Living the Art 3: Everything is Holy

x1952-84, Noah's Drunkeness, Artist: Tissot, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

Everything Is Holy Now

by Randall Auxier

It’s a line from Peter Mayer‘s song “Holy Now.” There is a longing for the holy, whatever it is. But the connection between holiness and beauty has been a problem for Western (and some Eastern) religions. If we worship what cannot be seen, what happens when we actually experience or see it? Do we look? Do we listen? Do we touch? In holiness, beauty approaches sublimity. Indiana Jones knew to avert his eyes when those Nazi archaeologists opened the Lost Ark . . . an interesting sort of symbolic revenge for the Holocaust. We often use art as Holy Avenger of historical wrongs. Ask what happened to those Popes and kings who offended Dante. These sorts of artistic flirtations with the holy make some religious people nervous. But undeniably, the divine must be manifest, sometimes, whether beautifully or terribly. Take off your sandals, then. You’re standing on holy ground.

We have words for “holy” in every language: “sundara” in Sanskrit, “kodesh” in Hebrew, “hagios” in New Testament Greek, “sanctus” in Latin, “seinaru” in Japanese, and, importantly, the word in Amharic is “ቅዱስ፣ የተቀደሰ.” I don’t know how to pronounce it. But some of the most important religious documents in the world were kept and copied in the ancient, medieval, and modern languages of Ethiopia. If you go back a bit, this land was called Abyssinia, and Meroe, and Saba (Sheba), and if you go back as far as possible, it was called Cush. It includes the horn of Africa and the southwestern end of the Arabian peninsula, across the Straits of Mandeb. Here Africa and Asia are separated by only twenty miles. These people are listed among the original nations of the earth in Genesis. They are the grandchildren of Noah, through Ham, who is the father of Cush, Mizrait, Phut, and Canaan, the patriarchs of various peoples related to the Hebrews but not children of Abraham.

Things are going to get a little weird now. The Holy is always weird. So, one day after the flood, Noah got drunk and passed out, lying on his back, in the buff. Ham wandered into the tent and instead of averting his eyes, “looked upon his father’s nakedness.” Apparently you’re not supposed to do that. Ham tells his brothers, “hey, Dad is lying in there in the altogether.” But the brothers know that a taboo has been broken. They back into the tent with a blanket and cover Noah without looking. When Noah wakes, he’s pissed, and he can’t curse Ham (God has already blessed him and you don’t contradict God, no matter how holy you are), so he curses Ham’s youngest son, Canaan. He’ll never be more than a servant.

What is going on here? The rabbis have several theories. Maybe Ham actually castrated his father. Maybe Ham had sex with his father. But I think I know what the problem is here. I don’t think it’s any of those things. I think it’s like the beat poet Allen Ginsberg says in the “Footnote to Howl“:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!

The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!

And further down, “Holy my mother in the insane asylum! Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas!” Here we have a clue. Poets can exceed rabbis in insight. The origin is holy, and thus the body of the originator is holy. It’s ok to study your own belly button, but not your mother’s privates. Ditto with your Dad’s package. To look directly upon one’s origin is to look upon the presence of God, in an earthy form. It is forbidden. But God must do his work somehow, in Kansas and elsewhere. When Ginsberg’s mother died the next year, he wrote the poem “Kaddish” for her, widely regarded as his finest poem. The word “kaddish” is Aramaic (vernacular Hebrew) for “holy.” It is the name of the mourner’s prayer as well. Death is holy too, and the death of the origin, perhaps the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site of all. God had established His covenant with Noah before the flood to preserve the race through his line, so Ham was gazing into the Ark of the Covenant, although not as a Nazi archaeologist would.

The people of Cush, Abyssinia, Ethiopia, have always known themselves as an original people, which is to say, as a holy people. It goes further back than Genesis. The scientists think that the first permanently successful migration of homo sapiens from Africa to Asia moved across the Straits of Mandeb. I know what you’re thinking. “Whoa. So, like, we all come from around Ethiopia?” Probably so. The people of this region, then, are surely the holy people, if there are any holy people. The wife of Moses was one of these people. The kings of Ethiopia traced their line to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The line is ancient, documentably traceable to the 13th century, and perhaps it does actually reach back to Solomon, and if not, well, there is the mitochondrial Eve, in any case. It is a holy family from a holy land, more ancient than God’s promise to Abraham by a long shot.

Why does any of this matter? Why does the antiquity of a bloodline make it holy? What makes anything holy? It’s more than I can tackle. Read Rudy. But I bring it up because, as Crispin Sartwell, writing appreciatively about Rastafarian music, says that “Americans and Europeans often find the belief structures of Jamaica rather quaint.” Marcus Garvey, their prophet, proclaimed that a deliverer would arise in Africa to reclaim the children of that continent and break their bonds. The early Rasta men who followed Garvey believed the Ethiopian king Haile Salassie was that messiah. His given name was Tafari, and during his rise, Ras (governor) Tafari. Selassie ended slavery in Ethiopia, democratized, modernized carefully, was a fine military leader, and after brave resistance, ruled from Jerusalem in exile when Italy invaded and slaughtered the people of Ethiopia. He returned to rule in peace. His country was destroyed by communists beginning with a coup in 1974.

Ras Tafari made no claim to divinity, but he was most impressive. Hearing he was regarded as messiah by Jamaicans, he visited in 1966, which forever changed Jamaica. His holy presence was witnessed by Rita Marley, who claimed to see the stigmata on Selassie’s hands. Some of the Rastas wanted to repatriate to Africa. Selassie facilitated it, procuring land for them in his kingdom, where they still live. And the music that resulted is a holy music, about freedom, redemption, love, an end of oppression, a “brotherhood of man,” as we once called it.

I, for one, don’t see anything quaint here. Moses was quaint to Pharaoh. Jesus was quaint to Pilate. How is the Rasta vision less important than the Law of Moses or the Parables of Jesus? Seems, well, holy to me.