Thursday, March 10, 2011



How spacious the heavenly halls are!
Approach them on aerial stairs.
Above white clouds, there are the hanging gardens of paradise.

A soul tears itself from the body and soars.
It remembers that there is an up.
And there is a down.

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?

Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?
And where will the damned find suitable quarters?

Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss.
Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair.

Let us implore that it be returned to us,
That second space.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, translated by the author and Robert Hass, 2004.

“Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?” — Make no mistake about it: it was the earthly meadows, the Lithuanian meadows, that Milosz truly wanted. Always. Always.

Still . . . 

In an earlier volume, Milosz observed

“There is only one theme: an era is coming to an end which lasted nearly two to thousand years, when religion had primacy of place in relation to philosophy, science and art; no doubt this simply meant that people believed in Heaven and Hell. These disappeared from imagination and no poet or painter would be able populate them again, though the models of Hell exist here on earth.”
 ~ Unattainable Earth, 1986, p. 78.

Milosz (1911-2004) lived long enough to have witnessed both the general secularization of the Western culture and the transformation of Catholicism away from the earlier beliefs that heaven was an actual place, the sky, with a celestial city in it, with sidewalks of gold, or else mansions and gardens; hell was just under our feet. It that was second, invisible, metaphysical space that was more important than the visible world. Those beliefs about the divine dwelling and the domain of the demons were not confined to Christianity, though details may have been different in other cultures. There is a Japanese haiku that goes something like this:

We walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.


I can share Milosz’s nostalgia for a paradise “up there,” though then we are also forced to accept the existence of hellfire for the damned (which used to mean all non-Catholics, and a good part of Catholics too) inside the earth. Note that in Milosz’s poem starts with heaven and devotes more space to it, but you have to accept the whole package. Already by the middle of the twentieth century this “vertical” view of metaphysical space became too naïve to appeal to the educated.

Along came the modern Catholic intellectuals, including highly erudite theologians, and the literal views of heaven and hell had to go. Both the Pope (JP2) and Cardinal Ratzinger back when he was the Grand Inquisitor pronounced the new doctrine: Heaven is both God himself and a union with God, a loving, compassionate, positive state of mind; Hell is separation from God, a state of mind filled with hate, anger, and other negative emotions. Both Heaven and Hell can be experienced during earthly life.

What? So we don’t GO to heaven or hell? Not anymore, according to the updated Catholic doctrine. We stay where we are and experience not a place, but a state of mind, blissful or wretched. This makes lovely, rational sense for those who want to preserve their faith in the existence of the disembodied, brain-free, immortal soul, and heaven and hell without having to violate their intellectual knowledge of what is in the sky and down under the surface of the earth (if not sure, you can always google it). The shift from “place” to “state of mind” is a metaphorical and psychological solution to the pesky problem of where to locate heaven and hell, now that science has explored even a portion of the interstellar space.

But the psychological solution reveals the archaic nature of these words. After all, we might as well speak simply of positive and negative emotions. There is no need to complicate it by invoking hard-to-define metaphysical concepts.

On the other hand, heaven and hell are part of daily speech as shorthand for “very good” and “very bad.” The first year of marriage is heaven, divorce is hell, a vacation can be heaven, but it can also turn into hell. We speak of things “going to hell.” Oddly enough, we never speak of things going to heaven. Hell is invoked more often in everyday speech. This is a strictly secular use of what were once religious concepts. That colloquial meaning of heaven and hell is likely to remain. The religious meaning is already waning. Take away the idea of place, and you make it less real.

And here comes a poet, a troublemaker, with his nostalgia for the traditional afterlife. Not for positive emotions, but for imaginary heavenly meadows and hanging gardens, where we stroll pretty much as our former selves, minus the aches and pains of old age. Do we really yearn for the union with God? Or for the preservation of our entire personalities, including our memories, even the sad ones, precious to us precisely because they are ours?

Milosz thought that the original and most attractive promise of early Christianity was the preservation of the self, ultimately the body as well as the personality. This sounds so narcissistic, but isn’t the longing for an afterlife unavoidably narcissistic? Don’t we find ourselves too special and charming to be simply annihilated? And isn’t the main point of religion to defend the psyche against the unbearable thought of annihilation?

In his essay, “On the Turmoil of Many Religions,” Milosz views religion as originating in self-concern and the ultimately tragic nature of human life:

“I see nothing shameful in admitting that our desire to worship goes hand in hand with our concern for ourselves. That would be shameful only if human life were not what it is — a fundamental deprivation, an impossibility, a burden which cannot be borne but which is borne due to a mixture of blindness and heroism. I desire a God who would gaze upon me, who would increase my sheep and camels, who would love me and help me in misfortune, who would save me from the nothingness of death, to whom I could each day render homage and gratitude.”

Creating an image of the afterlife is not the only function of religion, but it is a very important one. For one thing, we want a payoff for attending those excruciatingly boring sermons and hours of praying the rosary (which I could never do; I kept drifting away into my inner world and losing my place).

But many of us no longer listen to those sermons or attempt the rosary, the usual one or the Rosary of the Five Wounds (not to be confused with the Seven Sorrows) – not after Vatican II took the saving grace of remnant beauty out of the ritual.  Thus, Milosz’s question

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?

is rhetorical. For the majority of educated readers, “that other space” is indeed lost forever. Furthermore, we suspect that this is so for the author himself, or else he would not be moved to write this nostalgic poem. As for Milosz’s own faith, he claimed that an intellectual should not “sadden” people by announcing the non-existence of God, and we will never know to what extent an inner censorship prevented him from expressing himself more directly. He obviously wanted to believe, but his intellect was too developed for simple faith without doubt. In any case, his poems and essays show that he was more attracted to Swedenborg’s ideas of heaven and hell – being in the company of others in your “soul group” (Dante’s scheme is actually similar. It’s just that Dante adds elaborate tortures for the sinners; being in each other’s company is not punishment enough; no, Jean-Paul, hell is NOT other people; if you put people together, they are likely to connect, and if human connection exists, hell is not hellish enough).


There is no question that, more than most of us, Milosz, who spent his wartime years in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, could imagine hell very vividly.  Even his description of Bosch’s famous painting reflects a war-zone landscape:

The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell

If not for the existence of Earth, would there be a Hell?
The instruments of torture are man-made:
Kitchen knives, choppers, drills, enemas.
And implements to create the hellish noise:
Trombones, drums, a mechanical flute, a harp
With a poor damned man entwined in its strings.
The waters in Hell are set by the cold of eternal winter.
Mass meetings, military parades on ice
Under the blood-red and smoke-dark glow of burning cities.
Fire blazing from windows – not sparks, human figures,
Small and black, fly out and then fall into a chasm.
Dirty taverns with wobbly tables. Women in kerchiefs
Cheap, you can have them for a pound of meat,
And a multitude of busy henchmen,
Deft, well trained in their trade.
Thus it's possible to conjecture that mankind exists
To provision and populate Hell,
The name of which is duration. As to the rest,
Heavens, abysses, orbiting worlds, they just flicker a moment.
Time in Hell does not want to stop. It’s fear and boredom together
(Which, after all, happens). And we, frivolous,
Always in pursuit and always with hope,
Fleeting, just like our dances and dresses,
Let us beg to be spared from entering
A permanent condition.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Facing the River

By contrast, Milosz’s old-age vision of hell seems very restrained and politely conventional. In his posthumous volume we find a long poem whose speaker is Father Severinus, a priest who has lost his faith. Here is one section of it, “Leonia.”

Can I tell them: there is no Hell,
When they learn on earth what Hell is?

In the confessional I listen to Leonia.
She fears damnation, which she thinks would be just.
If you don’t get your due in this lifetime,
She says, you get it in the next.

There goes Leonia. Flames erupting
From sulfur lakes behind the gates of Hell.


These days, it seems to me, most Catholic children (and probably adults as well) assume they are headed for heaven. Not so when I was attending catechism classes. I strongly suspected I was headed for hell.  I doubt that I was an exception. Other children did not look happy during religion lessons either. All those sinful thoughts crossing our minds! All the anger and envy!  The broken cup and our little lies, which we assumed were huge . . .  And this in a country that had known enormous real evil, including the Nazi death camps. You might think that the wartime atrocities had created a sense of perspective about the nature of sin and the expected punishment. But we had no such luck.

Nor could we truly look forward to heaven. Alas, no appealing images of heaven exist in Christianity. We (I speak of adults now) know the heaven of being in love, but the erotic element is not allowed into heaven. For an athlete, heaven would be a good run, feeling the power and speed of his body. But the body is regarded as evil, or at least as inferior to the soul. Artists know the heaven of beauty, but beauty involves the senses, and is thus suspect. The only music we can expect in heaven is religious hymns, we assumed, not the voluptuous pleasure of symphonies and concertos, with whole passage shamelessly based on dance music. There is no marriage in heaven – this we are told explicitly – and thus no dancing at weddings. Anyway, does the soul have feet to dance with? Things get pretty difficult once the body is out of the picture.  

But much worse than that, even if there happened to be great music, and feasting and sports and erotic love in heaven, what is there to do in terms of meaningful work? We know we could enjoy sampling various pleasures for a while, but after several months – a year, at the most – human beings would be bored. We need challenges, goals, obstacles, and the sense of accomplishing something. And that is possible only on earth – insofar as we know. 

Even the more sophisticated idea of heaven as a union with God holds little appeal. With creation already accomplished, and the universe continuing on its own, without any need for intervention, what’s there for God to do? Only an appeal to mystery will do here – perhaps God has meaningful work to do, and consequently the dead likewise – but all this is too profound for us to understand.

This miasma of vagueness about heaven is almost as discouraging as our growing moral distaste at the idea of eternal damnation.

The most important commandment, we were told, was to love God. I found it impossible to love the biblical deity who sent the majority of humanity to hell forever.  I searched my consciousness as thoroughly as I could, and found no trace there of any affection toward God as he was presented to us. Jesus was borderline lovable, but his relationship to God the Father and the promised Second Coming when he’d be the judge at the Last Judgment, separating all humanity into the saved and the damned, cast the shadow of cruelty on him too.

Only Mary was entirely merciful and lovable, but since she was not officially divine, I didn’t think loving her would spare me from going to hell. I took seriously the church’s constant refrain about being a sinner, and was pretty resigned to the prospect of being cast into the Pit of Darkness. I wasn’t sure if I’d be boiled in one of cauldrons or in the Lake of Fire. A cauldron was smaller and easier to imagine, as were the devils with pitchforks, straight from the paintings.

Being resigned to the prospect of hell didn’t mean that I decided to live it up while there was a chance – to skip school, for instance. I was perfectly aware that there’d be swift consequences right away, a punishment by parents and teachers. So the Pit of Darkness seemed yet another proof that you couldn’t win, and your prayers and “good deeds” were in vain.

Still, I was pretty stoical about it. I wouldn't scream, I decided. Even in hell I wanted to preserve some dignity – no doubt the sin of pride (odd, given my propensity toward the sin of despair; it’s as if being eternally damned would finally motivate me to be heroic, unbowed before a cruel god not worthy of worship).

I knew the story of a woman pianist who’d survived the “standing torture” in Auschwitz by mentally going over her entire concert repertory. Obviously I couldn't do that, but I’d read a lot of books. I could go over everything I remembered about those books. I also had a rich inner life and could fantasize my own stories. I wasn’t yet aware that true torture usually means you can’t enjoy your thoughts, since they are erased by pain. You want to die, but you can’t. Those who invented hell as more frightening than annihilation must have known that kind of pain very well.

Centuries of being “purified” in the fires of Purgatory seemed an escape clause, if you were lucky enough to be able to repent your sins in time. But would I be able to feel genuinely sorry? The math homework was oppressive enough without having to worry about such matters. I stooped and kept silent unless spoken to. Even when I left the church at fourteen, I still had enough belief in hell to be sure that now it was really inevitable: I was one of the damned, and this is where I was going. And I embraced that choice, since I decided that it would be disgraceful to worship the cruel god of my childhood, even if he existed.

                 [ Illustrated Manuscript, Circa 1180]

Only much later, in adulthood, I concluded that if something that could be called god did exist, that entity or energy would be nothing like the deity of the Old Testament, and definitely not throw the soul of Gandhi and other good individuals into the Pit. It wasn’t just that “faith without works is dead”; it was that faith in the sense of doctrine was irrelevant; all that counted was a person’s “works,” or kindness. My thinking was the direct opposite of Luther’s: orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. When I heard the Dalai Lama say, “My religion is kindness,” I felt ecstatic. Maybe that will be the religion of the future.

Milosz also ceased to regard himself as a Catholic after a crisis of faith during his high school years. He did, however, remain a spiritual seeker, and eventually returned to his own variety of Catholicism. He might be called a “Swedenborgian Catholic.” In “Werki,” he writes:

I still want to correct this world,
Yet I think mostly of them, and they have all died.
Also about their unknown country.
Its geography, says Swedenborg, cannot be transferred to maps.
For there, as one has been, so one sees.


In “Treatise on Theology,” Milosz again writes about Swedenborg’s vision of the afterlife:

I profited from my reading of Swedenborg.
In whom no verdict falls from above,
And the souls of the dead are drawn, magnet-like, to similar souls.
By their karma, as the Buddhists say.

I feel in myself so much veiled evil
That I do not exclude myself from the possibility of hell.
It would probably be the hell of artists.
I.e. people who valued the perfection of their oeuvre
Over their duties as husbands, fathers, brothers, citizens.


This section, however, is followed by a dream in which the afterlife is nothingness, at least in terms of what we can detect with our earthly senses:

In the dream everything was fine as long as we were not forced to cross the border.

On this side a nappy green carpet made from the treetops of a tropical forest, we soar over it, we birds.

On the other side nothing. Nothing to be touched, seen, heard, tasted.

We prepare to go there reluctantly, like émigrés who do not expect happiness in the distant countries of their exile.


And yet Milosz is a poet of affirmation, and it would be misleading to leave the reader with this “nothing.” Milosz absolutely yearned to believe. The belief he arrived at in old age was unorthodox. It had nothing to do with punishment or reward. “Werki” (the title refers to a beautiful little town downriver from Vilnius) ends with this beautiful stanza:

The priests taught us about salvation and damnation.
Now I have not the slightest notion of these things.
I have felt on my shoulder the hand of my Guide,
Yet He didn’t mention punishment, didn’t promise a reward.

That’s the mellow old Milosz, self-accepting and kinder toward the world, mostly liberated from the dogmas of his public Catholicism. Judging by the evolution of his poems, his private, doubt-ridden faith was moving past heaven and hell. But the younger Milosz still speaks about salvation in a more traditional sense.


“One day I believe, another I disbelieve,” Milosz says in his “Treatise on Theology” (surely an astonishing title for a contemporary poem). Faith may have been stronger in previous centuries, but even the lives of the saints report their struggles with doubt. The dark night of the soul can last for years; belief in the sense of certainty exists for moments, if that. Theologians are quick to point out that “faith” does not mean “knowledge.” If knowledge of the “second space” were possible, there’d be no need for faith, its leaps and somersaults and falls, shattering, and, sometimes, its resurrection in older age.

But older age is no guarantee that doubt will disappear, even though the intellect may weaken and the need to believe in some continuation beyond death appear to be greater. The most need-based faith I’ve observed has been in addicts trying to recover.

A minor digression: the names of Spanish settlements in the New World. Sacramento, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Santa Monica, and on and on. Unimaginable today. But look at the names of towns in European Spain: Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, Toledo  . . . These are not religious names. I cannot think of a single European city named after a saint. Athens comes closest to having a religious name, being the city of Athena. And not all European cities date back to the ages before Christianity. Quite a number were in fact founded during the Middle Ages – and yet their names are secular. So maybe the Age of Faith, of heretics burning at the stake, were not so pious after all.

Still, there is no denying that it’s the steady ascent of science and the spread of secular education that mark the nineteenth century as the beginning of the end, though some might point to the Enlightenment. We know that Matthew Arnold sighed at the ebbing tide of the Sea of Faith.

Yet another factor in that ebbing, I think, has been improved standard of living, at least in the West, better medicine, less physical hardship, and thus increased appreciation of earthly life. When Milosz says, in “The Treatise on Theology,” “We complain that the earth is hell’s antechamber: it might have been hell complete, without beauty, without goodness, not a ray” – any reader born after World War II is puzzled. We don’t hear any more the phrase “hell’s antechamber”; we don’t even hear the more common phrase, “this Vale of Tears.” There is certainly plenty of suffering, but maybe not quite as much as just several decades ago. Less suffering leads to less need to imagine either hell or paradise.

One of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson also develops the theme of faith and doubt about the existence of the “second space”:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy – don't know –
And through a Riddle, at the last --
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
~ Emily Dickinson, 501

Most readers delight at “the tooth that nibbles at the soul” – a brilliant phrase. But I am more fascinated by the doubt-free (or so it appears) opening. The other world exists, the poet seems to be saying. It’s only that the evidence for it is so weak that faith grasps at any twig (some would say “straw”).

Contemporary poets have also created visions of the afterlife, but unlike anything before. I particularly like this poem by a California poet Bruce Williams:


Back from the Mojave Road. He
dreamed next to a new woman.
He was walking with his first lover,
who changed to his dead wife.
Something was not between them,
and he asked if she still loved
him. She said, "No" calmly
as if it were "Yes," or the directions
to a house. Nothing hurt. She
moved upward and ahead. Suddenly
she was naked and more than
beautiful. Then the threads of light
that were Ellen unknit. And
each thread went its own way.

~ Bruce Williams, The Mojave Road At Last, Conflux Press, 
also The Mojave Road and Other Journeys, Tebot Bach Press, 2010.

In our post-Freudian and post-Jungian age, dreams are to us what visions were to saints and prophets. The person that was Ellen dissolves, but the images of beauty and light indicate that this is no cause for sorrow, but rather a cosmic union. The person is no longer, but the light, the energy of which she was made, continues to exist. Toward the end, the poem becomes transcendent:

she was naked and more than
beautiful. Then the threads of light
that were Ellen unknit. And
each thread went its own way.

~ “more than beautiful” rises above any sadness.

Psychologically, perhaps the most interesting moment is the husband’s asking if she still loved him. She says “No,” but it doesn’t hurt. The ties of a finished life no longer exist. I am reminded of Rilke’s Orpheus and Eurydice poem, where the marriage ceases to exist, and Eurydice no longer even recognizes Orpheus (perhaps the most brilliant and daring moment in that masterpiece). In “Blessing,” the breathtaking ending leaves us not in sorrow, but in awe of cosmic mystery, totally beyond the primitive concepts of heaven and hell. 


Sometimes I try to imagine the joy of those who truly believe and expect to go to heaven – but what few believers I know don’t seem to be happier than average (or kinder, or more serene).  Likewise, when I think back to childhood, I don't recall any joy coming from faith (aside from organ music and the beauty of the Latin liturgy).  Aside from some pleasures of the ritual, the threat of hell ruined everything. God didn’t love me, but it was mutual. I was pretty resigned to the idea that this life would be full of suffering, to be followed by much worse suffering – for eternity. Why? Well, it was the way I disobeyed my mother and didn't put the books and papers on my desk in neat piles. Then there were the mild swear word passing through my mind (the bad words did not have to pass your lips – thought was sin enough) when I missed my streetcar. Those were the daily reminders of what I was: a sinner.


Then Catholicism mellowed. Pope John Paul II announced that hell is a state of mind. Too late, much too late, even though I see already many years ago that Christianity is not supposed to be about being terrorized by hell, but, on the contrary, about hope and non-judgment. So the terror went out of it, now officially as well. But, oddly enough, so did the beauty: the poetics of the Latin mass, the gilded splendor, the hush of mystery.

Ultimately, I can’t second Milosz in his plea for the restoration of “second space.” Heaven and hell no longer make sense as actual places. But they still make sense as a state of mind. Here is a marvelously simple (but not simplistic) poem by a South African poet. I think the poem says it best.


I heard it
in my sleep
calling me soft

It was
my mother
speaking from her grave.

My son!
there is no heaven
above the clouds


Yes, Heaven is in your heart.
God is no picture
with a snow-white beard.


Yes, God is
that crippled beggar
sprawling at the street corner.

There is no hell burning
with sulfur and brimstone


Yes, Hell is
the hate flickering
in your eye.

~ Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, South Africa

There is Jungian concept of the "demonic personality" that emerges during states of hate and rage. But do we have to reach for angels and demons? That’s us, merely human, capable of both the noblest positive emotion and of the basest negative one. There is no heaven above the clouds, nor is there Dante’s hell inside the earth. It’s all right here on earth. This may seem like a sad conclusion, and certainly a disappointment to those who were counting on finally enjoying existence after they die. But the disappearance of heaven and hell as places opens a wonderful possibility: we can experience heaven right here, right now. How? I will discuss that topic in “The Will to Bliss.”


An addendum that did not quite fit elsewhere:

In his essay “Religion and Space” (Visions from San Francisco Bay), Milosz confirms that we can no longer conceive of space as in the past, and the new picture of the universe is at odds with religion. However, he also says the following: “It seems to me that we are born either pious or impious, and I would be glad were I able to number myself among the former. Piety has no need of definition – either it is there or it is not. It persists independently of the division of people into believers and atheists, an illusory division today, since faith is undermined by disbelief in faith, and disbelief by disbelief in itself. The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions – the bread on the table, the rough tree trunk which is . . . “
I think that Milosz is speaking about having a sense of the sacred. It’s like having a sense of beauty – not everyone does. I particularly like the statement that the division of people into believers and non-believers is illusory: we all believe in something, revere something. Practically all my friends are non-believers, but they all have a sense of the sacred. But having a sense of the sacred is not the same as believing in the supernatural. You can hold something sacred -- e.g. nature, friendship, marriage, the need to speak out against evil -- without belonging to any church. Of course you can be totally secular and have a sense of the sacred. There is no contradiction.


I read Milosz's poem as more about the loss in a belief in "the second space" than about a loss of Heaven and Hell, even though his imagery focuses on those traditional places. The really haunting question behind this poem, for me, is "Have we really lost faith in that other space?" Have we really lost our rock-solid sense that there is, in fact, something after death – some kind of continuing existence, whether Heaven  and Hell or an ongoing cycle of spiritual growth in another form or rebirth and a karmic progression – or something – anything--else? Are all of the spiritual explanations of some kind of afterlife merely the only way a self-aware consciousness can retain its sanity in the face of its annihilation? 

And if all we have in answer to these questions is a grand "I don't know," where does that leave us? Floating in some kind of agnostic limbo, I guess – the dilemma of the "modern" person, ushered in with the Renaissance, I suppose, then really coming into its own in the late nineteenth century. 

Personally, where this leaves me is here: If I am in this world with all of you – and if, possibly, this is all there is – then all that remains is for us to care for and love each other from as genuine a place of compassion as we can. If we are all survivors in a boat in the middle of the ocean – and going nowhere – it seems to me the only natural response is compassion and love for each other. 

Each of us knows the inner pain, worry, and fear of the others. So maybe that's all there is: loving each other. Which, ironically, is what all religious traditions seem to agree on – that God is love. So is there a god (or God)? If God is love, then love is God. So I have to say Yes because I know love exists. I experience it daily. If that is what God is, okay. Does that mean "God" is some kind of eternal being, creator of the universe? I can't go there. As far as I can go is "Love is God." 

And if that is all I can say, that's okay too. Does that mean there is life after we die? I have no clue. Looks like I don't get to know. But I do get to practice love and compassion while alive if I choose to do so.


One consolation that has been offered is that true, our personality is extinguished when we die, but we become a part of God. And I suppose it would sound narcissistic to insist that our personality is so precious, so unique, that it shouldn't be extinguished. Enlarged, to be sure, but not extinguished. At least not the best part of us. But hey, it’s our little neuroses and eccentricities that make us endearing  to others. Ah, never mind – we’d settle for anything at all that might survive once the body is finished -- not that we have any bargaining power. But there is no evidence. As for near-death experiences, they have been duplicated with certain drugs.

The existence of love proves only that love exists. "Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/ the nibbles at the soul," Dickinson says; in matters of faith, not even love can do anything against that tooth of doubt -- except make our existence here on earth a lot more rewarding. And that is not minor; that is huge. The only consolation I have been able to manage is the same as you suggest: at least we have one another. “We are the Christ.” When we cry for help, it is another human being who is likely to respond. Not always, the skeptic will remind us, along with a catalogue of “man’s inhumanity to man.” But we can also point to many individuals who have risked or actually given their life to save a stranger.

I also remember a young man, maybe twenty, who missed his plane. He was being interviewed on TV because that plane crashed. The young man said he was of course grateful for the flat tire that made his miss the plane “because can you imagine, if not for that, how much my mother would be suffering now?” And he could barely restrain tears. He did not say the obvious: “Or else I would be dead.” He thought of the terrible suffering that his mother had been spared.

So yes, loving each other is perhaps all there is – but that is not little. That is a lot. That is the space of kindness, of tenderness.

And let’s not forget animals either. I am touched by this photo and the haiku (of sorts) that someone wrote:

One of my thoughts was, “In another culture, this young man would be getting treatment” (assuming mental illness or addiction). Then I thought, “But the dog – the treatment place wouldn't allow the dog.” And I saw no way that this man would part with his dog – and I wouldn’t either. 

My other “consolation” is beauty. Again, the existence of beauty proves only that beauty exists – in the proverbial “eye of the beholder.” Humans have a sense of beauty, just as many (including myself) have a sense of the sacred. Can I or anyone explain how comes we are capable of tenderness and altruism, of perceiving beauty, of becoming hushed with awe face to face with the sublime? Biologists have tried (e.g. altruism helps the survival of a group), but even they admit that for the most part, the answer is “We don’t know.” It took thousands of years to construct a religious world view, and it will take a while for the constantly shifting scientific-humanistic world view to achieve a more satisfying shape. 

As Ginette Paris points out, it is still early after the death of God; it will take more generations to figure out how to live in a human-centered world, where we can choose to create the closest we can get to paradise, or else to self-destruct.

Most likely, what I call the “next-door phenomenon” will continue: in one house, ecstatically happy lovers; next door, someone in despair contemplates suicide. But we can make sure that there is a suicide hotline; if the couple has a child, we can provide maternity and paternity leaves, and other help. It’s not even love; it’s plain human decency. I think our definition of what it means to be human will keep evolving, but at its core will be this: we are human, and that’s why we help each other.


John Guzlowski:

Heaven doesn't concern me much. It's not as immediate of course as the possibility of death. That's the great mystery for me. My mother once said, "Why are we born, why do we die?  If you could answer these questions, I would answer all the others." Heaven I guess is the answer, but it's an answer that we can't trust. Near the end of my mom's life I asked her what she thought of Heaven. She said, "No priest has ever come back from there to tell us what it's like."

Growing up I went to a Catholic school for twelve years, and the nuns and brothers there taught me was that Hell was more likely for me than Heaven. Heaven was the place for saints and angels, hell was where the common man and woman, boy and girl, would end up.

Now? I like what Bruce Springsteen says about death in his song "Nebraska." Death hurls our souls in that great void.
Here's a poem I wrote about after my father died:


They wait for the rain –
Not for its wetness
But for its grayness

I covers their flight.
We would go out
And try to stop them,
Bring them back
To where we think
They belong.
Here in this house,
Sitting, old before the TV,
Watching Wheel of Fortune,
Vanna’s blue gown
A whirl of skies –

Or sitting there
On the patio
Like fishermen,
Their coffee growing cold
Beside them.
But no,
They leave in the rain,
And we can’t see them leaving.

We will understand
That this is right.
Understand this
After they leave us

Like the sea
On a moonless night
Growing away from us,
Its waves moving first toward us
And then away, toward us
And then away.

~ John Guzlowski
What your mother said sounds like what my grandmother might say. She was a pious woman, expecting to go to heaven after centuries in Purgatory, but her common sense often cut through. 
Aside from tragic, premature deaths, it seems to me that people die after they no longer have anything meaningful to accomplish in life, and just vegetate in front of TV. It's as though we belong to a certain moment, and there is a certain rightness about leaving when we have "run out of program." True, ideally people would stay healthy and sharp and never "run out of program." According to studies, the more goals a person has, the higher the life expectancy. 


I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your recent posts.  Your choice of images for your topics are really incredible, the  rowboat on the sea/skyscape is moving.
Your post on faith reminded me of a Cuban literary critic, Jose Feo, commenting on Moby Dick that a Catholic could not have written the novel as Melville did with his Calvinistic guilt and beliefs. Feo maintained Ahab's madness was rooted in his inability to love his fellow man, and that Melville’s Calvinistic background was one of isolation and  suffering. Feo was a practicing Catholic.

The Quaker Starbuck was not the 'right' type of  Christian to have stood up to Ahab (an amazing sect; plain spoken and  pacifist, they established a worldwide network, like the Greek  colonies in the Med, of whaling ports where they waged war on the  largest animal alive). Your mention of Primo Levi reminded me that he too was an admirer of Moby Dick. I recently saw a stage adaptation of it at the University of Alabama. What was neat as well was that they had several key parts like Starbuck and Fedallah played by women.
Thanks again for a great blog. I really enjoy your insights and the comments of people who  follow your posts.
Thank you for your kind words about the blog. How interesting to ponder the revenge-seeking Ahab in the light of religion – Ahab being similar to a vengeful god of wrath, god as a dangerous lunatic.
For me, traditional Calvinism is the ultimate as a toxic concept of god. Its five principal beliefs are summarized in the acronym TULIP.
T – Total Depravity. All people are sinners. They have no free will, but God predestines a minority of the Elect to be saved. Most of humanity consists of the Reprobate, predestined for hell.
U – Unconditional Election. Salvation is not based on either merit or faith. Again, God simply predestines the Elect to be saved.
L – Limited Atonement. Jesus did not die to redeem all of humanity; he died only for the sake of the Elect.
I – Irresistible Grace. God gives his grace only to the Elect, who cannot resist it.
P – Perseverance of the Saints. Once Elect, always Elect.
This doctrine was psychologically pretty unbearable. People wanted to see themselves as the Elect, so signs that God may favor a person had great importance. An obvious sign was wealth. Those who were financially successful were seen as having God’s blessing. Those who were very pious might or might not be the Elect, since good works or other “merit” meant nothing in the face of total depravity and predestination. 

It’s to Calvinist vision of Total Depravity that we owe dramatic sermons on hell, such as the famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Pastor Jonathan Edwards:

The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome Insect over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as Worthy of nothing else but to be cast into Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight

~ this goes on, but it’s too loathsome to keep on quoting. 
After attending a lecture on Calvinism, I realized that Catholicism – which does not deny free will, holds that Christ died for all, and grace is available to all – is sweetness and light by comparison. 

But even Catholicism has given us images of horror. As for images of heaven, the gate of a mansion -- or is it a walled city? -- is nowhere as appealing as the images of streams and meadows would be. But hell -- the painters know how to present horror. After all, it could be said that we experience both heaven and hell on earth. But that which is heaven to us, including love-making and feasting on good food, does not go on in heaven (at least it has never been mentioned). On the other hand, those who have experienced the violence and arson or war have no trouble recognizing hell. 

Why is heaven presented as a walled city and not nature? Probably because until relatively recent times, nature was regarded as dangerous and mostly evil. Forests and mountain tops were places used by witches. It took the Romantics to initiate the cult of Nature (yes, with a capital N).

Memling: Last Judgment


Love the bit by Milosz about the sense of the sacred. I've always been searching for the words to define that. In my family I was the only one who had it. It was recognized and semi-mocked by calling me Nature Girl.


In America, Transcendentalism was very much like the English Romantic poets’ cult of Nature. To those with a sense of the sacred, nature often seems to be transfused with divine light. Another realm in which that sense of the sacred emerges is love.


The "space" of heaven with aerial stairs and hanging gardens that Milosz describes, and the images you offer of a city with sidewalks of gold and mansions are both strange to me, both more grounded in earthly imagery than anything from my memory.

My image of heaven was floating in fluffy white clouds wearing fluffy white robes, and there were other people around, but nothing to do.  The nuns always assured us that we would be so happy to be in the presence of god that we wouldn't mind if there was nothing to do, just floating in fluffy white.

If you watch the British comedies on PBS Saturday nights, I'm sure you know Daisy and Onslow, both overweight. There's one episode when they talk about believing in the afterlife, and Daisy asks, "Do you think we'll be slimmer in the afterlife?" 

I remember being told that the central belief of Catholicism is/was the resurrection of the body, but which body?  The withered-up, old diseased body that most of us die with? Sometimes we were told that, magically, we would get back our young body in its prime--and I guess that would be heaven indeed, something I have fully realized as I've gotten older.


I don’t remember ever hearing about aerial stairs and hanging gardens – I think this is Milosz’s imagination. But the city with streets of gold is in Revelation. It’s the heavenly Jerusalem. Interesting that the saved, living in such a beautiful city, still yearn for the earthly paradise – maybe because of the trees and animals they miss. As Jack Gilbert says, “We have already lived in the real paradise.”

I think it’s always been taken for granted that the resurrected body would be young and perfect. You are so right – that would be heaven!


  1. The starting point yes, Heaven is hard to find, but unappealing? The longer we live in the present-day mess, the more necessary are the serenity and light in the afterlife. See the churches filling up with old people: the older they get, the more likely they are to go to services. For what? Ugly music and boring sermons? The connection to the divine, that little string that pulls and pulls and will lift them up to, where exactly? Heaven, of course.

    In Dante's Divine Comedy, I really, really like Paradiso. I do not care for reading about torture and all the different ways of failing, so I'm not a fan of the earlier books, but all these endless rings of blessedness and enlightenment - that is something of great interest to me. I found it boring before converting and being baptized, now it is all made of light. And Giovanni di Paolo's illustrations, esp. the rose at the end: this is Western civilization at its summit...

    Cardinal's Ratzinger's book on the topic, expressing a literal belief in the afterlife, resurrection, Heaven and Hell, is quite all right that way, too. It confirms the doctrine as it now stands. I liked it when I read it at the time of my conversion (as an adult "neofita" I never had to deal with stupid or nasty or criminally abusive priests or nuns in my childhood, so I do not carry any resentments that you might have).

    As for the duality of the spirit and body, why do we believe in bodily resurrection? The ancient Greek body-mind split is dead. It was very appealing for a longest time and, through St. Augustine and Plato's followers, it permeated Western thinking about Heaven and Hell. Not today, though. Pope John II wrote a book about marriage that is all about that, psychosomatic unity... Thus, for the full happiness in the afterlife, the whole being has to be reunited in a transformed form. Also united with the source of life and all goodness. Here we come to Teilhard de Chardin and his vision of a Cosmic Evolution to onenness of all humanity in a conflagration of minds and bodies that will bring us all together, by forging our connections, our unions at an entirely different intensity.

    Finally, wherever did you get this idea that the erotic is banned from Heaven? Why? If you want to be a ballerina for eternity, you can, if you want to be an athlete, why not? Don't you think that was the appeal of the film Avatar? A secular heaven and an afterlife for a disabled vet as a ten-foot tall blue hunter? That was his heaven, to run with the animals, to use his legs.

    I think Hadewijch (the blessed Beguine of the 13th century) got it right, this erotic love of Love. Mother Columba Hart, a Benedectine nun, who started her career as an actress, translated these poems and that's quite a book of inspiration. The translations are OK, but always make you think of what was the real thing, to those who could read and understand it.

  2. I can only speak from my own experience, as I was taught about heaven and hell. Hell was very real, while heaven was vague, bodiless, with music maybe but otherwise hellishly boring -- what would one do there? Not that I don't like your ideas -- those are a wonderful interpretation. But none of this was presented to us during religion lessons. Being a ballerina in heaven? My teacher/priest would be very angry at this suggestion, since he told us that ballet was obscene.

    I thought that maybe as I grow older I'd regain belief, but it's gone the other way, as I've studied the evolution of the concept of God. But I continue to be inspired by statements such as "My religion is kindness" (the Dalai Lama) and St. Teresa's "The only hands Christ has are our hands." I'm all for choosing whatever is best and beautiful from all religions. I've been corresponding with a Buddhist-Catholic, and we agree on many points.