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Goodbye Jesus

Doorknobs, Cucumber Soup And Hell


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Christians can be some of the most fear-ridden people I have ever met. The fear of death often drives Catholics to the confessional several times a week because the infernal stench of sin is a mixture of horseradish and regrets only to be removed with a snake oil elixir of sour mash and self-loathing.


If you look closely, most nervous Catholics actually enjoy Ash Wednesday. The priest imprints their forehead with an ashen cross. He reminds the faithful: "dust you are, and to dust you shall return†(Gen. 3:19). The bidding always opens with the question of whether or not they possess enough celestial awe, enough quiet vigilance of the soul, to avoid burning.




One of the most famous Spanish mystics was a persecuted sixteenth century Carmelite: St. John of the Cross. He wrote his poetry while locked in a cell six feet by ten feet. The other monks would beat him senseless for his heresy. In the desolation, St. John discovered that he only had God. I believe he had something more powerful than the God narrative imposed by the Catholic church of the Counter-Reformation: he found his own voice. St. John writes:


I abandoned and forgot myself,


laying my face on my Beloved;


all things ceased;


I went out from myself,


leaving my cares


forgotten among the lilies.





The term "Beloved" refers to God. Even as an atheist, I still read St. John of the Cross in Spanish. Translations never quite communicate the cadence or nuance of the original language. Anyhow, the theme of death and the longing for release from the body is a constant in his poetry: "dust you are, and to dust you shall return†(Gen. 3:19).




My aunt Sarita was not a mystic. She clung to her rancid Catholicism out of fear of hell.


Sarita enjoyed the solemnity of Ash Wednesday because the priest would whisper:"dust you are and to dust you shall return." Aunt Sarita found comfort in dust but the ashes frightened her. The ashes reminded her of my cremated uncle. We would receive ashes together and aunt Sarita would inevitably sigh: "It's just that I prefer to think of your uncle in other ways. Fernando always loved the sunshine, and I like to imagine that wherever he is now, it's as sunny as can be. Of course, no one knows what happens to you after you die, but it's nice to think of my husband someplace very, very, hot. Don't you think?"


My aunt refuses to touch doorknobs because she believes they are booby-trapped: "Whenever you open a door, just push on the wood. Never use the doorknob. I'm always afraid that it will shatter into a million pieces and that one of them will hit my eye."



If you go to Sarita's house for lunch, odds are she will serve chilled cucumber soup because she's afraid that the stove will blow up. As you probably know, chilled cucumber soup is a delicacy that is best enjoyed on a very hot day. I myself once enjoyed it in Mexico while visiting a friend of mine who works as a snake charmer. When it is well prepared, chilled cucumber soup has a delicious, minty taste, cool and refreshing as if you are drinking something as well as eating it. But if you visit my aunt on a cold day, in a drafty room, chilled cucumber soup is about as welcome as a swarm of wasps at a bat mitzvah.



I joined the Opus Dei out of a fear of death. I felt that my life was booby-trapped, out of control, just like Sarita's quirky obsession with doorknobs, cucumber soup and hell. Although, sometimes I wonder if I didn't immerse myself in the cult out of sheer spite.


See, whenever I have an extended vacation, I drive to Mexico City with my 11-year-old daughter. We cross the border in Brownsville, Texas and enter Matamoros, Mexico. As soon as Ariel notices the signs are in Spanish, she begs me to take her to see "the red birds".


So we take a stroll to see some aggressive redbirds peck at each other. I stand amazed and watch the redbirds fight. They flash and flutter like scraps of burning rags through a sky unbelievably blue, swirling, soaring, plummeting. On the ground they are a blur of feathers, stabbing for each other's eyes. I have seen grown men stop what they were doing, lift their head out from under the hood of a broken-down car, to watch it. Once, when I was my daughter's age, I watched one of the birds attack its own reflection in the side mirror of a truck. It hurled its body again and again against that unyielding image, until it pecked a crack in the glass, until the whole mirror was smeared with blood. It was as if the bird hated what it saw there, and discovered only too late that all it was seeing was itself.


I asked a man watching the scene why he thought that bird did that. He told me it was just its nature.

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I don't know quite what to make of it, bb, but it's sure good reading!

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