Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bye, bye, blackbird

After my Confession app post yesterday, I went back to reading Carlos Eire's Waiting for Snow in Havanna, a memoir of his early youth in pre-Castro Cuba. And perhaps because of the post I took particular notice as his grade school teacher -- an R.C. Christian Brother -- explained the meaning of eternity:
And what did forever mean?

"Ah Carlos, good question. Infinity is beyond comprehension. The best we can do is employ images to convey a sense of infinity. You want to know what 'forever' means in terms of hell and the suffering that awaits us there? Well, answer this question first: if all of the oceans on earth were to be filled with sand, and a bird were to remove one tiny grain of sand every million years, how long would it take for all of the sand to be removed?"

We gave all sorts of answers, but all of them were wrong.

"All right, you want to know the right answer? The right answer is this: ridding the earth of all that sand, grain by grain, in one-million-year increments would take only a fraction of the time one would spend in hell. The whole process would be only an infinitesimally insignificant fraction of the eternity that is hell. So small a fraction as not to count at all. Almost the same as zero. Eternity has no end."

And just one sin could take you there. Just one.
I am fourteen years older than Eire, and grew up in a different country, but I recall hearing the same explanation of eternity from one of my teachers. It must have been one of the standard stories that were drilled into young brains worldwide by Roman Catholic educators. Just one mortal sin -- touching oneself maybe -- and if you were suddenly struck by lightning before having an opportunity to confess or mumble an Act of Contrition, then you suffered horrible torments forever and ever. No end.

Who dreamed this stuff up? You read it in Joyce too, and all the way back to the Middle Ages. And we were supposed to love this God unconditionally, this ogre who would send little boys to the eternally licking flames for one expression of a natural urge, an urge presumably put there by the Creator himself.

Don't tell me that "no one really believed all that stuff." We believed it and more that was equally absurd, and most people in the world still do. The burden of the supernatural.

How much more beautiful a view of life that unfolds within the natural order. How much more beautiful an impetus to goodness that comes from the realization (perhaps partly innate) that our own interests and those of our loved ones are best served by doing unto others as you would have them do unto you -- not forgetting the warm feeling of satisfaction that inevitably follows a gratuitous good deed.