Sunday, August 9, 2015


Marc Chagall, Time Is a River Without Banks, 1930

Does God cease to exist when there are no humans that believe in him? if so, how many does it take to sustain his reality? A million? A thousand? One? ~ a New York Times reader


God’s fate
is now
the fate of trees rocks sun and moon,
the ones they stopped worshiping
when they began to believe in God.

But he’s forced to remain with us
as are the trees, as are the rocks,
sun moon and stars.

~ Yehuda Amichai

One of Amichai’s best insights. If the poem happened to be better known, it would be seen as “daring” in the U.S. — but the rest of the developed world is mostly secular, and this goes very much for Israel. There the poem’s daring lies precisely in pointing out the “persistence of god.”

(By the way, American religiosity places the country close to Mexico. But even in the U.S., 35% of Millennials [those born 1981-1996] are “nones” — that is, they have no religious affiliation, though some of them may call themselves “spiritual.”)

And still, for all the decline in organized religion even in the U.S. (except for fundamentalism), every year brings us books and articles that announce that “God is not going to go away.” I’ve never read a single piece that asserted the contrary: that the very concept of god is bound to vanish. Apparently we are wired to project a parental figure into our surroundings, be it rocks or trees or sky.

It doesn’t matter if the super-parent is invisible. Perhaps that’s even an advantage. Supernatural belief, we are told, is the default human disposition. Even people who don’t go to church tend to believe in “Something Out There.” My friends see nothing embarrassing about believing in the supernatural as long as it’s not Judeo-Christianity but simply “Something Out There.”

How could anyone deny that “Something Out There” exists? I dared to do so and got called a “militant skeptic”; it was not a compliment. I was accused of trying to destroy the sacred TRUST in Something Out There.

There is of course a big difference between worshipping rocks and trees, the sun and the moon, and worshipping god, however we define him (I'm keeping the masculine pronoun because I think that’s culturally an essential part of the concept, in spite of the occasional preacher who assures us that the “fatherhood of god also includes his motherhood”). The rocks and the sun etc have always existed independently of human beings. They exist in an objective sense. They can be seen and measured. Deities have a strictly subjective, imaginary existence. All gods are a human creation, totally dependent on whether or not people believe in them. So, whatever happened to Zeus and Hera, Cernunnos and Wotan? Are they still with us the way trees are rocks are?

Not to that extent, no. But Thursday is still Thor’s Day, and you are now reading “Saturn’s Child.” Christmas and Easter perpetuate certain Celtic and Norse traditions, and are less and less about the Judeo-Christian deity (it’s a god-eat-god world). Wagner’s “Ring” has devout fans willing to pay outrageous ticket prices. Iceland has had a pagan revival. Thousands of poems are written every day about Penelope, Odysseus, Persephone, and other important figures in Greek mythology. It’s not terribly significant, but it’s not nothing either. Even though they are not worshiped anymore, the old gods have entered the culture, and they show no signs of leaving. 

Thus, the ancient gods have been preserved in modern culture, especially in literature and the arts. We still admire the beauty of the ruined temples and statues of the gods, and we enjoy reading works like the Odyssey. Poems about Penelope and Persephone, Odysseus, Athena, or Aphrodite are still being written by the thousands (as a poet, I can assure you this is true — and astounding). Poets constantly find new meaning in the old myths. Minor myths have become forgotten — it’s amazing how much more mythology writers knew as late as the 19th century (maybe because they tended to know Latin and works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses). But major myths, such as Orpheus and Eurydice, are so thoroughly enshrined in the arts that they seem safe from oblivion.

But it’s not the literary afterlife of the gods that’s of most interest, but the persistence of actual living religion. The Abrahamic gods, Yahweh, the Christian Trinity, and Allah, were each in turn (and through a peculiar plagiarism) pronounced to be the One and Only True God, and have proved shockingly resistant to extinction and simply passing into art and literature. Angels and demons have been largely metaphorized and psychologized, but the figure of the supreme father, chief, king — cosmic ruler and absolute dictator of some sort, who will judge us after we die — remains. His imaginary quality has proven to be an asset, since everyone can, and does, imagine him differently.

(By the way, I must protest here the Fundamentalist attitude that god loves you and you’re hurting his feelings by not loving him back. How can you be so mean to the man in the sky [as one gospel song defines him, wonderfully sung by Elvis Presley: “I believe in the man in the sky”]. This is anthropomorphizing taken to the extreme. Sure, most people imagine a personal god who responds to their prayers and is willing to suspend the laws of the universe on the believer’s behalf, but to imagine him suffering a heartbreak because Tom or Judy go about their lives without paying attention to an invisible and undefinable entity is really pushing it . . . surely if a child dying of hunger provokes no divine response, or a political prisoner being tortured, not saying one’s evening prayers can’t count for much?)

My guess is that because of the human emotional needs and the parent-child bond, the projection of god is indeed not going away, especially in times of hardship. But that’s one one of the points that Amichai is making: god is forced to remain with us, i.e. at least some of us will always feel psychologically compelled to keep imaging a parent in the sky. The other point that Amichai makes is that even though this psychological fossil will remain in our minds, the fate of god is going to be that of trees and rocks — he won’t be worshipped anymore, not in the old sense of fear and trembling. This is already the prevailing reality in Europe, and will eventually be the reality everywhere else, though some cultural trappings (e.g. holidays like Christmas) will remain. In fact Christmas is becoming outrageously spectacular — and also more and more secular.

All that amazing architecture turning into ruins, like the old pagan temples . . . It’s already begun.

This abandoned church South Carolina reminds me of a ruined Greek temple


“Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges? What evidence seemed decisive to the ancient Greeks? Robert Parker, in his “On Greek Religion,” emphasizes the role of what the Greeks saw as experiences of divine actions in their lives. ”The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster,” with by far the most emphasis given to the perils of ignoring the gods.

There were also rituals, associated with the many cults of specific gods, that for some worshippers “created a sense of contact with the divine. One knows that the gods exist because one feels their presence during the drama of the mysteries or the elation of the choral dance.” More broadly, there were “epiphanies” that could “indicate not merely a visible or audible epiphany (whether in the light of day or through a dream . . .) but also any clear expression of a god’s favor such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure; it may also be used of the continuing disposition of a god or goddess to offer manifest assistance.

Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies.”

From a comment:

Dionysos -- the Zeus of Turkey's Mount Nysa -- died each fall, was buried in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, which he would abandon until Dionysos’ rebirth in the spring. “He is risen,” his believers cried out on the appropriate Sunday sunrise, and Apollo had returned.

The great advances of Greek civilization in the fifth and fourth centuries began quite suddenly when the sophists, whom Plato and Socrates despised, stripped the gods out of the myths. That left them with only the natural phenomena the gods were thought to personify and control. So much for the supernatural. The pagan Greeks made no sharp distinction between nature and any hyper-nature, though it is easy for us to see them edging towards it. Christianity defined the boundary.

And another comment:

If you believe in god, does it bother you that all gods that have even been created/worshipped have all acted in the same way as yours does. As though they don’t exist at all. And the reasons that you believe in your god, personal experience, believing that prayer or sacrifice actually work, filling your unanswered questions about the world with a god etc are the same reasons that people gave for believing in past gods. And are the same reasons given for believing in other current gods. The supernatural doesn’t exist, only questions do. And those questions won’t be answered until evidence leads us there. If you jump to supernatural conclusions every time you don't understand something you have a primitive mind and are thinking like people who lived thousands of years ago.

And the inevitable comment, in case anyone missed the point of the article:

Amazing intellectual acrobatics to avoid the obvious conclusion that there is no more reason to believe in a Judeo-Christian god than there is to believe in Zeus.

“The greatest evidence for the gods is that piety works” — and the rest of it — the same arguments are those used today: prayer works (it does??! so what happened to animal sacrifice, which presumably used to work just great . . . ), lack of prayer brings on disaster, believers experience the god's presence and signs and miracles . . . same stuff, pointing to human psychology rather than external reality. The eternal return of the same — only the details differ, the names of the deities.

This article reminded me of a crucial moment in my life. For me the decisive realization behind leaving Catholicism was seeing that the Judeo-Christian stories were just another invented mythology. The nuns taught me that all the pagan gods were “false gods”and “idols,” and only the god who once spoke to Moses and other Hebrew patriarchs and prophets was the true, actually existing god.

But the name doesn’t matter . . . If Yahveh exists then Zeus does too (he may be just hiding — just as the Deus absconditus theologians claim that Yahweh exists, he is just hiding), and the wily Wotan wandering in disguise, and and few thousand other deities. On a symbolic level that’s fine: humans have always been very creative and come up with thrilling stories. But on the concrete daily level I was threatened with eternal damnation if I didn’t go to church, say prayers, regard myself as a sinner and human nature as innately wicked, force myself to believe in the literal truth of absurd dogmas and repugnant archaic stories, etc.


Alone, we can do so little. Together, we can do so much. ~ Helen Keller

Atheists are often accused of not believing in anything. But I believe in the collective human genius. It’s exciting to review how much humanity has achieved, and even more exciting to ponder the potential new developments.


Normally, a gene allele (= form, variety) that slows down detoxification would be dysfunctional. In the case of alcohol, having this allele is equivalent to having your own built-in “Antabuse.” You are punished for drinking anything beyond a small amount, and the unpleasantness of the symptoms acts as a potent deterrent.


(Oriana: the very fact that you can breed animals for heavy drinking versus alcohol aversion shows the power of genetic factors in susceptibility to alcoholism)

“Scientists have known for some time that people vary considerably in their drinking behavior and in their sensitivity to the effects of alcohol. The rate of alcohol metabolism can vary as much as threefold among people with similar drinking habits, and recent studies indicate that the development of alcoholism is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.

The quest for genes that influence alcohol abuse follows two paths. One goal is to locate genes that predispose a person to alcoholism. The other is to identify genes that help to prevent this from happening.

Li and his coworkers have made important advances in this latter category. "We have identified two genes that protect against heavy drinking, and these are particularly prevalent among Asians," Li says. "We have shown that Native Americans, who have a high rate of alcoholism, do not have these protective genes. The one that is particularly effective is a mutation of the gene for the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase, which plays a major role in metabolizing alcohol. The mutation is found very frequently in Chinese and Japanese populations but is less common among other Asian groups, including Koreans, the Malayo-Polynesian group, and others native to the Pacific Rim. "We've also looked at Euro-Americans, Native Americans, and Eskimos, and they don't have that gene mutation," says Li. Thus, incidentally, the study of genetic mutations and alcoholism links native North-American populations to central Asian ancestors, not to those from China and Japan.

Alcohol is metabolized principally in the liver, where it is converted first to acetaldehyde by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. Acetaldehyde is then converted to acetate by the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase. Acetaldehyde produces unpleasant physiological reactions even at low concentration, so the presence or absence of the gene mutation affecting aldehyde dehydrogenase in turn affects drinking behaviors. When acetaldehyde is not rapidly converted to acetate the results are dramatic: a rapid increase in blood flow to the skin of the face, neck, and chest, rapid heartbeat, headache, nausea, and extreme drowsiness occur. "As expected, this aversive reaction affects drinking behavior," Li says, "and the mutant gene therefore serves as a protection against heavy drinking and alcoholism. " Li's current research is investigating the occurrence of mutations involving alcohol dehydrogenase. Variant forms of alcohol dehydrogenase can provide some protection against heavy drinking, though not as effectively as the specific aldehyde dehydrogenase mutation identified thus far.

Li's work with rats that he has specially bred for studies of alcoholism has greatly influenced studies of alcoholism in humans and earned him an international reputation, even though it was his clincial experience with alcoholics that convinced him of the need to develop an animal model of alcoholism. "I was trained as an enzymologist and protein chemist," he explains. "When I was doing postdoctoral research, I found that there were different forms of alcohol dehydrogenase and that there were genetic variants that one could identify in different populations. The variant forms all have different functional properties, and these differences are reflected in differences in alcohol metabolic rate. So that is one of the genetic bases for differences among individuals in their ability to metabolize alcohol."

However, working in an alcoholism clinic in Boston at that time convinced Li that he also needed to study the brain in a laboratory setting. "It became evident to me that individual differences in the enzymes that metabolize alcohol are not in themselves sufficient to understand the biology of the disorder alcoholism." There appeared to be very large individual variations in how the brain responds to a given concentration of alcohol. "Since we cannot easily study the function of the human brain in chemical terms, I needed to develop an animal model that would at least have some relevance to the human condition.”

By comparing the high- and low-alcohol preferring strains of rats, Li not only can identify genes that are important for drinking behavior, but can also study in these animals the neurobiological basis for why they like to drink or do not like to drink. Then, for example, suspecting something wrong with the serotonin system among high-alcohol preferring strains, he can subject these rats to a drug that influences their serotonin system and observe subsequent alterations in their drinking behavior. "An interesting, important feature is that our alcohol-preferring animals are innately less sensitive to the effects of alcohol. They develop tolerance more rapidly to the behavioral impairment produced by alcohol. This seems to be the case in humans as well. So now we are seeing parallels in humans and animals that point to the same kinds of mechanisms, and I think these are very important in our understanding of the condition of alcoholism.”

 Li's laboratory and others at the IU Medical Center are working in collaboration with five other university medical centers to identify the genes responsible for abnormal drinking behavior in humans. "This will allow us to identify individuals who are genetically at high risk for alcoholism. If we are able to show who is at risk, then I think we can do things to help those people. Alcoholism, like diabetes or hypertension, is a complex condition influenced by both environment and genes. If we can identify those who are genetically vulnerable, we can modify the environment to help them."

 Little is known about the specific biological processes and pathways involved in problem drinking and alcoholism in humans. But twin and family studies have convincingly shown that there is a strong genetic influence on susceptibility to alcoholism. Genetically based individual differences also exist in such areas as drinking behavior, sensitivity and tolerance to alcohol, and alcohol elimination rates. Analysis of those differences may help scientists to understand better the possible biological antecedents of problem drinking.”


A study has shown that a genetic mutation carried by at least a fifth of Jews appears to protect against alcoholism.

The same inherited trait is fairly common in Asian people, but is much rarer in white Europeans. The findings could help explain why Israel has one of the lowest levels of alcoholism in the developed world.

The study's author, Dr Deborah Hasin, from Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute, said: "This finding adds to the growing body of evidence that this genetic variation has a protective effect against alcoholism among Jewish groups."

The mutation, called ADH2*2 [a variant of the gene coding for alcohol dehydrogenase], is involved in the way the body breaks down alcohol in the bloodstream.

It is thought to increase levels of the toxic chemical acetaldehyde — a by-product of alcohol metabolism. At high levels, acetaldehyde causes headaches, nausea and flushing.

Almost all white Europeans lack the ADH2*2 variation and so produce less of the by-product. Thus drinking tends to be more pleasurable, increasing the risks of alcoholism.

Past research has shown that the variant is found in 20 per cent of Jewish people. Those with the variant tend to drink less frequently, consume less alcohol overall or have more unpleasant reactions to drink.

The new study, published today in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, looked at the relationship between the gene variant and alcoholism among 75 Israeli Jews aged 22 to 65.

Those with ADH2*2 had "significantly lower indicators of alcohol dependence".

The effect was strongest for Ashkenazis, Jews of European background and arrivals from Russia before 1989, and the Sephardics, those of Middle Eastern and North African background, than for more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, she said.

Among those with the gene variant, the recent Russian immigrants tended to have a history of much heavier drinking than their Sephardic and Ashkenazic counterparts.

Chagall: Blue Fiddler, 1947

Since my teens I've suspected that I am genetically protected — because the stress earlier in my life would have probably made me a alcoholic and dead by now if something didn't counteract it. What preventing me from turning to alcohol for temporary oblivion was horrible headaches and feeling awful overall — toxified for many hours — worse by far than the initial stress. Higher levels of aldehyde would explain this — and are a better explanation that "breeding out the alcoholism genes." Feeling sick versus feeling wonderful — that makes a huge difference in motivation.

Of course the discovery that some people detoxify alcohol so poorly that the sick feeling keeps them from drinking is again a lesson that one mustn't be proud of not being an alcoholic: it's not an earned merit, not moral superiority, but sheer genetic luck. A recovering alcoholic can take some pride in staying sober, but we who are genetically protected can only feel gratitude for luck.


This may be a separate issue, but genes that make a person vulnerable to alcoholism seem to be essentially the same as those that drive overeating in response to stress. Some alcoholics are able to stop drinking, but then they start overeating — especially when life gets stressful. Then they go through an entire carton of ice-cream in one sitting.

Stress never attracts me to food, and I find that heavy feeling in the stomach quite unpleasant. Sure, like everyone I may eat more than is wise if the food is exceptionally tasty. But if something unpleasant happens, my thoughts don’t turn to doughnuts.

Stress can push me toward a compulsive activity, however. Workaholism comes naturally — work is the best escape. Of course when the long hours damage health, or when the activity is clearly displaced, mere busyness, then, as with all addiction, the time of reckoning draws near. Then it’s time to remember the principle of what I call “tender hedonism” — a loving attitude toward the self, and remembering that nothing can dim the light within me. I will develop this later in this blog.   


We may not, in either common speech or academic philosophy, talk much about the sublime these days, but whatever we call the feeling of being absorbed in art, music, or nature, it turns out to have physical benefits as well as mental and emotional. “There seems to be something about awe,” says professor of psychology Dacher Keltner. “It seems to have pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.”

In other words, immersing yourself in art or nature is good for the joints, and it could possibly preempt various diseases triggered by inflammation. Keltner and his fellow researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a study which found that “awe, wonder and beauty promote [lower and overall] healthier levels of cytokines“ (especially interleukin 6, IL-6) —proteins that “signal the immune system to work harder.” He goes on to say that “the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”

Whether we become totally overwhelmed by, or just find deep appreciation in an aesthetic experience, the emotions produced “might be just as salubrious as hitting the gym,” writes Hyperallergic. That may seem a crude way of thinking about the spiritual and emotional grandeur of the sublime, but it brings our physical being into the discussion in ways many philosophers have neglected.

Granted, the researchers themselves admit the causal link is uncertain: it might be better health that leads to more experiences of awe, and not the other way around. But certainly no harm—and a great deal of good—can come from conducting the experiment on yourself.


 Caspar Friedrich, Wanderer above Fog

This study reminds me of an earlier one that showed a sense of meaning, associated with being a “giver,” was also linked with a healthier immune system and less inflammation. Meaningless “let’s have fun” hedonism, associated with being a “taker,” had no long-term health benefits.

I think one needs a be both a gracious giver and a grateful taker, but with the balance leaning to being a giver. And I have no doubt that meaning is more important than

But what access to the sublime do we have in our distracted era that’s overloaded with both trivia and tragedy? In “The American Sublime,” Stevens despaired:

How does one stand
To behold the sublime,
To confront the mockers,
The mickey mockers
And plaited pairs?

When General Jackson
Posed for his statue
He knew how one feels.
Shall a man go barefoot
Blinking and blank?

Will beauty really save the world, as Dostoyevski said (perhaps his most daring moment)? Stevens almost believes it. Here is my favorite stanza from “Mozart, 1935”:

If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.

The great Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, did indeed sit down every day to play the piano and thus had a ready answer:

Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the
   houses were eight million human beings live.
The giant city is a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.
Inside the galaxy, coffee cups are being pushed across the desk, department
   store windows beg, a whirl of shoes that leave no trace behind.
Fire escapes climbing up, elevator doors that silently close, behind
   triple-locked doors a steady swell of voices.
Slumped-over bodies doze in subway cars, catacombs in motion.
I know also – statistics aside – that at this instant in some room
   down there Schubert is being played, and for that person the notes
   are more real than all the rest.

(“Schubertiana,” tr Robret Bly)

~ This is the answer that need not diluted with any “explication”:
at this instant in some room
   down there Schubert is being played, and for that person the notes
   are more real than all the rest.


Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” We can broaden this to “without the sublime, life would be a mistake.” There is a tremendousness to the very fact of being alive in this startling universe. If we miss the wonder of it, if the we don’t connect with nature and the best of culture, then we lose the only paradise we’ll ever have.

Alas, modernity has not been friendly to beauty — though I sense a growing change in attitude, and an ebb in the “esthetics of ugliness.” I’ve been called a starry-eyed optimist. In our times, holding on to beauty has become a heroic enterprise: daring to create beauty, to assert beauty, to behold the sublime. 


As an unwavering atheist — or call me a naturalist, a better term — I’ve been accused of having no values, of not “believing in anything.” But in fact I have a strong sense of the sacred — or perhaps I should say “the sublime.” While in nature there is nothing supernatural, in both nature and culture there is a wealth of the sublime. And in moments of human altruism and heroic accomplishment, in the collective human genius. No one need be starved of the sublime . . . 

And, as a bonus, there’s much to be said for lowering inflammation. 


I’ve enjoyed telling people that once I’ve realized that I'm now posthumous (I mean “post-ambition” and “post-achievement”), I also realized that this is my last chance for unbridled hedonism. This creates the image of banquets and orgies à la worst days of the Roman Empire. Of course the only orgies I have in mind are intellectual ones.

But “unbridled” is not the right term. It implies excess, and anything in excess eventually becomes unpleasant. A more precise term for my current state of mind might be “tender hedonism.” It’s a rebellion against not only the ludicrous Catholic masochism (in the poem about St. Thérèse, exemplified by not crossing your feet while sitting or not rubbing your hands together when they get chilled), but also the achievement-oriented asceticism that dominated my post-Catholic years — until my fairly recent awakening.

“Tender” because I want to be tender toward myself. Having understood that there is no need to drive myself mercilessly, I want to be as tender toward myself as I would be toward an animal. Kindness to others follows automatically.


My childhood sweetheart’s grandmother,
hoping to improve me, lent me
The Story of a Soul
by St. Thérèse “The Little Flower.”
It was a pre-war edition.
The stiff, shiny pages
exhaled a withered odor.

A thin haze of parchment veiled
black-and-white illustrations.
One showed a little girl in a bonnet
pointing to a constellation
resembling the letter T: “Look, Papa,
God has written my name in the stars!”
I began to scan God’s alphabet:
where was the J of my name, drawing me
toward sainthood like a fishing hook?

I learned how Thérèse’s mother,
to break the child’s pride,
said, “I’ll give you a sou
if you kneel down and kiss the ground.”
Four-year-old Thérèse refused.
She was never praised,
never told she was pretty
to shelter her from the sin of vanity.
She wept and prayed out loud
when her older sister went dancing.
On a pilgrimage to Rome she was shocked
to see fellow pilgrims play cards.

And I was shocked that a child would declare,
“I will become a great saint.”
Ambition! I didn’t yet understand.
She played at building little altars,
dressed her doll as a nun.
In a notebook, she entered
her “renunciations” —
as, when she sat in a chair,
she wouldn’t lean back or cross her feet.

Today I read again Thérèse’s story,
seeing how foolish she’d been
most of her brief years —
shivering in her unheated cell
rather than ask for another blanket,
forcing herself even not to rub
together her chilled hands.
Only one renunciation made sense:
she was sweet to a sickly,
crotchety old nun. At last the nun came
to love someone: Thérèse.

Slowly the saint shone through:
she began not to care about
fasting and sacrifices:
“Next to love, these are nothing.”
Like all real saints, she was a heretic,
a fugitive from the god of punishment,
worshiping only the beautiful Jesus
she could love fully, without fear.

In the convent photographs, I saw
the journey in Thérèse’s face —
from a pudgy schoolgirl to a luminous
woman past all petty renunciations,
silent as if dying into music.

But I didn’t know, didn’t understand
any of this when I was nine,
or thirteen, that spring when lilacs again
were calling to me with their moist mouths,
and the nun, a crow, suspicious
of all vanity, exhorted, “Don’t just think
of a pretty name. Choose a saint
who inspires you.”

Did she inspire? I thought she’d been
the best little girl in the world,
the modest Little Flower —
not a heretic in love with Christ.
She kissed the crucifix
not on the feet as is customary,
but on the mouth.

But what did we know about the saints’ love?
The glowering bishop, fingers slippery
with the holy oil,
in nomine patris moved down the row
as girl after girl
took the confirmation name Teresa.

~ Oriana © 2015

In a life that we know won’t be followed by heaven, we need to find “paradise now.” For a start, that means letting go of the cruelties of religions that forbid a variety of innocent pleasures, or pleasure in general — you fill in the details, as Thérèse did, forbidding herself the simple comfort of crossing her feet. But there are needless cruelties in the secular culture as well. It’s not been very long since women discovered the empowering pleasure of comfortable shoes and clothes. They still have a way to go when it comes to renouncing crippling and ultimately meaningless martyrdom.

I remember one of my experiments with “renunciation.” Rather than brush away a fly that landed on my bare arm, I let it walk about, taste, and explore. The sensation was just slightly prickly, and I can’t really explain why every fraction of a second it felt worse. Was it the repugnance rather than the actual sensation? Whatever the reason, it was the least spiritual minute of my life. The fly grew to be a monstrous, tormenting god.

It was a lesson, but aside from that, the suffering was utterly useless. It didn’t build character. It wasn’t a step sainthood. It did nothing good for others. Let’s face it: it was simply idiotic.

Of course letting a fly walk on your arm is nothing next to self-flagellation with hooked whips, wearing a hair shirt and/or barbed wire cinched tight around one’s waist, and other practices of “mortification of the flesh” that were once common among pious Catholics, especially (but not only) monks and nuns. What we now see as pathology parallel with cutting or burning oneself was once regarded as supreme piety. Why god was supposed to be pleased with such “penance” for one’s alleged and often imaginary sins wasn’t quite clear. But once pleasure is forbidden and the body declared a loathsome vehicle of sin, pain becomes attractive.

The opposite of this pathology is tenderness toward oneself. It’s wanting health and deep pleasure for oneself. Unless you have a puppy or a kitten to quickly activate the nurturing impulse, the self is a good place to start. Instead of “putting Jesus at the center of your life,” put your own happiness at the center. Ask yourself what things make you happy, and reach for those.

This is by no means selfish or shallow. It’s one of the deepest meditations you can have because it leads to the discovery of what is important. If, sometimes against the whole thrust of our upbringing, we learn to be tender toward ourselves, affection toward others will follow. As Adrienne Rich said, “Without tenderness, we are in hell.” 

 Edvard Munch, Summer Night

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