Purgatory is a strange idea in Catholic theology—and Protestant and Orthodox Christians for the most part don’t buy it (excepting a kind of appropriation found in the “Toll House” notion that pops up among some Orthodox, especially with those killjoy Ephraimites). As a kid, I could never get my head around it. When I asked my dad to explain it, he said, “It’s when you burn—but not forever.” My intro to theology. As a young man I read Dante’s Purgatorio which didn’t seem so much as “Hell Light” as it did being placed in Cosmic Timeout or in Heaven’s Waiting Room where the gluttonous, for example, are condemned to read the same issue of Bon Appetit for centuries without getting to sample any of the recipes. All this while waiting to hear the long-anticipated words: ”Dr. Martin, the Lord will see you now.” Sounds pretty boring.

It was not until I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the W.Y. Evans-Wentz translation in my mid-twenties that I started to actually understand Purgatory. It is one of the books that has stayed with me through the decades, forming the way I see the world. Very few other books have done that for me—Steiner’s Agriculture course, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the Odyssey (outside of the Bible) being the only three (not including various poets) that come immediately to mind. I have even had the pleasure to teach The Tibetan Book of the Dead to undergrads at a Catholic liberal arts college in a gen ed philosophy course.

What still strikes me about the book is the way it describes the inherently merciful structure of the cosmos—or, for the Christian, of God. The text, which is to be read over the body or imaginatively to the deceased over the course of forty-seven days, is, for me, a brilliant study in human psychology—a psychology that persists in the Bardo the space after death between expiration and either enlightenment or reincarnation.

On the first day, the dead are instructed to recognize the Clear Light:

O nobly-born, that which is called death being come to thee now, resolve thus: ‘O this is now the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act, for the good of all sentiient beings, peopling the illimitable expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards [them, and my entire effort to] the Sole Perfection….

O nobly-born, listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it. O nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed of anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.”

So far so good! Unfortunately, according to the text, it usually doesn’t work out at this point, and the dead one proceeds to the Bardo in which the karmic apparitions appear. Think of these as one’s sins or attachments or bad habits (which Dante explores in both Inferno and Purgatorio). Since most of us are not up to the liberation of the Clear Light, we need the crutches of images and the Bardo states increasingly collate images of physicality/materiality—starting with color and sound, but progressing through images of various deities and, eventually if one isn’t fortunate (and most aren’t) to images of demons. But as the text reminds us, even these are only projections of our own psyches (which is why so many people have drawn comparisons between what we find in The Tibetan Book of the Dead and various iterations of psychedelic experience—both the good trips and the bad).

Throughout the Bardo experiences, fear comes in to straight sour the vibe of potential liberation. For example, on the fourth day, when the deceased sees the Divine Mother Gökarmo, a pesky little dull red light appears:

Be not attracted towards the dull red light of the Preta-loka. That is the light-path proceeding from the accumulation of thine intense attachment which hath come to receive thee. If thou be attracted thereto, thou wilt fall into the World of Unhappy Spirits and suffer unbearable misery from hunger and thirst. Thou will have no chance of gaining Liberation.”

Even though every stage on the Bardo journey offers a chance of liberation through recognition, it gets more and more difficult to resist attachment and fear. For instance, on the fourteenth day, the deceased encounters the

“thirty wrathful deities, Herukas, the twenty-eight various-headed mighty goddesses, bearing various weapons, issuing from within thine own brain, [who] will come to shine upon thee. Fear that not. Recognize whatever shineth to be the thought-forms of thine own intellectual faculties.”

Of course, as on this side of the grave, not everyone is up to the task.

Eventually on the journey through the Bardo, the deceased will see visions of a couple making love—the parents of his or her next incarnation. And here we go again.

Even if one doesn’t accept the possibility of reincarnation, there is much wisdom in the journey that The Tibetan Book of the Dead outlines. Blake also intuited it when he wrote, “They became what they beheld,” which we might also phrase as “they beheld what they were,” a fair take on confirmation bias.

So I don’t think Purgatory is God’s penalty box, but a real purgation in which we are healed of our infirmities. I’m not sure it has to end in reincarnation—I don’t think the goal is to live a perfect life, which is impossible. And I don’t think God is a cosmic lawyer or banker waiting until our interpersonal and existential debts are paid off before entering the Kingdom. And we don’t necessarily need to wait until we die to come to this realization.

Classic Beatles song inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here.

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  • Michael Martin

Maybe it was last year. I was in the middle of a class discussion about—well, I forget exactly what, maybe it was Ivan Illich, maybe it was Václav Havel—and the conversation turned to the topic of war. Most college students, in my recent experience, don’t think much about war—or about current events to be honest—but I have been reminding them for over twenty years that the horrors of the past, of genocide, the Holocaust, chemical and biological warfare, could happen at anytime. If Germany, home of the most sophisticated and educated European culture of the early twentieth century could cave to something like Nazism, it could happen to anybody. Seeing recent disconcerting events unfolding over the Western Democracies™, I guess I was right.

I have thought long and hard about the problem of war, though I have never served in the military. Perhaps this stems from my earliest memories of waiting for cartoons to start on television in the morning and having to wait through the news reports of the dead and missing in Vietnam. I’m sure those experiences, administered in homeopathic doses over the course of my early childhood, served as something of an anti-war vaccine.

The thing is, as I was discussing with my students, I can’t believe war is still a thing. You’d think the human race would have figured this out by now, right? Watching recent geopolitical developments—not only in Ukraine, but also in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Italy, and elsewhere—I find myself somewhat astonished that people go along with this theme and variation on totalitarianism and “soft totalitarianism” (“it’s for your safety”). And I don’t just mean the general populations, but also those enlisted in the military and police forces. Why do the men and women in uniform go along with the ruse? Why do they victimize the proletariat at the command of their masters? And I have also watched—and I’m sure you have, too—as people of relatively comfortable means in a kind of mimesis of the elite classes cheer on the prospect of war—even nuclear war. This is insane.

Over the course of my life struggling to understand the phenomena of war and human cruelty, I have turned to two sources of, if not comfort, then at least of consolation: the Iliad and the writings of my tutelary spirit, Simone Weil, whom Albert Camus called “the only great spirit of our time.”

The Iliad tells the story of the absurdity of war. The Greeks have been fighting in Troy for a decade—just to get Helen back from Paris and restored to Menelaos. Hardly a prize worth all the lives lost. But this is how the powerful roll. To add irony to the tale, Homer opens The Iliad with Achilles sulking in his tent because Agamemnon took away his war trophy, the slave girl Briseis, for his own. The story’s absurdity is extended further in Achilles’s slaying of Hector, the most noble figure in the epic, and dragging his body behind his chariot in shame for weeks afterward. Integrity doesn’t matter in a world characterized by absurdity. As Weil writes in her essay, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force,”

The wantonness of the conqueror that knows no respect for any creature or thing that is at its mercy or is imagined to be so, the despair of the soldier that drives him on to destruction, the obliteration of the slave or the conquered man, the wholesale slaughter—all these elements combine in the Iliad to make a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero.” [1]

I think this an apt description of our own moment—and of much of the chatter on social media (from people who will never pick up a weapon) for that matter. Force is the sole hero.

Weil expands on this notion in “Human Personality,” concerning the usually unspoken utterance, “Why am I being hurt?”:

Those people who inflict the blows which provide this cry are prompted by different motives according to temperament or occasion. There are some people who get a positive pleasure from the cry, and many others simply do not hear it. For it is a silent cry, which sounds only in the silent heart.

These two states of mind are closer than they appear to be. The second is only a weaker mode of the first; its deafness is complacently cultivated because it is agreeable and it offers a positive satisfaction on its own. There are no other restraints upon our will than material necessity and the existence of other human beings around us. Any imaginary extension of these limits is seductive, so there is a seduction in whatever helps us to forget the reality of the obstacles. That is why upheavals like war and civil war are so intoxicating; they empty human lives of their reality and seem to turn people into puppets. That is also why slavery is so pleasant to the masters.” [2]

The question is: how intoxicated are we at this point?

Weil’s contemporary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin served in World War I and saw the horrors of armed conflict up close. He recalls his state of mind in the face of this in his essay “The Promised Land”:

“—And was peace, then, no more than this?

“—The peace that all through these long years was the brilliant mirage always before our eyes.

The peace that gave us courage to hold fast and to go into the attack because we thought we were fighting for a new world.

The peace that we hardly dared to hope might be ours, so lovely it seemed…

And this is all that peace had in store for us!” [3]

Thus “The War to End All Wars.” Thus geopolitics. Thus “The Great Reset.”

In a kind of scatological free-association, this all reminded me of a song I wrote with my friend Graham when we were in our early twenties. We’d been writing songs together since we were fifteen and we were just getting good at it. We were exploring a variety of genres and styles, incorporating mandolin, harmonica, fiddle and other instruments into our arsenal of available textures. It was really an exciting time. The world opened up. Everything seemed possible.

One Sunday night we were driving around in my jalopy drinking whiskey and Coke (don’t judge me) listening to a documentary or something about Bob Dylan. I remember something about Dylan hitchhiking around Minnesota, something about the Bible, something about trying to find himself as a young man—something Graham and I were doing ourselves.

The next day or so I came up with a very folky and clever chord progression and showed it to Graham. He immediately got to work and the Dylan story transfigured through his imagination. I can’t recall all of the verses, but snatches come back:

Looking out into the blazing sun

With my Bible and my thumb

No inclination as to where we’d go

No inclination at all

But I remember the chorus:

Thanks be to Jesus and to everyone

I thank the Lord I am alive

Thanks be to you, my trusted friend

All together: We’re alive.

Now Graham wasn’t then a religious person, nor is he now that I know (haven’t seen him for a few years). But something beautiful spoke through him then. We called the song “The Promised Land.” What I loved about his lyric was that it didn’t offer any answers. Rather, it rested in the knowledge that the Promised Land is a reality we can enter at any time, that it is always present. Even in times of war.

One of the great anti-war poems.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here.

1. Simone Weil, An Anthology (Grove Press, 1986), 186.

2. Ibid., 52.

3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War, trans. René Hague (Harper & Row, 1965), 278.

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a flyer I made 30 (!) years ago

I am happy to announce that I will be giving a weekend course, Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path, this spring. Although I originally toyed with the idea of doing such a course online, on second thought I have decided it would be best to do this the old fashioned way: in person and on my own land, Stella Matutina Farm in Grass Lake, Michigan.

Biodynamics, while it has a solid theoretical framework underpinning it, is more than anything a hands on enterprise, so I intend to combine theoretical, practical, and, yes, artistic and festive aspects into the course. The idea is to have a lived experience of the sophiological implications of biodynamic farming and gardening and how such a way of being connects to the traditional Christian year and the astronomical and mystical elements that inform it.

The course will take place from Friday evening, April 29th, to late Saturday afternoon on the 30th. The next day, of course, is May Day and participants are invited to attend our farm’s yearly May Day Festival on Sunday the 1st of May at 3:00 p.m.

The fee for the course is $120 per family (assuming some people would like to bring spouses or children) and a lunch will be provided on Saturday. The farm is situated in the middle of Michigan’s Waterloo State Recreation Area which has plenty of camping spaces available as well as cabins to rent (though of more limited availability) and there are also other B&B accommodations in the area. Grass Lake is approximately 30 miles west of Ann Arbor and 15 miles east of Jackson, Michigan.

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and send it in via snailmail with a check or money order or email director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com and pay via Venmo @Michael-Martin-295

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