The hermit in the forest

My taste in books took shape pretty early in my life. The Oz books were probably the first complete series I owned, followed by the Chronicles of Narnia. I first tackled The Lord of the Rings when I was around ten, and began reading books about Star Trek around the same time–books about the show, and novelizations of the animated series, as this was after the show originally aired and before its first movie came to the big screen.

Then there were the books influenced by Welsh mythology: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, a wonderful series of children’s books that should be more widely known; and the Mabinogion Quartet of Evangeline Walton and the Deryni Chronicles of Katherine Kurtz, which were not children’s books but that never stopped me. And with them, perhaps before I read LOTR, even, the stories of King Arthur.

There were always versions of the Matter of Britain in print and available. I believe I had a copy of Sidney Lanier’s retelling that had belonged to my sister, eleven years older than me. I read several but not all of Howard Pyle’s retellings, owned by my neighborhood library; I was more influenced by Pyle’s Robin Hood than by his Round Table. (Pyle introduced words like “marry!” as an oath and “victuals” into many a young reader’s vocabulary.) I read The Sword in the Stone as a separate book but got nowhere with the rest of The Once and Future King. And I was in my early teens when The Mists of Avalon dropped into my life, as an anvil drops on the head of a wiley coyote.

Morgaine and the priestesses of Avalon swirled together with The Spiral Dance and other books about paganism and Goddess religion made an intoxicating brew that I quaffed for many years. (I think I learned the word “quaff” from Howard Pyle, too.) And I continued to sample various retellings of the Arthurian legends, though I wasn’t enthralled by many of them; Lawhead’s Pendragon books, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, and T.A. Barron’s Lost Years of Merlin all left me unenthused.

Then I came across some nonfiction books about the Mabinogion and the early Arthurian legends by a couple of British writers named John and Caitlin Matthews. Their work unfolded magical and spiritual meanings out of the Welsh myths and legends, as others had done for the myths of Greece and Rome, and they have continued to do so for over thirty years. Their books drew me as strongly and steadily as the stories themselves had, and they led me to Ross Nichols and The Book of Druidry.

I confess that I never read all the way through Nichols’ book. It’s an intimidating melange of archaeology, poetry, speculation, what we now call UPG couched in 19th-century language. It is perhaps more akin to the work of Sir James Fraser and Margaret Murray or to Gerald Gardner writing about the witchcraft he was discovering and inventing than to what is now taught and practiced by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids that Nichols founded and his protege, Philip Carr-Gomm, revived.

Carr-Gomm was a stringy teenager when he met Ross Nichols and began to learn druidry from him. He was in his thirties when he became the Chosen Chief of OBOD and began, with the help of the Matthewses and other contributors, to put together a correspondence course that would soon be used by people around the world. Today OBOD is the largest druid organization in the world and Carr-Gomm is stepping down as Chosen Chief, handing the office over to a woman.

I remember that back in 1990 or thereabouts, when I was just discovering that there were people who called themselves druids (not witches or pagans) and that they found meaning in stories that had possessed me for most of my reading life (which was most of my total life), I wanted to join OBOD and take their correpondence course. My ex, or husband or fiance as he may have been at the time, was also interested (he was always interested in my spiritual pursuits… but that’s another post). The course just wasn’t affordable, even for one of us; we were pretty broke for much of our marriage, as it happens. I let it go and for a couple of years we experimented with a DIY version of pagan practice that was something of a fusion of witchcraft and druidry (and that, too, is another post).

Thirty years later, I am single, solitary, and not in terrible shape, financially, although I’ll never be rich or win any prizes for money management. More importantly, other than my bird, I have no one to please but myself–and my gods. And the god with whom I have been most deeply involved for the past year, the antlered one whom I know only as the Forest God, has led me back to the forest, to druidry.

I joined OBOD earlier this year by signing up for the correspondence course. I’ve received two installments so far. I am slowly reshaping my shrine, my altar, and my daily practice into something I can call “druidic”. And it’s not easy–not because the OBOD material is difficult, not because I don’t want this, but because I have wanted it for so long, and now I have to let go of so many things that were once good in order to move forward and welcome this new thing. I love so many things about Anglican Christianity, and the Christian tradition has wisdom I think pagan traditions desperately need, but I cannot go back to just being a Christian. I have loved Antinous dearly and the initiation he gave me moved down to the deepest levels of my being, but my relationship with the god has changed; it feels like he himself wishes me well but is telling me to move on.

What strikes me most when I think about my early reading, and especially about the Arthurian legends, was that as a child, I didn’t want to be a queen or a damsel or even an enchantress. I wanted to be a knight, with a sword and shield, or one of Robin Hood’s band, dressed in green and armed with a bow. Or, even more than that, I wanted to be the wise old hermit in the forest, the one who always had provisions and wisdom to offer the knight errant or the lost damsel, along with a safe place to sleep. Druidry is my path, I think, I hope, to becoming that wise hermit, a sort of pagan Julian of Norwich, my cell open to nature, the gods, and wandering travellers.

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Image by silviarita from Pixabay

 

I was not paid for any product endorsements here

My ex used to say that Easter Sunday was the cast party for Holy Week. Once you have come through the evening Eucharist of Maundy Thursday, a service of around two and a half hours on Good Friday that includes multiple sermons and, excuse my language, a fuck-ton of chanting, and then the darkness, fire, more chanting, water-throwing, multiple readings, costume changes, and THE GLORIA WITH ALL STOPS OUT of the Easter Vigil, even the average person is kind of tired by Sunday morning. Those of us who sang or served as acolytes during the marathon are as punch-drunk as the loser in a boxing match, and our singing voices are burnt out. (My ex also said that you hire brass players for Easter morning to cover up how tired the choir will sound.)

Of course I had none of that this year, not even as a person in the pews. I couldn’t help but be moved, even shocked by images of Pope Francis in an empty St. Peter’s Square, carrying out the pageantry as best he could with a skeleton crew of acolytes. We’re all doing the best we can right now, with our spiritual practices, with our jobs, with our necessary isolation. One of my Jewish friends and her wife celebrated their Passover Seder with friends over Zoom and proclaimed, “Next year in person!”

I ventured forth this afternoon with the intention of getting one last purchase of Easter chocolate. I came home with some Cadbury Mini-Eggs, two Lindt milk chocolate bunnies, and two other purchases I hadn’t planned on:

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I took this picture, don’t judge me

Happy Easter, happy springtime, happy life-going-on. Bring home something that flowers.

Vigil

Today is Maundy Thursday, and I miss the liturgy I cannot attend tonight, in the midst of quarantine. It is one of the most dramatic liturgies of the whole year. The readings and psalms of the Eucharist revolve around the institution of the Eucharist, that is, the Last Supper when Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples and told them to break bread and drink wine together in remembrance of him.

After which he was arrested by the Temple police and interrogated by the priestly authorities, and turned over to the Romans as a terrorist the following morning.

All four of the Gospels tell slightly different accounts of Jesus’ Passion, but as is usually the case, Mark, Matthew, and Luke are in general agreement, while John has a completely different take. John depicts Jesus striding forth into the torchlight of a troop of armed soldiers to confront Judas, practically holding out his hands for the cuffs. But the other three Gospels say that after the Passover meal, Jesus requested some private time, accompanied by his three closest friends, Peter, James, and John, and holed up in a garden called Gethsemane to pray and come very, very close to backing out.

It’s clear that Jesus came to Jerusalem intending to provoke a confrontation. It’s clear that he expected that confrontation to end in some way with his own death. Now that he’s on the brink of that final commitment, he is mortally, humanly afraid. And he is deeply disappointed that his friends, instead of praying with him and bearing witness to him, fall asleep while he prays.

In my churches’ tradition, this vigil in the garden is acted out with great ceremony. A piece of consecrated Bread is kept aside from the Eucharist and wrapped up, together with some of the wine. It is carried in procession, with an ancient plainsong hymn, to a side chapel decorated like a garden, where it will be set up in a position of honor and left overnight.

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Maundy Thursday 2013, Grace & St. Peter’s Church

Once the Bread and Wine have been removed, a terrible and shocking thing happens. All of the decorations and furnishings of the altar, the chancel, the most honored place in the church building, are removed. The priest and the acolytes strip down to their cassocks and begin to carry out the books, the candlesticks, the censer. The flowers, the frontal, the fair linens are taken off the altar, revealing the bare stone. Even the rugs are rolled up and the kneeling cushions taken away. Most shocking of all, the great hanging lamp which reminds visitors of the sacramental presence of Christ is lowered from the vault and put out, not to be rekindled till the Easter Vigil. While this takes place, Psalm 22 is recited or sung: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Walking out of the bare, dimly lit chancel of a church after singing that psalm over and over is, indeed, like walking away from a naked body lying on the ground, vulnerable and helpless. Walking into the Chapel of Repose, where the sacramental body of Christ is kept, where candles are still burning and the air smells of incense and flowers, is a blessed relief, a reminder that the story is not over yet.

The ancient tradition of the Church is that we do not leave Jesus alone in the garden. His closest friends let him down, but his living friends and followers are going to make up for that. Someone must be in the chapel all night, watching and praying. When I was a child, we did in fact leave the church doors unlocked all night and people could come and go. There was usually a sign-up sheet and people would write their names in for an hour or two. Nowadays few if any churches do this, for security reasons; people may remain to pray on Maundy Thursday or come in early on Good Friday, but no one remains through the night.

I don’t remember exactly how we decided on this, but one year in my early twenties, I and two friends at my church decided that we would stay and keep vigil all night. We could take turns easily enough; there would always be at least one person in the chapel while another could come or go and the third could kip on the couch in the priest’s office, which was cold but otherwise comfy.

It was quite cold in the church that night; I wore a striped shawl that had been my mother’s, handmade in Peru. I spent much of that night sitting cross-legged on the chapel floor, the shawl forming a small tent around me, reading the Revelations of Julian of Norwich and finally finishing the text, which I had been grappling with for a couple years, and praying, deeply. In the silence, in the cold, with the presence of Walt or Tim beside me, the rest of the church dim. I think that our rector came over once in the wee hours to make sure we were all right, and then again early in the morning, but after it got light, to relieve us. Tim and I were both still in the choir at that time, and Walt was our head acolyte, so instead of going home to sleep all day after our vigil, we all suited up for the Good Friday liturgy at noon.

It was, until my initiation with Antinous, perhaps the profoundest spiritual experience I had had. To be alone with my god, with two dear friends who were as committed as I was, and with the words of a spiritual teacher who has never left me, beloved Julian of Norwich. I was young and healthy and possessed of a singleness of heart that I lost somewhere along the way, and I entered into something vast and loving.

I hope that this time next year, churches will be open again, the virus will be a memory, and I will attend this evening’s liturgy and stay afterward, in the garden, to watch and pray as long as I can stay awake.

All glory, laud, and honor

Today is Palm Sunday. While I have not actively observed Lent in some while, I am acutely aware that today churches are empty because of the coronavirus, when they should be carrying out one of the most dramatic liturgies of the year. (The churches that were full today, in defiance of public health orders, are most likely those who don’t follow the liturgical year very closely, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.)

I have said for years, only slightly in jest, that everything I need to know about magic I learned in church. You want to achieve an altered state of consciousness? I highly recommend putting on special clothes and walking in a figure-eight, chanting repetitively, while someone proceeds you with a pot of hot coals that is streaming frankincense smoke. (Just keep a reasonable distance between yourself and overenthusiastic pot-swingers.) Before I read of witches re-enacting ritual combats or plunging the athame into the chalice, I was chanting crowd responses in dramatic singings of Jesus’ Passion from the Gospels and watching the priest plunge the lighted Paschal candle three times into the fresh waters of the baptismal font.

The church I wound up attending for between 20 and 25 years was a High Episcopal church, that is, one whose liturgy resembled the Roman Catholic church’s rather than the services of our Methodist cousins. We had weekly communion in a time when that was still rare and called it Mass. We observed Holy Week and Easter as well as Christmastime with elaborate special liturgies. We called our priest “Father” plus his last name and he wore silk damask chasubles at the altar. In Lent we had Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with the choir on Wednesday nights, and just Stations on Saturday mornings, attended by the altar guild ladies and a handful of kids, including me. When he retired and we got a new priest, around the time I was seventeen, new priest was even more Catholic and elaborated the liturgy still more, which was fine with me because I conceived a mad crush on him pretty much the first time I laid eyes on him.

When I walk into a holy space, I expect to see rich colors and lighted candles, to smell beeswax and incense, to hear chanting and heightened language, to walk in processions and make sacred gestures. I expect to kneel, stand, or sit at certain times. (Alas, when I go to church nowadays, I sit through most of it.) Palm Sunday at my childhood church got every person in the pews who could walk processing round the church singing, waving the long fronds of palm trees that would be treasured at home for a year afterward, then returned to the church and burnt to become the ashes of a new Ash Wednesday. A few years ago, I had the thrill of starting our Palm Sunday liturgy at another Episcopal church out in a city park and processing through the streets to the church, singing and waving our palms.

My childhood church was a small parish, a small physical plant, and not particularly rich. My Aunt Margaret gave me money for the collection plate, and we held parish dinners maybe six times a year, crab cakes, fried chicken, spaghetti, cooked and served by parishioners and attended by much of the neighborhood, to raise funds. Yet we put on a pretty good show for the church’s wheel of the year, with our silk vestments and beeswax candles, frankincense and myrrh and holy water. If you want to lure me into your religion, you have to do at least that well.

A Reader’s Digest Condensed Book

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, or even just for the last three days, you have probably figured out that I’ve had an intense interest in religion from a very early age. I was interested in my religion, my culture’s religion, the Anglican Christianity of the Episcopal Church, but also in the religions of the past, embodied in the myths of Greece and Rome, Egypt, the Norse lands, and the Celtic peoples, and in other living religions of the present, Judaism and Hinduism in particular. At the same time, I was a willing participant in church-going as a child and a member of my church’s small volunteer choir.

I discovered an interest in one particular kind of religion fairly early on. My grandmother belonged to a “Golden Age Club”, a city-sponsored social group for elderly people that met at the neighborhood recreation center. Besides their weekly meetings (I’m still not sure what they did there), they went to dances, took bus trips, played bingo with the residents of the local nursing home, had lunch after meetings, and held fundraisers where they sold handicrafts, knick-knacks, candies and baked goods, and used books.

I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a pile of books for sale in my entire life, not since I was able to walk. Amongst the books donated for sale was a peculiar kind of book: the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. In one fat volume, you might have three or four books, both novels and nonfiction, carefully “condensed”, that is, abridged for faster, easier reading. I acquired a bunch of these books, probably for something like ten cents apiece. I remember one volume had selections from James Michener’s Hawaii; another had an abridgment of Coretta Scott King’s memoir, my first introduction to ideas of racism, social injustice, and protest. There was a funny story, the name of which I had forgotten, about a large family whose car broke down by the side of the road, and rather than getting the car going again, they inadvertently created a whole town around it. I do remember that the narrator said of the family babysitter, a clever and resourceful young woman, that she “warn’t really smart, she just read a lot of books.” 1259908657.0.m

But the condensed book that made the most impression on me was a novel called In This House of Brede. I’ve blogged more than once about discovering this story at the age of nine or ten, reading the abridged version, then finding the complete novel in (where else) my neighborhood library and reading it over and over. It is the story of an English woman, Philippa Talbot, who seems to have it all. A widow, she has risen to a high position in government, unusual for a woman in the 1950s. She has a quiet past, an excellent salary, and a very quiet affair with a coworker that is emotionally satisfying. And as the novel begins, she leaves it all behind at the age of forty to become a cloistered Benedictine nun.

It was not that real-life nuns figured anywhere in my childhood. But I was drawn into this book, which created a whole world as rich and detailed, unusual and enchanting as any fantasy novel’s otherworld, a world of sacred hours, special clothing, exotic rituals, bits of Latin. It was also a world populated almost entirely by women, and dominated by women. A few men pass through the novel’s pages: the retiring priest who says Mass for the nuns and hears their confessions; a charismatic sculptor engaged to redecorate the chapel; Philippa’s former supervisor, the only friend who has any grasp of her monastic vocation. But they are relatively unimportant compared to the parade of female characters, the nuns and sisters with their differing personalities, interests, talents, and faults. There are plenty of faults on display, including Philippa’s wounded past and a too-passionate friendship between an older and a younger nun, but that makes the story only more engaging.

I took away two things from this book. One was the Benedictine vision of a community ordered around prayer, liturgy, silence, and creative work, living an undramatic and sustainable spiritual life. The other was the portrayal of women who were as passionate about religion, about God, as I found myself to be, who were flawed, ordinary, sometimes outright sinful, but psychologically healthy. I have come across few novels about nuns besides this one that do not depict religious faith and fervor as some kind of pathology, or religion itself as a kind of scam.

I think my inner monastic was born the first time I read of Philippa Talbot and her life as a Benedictine of Brede Abbey, and she is still very alive and healthy in my psyche, waiting for her chance to be abbess of my life.

Your friendly neighborhood library branch

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One of the great good fortunes of my childhood was living about two blocks away from the neighborhood library, a branch of the same system I work for now. In those days when free-range children were the norm, I could go to the library on my own, spend hours there reading and chatting up the librarians, then come home in time for dinner, carrying my books on my head because they were heavy and bulky for my arms. (My mother used to call the circulation desk and tell them to send me home, or I would just have stayed till closing, I guess.)

I was also fortunate to have two librarians, one for the children’s collection and one for the adult, who were patient and encouraging and befriended me. I was allowed to have an adult library card at the age of thirteen, which meant I could check out as many books from the adult collection as I liked. I read a lot of nonfiction from the adult side–mythology, comparative religion, archaeology, anything about the ancient world and the Middle Ages.

I was thirteen the day Mrs. H., the adult librarian, handed me a thin trade paperback book with some variation of the good librarian’s mantra, “I know what you like and I think you’ll like this.” It was a red book with an abstract design in thin gold lines on the cover, and the title was The Spiral Dance.

Over forty years later, I still look back on my first encounter with that book as a life-changing moment. The main thing that I took away from it, I think, was that people were still worshipping the gods–the same gods I had been reading stories about for years, the same gods worshiped by people in ancient Greece and Egypt and Rome. Of course at the time I accepted the origin story of witchcraft being the secret tradition that went back to the Stone Age and so forth, but my reaction to reading the book was not to craft spells and hold full moon rituals, but to write poetry for and about the gods.

The Spiral Dance also made a deep imprint on me in introducing me to what became the Reclaiming tradition of witchcraft, with its intertwining of ecofeminist politics, witchcraft, expressive arts, and an insistence that every person can be their own spiritual authority, every person is capable of magic to some degree. It shaped my idea of what “witchcraft” as a contemporary religious movement is, so that my default for the Craft is Reclaiming, and the Faery or Feri Craft taught by Victor and Cora Anderson that lies behind it, rather than British Traditional Wicca or traditional/sabbatic witchcraft.

I read a lot of the other feminist spirituality, Goddess-oriented books of that era, too. Starhawk pointed me to Merlin Stone and When God Was A Woman and Margaret Murray on the witch-cult and, of course, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Goddess spirituality was a phase I went through, somewhat uncomfortably, but what stayed with me was the knowledge that people were worshiping the old gods and making magic and that there were alternatives to the Church, to Jesus–maybe even to everything.

Jesus and Prometheus and other stories

I had two Bibles as a child, that is, Children’s Bibles, selected stories from the Old and New Testaments with illustrations. I remember one of them as having a mostly white cover and a lot of white space on the pages, with simple, cheerful drawings that looked like they were done in crayon by a very clever child. I think that Bible contained mostly nice stories about Jesus retold in simple language.

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The other Bible I remember was for older, more sophisticated readers, with more nearly “Biblical” language, if I’m remembering correctly. There was little white space; every page had both text and pictures, and the illustrations were rather like 19th-century paintings of Bible scenes, or of Cecil B. DeMille Bible movies. It had judicious selections from the whole of the Old Testament, even the portions that aren’t stories, such as the Psalms and the prophets. I don’t remember, however, whether it had selections from the individual Gospels, or just a Story of Jesus, with a few bits of Paul’s letters and Revelations for completeness.

What I do remember vividly were the paintings of Jesus. Jesus, quite frankly, would not have been out of place in an episode of Xena or Hercules. He was depicted as a Hollywood-handsome blond with intensely blue eyes, having fairly long hair and a short beard. In the large illustration of his baptism by John, he was standing thigh-deep in the water, bare to the waist with his white robe gathered around his loins (to use the Biblical expression), and displaying a fairly impressive set of abs. Yes, I am saying that to a girl of eight or ten years old, Jesus in her “children’s Bible” was a hottie. (And then came the miniseries of Jesus of Nazareth and the hottie Jesus played by a skinny Welshman with intense, dazzling blue-green eyes.)

provensenilloThere was another book that came into my hands around the same time, although it may have come from the library rather than being something bought for me. It was a collection of myths and legends retold, and I believe that it was either The Iliad & the Odyssey adapted by Jane Werner or else The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, both of which were illustrated by Martin and Alice Provensen. Unlike the better-known retellings by Edgar and Ingrid D’Aulaire, the Provensen books are no longer in print, but used copies can be found on Amazon.

It was in this book that I came across the story of Prometheus, who brought man a gift the gods had not intended to give him and was punished in a cruel and grisly way. As you probably know, Prometheus was bound to a great rock, and every day a bird, in some versions an eagle, but in others a vulture, came and ate out his liver, causing him great pain. But Prometheus, being an immortal Titan, did not die of this, but instead grew back his liver every night, only to face the same attack the next day.

I have a distinct memory of lying in bed as a fairly small child, looking toward my closet in the dark, and fearing that a vulture might come out of the closet and eat my liver. I am quite sure that I didn’t know where my liver was in my body, or what kind of bird a vulture is. But I remember that something about the combination of the story and the illustrations frightened me deeply. Unlike the D’Aulaire’s books, unlike my children’s Bibles, I did not read that book a second time.

Pauline-Baynes-Mr-TumnusMy children’s Bibles, the Bible readings in church, and the many books of mythology I read as a child all offered me stories. Not all of those stories were comforting and safe, like the Sunday school stories of Jesus healing people and welcoming little children and telling curious stories about lost sheep and wayward sons. I’m not sure that my mind made a distinction between the stories of Jesus and the stories of Prometheus, or Athena punishing Arachne, or Odin binding Loki, as true vs. false. The Episcopal Church did not then insist on a literal understanding of the Bible any more than it does now, and nobody was telling me that Jesus was real but Prometheus wasn’t. What the Church seemed to be telling me was to pay attention to stories, and to language, to how stories are told, and whether they are true to our experience, whether they provide some kind of wisdom. I learned that lesson, learned to tell stories, and have continued to pay attention to them ever since.

A prayer book and a hymnal

The Church of the Advent, Baltimore

My first memory of anything religious is singing in the choir of a Lutheran church. I was six or seven years old at the time, one year younger than the usual minimum age for choir singers. I conclude from this that I had two skills that were needed: The ability to sing on pitch, and the ability to read the words of the hymns better than most children my age.

I don’t remember any men or boys in this choir, and I don’t think we sang every Sunday. But there was singing and I wanted to be involved with that, more than I wanted to be in the Sunday school classes we must have had. I have a memory of practicing hymns around the piano and another memory of putting on some kind of vestments, including a little red cap, and walking in two lines out into the sunshine and wind, across a yard, into the church, to sing a couple of hymns during the service.

When I was seven, my sister got married; she was eighteen and eager to be away from our mother and in charge of her own life. After that I didn’t go to the Lutheran church any more because my sister wasn’t around to take me. My mother felt it was important that her children go to church, but not important enough to go to church herself. Her Sunday mornings were for recovering from her late-night Saturday outings with my dad.

A couple of years passed before my mother decreed that I would start going to an Episcopal church. It was just one block away from us, two streets to cross, but I was not allowed to go unescorted. An elderly lady whose name I am sorry to have forgotten knocked at the door on Sunday mornings and walked with me to the back door of the church, which led into the small parish hall. I’m not sure now why my mother was so fussy about this, as I spent plenty of time on weekends and in the summer ranging around the neighborhood without any adults holding my hand. In any case I was still walking to church with our neighbor lady almost up to my teens.

Another couple of years passed, I think, before I auditioned for the choir of my new church and was accepted. By the time I was nine or ten, I had in my hands two of the most important influences on my spiritual life: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopal Hymnal 1940.