stonework on which hangs a feeling of the centuries in the air. It is not grand like the great cathedrals, but is surrounded by an aura of truth rather than pretension. It is solemn, humble and aged. The soft afternoon light gives the Abbey an earthy glow, polished by centuries of weather, love and the faith of all the silent witnesses who’ve prayed there.

Iona Today

iona-baile-morAbout one hundred and twenty people live on Iona year round. Some have been here for several generations, while others arrived recently to build a life on the island. Work on Iona is divided between crofting, (raising cattle and sheep) and tourism-related jobs in catering, and hospitality both on land and by sea.  A number of craftspeople make unique, individually designed goods for sale in Iona’s shops and galleries. The population is boosted to around three hundred in summer, as people take up summer jobs or volunteer placements in the Iona Community. Iona’s primary school has around ten children enrolled. For secondary education, pupils go to Oban High School, and stay as weekly boarders in the Oban school hostel.

iona-chapelWithin the local community of Iona there is the interfaith Iona Community founded in 1938 by the Reverend George MacLeod of Fiunary. The Iona Community describes itself as ‘an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church’.  Membership of the Community comes mainly from the UK where residential staff maintains quarters and work on Iona. They are supplemented by seasonal or longer term volunteers. Many individuals and groups share in work and worship at the Chapel on Iona. The Abbey and The MacLeod Centre are staffed by the Iona Community, as is Camas, an outdoor adventure centre on nearby Mull.

The island of Iona is now owned by the National Trust of Scotland. The island was given to the National Trust in 1979 by the Fraser Foundation in memory of Lord Hugh Fraser of Allander. The Fraser Foundation had purchased Iona from the Duke of Argyll.





Sedona Arizona – Vortexes

The Vortexes of Sedona, AZ


The power vortexes of Sedona, Arizona, are deeply sacred sites to New Age adherents who regard them as places of powerful spiritual energy. First discovered in the 1950s, Sedona’s vortexes have become so popular that the region surrounding them has become a major center of New Age spirituality. Many nonbelievers are also attracted to Sedona thanks to the spectacular red rock formations – four of which happen to be positioned within the vortexes.

Historical Overview

In New Age circles, a vortex is a place possessing high spiritual power or energy, located where geological faults called “ley lines” intersect with one another. The concept of ley lines first surfaced with the publication of Early British Track ways (1922) by Alfred Watkins, an amateur archaeologist and spiritual historian. Watkins noticed that straight lines could be drawn between ancient sacred sites like Stonehenge and Avebury and hypothesized that these were once ancient trade routes. He associated these “pathways” with Celtic/Druidic worship in prehistoric England.

The New Age movement eventually took up the idea of ley lines, interpreting them as geologically charged sources of cosmic energy. Some have attributed the lines with UFO landing sites and/or the “spirit lines” of ancient shamanic pilgrimages. They are now regularly researched and plotted through the use of dowsing rods. New Age adherents believe that by meditating at sites like Sedona, one can experience spiritual and physical healing.

bell-rock-stars-cc-giant-gingkgoVortexes, where two or more ley lines intersect, are considered extremely powerful sources of energy.
Sedona’s vortexes were discovered in the 1950s by New Age guru, Page Bryant. Bryant identified four “power vortexes” that coincide with spectacular rock formations in and around the small town of Sedona: Bell Rock, Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock and Boynton Canyon.

Sedona’s vortexes have become so popular that local visitor centers now offer maps pointing out their locations. There are also guided tours, accompanied by commentary emphasizing Native American and
New Age spirituality.

The four main vortexes are located at:

Follow links above for more details on each or see the Sedona Map for an overview of their locations.

More information on Sedona can be found at:

Sacred sites according to regional configurations of sacred geography – Martin Gray
Sedona’s Energy Vortexes – Love Sedona
Vortex Experience in Sedona – Sedona New Age Center

Watch for future articles on other Sacred Sites in North America ……

What US City Has the Highest Concentration of UFO Sightings? (grantlawrence.blogspot.com)What’s Up with the World Grid, Vortexes/Vortices, LeyLines? (musicians4freedom.com)


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Hildegard von Bingen

Ruine Kloster Rupertsberg

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Born in Bemersheim (Böckelheim), West Franconia (now Germany), she was the tenth child of a well-to-do family. She’d had visions connected with illness (perhaps migraines) from a young age, and in 1106 her parents sent her to a 400-year-old Benedictine monastery which had only recently added a section for women. They put her under the care of a noblewoman and resident there, Jutta, calling Hildegard the family’s “tithe” to God.

Jutta, whom Hildegard later referred to as an “unlearned woman,” taught Hildegard to read and to write. Jutta became the abbess of the convent, which attracted other young women of noble background. In that time, convents were often places of learning, a welcome home to women who had intellectual gifts. Hildegard, as was true of many other women in convents at the time, learned Latin, read the scriptures, and had access to many other books of a religious and philosophical nature. Those who have traced the influence of ideas in her writings find that Hildegard must have read quite extensively. Part of the Benedictine rule required study, and Hildegard clearly availed herself of the opportunities.

When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected unanimously as the new abbess. Rather than continue as part of a double house — a monastery with units for men and for women — Hildegard in 1148 decided to move the convent to Rupertsberg, where it was on its own, not directly under the supervision of a male house. This gave Hildegard considerable freedom as an administrator, and she traveled frequently in Germany and France. She claimed that she was following God’s order in making the move, firmly opposing her abbot’s opposition. Literally firmly: she assumed a rigid position, lying like a rock, until he gave his permission for the move. The move was completed in 1150.

The Rupertsberg convent grew to as many as 50 women, and became a popular burial site for the wealthy of the area. The women who joined the convent were of wealthy backgrounds, and the convent did not discourage them from maintaining something of their lifestyle. Hildegard of Bingen withstood criticism of this practice, claiming that wearing jewelry to worship God was honoring God, not practicing selfishness.

Part of the Benedictine rule is labor, and Hildegard spent early years in nursing, and at Rupertsberg in illustrating (“illuminating”) manuscripts. She hid her early visions; only after she was elected abbess did she receive a vision which she said clarified her knowledge of “the psaltery…, the evangelists and the volumes of the Old and New Testament.” Still showing much self-doubt, she began to write and to share her visions.

Hildegard of Bingen lived at a time when, within the Benedictine movement, there was stress on the inner experience, personal meditation, an immediate relationship with God, and visions. It was also a time in Germany of striving between papal authority and the authority of the German (Holy Roman) emperor, via papal schism.

Hildegard of Bingen, through her many letters, took to task the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, but also the archbishop of Main. She wrote to such luminaries as King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She also corresponded with many individuals of low and high estate who wanted her advice or prayers.

Richardis or Ricardis von Stade, one of the convent’s nuns who was a personal assistant to Hildegard of Bingen, was a special favorite of Hildegard. Richardis’ brother was an archbishop, and he arranged for his sister to head another convent. Hildegard tried to persuade Richardis to stay, and wrote insulting letters to the brother and even wrote to the Pope hoping to stop the move. But Richardis left, and died after she attempted to return to Rupertsberg.

An infamous incident happened near the end of Hildegard’s life, when she was in her eighties. She allowed a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried at the convent, seeing that he had last rites. She claimed she’d received word from God allowing the burial. But her ecclesiastical superiors intervened, and ordered the body exhumed. Hildegard defied the authorities by hiding the grave, and the authorities excommunicated the entire convent community. Most insultingly to Hildegard, the interdict prohibited the community from singing. She complied with the interdict, avoiding singing and communion, but did not comply with the command to exhume the corpse. Hildegard appealed the decision to yet higher church authorities, and finally had the interdict lifted.

Hildegard of Bingen Writings

The best-known writing of Hildegard of Bingen is a trilogy including Scivias (1141–52), Liber Vitae Meritorum, (Book of the Life of Merits), and Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of the Divine Works). These include records of her visions — many are apocalyptic — and her explanations of scripture and salvation history. She also wrote plays, poetry, and music, and today many of her hymns and song cycles are recorded today. She also wrote on medicine and nature — and it’s important to note that for her, as for many in medieval times, theology, medicine, music, and all those topics were unitary, not separate spheres of knowledge.

Hildegard of Bingen – Feminist?

Today, Hildegard of Bingen is celebrated as a feminist; this has to be interpreted within the context of her times.

On the one hand, she accepted many of the assumptions of the time about the inferiority of women. She called herself a “paupercula feminea forma” or poor weak woman, and implied that the current “feminine” age was thereby a less-desireable age. That God depended on women to bring his message was a sign of the chaotic times, not a sign of the advance of women.

On the other hand, in practice, she exercised considerably more authority than most women of her time, and she celebrated feminine community and beauty in her spiritual writings. She used the metaphor of marriage to God, though this was not her invention nor a new metaphor — but it was not universal. Her visions have female figures in them: Ecclesia, Caritas (heavenly love), Sapientia, and others. In her texts on medicine, she included topics which male writers usually did not, such as how to deal with menstrual cramps. She also wrote a text just on what we’d today call gynecology. Clearly, she was a more prolific writer than most women of her era; more to the point, she was more prolific than most of the men of the time.

There were some suspicions that her writing was not her own, and could be attributed to her scribe, Volman, who seems to have taken the writings that she put down and made permanent records of them. But even in her writing after he died, her usual fluency and complexity of writing is present.

Hildegard of Bingen – Saint?

Perhaps because of her famous (or infamous) flouting of ecclesiastical authority, Hildegard of Bingen was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint. She has been honored locally as a saint.

Hildegard of Bingen – Legacy

Hildegard of Bingen was, by modern standards, not as revolutionary as she might have been considered in her time. She preached the superiority of order over change, and the church reforms she pushed for included the superiority of ecclesiastical power over secular power, of popes over kings. She opposed the Cathar heresy in France, and had a long-running rivalry (expressed in letters) with another whose influence was unusual for a woman, Elisabeth of Shonau.

Hildegard of Bingen is probably more properly classified as a prophetic visionary rather than a mystic, as revealing knowledge from God was more her priority than her own personal experience or union with God. Her apocalyptic visions of the consequences of acts and practices, her lack of concern for herself, and her sense that she was the instrument of God’s word to others, differentiate her from many of the (female and male) mystics near her time.

At the heart of Hildegard von Bingen’s extraordinary creativity was her accomplishment in music. In the poetry and melody of her songs, she reveals the full authority, intelligence and striking originality of her genius. She wrote profusely as no woman before her. Even though she received no formal training in music, her talent and motivation drove her to write 77 chants and the first musical drama in history, which she entitled The Ritual of the Virtues. She writes in her autobiographical passages: “I composed and chanted plainsong in praise of God and the saints even though I had never studied either musical notation or singing.” Unlike the mild, mainstream music of her day, her lyrical speech breaks into rhapsodic emotion; her zesty melodies soar up to two and one half octaves, leaping and swirling into flourishing roulades which leave the singer breathless.

“There is the Music of Heaven in all things and we have forgotten how to hear it until we sing.”
~Hildegard of Bingen

Link to Hildegard’s Music:

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Padre Pio


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Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), an Italian priest and mystic, was consumed by a desire to suffer for the transgressions of mankind. For the last 50 years of his life he bore the marks of stigmata (the wounds of Jesus) on his hands, feet, side, and chest.

Padre Pio was a member of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor and a mystic of the Catholic Church. He lived his entire life in the rocky foothills of southern Italy. His mystic tendencies were well known throughout the region, and he was respected as a confessor and spiritual advisor to many of the inhabitants of the area. Some witnesses reported instances of bilocation (the ability to be in two places at one time) in connection with Padre Pio as well. Following his death in 1968 his followers took steps to canonize the friar as an official saint of the Catholic Church.

Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina, Italy on May 25, 1887. He was the fourth of eight children of Grazio Maria Forgione and his wife, Maria Giuseppa De Nunzio. Three of the Forgione siblings died in infancy, and Padre Pio was only the second child to survive after Michele, the oldest. Padre Pio had three younger sisters: Felicita, Pellegrina, and Graziella. The youngest of the Forgione siblings, a boy named Mario, also died in infancy. As a child Padre Pio received the nickname il bello Francesco (beautiful Frances) because of his light brown eyes and attractive blonde hair that darkened gradually to auburn as he matured.

The Forgione family was descended from “possedenti” or upper-class peasantry, although given the excessive poverty of the region, they were at best tenant farmers in the southern Italian province of Campania. In his youth, Padre Pio tended a handful of sheep. At the age of ten he contracted typhoid fever and nearly died. After his recovery he wished to become a Capuchin friar, and his father thereafter spent several years in sailing back and forth to America (a common practice at that time) in order to finance more schooling for Padre Pio, in preparation for the priesthood.

In childhood Padre Pio experienced paranormal visions with such frequency that he took the episodes for granted and assumed that others experienced similar phenomena. He confided this information only later in life to a priest and was surprised to learn that such occurrence is rare. Padre Pio also suffered from a desire to be a “victim of divine love,” a religious concept whereby a person wishes intensely to endure constant and severe suffering, to atone for the failings of mankind.

Headed to Morcone

On January 6, 1903 at the age of 16 he departed to the town of Morcone to join the friary of Saints Philip and James of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor, a “mendicant” order. (Capuchins live in poverty by design; they own nothing and live essentially as beggars in the world.) To symbolize their poverty Capuchins never shave their faces and never wear shoes – only open leather sandals. They never wear hats but attach brown woolen hoods to their garments. They spend a significant portion of each day in prayer, maintain long periods of silence, and always travel in pairs. At the friary Padre Pio lived in a cell furnished with a table, chair, washstand, and water jug; he slept on a cornhusk mattress. He received the Capuchin garments in a ceremony on January 22, 1903. On that day the former Francesco Forgione adopted the name of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. As a symbol of austerity, Capuchin friars never used surnames, thus for legal purposes Padre Pio signed his name as “Padre Pio of Pietrelcina al secolo Francesco Forgione.”

Padre Pio traveled to Foggia to live a life of fasting and prayer. On January 22, 1904 he moved to Sant’Elia a Pianisi for more schooling. The following year he went to San Marco la Catola, not far from Sant’Elia, to study philosophy. He returned to Sant’Elia in 1906 and, in 1907 took a solemn vow to live as a Capuchin. He then spent time at Capuchin friaries at Serracapriola and Montefusco where he became so immersed in prayer and study, that he failed to attend the wedding of his older brother.

Throughout his lifetime Padre Pio suffered from a severe but undiagnosed stomach disorder that caused persistent pain and vomiting. Beginning in December of 1908 his superiors sent him home on numerous occasions. Inexplicably the symptoms disappeared each time he departed the friary; transfers to friaries at other locations failed to alleviate the symptoms. At the age of 23 he traveled from his hometown of Pietrelcina to the cathedral of Benevento in Morcone. There Archbishop Paolo Schinosi ordained Padre Pio as a Roman Catholic priest on August 10, 1910.

Mystical Occurrences

The visions and voices that plagued Padre Pio in his youth persisted during his early years as a priest. He developed a close confidentiality with Salvatore Maria Pannullo who, in 1901, became the Archpriest of Pietrelcina. In 1905 and 1906 Padre Pio consulted with Padre Benedetto Nardella of San Marco, an expert on mysticism; and in 1911 Padre Pio confided in Padre Agostino of San Marco as well. Thus Padres Benedetto and Agostino, along with Pannullo, were privy to the true extent of Padre Pio’s paranormal experiences.

Padre Pio developed marks of stigmata initially in 1910 at San Nicandro. He showed the puncture wounds on his hands to Pannullo on September 7 of that year. A doctor examined Padre Pio and diagnosed tuberculosis of the skin. Following the medical diagnosis Padre Pio returned to his hometown for a time. On October 28, 1911, he moved to the friary of San Nicandro at Venafro, where Padre Agostino was vicar. Padre Pio was personally humiliated by the painful markings and kept his hands hidden at all times. The wounds disappeared for a time, only to reappear more acutely nearly a decade later. His superiors ordered him to Pietrelcina repeatedly after 1911. There he performed works of charity and served as a spiritual director. He was well known, loved, and respected for his saintly bearing.

Padre Pio experienced numerous ecstasies over a period of many years. According to documentation by Padre Agostino, Padre Pio was tormented by poltergeist aberrations accompanied by furious, audible thrashing noises that left him sweating, bruised, and sometimes bleeding. On other occasions he received visitations from the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and angels. In addition to the visitations and stigmata, Padre Pio was reportedly prone to bi-location phenomena, appearing in two locations simultaneously. The most remarkable of these reported incidents occurred on January 18, 1905 shortly before midnight. Padre Pio was in the choir at the friary when, according to his description, his mind traveled to a location in Udine where a child was being born prematurely just moments before the death of her father. In 1923 he met the girl and “recognized” her. The girl’s mother recalled very clearly the death of her husband and the vision of a Capuchin monk in Udine on the night when the girl was born.

Private Francesco Forgione

With the outbreak of World War I in November 1914, many Capuchins were drafted into the Italian army. Padre Pio was drafted into the 10th Company of the Italian Medical Corps in Naples, under the name of Private Francesco Forgione. His stomach discomfort continued, and army doctors diagnosed chronic bronchitis. They granted him a medical leave of absence, and he returned to Pietrelcina. In February 1916 he moved to the friary of St. Anne at Foggia and, in July of that year, he accepted an invitation from Padre Paolino to live at the friary of Our Lady of Grace at San Giovanni Rotondo in the Gargano Mountains near the Adriatic coast. Padre Pio taught seminary students and prayed with the townswomen. Many Capuchins were at war, and only seven friars remained at the residence when he arrived.

In August 1917 the army recalled Padre Pio to active duty and assigned him to the 4th Platoon of the 10th Company of the Italian Medical Corps. He took a leave of absence again on November 6 and received a permanent discharge on March 16, 1918. Padre Pio then visited his hometown for the last time in his life and returned to the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo. He remained at the remote friary in the spur of the Italian boot for the rest of his life.

Stigmata for Life

Beginning in August 1918 and over the course of several weeks, Padre Pio developed permanent, painful stigmata that bled intermittently for the next 50 years and disappeared only a few days before his death. The experience began on August 5 when he claimed to observe a vision of a fiery spear being hurled at his chest. He suffered excruciating pain for two days, resulting in a chest laceration. A few weeks later, in September, a similar incident left him with permanent wounds on his hands and feet. A series of doctors examined the wounds of Padre Pio and verified the existence of the condition, but left no written comment or explanation. Luigi Romanelli, chief physician of the City Hospital of Barletta, examined the priest’s wounds five times over the course of one year. Dr. Giorgio Festa, a private practitioner, viewed them in 1920 and again in 1925. Professor Giuseppe Bastianelli, physician to Pope Benedict XV agreed that the wounds indeed existed but made no other comment. Angelo Maria Merla of San Giovanni Rotondo noted that the wounds were not tubercular in origin, but made no diagnosis; nor did pathologist, Dr. Amico Bignami of the University of Rome. The wounds bled severely at times, although medical examiners reported no fever, nor anemia or change of blood pressure associated with the condition. According to witnesses the wounds of Padre Pio emitted a distinctively fragrant odor, and all other abrasions to Padre Pio’s body healed normally during those years, including an incision to repair a hernia.

As with the earlier incident, Padre Pio felt humiliation at the visible stigmata, but stated nevertheless that he welcomed the pain for all mankind; his greatest wish was to die. Pilgrims visited him at the friary and attested to miraculous occurrences associated with his presence. The friary at San Giovanni Rotondo became a target of pilgrims, much like the shrine at Lourdes, France to which many miracles are also attributed.

Road to Sainthood

Padre Pio died of an apparent heart attack at the friary of Our Lady of Grace in the Italian village of San Giovanni Rotondo on the morning of September 23, 1968. After his death, the friars and other associates were eager to begin the lengthy process of canonization, whereby the mystic might be named a saint of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II beatified the memory of Padre Pio at a Mass on May 2, 1999 in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, as a final step in preparation for sainthood.

Padre Pio never traveled far from the region of his birth. The farthest that he went in his lifetime was to Rome, in May 1917. Yet for years after his death millions of pilgrims visited the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo where he lived. A permanent shrine designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano was planned in 1993 for the site, designed to hold crowds as large as 10,000 people. The proposal for the church of Padre Pio featured a huge amphitheater with 167-foot stone arches, larger than those at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Further Reading

Ruffin, C. Bernard, Padre Pio: The True Story, Our Sunday Visitor, 1991.
National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999.
Newsweek, January 11, 1993.
Time, May 10, 1999

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