I Love You With All My…Kidneys?

Prometheus, whose liver was gnawed by an eagle, in “Prometheus Bound” by Sir Peter Paul Rubens. The original painting is at Philly’s Museum of Art.

Nowadays, we think of our hearts as the center of our being.

“I love you with all my heart!”

“I give my heart to you!”

“I had a change of heart.”

“We need a heart-to-heart talk.”

“Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve!”

The Egyptians believed that the heart was the source of the soul and of memory, emotions, and personality. They thought that the heart would be weighed during judgement after death. So they preserved the heart during mummification but threw the brain away.

Syrians and the Arabs viewed the liver as the center of inner life. But in Hebrew tradition, kidneys were considered to be the most important internal organs along with the heart. In the Old Testament, the kidneys were associated with the most inner stirrings of emotional life. Kidneys were also viewed as the seat of the secret thoughts of the human; they are used as an omen metaphor, as a metaphor for moral discernment, for reflection and inspiration. There is also reference to the kidneys as the site of divine punishment for misdemeanors, particularly in the book of Job (whose suffering and ailments are legendary). In the first vernacular versions of the Bible in English, the translators elected to use the term “reins” instead of kidneys in differentiating the metaphoric uses of human kidneys from that of their mention as anatomic organs of sacrificial animals burned at the altar. In the Old Testament, the kidneys thus are primarily used as metaphor for the core of the person, for the area of greatest vulnerability.

The UK’s first donor kidney transplant was performed on October 30 at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Britain’s first kidney transplant was performed by Sir Michael Woodruff. As with the world’s first kidney transplant, the operation takes place between identical twins, reducing the chances of rejection.

Hannukah in August?

Statue of Moses by Michelangelo, in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. The relics of the Maccabees were kept in this same church.

The veneration of the Maccabean martyrs is unique in the Judeo-Christian tradition: they are the only martyrs commemorated by Jews and Christians alike. The seventh chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees (in the Old Testament) tells the story of seven faithful Jewish brothers who maintained their fidelity to the Law of God in the face of persecution during the tyranny of Antiochus IV in the second century B.C. The New Testament book of Hebrews commends these martyrs of Maccabees as exemplars of living faith (Heb 11:35).

These seven Jewish brothers and their mother were arrested and ordered to eat the un-kosher flesh of a pig. The horrific murder of these Maccabean martyrs was so terrible and gruesome that we derived an English word from it—-macabre.

The festival of Hanukkah in December celebrates the revolt led by the Maccabees against the Syrian emperor Antiochus IV. Christians have long commemorated the Maccabees on August 1 and the relics of the 7 Maccabee brothers, with their mother and teacher were long kept in the Church of St. Peter’s Chains (Rome). The relics were sent to Germany to be housed in a church in Cologne (the same city where the relics of the Magi are kept); evidently the Maccabean relics had been kept in Cologne before they had been sent to Rome.

By keeping the Maccabean relics and the statue of Moses in the Church of St. Peter’s Chains, we can see the connection between the Law of Moses and those Maccabean martyrs who died for refusing to abandon that Law. Even more, their memory is joined with the imprisonment and eventual martyrdom of the Apostle Peter. (We know that the festival of Hanukkah was still fairly new in the first century AD but that Jesus celebrated it with the apostles in John 10:22-23.)

You can find a very interesting article (in German!) here about the relics of the Maccabees that includes close-up photos of the golden reliquary which contains their bones. (If you open the page using Chrome, it will offer to translate the page for you–I want to thank my daughter Rebekah for teaching me that trick!)

The reliquary itself is fascinating. It was apparently made in 1500; it is a wooden box in the form of a church, covered with gilded copper plates. The walls of the shrine and top portions are composed of 40 scenes in which the story of the Maccabee brothers and their mother is placed in parallel with the suffering of Christ and His mother Mary. One of the most obvious examples is the contrast of the flagellation of the Maccabee brothers and the flagellation of Jesus. On the front of the shrine is the Coronation of Mary and the Coronation of the Maccabees, while on the back the Ascension of Christ is depicted with the heavenly glorification of the Maccabees.

The shrine for the Maccabees’ relics in St. Andrew’s Church (Cologne, Germany).

Dreams and Visions of the Night

“Piers Plowman,” considered by many to be one of the greatest works of medieval English literature, tells the story of a series of dreams experienced by Piers (Peter) the Plowman. This image is the only known depiction of Piers and shows him dreaming; the manuscript comes from the late 1300s and belongs to Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Dreams and visions while sleeping have long fascinated us. Modern psychologists use dreams to help us unlock the mysteries of our inner emotional life: what frightens us, what do we yearn for, how do we see ourselves in relation to those around us, who is important to us and why. To ancient and medieval people, dreams were glimpses into the future and ways to travel far without leaving the comfort of our beds.

In Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, Marina Warner tells us that “Oneiromancy, or divination through dreams, was a practice throughout the ancient world and cultivated in Egypt: Joseph interprets dreams in both the Old Testament (Genesis 40-41) and the Koran (Sura 12).” Many features of dreams–suddenness and vividness, fragmentation, episodic structures, displacements in time and space, instability of bodies–are common throughout fairy tales and legends of all people.

In stories such as the Arabian Nights, fairy tales, or Piers Plowman, dreams can reveal something true that is happening now or is about to happen. Dream experiences can actually take place and dreamers can awake with a new ring or some token that convinces them that the dream experience actually happened.

The interaction and interrelationship of reality and dreams is explored in modern films as well as legends or tales. Marina Warner suggests that both The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) depict one dream world inside another “until the notion of verifiable reality disappears into an abyss of multiple reflections.”

We sing with children, “Row, row, row your boat… life is but a dream,” but dreams can illuminate aspects of our lives that would remain otherwise dark, unexplored, unacknowledged–and therefore all the more powerful over us. I know that if I focus on the emotional content of my dreams — rather than the surface elements that are not always recognizable — that I can appreciate and come to grips with something my sleeping mind is struggling to grapple with. By dreaming and by acknowledging our dreams we can be free of those dark forces and choose our own paths forward.

NOTE: I just had a great conversation about writing with Rachel Hardcastle on her podcast. See it here.