Cremation, mysticism, Web worries


In response to Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s “Good Grief” (December 3, 2010), I would like to present an alternative view of cremation. In 2006, my closest friend was cremated by her own choice, which she explained to our religious community this way: economy (significant savings can go to the mission); ecology (the earth is less taken up with metals that cannot become part of it); and symbolism (the “whole burnt offering” of Scripture, giving all to God, as she had tried to do in her life). Her remains were carried directly and respectfully from the nursing home by the funeral director. They were carried into the church by a sister and placed by the altar with flowers and a photograph. She was very present to us as we talked of her, prayed, and commended her to her eucharistic Lord. A sister carried her urn to the cemetery, where we completed her rites. She now rests among members of her community.

I expect this scenario to be repeated for my own sister and for myself. It feels perhaps less unnatural than the cold hardness of embalming, and no less respectful. It, too, is “how Catholics bury our loved ones,” and it did not—does not—feel as if it requires a “rite of atonement.”

Mary Ellen Doyle, SCN
Louisville, Ky.



I applaud Jerry Ryan’s plea for greater attention to everyday mysticism (“Masked Mysticism,” December 17, 2010). Yet I would caution that traditional mystics have much more in common with the everyday mystic than Ryan’s essay suggests. There is a sacramental mysticism that is rooted in baptism: John of the Cross holds that the grace of baptism is the very same grace as mystical contemplation (Spiritual Canticle B, 23.6). I would add that his Ascent of Mount Carmel, which Ryan mentions, should be read only after one is thoroughly familiar with the exquisite poetry of John of the Cross. With these poems one comes closest to sharing vicariously in John’s encounters with Christ, the Bridegroom. Follow that poetry with neglected commentaries like the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame of Love. Only then will the Ascent make sense.

The great mystics like Gregory the Great and Teresa of Ávila were not locked in a privatized, Jesus-and-me spirituality; rather, Teresa insisted that love of neighbor and good works were the natural outcome of mystical encounters. Everyday mystics would benefit much from becoming conversation partners with mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross. Ryan recommends the little way of Thérèse of Lisieux, who, by the way, acknowledges her debt to John of the Cross, whom she read from the age of seventeen.

By and large, Christians neglected the mystical tradition from the late seventeenth century until the twentieth. Let’s hope that we do not replicate that neglect of the mystical tradition that Thomas Merton did so much to retrieve and that, as Ryan says, belongs to the essence of the church.

Keith J. Egan
South Bend, Ind.



I fondly hope that Joseph D. Becker’s sketch of “how Israel and Palestine might work it out” (“Divided They Stand,” December 17, 2010) might be a forecast of peaceful developments. Yet I increasingly suspect that all who share such hopes are living an illusion propagated by both the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and the Israeli government to hide much harsher realities and intentions.

Start with Israel. Yes, Israeli leaders were sincerely involved in drafting the Geneva Accords that Becker essentially follows. And yes, successive Israeli governments (including Netanyahu’s) have continually talked about peaceful intentions and plans. Yet the reality of their actions for far too many years is a succession of land grabs maintained by constant military harassment and repression. Were it happening anyplace else, we would not hesitate to call it “ethnic cleansing.” Indeed, Israel’s goal does not seem to be the currently favored “two-state solution,” but a “Greater Israel” that allows, at best, a subservient Palestinian labor force conveniently living in “Palestinian-controlled” bantustans that Israel does not have to pay for.

Of course we hear none of this in our major media, partly because of the influence of lobbyists, but also because of what Andrew Bacevich describes in his new book Washington Rules as the militarist consensus that has dominated U.S. foreign policy for the past sixty years.

I suspect that most of those in Washington and throughout the establishment sincerely hope for peace in terms somewhat like those laid out by Becker. Yet that does not stop their more primary commitment to $3-billion a year (and rising) in military aid to Israel—which continues to send Israel the message that in the end we, too, care less for peace with justice and more for endless attempts to increase “security” by expanding military presence and intervention.

John F. Kane
Denver, Colo.



Beth Dufresne’s “Gullible Travels” (December 17, 2010) seems a little too harsh toward those who tour slums to see, and perhaps to learn. To say, as she does quoting Emely Silver, that people who can pay to go to Africa can afford to go there and work is not true. A plane ticket and a short trip are very different from spending weeks or months in a place.

Like Dufresne I find it reprehensible if people simply gawk or disrespect privacy. However, I have long been convinced that Americans do not know enough about the lives of people in other countries, both developed and underdeveloped. Many people would have a better understanding of what real poverty is like if they had a chance to see it. The teenagers of our church are offered the opportunity to spend a few days in an underdeveloped country to do a little work, but mostly to see and experience. They come back with a deeper understanding of what real poverty is. That is because while there they meet and talk with people, play with the children, and find them to be beautiful people, their brothers and sisters. In every group of “slum tourists” there must be at least a few who will delve more deeply and make longer commitments.

Lucy Fuchs
Brandon, Fla.



I very much appreciated Christine Neulieb’s article on the important issue of the virtuous use of digital technology (“Changing Our Minds,” December 17, 2010). She identifies important reasons we need not “sit helpless and passive as the Internet re-forms us.”

Her individualistic approach, however, overlooks the deeper problem, eloquently worked out in the works of Albert Borgmann, that technologies contain inherent social logics that constrain individual answers to the (rightly) collective question, “How will we choose to use the technology?” While technology may be morally neutral in itself, it is illusory to suppose that any piece of technology is merely a tool lying around; the automobile and the train, for example, are both technologies, but each contains a different inherent logic, and our ability to make virtuous use of either is significantly shaped by this social logic, not least because how I use it is not separable from how others use it.

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is an important study because it attends not simply to neuroscience, but also to the social effects inherent in different media technologies throughout history. Oral storytelling and books contain different social logics, as we still recognize in differentiating private reading of the Bible from liturgical proclamation. (“Different” need not mean better or worse; books promote extended introspective engagement and the transmission of stories over great distances, even as they inhibit memorization skills and collective engagement.)

By focusing on individual virtue, especially in analyzing a technology that is intrinsically connective, Neulieb’s approach avoids the question of what the Internet is doing to us and incorrectly imagines that our reaction to a technology can be merely personal. The Internet is surely not evil—after all, I am sending this via e-mail!—but the inexorable social logic of its constant use, especially by children, seems to raise questions that, like the car and the television, go far beyond individual discipline.

David Cloutier
Frederick, Md.



David Cloutier makes a good philosophical point about technology’s effects on a society, as opposed to its effects on the individual. The social logic inherent in a technology does constrain individual choices about how to use it—though it does not completely determine them. Even sheep occasionally wander off in a different direction from the rest of the flock; much more so, human beings. We have a tendency to go with the flow, but we can choose not to. Individual choices about how to use a technology require all the more attention when the technology has a strong social pull.

Still, I do not “imagine that our reaction to a technology can be merely personal.” The development of a new technology certainly raises social questions in addition to those of individual discipline. My essay happened to focus on what the individual can do in response to distracting technologies; societal responses, at the level of public discourse and policy, would be a subject for another piece, perhaps an academic one. But individual responses do pool and become social trends, so they are relevant to the larger question as well. And as I mentioned, virtue is formed socially, in interaction with those who share our lives: we talk about how we handle these things, and we look to each other for good example, and in doing so we influence each other’s choices and eventually those of the wider community.

Christine Neulieb

Published in the 2011-01-28 issue: 

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