Thursday, March 31, 2011


Suicide fantasies – that night I had them
like a meteor shower. Too late, I thought:
I should have done it

the time I stood with a Polish artist
on the roof of an abandoned factory.
I saw the leap, I saw

my body falling, falling
onto the grimy street below,
a wino sleeping under cardboard,

the desolation of America
pulling me down like gravity.
The painter called me by my

childhood name, its three clear
vowels a Baltic seagull
against the polluted sky. Why

couldn’t I respond? Was that the year
I threw myself at an alcoholic
Vietnam veteran? I already was

a fallen woman, might as well
sleep with artists. Eros has
a twin brother, the one lover

who will never leave you –
one who kisses like the wind,
one who whispers: Die. Leap

into the night and shatter
in a million stars.


But in the morning when I woke up
I was surprised by my own breasts –
as if I saw them for the first time,

soft and female and defenseless,
the nipples like wild strawberries –

Why have we been of little use,

they seemed to ask, aren't we sweet?
Warm from sleep, in tendrils

of morning light, my body 

waited – as if my life
had not been a mistake.
I’ll keep you, I nodded to my breasts.

~ Oriana


The thought that “It’s too late for suicide” was one of the crucial steps that led to my decision not to be depressed (since obviously it was also too late to be depressed).  My poems were actually ahead of me. The one below is several years old, but the awareness expressed in it did not translate into a true change right away.


The only philosophical
question left,
a French writer said,
is whether to kill yourself.

But that is the question of youth.
In my twenties, I could never look
from a high window or a roof 
and not feel a gathering leap.

Middle age asks two questions:
How much time left? and
How to spend what wakefulness
remains? Now I look 

out the window, and the deep
magnolia gives two answers:
the morning light
glistening in the crown,

and the wreath of shadows.
And the layered wind
does not rustle To be or not to be
Each leaf silvers Hamlet’s

forgotten reply: Let be.
It’s too late to renounce
the privilege of surprise;
centuries, it seems,

since my father told me
not to worry about the universe.
“That’s Aldebaran,”
he pointed to an amber star.

When the universe shall ask
the final question, I too
will point: Aldebaran.
Great light seen only in the dark.

~ Oriana © 2011

Something struck me as I thought about “Aldebaran,” and of my past suicidal imagery in general, mostly jumping from high places. I knew I’d fall, but actually I wanted to fly. That was the frustrated wish underlying the despair.

Not to fall, but to fly – to live out of my greatness rather than out my wounds. And, unwillingly at first, I realized that it is a choice: regardless of circumstances, we can still make that choice and it will make a huge difference. It took the pressure of mortality to give up on escaping life, escaping backward into past trauma. Instead, I decided to open myself to that choice outlined already in Ecclesiastes: “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

Or, to put it less grandly, working hard was the only thing I knew how to do. I didn’t know how to be happy, but I knew how to write. At first I had to do it blindly: blind work like “blind faith.” I couldn’t afford to ponder why I was writing, or for whom (my depressive vision was zero audience, now and forever ). I couldn’t afford to think about purpose and meaning – that way lay brooding and crying fits. And those would be no more. It was too late in life to be wasting life.

How did I break my addiction to depression? First, I had to realize that it was a behavior: call it brooding, overthinking, or delectatio morosa (the term used by Milosz). And a behavior can be changed. Like Milosz (see below), I decided to throw myself into work. Greater connection with the beauty of nature also helped.


Here is Milosz, first on his regaining the connection with “the beauty of the earth,” and then on throwing himself into his work as an “escape forward”:

The classic result of all sudden ruptures and reversals is the rumination on one’s own worthlessness and the desire to punish oneself, known as delectatio morosa. I would never have been cured of it had it not been for the beauty of the earth. The clear autumn mornings in an Alsatian village surrounded by vineyards, the paths on an Alpine slope over the Isère River, rustling with dry leaves from the chestnut trees, or the sharp light of early spring on the Lake of Four Cantons near Schiller’s rock, or a small river near Périgueux on whose surface kingfishers traced colored shadows of flight in the July heat–all this reconciled me with the universe and with myself.

But it was not the same as it had been in America; it was not only nature that cured me. Europe herself gathered me in her warm embrace, and her stones, chiseled by the hands of past generations, the swarm of her faces emerging from carved wood, from paintings, from the gilt of embroidered fabrics, soothed me, and my voice was added to her old challenges and oaths in spite of my refusal to accept her split and her sickliness. Europe, after all, was home to me. And in her I happened to find help…

- Czeslaw Milosz, “Tiger 2,” Native Realm, 293

~ Do you know what the gravest sins in your life are? – I have made too many mistakes to trust my ability not to err now when thinking of my past.

I am not what I am. My essence escapes me. It is a durable achievement of existential philosophy to remind us that we should not think of our past as definitely settled, for we are not a stone or a tree. In other words, my past changes every minute according to  the meaning given to it now, in this moment.

Jeanne [Hersch], a disciple of Karl Jaspers, taught me the philosophy of freedom, which consists in being aware that a choice made now, today, projects itself backward and changes our past actions. That was the period of my harsh struggle against delectatio morosa to which I have always been prone. Monks suffering from delectatio morosa would plunge into meditation on their sins and found it a good way to shirk their daily tasks. The philosophy of freedom, practiced by existentialists, took over the classical methods of confessors and spiritual guides, precisely in that it advises us to direct our sight always ahead, not backwards. Largely thanks to its counsels, I stopped meditating and set about my work, which has always been to me an escape forward.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth, 121-122.



Wow. Beautiful poems. How often the complexity and beauty of living beings has kept me going too. In her poem "Having It Out With Melancholy" Jane Kenyon talks about the beloved physical presence of her dog saving her life.


Thank you, Mary. Yes, I know that Jane Kenyon poem. Cats and dogs are great therapists. True, dogs are more reliable for unconditional love, but when I need an image to soothe myself, I think and holding and petting a cat – the silky fur, the purring.

Here is my translation of Milosz’s poem on “doghood” – in the second stanza, with us as “dogs” to the “powers above us”:

The warmth of dogs and the unknown essence of doghood.
And still we feel it. In the hanging out of the wet tongue,
the melancholy velvet of the eyes,
the smell of the coat, different than our smell, yet kindred.
Our humanity becomes more distinctive then,
common, pulsating, licking, hairy,
even though to dogs we are as gods
disappearing into the crystal palaces of reason,
busy with incomprehensible actions.

I want to believe the powers above us,
while engaged in tasks we cannot comprehend,
sometimes touch our cheeks and hair
and feel within themselves this poor flesh and blood.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Oriana Ivy

I don’t think the analogy works all that well – since we humans are not as loving and lovable as dogs. But I know that Milosz’s point is rather this: just as the dogs can’t understand what it is that we do in our “crystal palaces of reason” (he takes that from Dostoyevski’s Notes from the Underground), so we cannot understand divine actions.

But going back to the subject of depression, long before I quit “cold turkey,” I had an episode of very deep depression, the stuporous kind. But an internship in a school was given to me (I was in college), and affectionate first-graders were my healers. 

Why are pets and small children such effective “anti-depressants”? It’s their affection and physicality, I think. They make us “get out of ourselves” and give back the affection. Nor do animals and children lie awake worrying about the future, or the mistakes they made in the past. They certainly don’t suffer from overthinking.


I am moved by your poem “Surprised by My Own Breasts.” So smooth and rhythmic and beautiful and filled with wisdom.

Your poem is familiar so I looked back at our correspondence. On June 10, 2009 you sent the poem to me. And I wrote:


“Surprised by My Own Breasts” is a masterpiece, Oriana. A masterpiece. Rilke wrote:

To me it seems as if I were at once
infant, boy, man and more;
only as it circles am I complete.

Ah, the cacophony of our souls and when all is rumbling and senseless to be drawn back to the body by the body, so simple, so warm, so mine, so right, so grounded.

I think Rilke once called making love 'that most difficult act' (in Letters to a Young Poet?). I get that. What is more complex than the intersection of body, sexuality, mind, soul – shoot, throw in all the psyche's labels – and yet a touch, a kiss, an hour making love, a look at one's breast, a touch to the penis, brings chaos to a halt. For a moment. What mystery. I'm greatly impacted by your poem. Blushing, yes. But only because you let me see into the very private place of your soul. I wish I could respond with the same beauty with which you gave. So who feeds the poet?

I was moved then, I'm moved now. Very nice...

And then you wrote:

My intuition is long-term depression is an addiction, but outside of the dopaminergic reward system. Maybe the reward is not struggling. Non-action. The abatement of the testosterone-driven will to action, will to power (so exhausting, and then of course one might fail). It could vary with the individual what the reward is.

Claw or vampire? That love affair . . . The defenses against any threat to depression are strong. We want to sink deeper in, into stupor. The fury when some incident causes a jolt of adrenaline, and then we want to sink back in, and we can't.

But that's perhaps valid just for me, and I think now I have it right: for me depressive thinking is what drinking is to an alcoholic.

But it's too late even to write about depression.
And I think you were prescient – your journey worked out that way.

That wonderful June of 2009 was precisely the time of my commitment to not being depressed. It was too late in life to keep wasting time in that manner, and the opportunities for joy – and if not joy, at least contentment. Now it seems to me that until that June, I was still an adolescent. And then, “in a twinkling of an eye,” a true adult, finally taking responsibility for my state of mind and my ability to contribute to others.
As with all paradigm shifts, there was a long period of incubation – including the “prescient” poems. On the neural level, a new master circuit forms and takes over in microseconds, so the change seems extremely sudden. Only when you reflect, you see the gradual preparation.  And the wonderful thing about a paradigm shift is that once your perception changes, you can’t go back to the old behavior, even if you acted a certain way for decades. That behavior no longer makes sense, and you really have no choice except act in a new mode.
For me, it was not a change from depression to happiness. As I must have said several times, it was from overthinking to action, from depression to throwing myself into work. I have not had any slidebacks, but I had moments of slight resentment: all that work! It’s exhausting! But that resolved itself too. I noticed that I enjoyed writing prose a lot when I did it slowly, in small chunks, taking breaks. In fact, I am happiest and most serene when writing prose.
Poetry is not as controllable, but fortunately I don’t feel any tormenting need to write new poems. Also, a friend gave me a motto that also became a minor paradigm shift: “It’s only a poem” (thank you, Megan!) When I get stuck in a poem, I know I need to take a walk. Or take a shower. Or start cleaning the house. The cognitive-creative unconscious (a mouthful, but I don’t want it confused with the Freudian concept), all those automatic “back-burner” neural pathways, work best when we let go of conscious effort. Kafka and Rilke both knew that “ripeness is all.” Sign over Kafka’s desk: Warten (“wait”).

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!