Death and the Absurdity of Heaven

image02I remember, as an undergraduate, reading Spinoza for the first time. I came across the sentence, “The free man thinks of nothing less than death.” Spinoza meant, of course, that a free man never thinks about death.

But I managed to read the sentence in the opposite way. I took the phrase “nothing less” in the way you might say, “I want nothing less than the best cheesecake in the state.” I thought Spinoza was saying that the free man demanded the very best to think about. Death, obviously, tops that list.

I took it for granted that everyone thinks about death almost all of the time. On becoming a Catholic in my adulthood, I was excited by the prospect of joining the morbid parade of suffering souls trudging stolidly toward the grave, fingering our rosaries and muttering under our breath about the veil of tears.

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Back off, Man, I’m a Scientist

bill_murrayMy friend in graduate school used to groan as the holidays approached. His father was a surgeon whose every dinner table pronouncement about medicine was taken as authoritative. His sister was a lawyer, and her proclamations about whatever legal conflicts happened to be in the news were likewise greeted with unquestioning acceptance.

My friend lamented that our impending PhDs in political science garnered no such deference. Your uncle holds forth on the need to start a third political party, and is not dissuaded when you explain that America’s system of plurality elections and congressional districting is mathematically geared toward sustaining only two parties. Your brother, the avid talk-radio listener, exclaims that voters are going to punish Party X for bottlenecking legislation in the Senate Finance Committee, and rolls his eyes when you mention polling evidence that voters know little about congressional activity.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” We were dealing in facts, my friend and I, but our opinions were considered no more reliable than anyone else’s. This is why a part of me cheers that moment in Ghostbusters when Bill Murray’s character, a researcher named Peter Venkman, says to someone questioning his methods: “Back off, man. I’m a scientist.”

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Seeing and Being the Face of Christ

jesus-face11The Catholic church I attend is lovely. A wine brick building with a copper steeple in the English Gothic style, it is not only a city landmark, but listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Perhaps it’s because of this pedigree that the sanctuary is maintained in a way that exudes warmth and welcome, but vigilantly avoids the cute, sentimental, or kitsch—the Christmas trees have no drug store baubles, the paschal lilies lack purple foiled pots, and the ambo is never hung with felt banners fashioned by kids.

This is why I was surprised to encounter a man-tall sandwich board in the nave last Sunday: white with large black letters—“Seeing the Face, Being the Face”—together with a line drawing of an androgynous cloaked head.

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Apocatastasis at the Essex

bostonessex-400x600“You have to choose the places you don’t walk away from.” —Joan Didion

This one’s for Sarinah Viya Kalb, who was there. With love.

And so the season of death returns: the leaves now in their last burst of red and gold before starting their descent, and at night, sometimes, a stiff wind scuttling down my hilltop street. From now until Easter—Pascha, as we Orthodox have it, signifying both Passover and passage—is the evocative time of the year for me, and I’ve written about it on “Good Letters” so many times before that I’m afraid I’ve become an annual broken record. (But Mommy, Anna Maria asks, What is a record?)

I want to tell you about a religious experience I had, in this season, about thirty years ago.

I say “religious” in contradistinction to the more acceptable, these days, designation of “spiritual.” (More than one friend of mine and I have joked about our desire to print Café Press T-shirts that avow that we are “Religious But Not Spiritual.”)

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Epic Tales: an Interview with Amit Majmudar, part 2

Claude_Lorrain_024Guest post by Sarah Arthur

Continued from yesterday. 

SA:  In your essay “Me and the Monotheists,” you say that even though you are a Hindu, many Christians seem to warmly welcome your poetry (e.g., I’ve included your poem “Incarnation” in the anthology Light Upon Light). You say this is primarily about “aesthetic resonance”—particularly with imagery—but you also point to the English language itself as being encoded with biblical influence.

And yet not every contemporary English-speaking poet writes this way. Can you elaborate?

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