Bats in the Belfry

Bats in the Belfry
Lent 34

“To his hundreds of friends and acquaintances in Newark, these puerile and senseless attacks on Hon. John W. Cassingham are akin to the vaporings of the fellow with a large flock of bats in his belfry.” It was in an Ohio newspaper dated in 1900 ACE that the phrase “bats in the belfry” came into being. Though sounding like something from gothic England, it was really in the middle of the United States that the phrase originated. It became an adjective for people with spiritual or religious zeal seven years later when Ambrose Bierce used it in his piece for the July issue of “Cosmopolitan Magazine”: “He was especially charmed with the phrase ‘bats in the belfry’, and would indubitably substitute it for ‘possessed of a devil’, the Scriptural diagnosis of insanity.”

Some believe the phrase has its origins in the life of the eighteenth century physician William Battie. A governor of Bethlem Hospital, also known as Bedlam, and attending physician at St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks [Lunatics], Dr Battie also wrote “A Treatise on Madness”. Born in Devon, England, the son of a vicar, Battie was the first to believe mental illness was an actual illness and advocated clean air, healthy living, and encouraging support from friends and family rather than the barbaric treatment given at the time which included beatings and crowded jails. Using the term “batty” to describe scatterbrained people, at the time thought to be suffering from mental problems, was not a result of Dr Battie but due to the scattered and hectic flight of bats themselves. Again, the use of the term as an adjective is American, appearing in Kleberg’s 1903 “Slang Fables from Afar” and the 1919 “Humoresque” in which Fannie Hurst asked: “Are you bats?”

Some claim the phrase “bats in the belfry” originated with the Victorian invention of a safety coffin topped by a bell. The inventor was supposedly named Batson and his device was to allow someone buried within to ring the bell, a safeguard against premature burial. The coffin became known as the Batson Belfry. It makes for a very interesting story but there is no historical proof of the Batson Belfry. Another claim mentions George Bateson who supposedly, in 1852, invented the Bateson Life Revival Device for which he was reputed to have been given an O.B.E. by Queen Victoria. The story does appear in Michael Crichton’s novel “The Great Train Robbery” but it is a work of fiction, not a historical document. The truth is that there is no evidence of this invention and Queen Victoria died sixteen years before the Order of the British Empire or O.B.E. was inaugurated.

Use of the phrase continues today and is often applied to those experiencing the sacred in their lives. Can one overdo one’s faith? The short answer would be a definite yes. The call this past weekend for “lone wolves” to kill Americans is testament to that. The use of the term “lone wolf” is interesting. A lone wolf is one who has been separated from the wolf pack. Social animals that mate for life, a wolf pack will contain more than one male, contrary to some belief. Wolves are social animals with less than barbaric behavior despite their wild reputation. This is not to say that they cannot be deadly. They can but they do with purpose and for survival, not because they are bloodthirsty creatures.

A wolf becomes ostracized from the pack when he fails to comply in accordance with the pack’s best interests. A lone wolf has a very hard life since it is the combined efforts of the pack that allows them to hunt and obtain their needed food. Their lack of a belligerent, bloodthirsty nature defies the ability for one wolf to successfully hunt the prey that a pack can. The lone wolf has a hard life and seldom lives to the life expectancy of those within the pack. The number of young people swayed into joining militant terrorists groups often characterize themselves as lone wolves. They fail to understand that they, like the solitary wolf, are consigning themselves to a hard and brief lifespan.

“Every time I learn this, the truer it gets. We can only live our lives looking ahead, and we can only understand them looking back.” These are the words of a character in the novel “Jabbok”, written by Kee Sloan. Jabbok is the story of an eight-year-old boy growing up in rural Mississippi near the Mississippi River. He encounters a former preacher and ex-convict and their friendship is the crux of the novel. The novel illustrates the living and the importance of finding the sacred in living, something we all need to do regardless of our age, gender, race, culture, or location, even whether we are part of a pack or all by ourselves.

The purpose of faith is to enhance life. Finding the sacred in the every day is not done by annihilating others or through the destruction of historical artifacts. Step by step we build the path on which we travel. It is the lone wolf who does NOT follow orders, who is antisocial and anti-mankind. The lone wolf becomes solitary by doing that which harms, not by following orders.

Like humans, bats are mammals and they are the only mammals capable of flight, on their own power. Their association with mythology transcends both time and cultures. They are, however, considered heraldic symbols by some countries and military. Bats live both communally and in solitary and appear in almost every continent except Antarctica and in areas around the Artic Circle. Their erratic behavior is said to be the result of their echolocation hearing abilities and their poor vision. Nocturnal by nature, most bats are insectivores although two species of bats will even feed on their own kind.

Living one’s faith should improve one’s walk through life. The character in Sloan’s novel “Jabbok” makes an interesting point, one which was echoed in our discussion yesterday. It truly is the journey and not the destination that gives meaning to our lives, which enables us to recognize the sacred of each step. “Jabbok” is Kee Sloan’s first novel but like the title of his book, it is not his first experience with wrestling with one’s faith.

The Jabbok River is a tributary of the Jordan River. The etymology of the name is somewhat dubious but it comes from words meaning either “to empty” or as onomatopoeia, the use of a word which imitates natural sounds. In this case “Jabbok” might be a sound imitating the noise of water as it flowed over pebbles. Regardless of where its name came from, the Jabbok flowed through the mountains of Gilead and created two regions. It formed a natural boundary and is the place where the Biblical character Jacob struggled with an angel.

We all struggle with life. Every day poses new challenges and we must rise to meet them, sometimes not being very successful. We should not seek out to live on our own, disavowing the help and knowledge of our past and our neighbors. Our search for the sacred, for the truths we need to learn does not make us “batty” nor are the answers only found in the manmade belfries of fame and materialism. Those calling on lone wolves to destroy and assassinate would better serve their faith by dedicating their resources to helping their fellow man rather than using others to feed their own greed and need for notoriety.

The sacred is not found in living within a cocoon or by killing others, either in actuality or metaphorically. It is in following the steps of our living and looking for new ways to portray that which we believe. Kee Sloan is not the typical first-time novelist, being a bishop in the Episcopal Church, leading a vibrant diocese known as the Diocese of Alabama. His search for the sacred has most recently led him to the building of Bethany Village at the diocesan church conference and camp center known as Camp McDowell. Camp McDowell sits at the entrance to the Bankhead National Forest and encompasses almost twelve hundred acres of nature, streams, hills, and valleys. Bethany Village will contain handicapped accessible cabins for the inclusion of all God’s children as well as a farm in which campers and visiting school children can learn and connect with creation and their living habitat.

Kee Sloan encourages the sacred in all one does. “Let’s hold fast to that which is good and, at the same time, let us find more and more new ways to sing a new song, a song that invites others to sing along, especially those who are not already in our choir; for those who live in despair, a song of hope; for those who feel lost, a song of belonging; for a world that is broken and hurting, a song of joy and love.”


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