A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

Slow to Travel

A family friend recently died.  I was in New York City when I received the news, and I mused how recent a phenomenon this speed of information is.  The news wasn’t necessarily a shock—this friend had been experiencing failing health, he was a close friend of my grandfather—but for some reason Samuel F. B. Morse came to mind.  The story goes that Morse invented the telegraph because of his experience of being away from home when his wife died.  By the time he received the news and was able to get home by the conveyance of the day, she’s already been buried.  He set his inventive mind to improving the speed of communication over a distance.  In these days of receiving texts mere seconds after something momentous happens, it’s difficult to imagine that for the vast majority of human existence, personal news traveled slowly.

Feeling in a reflective mood I recalled how when I was in college I wrote letters home.  Yes, the telephone existed by then—don’t be so cynical!—but long distance bore a cost and college students find ways to save their money for girlfriends or spending a weekend in Pittsburgh.  News traveled more slowly.  Back before Morse, the swiftest option was the letter.  The death of a friend might take days or weeks to reach those close.  Distance in time, as well as space, may not have lessened the shock, but the immediacy of a text wasn’t there.  The death had occurred days or weeks ago.  There was nothing left to do but grieve and get on with life.  Like Samuel Morse—perhaps the only point of comparison between us—I was unable to get away immediately.  New York City isn’t easy to escape quickly.

We move swiftly and slowly at the same time.  I know news moments from the event, but this physical mass I inhabit is sluggish takes some time to get around.  Manhattan’s an island, and although it’s not Styx we’re crossing, the Hudson creates barriers enough.  Now my journey includes crossing the entire state of New Jersey before I can even reach home.  Were I to drive back to my original home, it would add another five hours at least in the car.  Sometimes I wonder if the immediacy of knowing is a blessing or a curse.  The shock is immediate and visceral.  But like an injection, the sharpness is quickly over and the dull ache sets in.  Our family friend had been suffering for some time.  Now he’s at peace.  I like to think he’s with my granddad, and that the two of them together won’t judge me too harshly for moving so slowly.

Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.

Eternity, Technically

When the robot uprising comes, we have a factor in our favor, we biological beings. That is our parts, although they do break down, generally heal themselves. I write this as kind of a forecast, because I’m not at home due to the holiday weekend, and neither is the internet at my home. You see, our internet service (which is not cheap) has been going out from time to time. Our service provider thinks it may be old parts. The box was installed in our basement over a decade ago and when the technician sent me down amid the cobwebs before leaving town I had to report to her that all cables were hardwired into the box. No clip and slip here. She thinks the cable has gone bad.

The cable just sits there. It never gets moved or jostled. How it could fail I don’t know. But the consequences are two. There may not be posts on this blog for a while once I return home. I’ve posted every day, holiday and secular-day, for years now. Technology, however, is a jealous deity and will not permit humans taking it for granted. The second consequence is more optimistic; when the robots rise up against us, their parts will wear out and they won’t be able to regenerate them organically. They’ll need to order them and hope they can find a delivery system even more efficient than Amazon’s. Good luck with that! I ordered a book the other day and less than 24 hours later it was at my door. That’s service.

I decided to post this advance warning so there may be no weeping and gnashing of teeth (please—dental work is expensive!) on Monday or Tuesday when no new post appears on this blog. It’s not that I’m not thinking of you all, it’s just technical. Robots may run system tests, but can they feel it in their bones when something’s about to go? Do they indeed sing the body electric? Can they feel the poetry they write? To be human is to think with our emotions and to reason ourselves out of irrational angst. I see the slaves to technology putting on weight as they rely more and more on labor-saving devices to make their lives automated. I’m guilty too. As I sit here many miles from home, however, I worry about the internet back there. Is it sick? Is it dying? And if so, to which mechanical god should I pray to save its technical soul?

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Popular Eternity

EntertainingJudgmentPopular culture, it seems to me, mediates reality. The media of various descriptions teach us what to think, and even if there is a religiously “orthodox” answer to questions, we will weigh it in the scales against what larger society says. This becomes clear in Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination. Garrett, a scholar of religion and popular culture, turns his attention to death in this book. More precisely, what happens after death. The usual suspects of ghosts, vampires, and zombies are here, but also the realms of Heaven, Hell, and for the Catholics in the house, Purgatory. All of these are seen through the various lenses of movies, television, song, comic books, regular books, and games. It’s fair to say that we’re a culture obsessed with death. But then again, what culture isn’t? It may be just that it comes across more charming when there’s a buck to be made at it.

What I found interesting is that although the Bible has little to say about Heaven or Hell (and nothing at all about Purgatory), each of these realms has developed a canonical script. Hell is hot and fiery, Heaven is cool and cloudy. Purgatory is gloomy, but beyond that comes in mild, medium, and hot varieties. We know these things from various teachings of our respective religions. In popular media, however, the script has been changing. We now have mild unpleasantness passing for Hell, if it lasts forever. Nobody needs to get burned. Heaven, meanwhile, can be just okay. It’s certainly better than the other place. Or the other two. We’ve overused our superlatives and have been left feeling like we’re on antidepressants.

Polls continue to tell us that many, if not most, Americans believe in literal Heavens and Hells. A point Garrett raises, however, is they may not mean by that what their clergy assert to be the case. Since near death experiences are controversial, nobody can say that they’ve actually been to either place, or the third. The exception to this rule is those who work in fiction—in whatever form. Since we can see their visions of the afterlife so clearly they have become the arbiters of eternity, with or without any religious training. In this day of marketplace religion and nones, Heaven and Hell seem to have become secular. The church may have introduced the ideas (actually, they seem to go back to the Zoroastrians, but I’m thinking of American culture) but the media have taken them over. We may be secular, but we still die. Entertaining Judgment might give you an idea of what to expect, depending on whose vision you buy.

Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

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Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.

Defying Labels

I don’t know much about the music industry, but I do know that as in publishing, labels make a difference. Who doesn’t conjure up a certain sound when they see Motown? Companies jealously sign artists to their label, with a close eye on the bottom line. Labels. Branding. Marking our territory. People like to give things labels to make them easier to understand. By now it’s no longer news that David Bowie has died. The tributes are coming thick and fast, and one recurring theme seems to be that nobody really knew how to label him. Bowie was an original, a creator. Like many truly creative people, he was seldom at the top of the charts, but his fan-base grew over decades and those who listened to him knew that he defied labels. Labels are for convenience, and life is, well, not convenient.

There’s been speculation about his final album, Blackstar, released an iconic two days before his death. The song “Lazarus” has flagged the attention of many, but here we are after the third day and he hasn’t come back. I think of my childhood and tween years in the 1970s, seeing Bowie’s album covers in my brother’s room and wondering if he was a man or woman. His transgressions frightened the young conservative that I was, accepting the label given to me by those who thought they knew me. I heard his songs coming through the open door. I couldn’t understand them, but somehow they remained with me until I was mature enough to learn to listen. Some sounds are too subtle to hear, except with experience. Here was a man telling the world “don’t label me.” And yet label we did.

“Lazarus” is a haunting song. I may be no music critic, but here is a piece by a man who knows he’s dying. The video shows him emerging from a tomb-like wardrobe (in itself significant) and simultaneously lying on his deathbed. He’s in Heaven, but in danger. Still, he knows he’s free. Like the biblical Lazarus from the Gospel of John, resurrection is only temporary. Lazarus has come back, but he must die again. As the frantic Bowie scribbles his final words on the final page, he backs up once again into the tomb from which he emerged. David Bowie may not have been a Bible scholar, but his song is prophetic. The three days have now gone past. He may not have come back, but it just may be that he never really left.

HunkyDory

Dead of Winter

WinterPeopleOne of the commonalities of all religions, I used to tell my students, is the concern with death. Not that all religions react to it in nearly the same way, but the fact is no religion ignores it. For people, obviously, our awareness of our own mortality marks us as indelibly as our birth does. Once we become aware of death, we will never be able to forget it. This inevitability fuels many horror stories, whether literary or cinematic. When I saw Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People, I knew that I would read it. Like most book consumers, I had to wait for the paperback edition, and once it was on offer I got a copy and waited for winter. Well, this year I’m still waiting for winter, but I began reading the story once the nights were long enough to qualify. It is an appropriate story for the season and it introduces what might be considered a kind of monster as well. Like most monsters, however, sleepers are not evil. The undead, however, have to find a way, ironically, to live.

The Winter People is a sad story, and tangled in the way that makes for successful novels. The main issue at play, however, is that with which all religions are concerned. Death is perhaps the most noble of literary subjects. Since we all have to face it, it is universal and yet somehow frightening. Fear of the unknown. The dead, unlike in the stories, don’t really come back to tell us what it’s like. Even those who do, in fiction, give us a distorted view. Theirs is a world inverted from our experience of it. It lacks finality. It is a place between. There is a macabre logic to it.

The living have never been comfortable with the dead. Memory reminds of who they were. McMahon is clear, in her vision, that memory is not who they are. We put them underground, but theologically we can’t let them go. Heaven, Nirvana, Purgatory, reincarnation, or even Hell—we feel that we need to give our dead a sense of place in a life after life. McMahon builds a sober mystery into her non-final afterlife. There are some, I’m sure, who will be kept up at night by her imagination. For me, I now have something to ponder. Many are the stories, like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, that warn of resurrection. We can’t keep the departed with us, and winter, when it comes, is a season of harsh reality.

Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

Death, Technically

Those of you who punish yourselves by reading my posts regularly may wonder at how different my last couple of posts have been. “Vacation” in and of itself is sufficient explanation for the out of the ordinary—different time zones, unreliable grammar, a certain dreaminess of topic (this is why we should all take plenty of time off work). In this case, however, there’s more to it. My wife injured herself the night before our early morning flight, and although she’s recovering well, another traveling companion is moribund. My faithful laptop that has traveled the country, indeed, crossed the ocean a hextad of times, died in its sleep on the flight over. I shut it down before climbing aboard the plane, and when I tried to boot up after that, nothing. Not friendly Apple starting tone, no wink from the camera, no sign of life from the screen.
I pulled out my phone as soon as I landed and asked Siri if there was a Genius Bar nearby. I was headed into remote parts, where shotguns are far more common than laptops. I had projects to accomplish in the rainy moments. I had a couple of readers to keep updated. Could the geniuses perform a miracle? Alas, the schedule was unforgiving. I hadn’t made an appointment and even though I’d been pouring money into Apple products while the genius before me was in still in diapers, I was up a proverbial (as well as literal) creek without an Apple. He halfheartedly gave my keyboard some kind of Vulcan finger combination pinch, but the look in his eye was definitely more Klingon.
I remember coming to this remote cabin before cell phones were invented. People were just beginning to whisper about this rumor called the Internet. People still wrote each other letters. And here I am in downtown Spokane, weeping over the dead device in my lap. It had its limits, in any case. I can’t take it into the lake with me. It needs, at its age, never to wander too far from a power outlet. And yet, it holds all my darkest secrets and most enlightened ideas. And my thumbs are too fat for typing on my phone. Looking out over the mist dancing wraith-like across the Saran-Wrap early morning surface of the lake, I see two bald eagles fly by. Surely I wouldn’t have seen them had I been behind the large screen of my departed friend. These are, after all, communications from the very edges of civilization, and technology may not, all things considered, save my soul.

Life Everlasting

ThruTheWormholeThrough the Wormhole is one of those series that keeps me coming back. I’m currently working my way through the second season because it is a show that I take in small doses. The episodes require thought (and often, more importantly, time—something of which I have too little). Watching the installment “Can We Live Forever?” I was astonished by the optimism of the writers and interviewees. Among a cross-section of scientists, at least, there is the belief that we can, and will, dramatically expand human life. To biblical proportions. And that life won’t be a decrepit, declining feebleness. Instead, we can be, to quote one of the scientists, quoting Bob Dylan, “forever young.” Well, maybe not forever, but you get the picture. Of course, God came up quite a bit in this episode. Immortality is the stuff of divinity. The life-force, which much of science denies exists, is strong. No matter how weak or old, we don’t really want to give it up.

Of course, death is the price of life. We live on a finite planet with dwindling resources. If we don’t die, we run out of space for the next generation. Some have postulated that we need to colonize other worlds—just the thing that got Europeans in trouble in the first place—in order to make room. Room for us. The dominant species. No doubt, we are “programmed” to age and die. As far as we know, all animals are. Even plants. That is to say, life as we know it ends in death. If it doesn’t, can it truly be called life? I would be fascinated to live for a long while and see what we can make of this world. Not the greatest fan of technology, still, I’m impressed how far we’ve come in the brief time I’ve spent on this planet. And I do wonder where we’ll end up. In my mind, however, there always is an end. Even to this infinite universe, about the heat-death of which I’ve often read. What gives us the right to live longer than nature dictates?

It is, surely, a matter of degree. These glasses perched on my nose certainly have prolonged my life beyond what nature would dictate. The vitamin pills I swallow, the fabrics that keep me warm while wicking away perspiration, the things physicians can stop in their germy tracks. We already prolong life. Nevertheless, the century mark has always been symbolically our final goal and sign post that it’s time to hand things over. Thus it was in the beginning. The Bible makes clear that, although the antediluvians lived centuries rather than decades, this was never intended as the lot of the majority. No, we were born to die. We live through our children. The thought of eternity is scary. Especially when we think of how humans are. Those who can afford to live the longest are likely those who least deserve to do so. Do we want to live forever with the plutocrats in charge? Perhaps there’s a reason that we all take that final bow. Still, I can never listen to “Forever Young” without getting misty eyed and imagining the possibilities.

Trisagion

Irony is all around. When we hook words up into phrases or titles they often take on unexpected connotations. I often see the sign for Jesus’ Bookstore on a highway not far from here. I didn’t know the Lord sold books. In this economic climate, I hope he’s diversified his portfolio. One of the other ironies of life is that as soon as I started getting mailings from AARP (aarrpp, indeed! Retirement is a myth!) I also started to receive advertisements for funeral homes. While you’re planning for retirement (hah!) why not plan for the next step beyond? It is more certain. A nice, long sleep sounds good right about now. So I didn’t ignore the flier from the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What’s not to like about that?

Mausoleum

That name, though. Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What sense of that troubling little preposition “of” is intended? Has the Holy Spirit been buried here? Or is it the of of ownership? One should probably be concerned with whom will be around the premises if one is to spend the rest of eternity there. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The drawing of the mausoleum indicates that this is an effort at fund raising. We certainly prefer our graves to be whitewashed. That is the biblical way.

“We sincerely regret,” the reverse reads, “if this should reach any home where there is illness or sorrow, as this was certainly not intended.” In a world of ubiquitous illness and sorrow, such must be a risky proposition from the start. Also, one might note, if one is not Catholic. Are those not welcome at the eucharistic altar welcome at the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit? What if one has a down-payment? Isn’t all of life a down-payment on eternity? In this day of facile information sharing, it isn’t unusual to have people you don’t even know wishing you happy birthday online (by the way, it’s not). It seems we’ve now gone to the other extreme to anticipate a happy death-day. That is, if I’m reading that preposition correctly.

Our Pigeons, Ourselves

You don’t have to be in New York City long to begin to see yourself as an expert on pigeons. The ubiquitous avians are ruthlessly castigated as “flying rats” and “filthy birds,” primarily because they like people food and poop everywhere. I have it on the authority of Gomi and Stinchecum that everybody poops. From what I’ve seen walking through the city early on the morning after a holiday, not everyone is discriminate about where—and I’m not talking only about the pigeons. Still, I can’t help thinking that pigeons are unfairly maligned. They are pretty birds, when examined individually. They have iridescent throat feathers and a pleasing, portly gait—almost jaunty. They manage well, despite hardships. Often I see one hobbling about missing a foot or otherwise physically challenged, and yet ebullient in their pullastrine way.

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Yesterday as the NJ Transit behemoth in which I was riding rounded the helix into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I saw two depressed pigeons. Unlike the jolly bobbing and pecking they usually seem to enjoy, this pair was simply standing. On the ground before them was a dead pigeon. Now I don’t know the backstory here, but the two standing around didn’t look like murderers to me. It seemed that they’d come upon a fallen comrade and were, in their own way, offering respects. In the ongoing debate separating ourselves from other animals, I often wonder if we have by-passed many of the basics. I do know that many animals find dead of their own species distressing. This is well documented. Why not pigeons?

Pigeons—related to doves, which, according to some religious traditions have sacred qualities, eh, Mary?—are seldom classed as the brightest of birds. I’ve written about the intelligence of corvids before, but pigeons have uniquely adapted themselves to our polluting ways. I grew up in a small town where pigeons weren’t especially abundant. They gather in large numbers where many people congregate and drop their litter. And, based on my recent experience, contemplate the mysteries of death. Peregrine falcons lurk overhead, doling out death at over 200 miles an hour. All the pigeons want to do, it seems to me, is to get a free lunch in an uncertain world where those whose presence has conjured them despise them. Unlike their sacred cousins, they are, like us, utterly pedestrian. Maybe they too appreciate the simple value of life.

A Run-By Fruiting

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

I’ve never been enticed by the cult of celebrity. Becoming famous is frequently a matter of being in the right place at the right time to get noticed. Interviews with stars inevitably come across as lacking in substance. Some of the funniest people I’ve known have worked in camera shops, administrative offices, and IT departments. Still, the suicide of Robin Williams a week ago has impacted a wide swath of the nation. We hate to see a funny man die. It is such a truism as to be trite that those who are clowns often host inner demons. Laughter, Reader’s Digest proclaims monthly, is the best medicine. Who better to heal than those who know what it’s like to have been wounded? Yet we want the funny to keep on making us laugh until we move on to the next diversion.

For this past week I’ve been pondering how one man’s tragic death has jolted a nation into a reflective moment of silence. I can’t say I was Robin Williams’ biggest fan, but I’d seen a number of his movies, and I was devoted to Mork and Mindy growing up (aliens have a way of getting prime-time exposure that has never really been explained). I thought he was good at what he did. He was famous and had money, but it wasn’t enough to buy off the demons. Suicides hit me hard since I’ve known a few and have struggled with depression myself. There are times, truth be told, when no direction is up. It is at those times, however, that others tend to ignore you, lest you bring them down. People like to laugh.

There is something profoundly religious about the idea of a wounded healer. Anthropologists as well as theologians have noticed it. They need have only looked as far as the Bible to find examples. Yet the Christian tradition treats suicide as a great sin against God and the plan is that we all live to die either at the hands of nature or of someone else, so the guilt doesn’t cling to us. Death always leads to a remorse that entails such guilt. And yet it is inevitable. As a nation we are used to seeing comedians overdose or live reckless lives that end tragically. Deliberate action, however, feels the most horrendous of all. We’ll ask “why?” for a while, and we’ll make tributes and tearful speeches. And meanwhile some of the funniest people we can claim will be sweeping our floors or asking “would you like fries with that?”