Wednesday, July 16, 2014

“Plain Speech” and Spiritual Intimacy in The Seven-Petaled Shield

One of the aspects of world-building that I most enjoy is creating religious and spiritual traditions. Each of the cultures in The  Seven-Petaled Shield conceptualizes the relationship between human and spirit in a different way. On the vast Azkhantian steppe, the nomads live in harmony with the seasons. They depend on their flocks and particularly their fast, agile horses not only for sustenance but defense. Their primary deity is, of course, Mother of Horses. By contrast, Meklavar is an city-state with an ancient tradition of written scripture; its religion is monotheistic and non-gendered (the Source of Blessings is never referred to as He or She); literacy is highly valued as a way of preserving the cultural and religious heritage. 

Gelon is a nation of scientists, empire-builders, and cultural magpies, freely appropriating what they deem worthy from the cultures they conquer. It seemed logical to me that their formal religion would include a pantheon of gods. People would worship different gods according to their status (King’s-god), occupation (One Who Blesses Commerce, Guardian of Flocks, Protector of Soldiers), personal concerns (Source of Fertility, Bringer of Sleep), idealism and aspiration (Essence of Beauty, Giver of Justice), or solace (God of Forgotten Hopes, Sower of Mischief, Kindler of Hearts). Many of these are embodiments or aspects of historical gods – Essence of Beauty is surely the Gelonian version of Venus or Aphrodite. 

Some of these gods are lofty, looking down on the plight of their human devotees with indifference. But others are more friendly and accessible, attending to everyday domestic affairs and not the fate of the world. In designing the Gelonian pantheon, I wanted the qualities of nurture and compassion to be present in a variety of forms, but I also wanted a specific deity who embodied these characteristics. I took my inspiration from a variety of sources – the Buddhist Kwan Yin, Mary in the Christian tradition, and the Shechinah or feminine aspect of the Jewish god. It seemed logical that a system as varied as the Gelonian pantheon would include such a figure, so I called her the Lady of Mercy.

While most of the other Gelonian sects provide background (with the notable exception of that belonging the Scorpion god, Qr, which has been appropriated by the awakening Fire and Ice), the followers of the Lady of Mercy play an active role in the beginning of The Heir of Khored (the third book of The Seven-Petaled Shield). I wanted to also take this opportunity to show positive aspects of Gelon – the people of goodwill and kindness who are to be found in every society. One important aspect was the ability to treat every person compassionately. Not just sympathetically, but as one divine creation to another. In Hinduism, one might greet another by saying Namaste, "The divine (or light) within me salutes the divine within you.” In Western terms, Martin Buber described this relationship as “I-Thou.”

Drawing, A. Durer (1508)
Conventional contemporary English does not have a pronoun that expresses respect and tenderness. Romance languages do, as did earlier forms of English (hence the “thou,” equivalent to the French this combination of tu.) With only a few exceptions, this usage has fallen into disuse in favor of the anonymous singular/plural “you.” To most people, thee and thou feel not only archaic but “high-falutin’”.

One of the communities in which the use of thee and thou persisted longest is the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Originally, Quakers addressed everyone in this way, regardless of rank. They refused to use one term for a social superior and another for an equal or inferior because they saw all people as equal. For the same reason, they refused to tip their hats to aristocrats. Needless to say, this custom landed quite of few of them in prison. They called the use of thee/thou “plain speech,” as opposed to one set of terms under one social circumstance and another in another (“fancy speech”? “complicated speech”?). Over the centuries, Quakers, particularly American Quakers, simplified the usage even further by using only “thee.” While grammatically incorrect, this shift furthered the cause of simplicity. 

This “down home” version struck me as ideal for the cult devoted to the Lady of Mercy, especially for those who lack formal intellectual education and express humility and consideration for others. Language, including all the various forms of jargon, helps to define a community, who’s “in the know” or initiated into the mysteries, and who’s baffled or excluded. It can be as simple as a specific meaning for an ordinary word, words and phrases not in general usage, or references and metaphors that have specific meanings for that particular group – references to experiences and knowledge not shared with the “outside world.” Words can also remind us of our shared goals and values. In the case of “plain speech” and the monks of the Lady of Mercy, the use of an intimate second-person pronoun provides a reminder to treat that person with respect and kindness.

Of course, in any community, individuals achieve their goals to a greater or lesser degree. When one of those goals is compassion, people are apt to fall short under times of stress or interpersonal friction. Just because a person says, “thee” doesn’t mean he cannot also be hostile, irritated, manipulative, critical, etc. One of the things I wanted to do with this quirk of language was to show that for some individuals, it helps to focus their intention and expresses how they put the precept of universal kindness into action. For others, it provides a contrast between what is said and what is done – for example, when the Father Monk uses “thee” in the process of imposing his own dogmatic agenda on other characters.

No comments:

Post a Comment