Tuesday, April 26, 2011

athena, saint therese, and the question of faith, part 2

after my parents' deaths, both in 1994, i talked about this to a wonderful, truly holistic therapist.  i explained the dreams in which i thought they came to me, as well as the dreams that i knew were produced by my own mind.  i was unable to keep myself from worrying about the reality of death. the circle was whirring around now: if death is permanent, why do we bother living as if it mattered?  i've never accepted the idea of immortality through children or influence or the work you've done: you're not immortal if you don't know it, regardless of how other mortals experience what you've done. but if life is eternal, why do we live this existence so thoroughly when our deepest finite experiences must pale in the face of eternity? these were not, and are not, philosophical speculations to me.  maybe that's all they are to some people, thought i doubt it.

my therapist had the sense and the humanity not to try and dismiss all this with a what-do-you-feel-about-having-these-thoughts?  instead, she posed a question.  if i could prove to you, with absolute certainty, that there was life after death, she asked, how do you think you would live your life?  i thought--or rather, felt-- about it a moment, and said, i'd live pretty much the way i do now, only more happily.  there was nothing in particular i could envision changing in my daily activities.  okay, she said.  now, if i could prove to you, with absolute certainty, that there was nothing after death, how do you think you would live your life? and i thought/felt,  i suppose i would go on eating when my body demanded it, and pissing, and doing what my body said i should do, but i doubt i'd do much beyond that.  so now, think about those answers she said.  now, what do you actually believe?  and i knew.  i was living my life the way i would if i believed in forever.  i believed in forever.

i believe in forever.

enter yet another element.  for the past 10 years or so, i have been teaching a great-literature type class, beginning with homer and ending with shakespeare.  how much this has been in my life altogether is a different story for a different post.  but it has, among other things, thrown me into the world of the ancient gods.  i've gotten to know these gods fairly intimately--perhaps as intimately as i once knew the god of the catholic schools,  as intimately as i once knew little therese.

then one semester, i traveled in france with a friend.  we ended up in a town called nimes, close to avignon, where i came across the partial ruin of an ancient altar to athena.  i stood there, transfixed, feeling the energy of the thousands of worshippers who had once stood there.it was precisely the energy i'd been feeling in church.  i was engulfed in their hopes, prayers, fears, faith.

i knew that there was never really a goddess athena.  and i knew that there had always been a goddess athena.  this was bone-deep knowledge, soul-deep knowledge.  athena, consciously, knowingly existed.  whether she had been en-souled by all those worshippers; whether she was, like saint therese, a real person interpreted as sacred (and teaching Christine de Pisan's City of Ladies helped me with this one) and thus appearing to humans in a sacred guise, i had no idea.  i should say i have no  idea; at the time the experience was all-encompassing, and i didn't have any idea of anything at all.  the questions came later. the questions remain.  so does the truth of that experience.

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