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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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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A Jew Prays in Venice, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

On the pleasant train ride from Florence to Venice, my wife Laurie and I began to piece together a relaxed itinerary for our final days in Italy: the Jewish Ghetto—definitely; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection—pretty sure; the Doge’s Palace—we should (but haven’t we had enough history?); the Basilica di San Marco, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari—haven’t we seen enough churches?

As it turns out, we did make it into a church (more than one) in Venice, but it was only at Santa Maria della Salute—a church on which we stumbled while rushing to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection so we could see it and have plenty of time for the famous Jewish Ghetto in Venice—where I felt the tenacious need to maintain my separate, external, egotistic will relax.

There was a prayer to be said and I said it in this church built to honor the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from a plague that in 1629 to 1630 killed 47,000 residents; a third of Venice’s population.

In the presence of the Madonna of Healing, my eyes fixed on the sculptures above the main altar, fixed on one sculpted figure in particular: a woman below and to the right of the Madonna, her body turned away from the Madonna, her arms outstretched beyond the “frame” of the sculpture, into the void, in anguish, afflicted, her neck twisted so she could look back and up at the towering Virgin holding an infant in one arm.

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A Jew Prays in Venice, Part 1

In Venice, in the Santa Maria della Salute church, in the presence of Madonna della Salute (Madonna of Health), I sang Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach, Jewish prayer for healing, quietly to myself.

Before entering the area of the church roped off for prayer only, I hesitated. Should a pretty good Jewish boy enter a spaced designated for Catholic worship?

My wife and I were near the end of our first trip to Italy. In the months leading up to the trip, I had been reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, a book I had owned for years but had never read or had read only a little of, probably in my late twenties, and had forgotten.

Grounded in his experiences as a Trappist monk and drawing on his deep interest in Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, Merton’s essays on faith, detachment, egoism, dualism, God, and related topics awakened in me an interest in and openness to Catholicism that I had never before experienced.

“We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God,” Merton writes, “but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God.”

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Holy Water

One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.”
–St. Bernadette

My daughter just finished a week at our local Catholic school’s day camp. She came home with a crèche she made from a shoebox, a St. Brigid’s cross of pipe cleaners, and a plastic bottle of holy water, blessed by the deacon.

“It’s not from Lourdes,” the catechist told us, apologetically. For Catholics, the spring at Lourdes—dug by the bare hands of St. Bernadette at the urging of Our Lady— is the champagne of holy water. I think the batch my daughter brought home actually came from the water fountain in the school hallway. I was sitting out there with my toddler when the volunteers filled the plastic basin.

My own elementary school was named for Our Lady of Lourdes, and Mary was our patron and mascot to the point of insanity. My memories of religious education consist almost entirely of stories of Marian apparitions and miracles. Even slumber party games of Bloody Mary conjured images of a glowing lady in a cave, whispering secrets. One of my best friends had an actual glow-in-the-dark Mary I made her hide in a drawer when I slept over. [Read more...]


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