Mirra Mitta and the occult

Happy Halloween. Ryan Briggs shares an incredible account of the Victorian-era cult of “Mirra Mitta” in South Philadelphia:

The stench of death hung heavy along South 11th Street in 1905. The smell had grown so bad that neighbors had gone to the local police district to complain. They claimed that a crazed man and woman were guarding a dead body inside a row house near Washington Avenue. They had been barring the door for weeks and, judging by the smell, the corpse had entered a state of advanced decay. There were flies covering the shutters of a rear bedroom of the building.

But they also recounted unbelievable details. Strange rituals went on inside and the residents of the home, which they had for years referred to as “House of Mystery,” worshipped a woman who they said could grant eternal life. …

On South 11th Street, they would find two gaunt and aged guardians barring the entrance to a row house that reeked of death. Even from the doorway it was clear the brick home had been transformed into a temple, replete with an alter and portraits of a woman called “Mirra Mitta” stationed astride Jesus Christ.

The elderly pair, Caroline Lang and John Rapp, said they were the last two followers of this woman, who they described as the manifestation of the biblical Holy Spirit made real on Earth. Although Mirra Mitta had died nearly two decades earlier, they had been here ever since, fasting, praying, and awaiting their goddess’ return, awaiting eternal life. For years, Lang, who called herself a high priestess, had barely left the house. …

Ryan Susurrus, an expert and lecturer on cults in Philadelphia, says that Meister was in many ways a product of her time. In the mid-19th century, interest in the occult, seances, and esoteric religion was sweeping across Europe and North America. The spread of Enlightenment ideas, the introduction of new belief systems through the spread of colonialism, and the prevalence of death in new, industrialized urban centers all contributed to this new interest in the unknown.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that spiritualism and seances were once commonplace here. This was a cottage industry. And there was a lot of focus on immortality and of one person being the conduit to mastering death and what’s beyond, very much like a medium,” Susurrus says. “People saw so much death in their lives, then. Someone who says, ‘I’m the mainline to immortality and conquering death and its only through me that you’ll access that,’ that was so appealing.” …

If Meister learned anything from these embarrassing public ordeals it was only the necessity of discretion. At this point, Anna Meister disappears from public record, never to be seen again.

Her birth name would not be mentioned in newsprint again until after her death nearly three decades later, the head of a powerful cult that had been operating in secret, known as the “Holy Ghost Society.”

By then she would only be known as “Jehovah Elimar Mirra Mitta”–“The Daughter of Jehovah, Mirra Mitta”–a name she had taken to her grave.

I’m in transit to Chicago and then South Bend today for Notre Dame’s “Higher Powers” fall conference, well-timed for the start of November and a month traditionally focused on remembrance of the dead and prayer for their souls. I think at least part of the problem with the occult, and a reason for prayer for Mirra Mitta and those like her, is the problem we have of confusing an awareness of the transcendent with being ourselves the cause of or pathway to transcendence.

(An endearing little moment in the airport, heard over the speaker at one of the gates: “As your unofficial sponsor of Halloween, JetBlue is now welcoming priority passengers including ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and zombies to board at this time.”)

‘You might be the source of your own pain’

Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, reflects in an unexpectedly beautiful way on the good life after she was literally hit by a bus:

Sin is like this in that one small lapse can cause great damage. The split second in which I did not see the bus resulted in the breaking of my body and the torment of physical and emotional pain—damage that will take months to heal. Likewise, even small decisions by those in positions of power to look the other way, to fail to see or heed, can result in a multiplicity of brokenness in the church body—brokenness that, like the fractures in my body, must be tended to with great care, time, and skill in order to prevent deformity and malformation from setting in.

Sin is like this in the way its consequences roll like a small snowball into a heaving avalanche. The moment in which I failed to see the bus rendered profound costs for many other people: the members of the medical teams serving in the ambulance crew, emergency room, and the trauma unit; the other patients sharing space and resources in an overcrowded hospital; the witnesses to my accident, one of whom, a fellow believer, connected with me through the increasingly small world of social media and blessed me with her prayers, but who needs prayers herself because of what she and her husband saw that morning; the family and friends whose lives are directly impacted by the care, concern, and service they offer now out of their love for me. Even when the original error seems small and insignificant, sin’s toll is infinite.

Sin is like this in that it’s terrifying to acknowledge that you might be the source of your own pain as well as the pain of others. Sin is like this in that it’s easy, when facing this truth, to become entangled by self-pity, regret, and a sense of helplessness.

And yet, the God of the universe doesn’t leave us alone in our own error. He offers help in the form of people made in his likeness, whether they be strangers who reflect the image of God by intervening out of compassion or brothers and sisters in Christ who serve as his hands and feet in our time of need.

God also intervenes through the person of Jesus Christ, who suffered on our behalf to remove our pain once and for all, not here on this old earth but in the new earth to come: a new earth where busy crosswalks will become streets of gold, where buses will be replaced by horse-drawn chariots, where medical personnel will make way for the Great Physician, and where every tear wrought by our own sin—and by those who have sinned against us—will be wiped away.

But to ignore our sin, to refuse to repent of it once it has been pointed out to us, is as disastrous as ignoring a massive bus bearing down on us.

What a gift she has to write in such a penetrating way after something so physically traumatic. I’ve had this excerpted for a long while sitting in my notes, and keep coming back to it.

Rowers on the Potomac

Often after work in Arlington, I’ll get one of the nearby Capital Bikeshare bikes and ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown. Recently I’ve been riding across the bridge near sunset, and a number of times I’ve been coming across just as what I presume are Georgetown rowers are rapidly making their way along the Potomac.

I stopped briefly on the bridge the other day to take this photo. On the left is a little speed boat with a coach and a bullhorn, and you can hear him hollering encouragement as they all speed along the waters.

That’s it. Just a nice routine I’ve found myself in, for however long it lasts.

Nearing Halloween in Georgetown

I’m catching up on reading and writing today, and sharing these scenes from various points over the past week in Georgetown. I’ll be at Notre Dame on Halloween, so I’ve been making it a point to enjoy the decorations in the neighborhood.

As the seasons change again, we’re reminded that we’re all getting older together. What are we doing with the time we have?

This living hand, now warm and capable…

Even distributions and new norms

Nellie Bowles reports on the unexpected impact of new technology, namely its unequal utilization across American communities and among the young:

It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.

This is already playing out. Throwback play-based preschools are trending in affluent neighborhoods — but Utah has been rolling out a state-funded online-only preschool, now serving around ten thousand children. Organizers announced the screen-based preschool effort will expand in 2019 with a federal grant to Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana.

Lower-income teens spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog. (This study counted each screen separately, so a child texting on a phone and watching TV for one hour counted as two hours of screens being used.) Two studies that look at race have found that white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.

“The future is already here,” said William Gibson, “it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I think what we’re seeing is that even as new technologies become “evenly distributed” across geography and demographics, norms and habits of use of that technology also change in response to the pervasive availability of those technologies.

‘This is surveillance’

Natasha Lomas reports on Tim Cook’s recent address in Brussels:

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has joined the chorus of voices warning that data itself is being weaponized against people and societies — arguing that the trade in digital data has exploded into a “data industrial complex”.

Cook did not namecheck the adtech elephants in the room: Google, Facebook and other background data brokers that profit from privacy-hostile business models. But his target was clear.

“Our own information — from the everyday to the deeply personal — is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” warned Cook. “These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold.

“Taken to the extreme this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm.”

“We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance,” he added. …

“For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values — including privacy. If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound. We can achieve both great artificial intelligence and great privacy standards. It is not only a possibility — it is a responsibility.” …

Cook said Apple is “in full support of a comprehensive, federal privacy law in the United States” — making the company’s clearest statement yet of support for robust domestic privacy laws…

Good for Tim Cook and Apple for continuing to lead on this issue. Apple’s position is an essentially conservative one, advocating restraint on the part of both government and private entities from overzealously compiling what are, in effect, dossiers designed to coerce or otherwise manipulate.

Apple may prove to be a better protector of our Fourth Amendment rights than many whom we’ve elected to government to defend those rights.

Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor announced this week that she is withdrawing from public life. At age 88, and as a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the first woman to serve on the high court, her public withdraw is well earned. In her statement this week, I think she showed how citizens should act in public life:

Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life. Since many people have asked about my current status and activities, I want to be open about these changes, and while I am still able, share some personal thoughts.

Not long after I retired from the Supreme Court twelve years ago, I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I had left to advance civic learning and engagement.

I feel so strongly about the topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities. It is through this shared understanding of who we are that we can follow the approaches that have served us best over time – working collaboratively together in communities and in government to solve problems, putting country and the common good above party and self-interest, and holding our key governmental institutions accountable. …

I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by dear friends and family. While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life. How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country. As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I hope that I have inspired young people about civic engagement and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers. My greatest thanks to our nation, to my family, to my former colleagues, and to all the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to engage with over the years.

God bless you all.

John Paul II Award for the New Evangelization

I’m at the Mayflower in Washington for tonight’s Catholic Information Center dinner for its annual “John Paul II Award for the New Evangelization”. First time attending this dinner, but very familiar with CIC and supportive of its service as a spiritual home for Catholics in the heart of Washington, DC.

In past year, CIC has hosted 195 events, served ~1,800+ persons in spiritual direction, heard ~7,000 confessions, and welcomed ~13,000 at daily mass.

The seventh annual dinner in honor of the John Paul II Award for the New Evangelization will be held on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC. Recipients of the John Paul II New Evangelization Award demonstrate an exemplary commitment to proclaiming Christ to the world.

This year, the CIC is proud to honor Sean Fieler, president of Equinox Partners, L.P. Though his personal and philanthropic efforts, Sean has championed human dignity and tirelessly promoted the Church’s evangelical mission as envisioned by Saint John Paul II.

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Sean Fieler is Chairman of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, is President of Equinox Partners, LP. Mr. Fieler graduated from Williams College in 1995 with a degree in Political Economy and was the 1994 recipient of the Branson Memorial Scholarship. He is the Chairman of the American Principles Project and a member of the board of Witherspoon Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Dominican Foundation, among others.

Our Leonine Forum fellows evenings take place at the Catholic Information Center, too. It’s a special place.

Obianuju Ekeocha at Georgetown

Attended Obianuju Ekeocha‘s talk at Georgetown tonight. Uju is one of best pro-life advocates in the world, and having followed her for a while it was great to hear her speak and meet her for the first time. I was on a conference call on my way to the talk and unfortunately missed the first 10-15 minutes, but recorded the rest. I think Georgetown Right to Life streamed or recorded the entire talk. Uju riffed on some of the themes of her book “Target Africa: Ideological Neo-colonialism of the Twenty-first Century” and spoke with the joy and warmth that should mark every advocate of life.

Tonight was also my first time in Gaston Hall, finished around 1901 I think. What an incredible environment. The whole play conveys some of the best things about any real university: What you think matters. What you say matters. How you live matters.

Obianuju Ekeocha (Uju), the founder and president of Culture of Life Africa, has dedicated her life to promoting the sanctity of life, blessings of motherhood, and right to family. The youngest of six children, Uju was born in southeast Nigeria. She earned her Master’s degree in biomedical science from the University of East London and her Bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Nigeria. She served as a medical laboratory scientist with the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, and in 2006, she moved to the United Kingdom to begin her work as a biomedical scientist in hematology.

Culture of Life Africa facilitates numerous pro-life conferences and March for Life rallies in Africa. This has been made possible through Uju’s close affiliation with African members of Parliament, United Nations delegates, ambassadors, and decision makers on pro-life and pro-family issues.


‘Science … our god’

Joan Desmond writes on P.D. James’s The Children of Men, which I hadn’t heard of before, about a world where humanity is dying out because it has lost its spirit:

At the start of this story, Theodore Faron, “Doctor of Philosophy, Fellow of Merton College in the University of Oxford, historian of the Victorian age, divorced, childless, solitary,” contemplates a human race approaching extinction.

Twenty-five years have passed since a child was born in the world and experts can’t explain the cause of this unprecedented tragedy.

“[M]any diseases … have been difficult to diagnose and cure,” Theo muses as he begins a new journal on his 50th birthday in the 2020s.

“Science… our god,” has always provided the key to the puzzle. …

A childless world poses another set of problems for the last generation of human beings, called the “Omegas.” They are generally self-absorbed and passive, with no particular reason for disciplining themselves for future responsibilities. Some have formed themselves into marauding tribes that can turn violent. “If from infancy you treat children as gods they are apt to act like devils,” says Theo.

He respects truth and posterity too much to engage in self-deceiving or destructive behavior. And he is brutally honest about his own flaws, including his “terror of taking responsibility for other people’s lives or happiness.”

But he has one claim to fame: he is the cousin of the “dictator and warden of England” — the egocentric ruler who oversees a nation too fragile and depressed to resist dictatorship.

Theo’s ties to the warden draw the attention of a small band of anti-government dissidents who seek to reform the warden’s policies, including the practice of euthanasia.

Among them is a Christian woman named, Julian. She invites Theo to join a thrilling mission that will have consequences for the entire human race. Likewise, their deep, unconditional bond transforms this brittle elitist into a man capable of genuine love and service for the common good.

The Children of Men is about a world in desperate need of renewal. It is also about one man venturing beyond the fortress of self-sufficiency.