Monday, 23 April 2007

In Limbo

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno

Speaking of the next life, it would seem that every limbo boy and girl, all around the limbo world, gonna do the limbo rock now that they will no longer be in their own special handbasket hell, in the netherlands of heaven. In case you missed the Pope flexing his Papal infallibility muscle with his recent limbo declaration, click here.

In essence, the Pope has built a stairway to heaven for infants who die before baptism so that they may suffer no more in that liminal holding tank called limbo (a place incidentally, that bears not an iota of mention in the Bible).

As the Holy See's International Theological Commission admits, "it must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die." How does one aptly respond to such a statement except to smile and say, indeed?

Now, I'll admit, I relish a juicy soteriological conundrum such as this. And a conundrum this is, for what are we then to make of Augustine's dogma of original sin and indeed, other interrelated doctrinal issues such as the sacraments, Immaculate Conception and grace? Eradicating centuries-old supporting theology, while a liberating step for Roman Catholicism, is tricky business, because when you pick at the very pillars and foundations of theology such as that of Augustinian thought in Catholicism, then you run risk of crumbling an entire section which just so happens to be housed atop and near and dear to constructs such as limbo. This is not necessarily a bad thing, merely a bold one.

I'd be willing to bet the farm at the Divinity Poker Challenge (letting Jesus spin the wheel, of course) that the Pope has thought three to four chess moves ahead in removing this little complicated, sidestep move from the overall sacred dance (consider the not so coincidental fact that in the West Indies, limbo is thought to mean 'to bend backwards'), but the question remains, if limbo's a salvific improbability, what other theological babe(s) is he willing to throw out with the holy bathwater for the sake of strengthening missionary efforts and/or making a bigger splash in papal history? Purgatory, indulgences, mediatrix liturgy?

Surely if any of us had absolute and certain knowledge about salvation and our posthumous fate (and by certain knowledge I mean empirical), well gosh darn, gee willickers, might we not have saved ourselves many a Holy war and all that paving of endless paths to the Divine instead of just building one highway marked "Shortcut to Heaven?"

But since none of us has all the answers to give Virginia, (no, forgive me father, for I have sinned: not even the Pope) ~ except by taking a flying leap of faith and reason, an act which often involves closing our eyes wide shut, crossing our fingers and toes, and drinking a pitcher of bloody Marys for good measure ~ what else is there to do but to keep dancing in our own little hokey-pokey kinda way and hope we get picked in the ultimate Spot Dance?

Don't move that limbo bar
You'll be a limbo star
How low can you go?
Chubby Checker, "Limbo Rock"

Thursday, 12 April 2007


Even though Snopes outs this joke as an ongoing urban legend dating back to early-70s science rag publications, I still think it's funny as, ummm...hell.

Going to Hell

The following is supposedly an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid-term. The answer by one student was so "profound" that the professor shared it with colleagues.

Bonus Question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law (gas cools when it expands and heats when it is compressed) or some variant thereof.

One student, however, wrote the following:

First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell.

Since there is more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell.

With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities:

1. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose. 2. If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it?

If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year that, " it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you", and take into account the fact that I slept with her last night, then number 2 must be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and has already frozen over. The corollary of this theory is that since Hell has frozen over, it follows that it is not accepting any more souls and is therefore, extinct...leaving only Heaven thereby proving the existence of a divine being which explains why, last night, Teresa kept shouting "Oh my God."



* Now I get why Bachelor of Science degree holders (BSc) capitalize the BS but leave the c small.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Pasta, Puja and Promise: A Pilgrim's Tale

Eat, Pray, Love:

One Woman’s Search for Everything
Across Italy, India and Indonesia

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking; 2006
331 pages

Every once in a long while, a book comes along that fills the soul’s myriad hungers for vicarious hedonism, heaven and healing. This would be that book.

Gilbert has managed to craft a memoir that is witty and wise, sexy and soulful, not to mention extremely engaging and entertaining. She recounts her journey post-divorce – an experience she likens to “having a really bad car accident every single day for about two years;” post break-up from her rebound lover, and post-depression; from that place of disconnect and discontent, to the sacred self or I, as alphabetical mapping would have it.

In fact, she ends up heading to not to one singular I but to three Is: Italy to learn the fine art of pleasure, India to find discover devotion, and Indonesia to explore the sacred balance between the two. As such, her journey takes her to Rome to learn Italian, to an Ashram in northern India to immerse herself in the intricacies of Siddha Yoga, and to a Balinese village to glean wisdom from a medicine man.

While her story does read with a measure of surreality, complete with a fairy tale happy ending, she unabashedly hangs her hat on the one truth that shines like a beacon throughout the pages. “I was the administrator of my own rescue,” she asserts, a truth the reader becomes witness to some three hundred pages along the road with her.

She fashions her book into the three country sections for a total of 108 chronicles or tales (plus one to spare), along the lines of a japa mala or string of prayer beads. This methodology is apropos for her journey because threaded into each quirky chronicle of this pilgrimess’ tale is a glimmer of grace and and a bead of divinity.

What is notable and curious to this particular tourism marketer, is that despite the fact Gilbert took a year off to explore these disparate nations, her travels are anything but touristy. She shockingly admits to visiting just one museum while in Italy (and only at her visiting sisters’ insistence) and never venturing beyond the Ashram to see the real India of mughals, monuments and maharajas charted by history and folklore. And she doesn’t even escape to a beach in Indonesia until six weeks after arriving, shock of all shames.

Instead, she ascribes to the when in Rome adage. She hangs out in restaurants or at soccer matches, where she feasts on “a delirious banquet of Italian language.” Her passage to India is no less authentic an experience. She spends almost all her time in meditation and even finds herself “pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute” into her own mystical experience, not on the penultimate page but rather, a mere 67 beads along the tale’s pearly string. And her time in Indonesia is just as off-beat and magical. She hangs with the locals, befriends the village medicine man, and learns exactly what it means to live life fully in the moment.

What else remains to be said of the book except simply this: read it. Find a good cozy corner in the sun, or tuck yourself 'neath a nice lamp on your chaise lounge with a fuzzy chenille blanket and ensconce yourself in her journey. But do so before the movie version (Brad Pitt production starring Julia Roberts) comes out. Trust me. And if you're going to order your book online at Amazon...ahem, look and click no further than my sidebar. I've got my own sacred travel plans too, ya know.

Monday, 2 April 2007

The Muddling Glory of God

Anne Lamott was in town this past weekend so Jeri, her sis Cheri, and I met up at a downtown church to hear Anne talk about none other than her thoughts on faith during her latest book peddling, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. I hadn't met Jeri before but as is the case with reading the musings of other fellow bloggers, I felt as though I had.

In any event, I really enjoyed Lamott's talk. Much more so than the reading of her latest work, actually. There were easily 1,000 people who packed the church to hear her speak, and yet strangely, it seemed as intimate to me as a small salon gathering. Her soft-spoken nature surprised me. She comes across kind of spacey and unassuming - sort of a cross between the witty and wise Diane Keaton and an adorable, cutsie Melanie Griffith - I wondered at one point if all those drugs from her former addict lifestyle hadn't perchance gotten the best of her. And yet her thoughts on faith are lucid and anything but spacey.

What's refreshing is how irreverently reverent she is about her Christian faith. She's not praise the Lord! preachy but rather, unabashedly honest, questioning and grateful. "The opposite of faith," she claims, "is certainty." This may be the only thing she knows for sure about this quest called God.

Apart from the fact that she knows she hates process. "There must be an easier way," she laments, than the mistake-ridden path of living, learning and passing it on. "If I were God," she says, "I'd have a completely different system." It would be more like a kitchen drawer organizer and there would be a definite out-box corresponding to the God box system she utiliizes. God box?

Yup. She admits to having a physical box where she stashes notes and prayer requests to God. Think Wailing Wall on a local scale. She's unabashed in her praise of this system. It works, she insists, eventually, which is another thing she hates. It's part of the reason she thinks God is so clever. Her prayers are always answered....somehow, somewhere...they just seldom resemble the original request.

Lamott read a couple of excerpts from her new book, a loose collection of commentaries about grace and the notion of forgivishness, as she calls it. One of the tales she read is about the estrangement of a friendship since partially mended, while the other is the riveting account of an assisted suicide she facilitated years ago. In both cases, grace was a change agent for her.

She believes strongly in the power of grace, even if it does seem as though it isn't an immediate process. Grace, she notes, "often buys me a few minutes," whether this be in matters of Sunday school discipline, parenting a teenager, writing a book or radical self-care, as she calls it.

She took some time to address the process of writing, as detailed in her book Bird by Bird, and then stayed to sign books. I lined up to get my book signed, something I haven't done since waiting to get Eric Estrada's autograph at a car show. Thankfully, the line-up was only a ten minute wait. I decided to buy Bird by Bird, so titled to describe the process and reality of what she dubs "shitty" first drafts (my blogs in a nutshell).

Which is metaphoric, really, of this journey through life we are all in together and of the "muddling glory of God" and eventual grace that abounds, if only we would but pay attention.

Death by Chocolate

Hot Cross Reactions
The latest religious
uproar to make news is the chocolate art exhibit cancellation of an anatomically correct (yikes, I'm afraid to ask) replica of the crucified and very naked Jesus, bringing new meaning to the term death by chocolate.

This 200-lb edible artwork, entitled "My Sweet Lord," has caused such a public outcry, particularly amongst the Catholic community, that its Holy Week exhibit, slated for a Manhattan hotel gallery and set to launch today following Palm Sunday, has been cancelled.

The usual comparative religious finger pointing has happened, with some Christian groups protesting that you'd never see this sort of naughty bits chocolate art depiction of the Prophet Mohammed or of Martin Luther King Jr. on his day of honour. And they have a point. Why the artist didn’t see fit to layer a white chocolate loin cloth around Jesus' hips is as much a mystery as his audacious choice of artistic expression.

In the Name of God
No one religion can claim exclusion from controversial artistic portrayals though.

Eastern traditions, notably Hinduism, enjoyed a long history of depicting the swastika in their religion art, (dating back to Neolithic Eurasia and pre Indo-Aryan conflict era), that is, until the Nazi misappropriated the symbol for their own Aryan supremacy purposes. And while the portrayal of nude deities is commonplace and a throwback to its fertility cult roots, even Hindus draw the line at sacrilegious depictions of their deities.

Buddhists, too, have always struggled to remain true to the beliefs of Siddharta Guatama by tempering their idolatrous tendencies, as much as some Buddhist religious art might hint differently.

The Abrahamic traditions share some of the more contentious views of idolatry, however. Judaism has historically walked this controversial fine line between affording itself a creative and abstract religious expression and subjecting itself to base idolatry. Even in recent centuries, Jews have had to wrestle with issues of censorship and controversy, relative to Holocaust art and even more recently, post historical Jesus hype, with depictions of Jesus as an itinerant Rabbi.

And so sacred is Islam's holy trinity - Allah, the Qu'ran and the Prophet Mohammed - that any pictorial depiction or textual translation is considered blasphemous. Hence, the Muslim outcry following the Danish cartoon controversy.

So it's of little surprise that Christians are ready to wage an iconoclastic war against such this secular, Warholish chocolate sculpture of the suffering Jesus. Art is meant to portray the seamless link between Truth and Beauty. Sadly, it does not always do so.

Having said that, the subtle ironies of this controversy are difficult to ignore.

First of all, here we have a faith tradition that began as an underground religious heresy, and built itself literally from the catacombs up.

Its earliest teachings relied as heavily on art and symbolism as they did on the Word or Logos, most especially because a great deal of Christian converts were either illiterate or not versed in Latin. When one thinks of Christianity then, certain Greco-Roman motifs immediately come to mind. Cross, fish, shepherd, sheep, doves - these are all intertextual symbols that owe more to the power of art and architecture to convey the ethos and pathos of Christ than the Gospels themselves.

Secondly, lest we not forget how sacramental Christianity is. When Catholics, for example, receive the host or wafer during Eucharist and/or drink Communion wine, they are, in essence, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ in commemoration of the Last Supper, or so transubstantiation would have it. It is, arguably, one of the greatest leaps of faith an adherent must take, not to mention one of the most magical, and I think beautiful, examples of the link between myth and ritual.

Food for Thought
So to see Jesus depicted in temporal, culinary form seems fitting, almost. Such a display speaks to the mystery of Jesus the Christ on so many levels. First, we have the whole substance of Christ issue, so prevalent in early-Christianity leading up to the Council of Nicea. All that talk about whether Christ was half human, half divine, fully human or fully divine. Truth be told, it continues today.

What better medium for the artist then, but chocolate to portray both the sinfulness of His humanity and the heavenliness of His Divinity? Chocolate, after all, comes by its rich reputation honestly, for it enjoys a rich religious history. The Mayans revered the Cacao Tree, calling it “food of the Gods.” And the Quakers were some of the first to capitalize on this reality, if the business enterprises of families like Baker, Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree are any indication.

Which leads me to the little matter of paganism in Christianity, and more specifically, Easter.

Christianity, as most everyone knows, owes much to its pagan predecessors. Some would argue Christ Himself is but a mythical lifting from Mithraism, given that both Mithra and Christ share equinox dates with winter solstice birthday and spring (Easter) rites, a virgin birth, a Mediator role, the Messiah label, twelve disciples, the magic touch of healing and miracles, a cave tale, an itinerant lifestyle, persecution, transfiguration and symbolism of the lamb.

But that’s fine. What’s a little syncretism between religions, after all?

Yet factor in the pagan history of Easter, and it is small wonder Easter has become an eclectic mix of religious rites. The word Easter derives from Eostre, the goddess of spring, whose name comes from the root “to illuminate” or “dawn.” As the story goes, Eostre came upon an injured bird in the snow, transformed it into a rabbit to help it survive the winter, but curiously, the rabbit still possessed the ability to lay eggs. In gratitude for this life-saving gesture, the rabbit decorated the eggs as a gift for Eostre.

And so there we have the origins of the Easter bunny. Chocolate confectioners the world over owe a debt of gratitude of their own to the spring rites of pagans who honoured fertility, and celebrated earth’s seasonal cycles as living symbols of birth, growth, bountiful maturity and death.

Of Buns and Bunnies
Given this mixed heritage of Easter weekend celebrations in the sacred-secular mosaic we call 21st century modernity, I cannot help but sympathize with the confusion my daughter feels. She has a hard time making sense that Good Friday is wrapped up in the pathos and crucifixion of Jesus, whereas Easter Sunday is all about the feast and frolic of gorging on hot-cross buns and finding foil-wrapped chocolate in amongst other dark turds in the yard, while Easter Monday then celebrates resurrection and the renewing power of spirit.

It's a crazy, mixed bag, but life and holiday rituals are like that. I can honestly confess I think the artist has captured something rather powerful here, yet much like my daughter on her Easter egg hunt, the observant must be willing to look for the bits of sacred amongst the profane.

Carolyn Walker Bynum, a leading history of religions scholar and author of Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, notes that eating is “one of the most basic and literal ways of encountering God.”

Indeed, if we consider the Judeo-Christian history, such that Passover honours the Exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt and the “birth” of the Jewish nation with a feast of unleavened bread, and that Christian spring rituals involve fasting and feasting (Lent and Last Supper); it is somewhat appropriate this exhibit be edible, albeit in a theoretical sense (eating sweets molded by the sweaty hands of an artist is not my idea of a box of chocolates).

While I’m not suggesting that one should feel tempted to nibble the toes off a chocolate Jesus, I do believe there is much artistic and religious meaning to be garnered from viewing the exhibit and the compassionate message of Jesus through a new hermeneutical lens ~ one large and ecumenical enough to embrace both the heritage and the humanity of religiosity.

Because when it’s all said and done, we’re not all that different a religious animal from Neanderthal man. We still revere life, fear death, cower beneath extremes in the elements, dance around fires in both celebration and imitation of the gods, and praise the Divine when all goes well. We still need myth and ritual to make sense of the cycle between life and death.

And we still don’t like when others mess with our own personal Imago Dei, a reality the artist discovered for himself. All is not lost, though. He can still melt his sculpture down and fashion a bunch of last minute bunnies out of the deal.

Such is the everlasting message of Easter, after all. Death, renewal, hope.

Revolutionary Patience

Go ahead and compare him with other great figures
rosa Luxemburg
he’ll stand the test
it would be better of course
if you compared him
with yourself

# 7
I like as you have noticed
to bring things down to earth
miraculous loaves obedient waves
even the deathbeds of children
lying asleep
they occur
in the stories of ancient peoples

Go ahead cut him down to size take away
the loaves the sea the halt and the lame
you’ll get them back
when you begin
to see with his eyes
every day
cripples start out
for his kingdom
the blind
begin to see

All his miracles
become the most natural thing in the world
if we make them come about
Dorothee Soelle

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~