by Frank Thomas Smith
Francisco: As you know, Diego, I admire Doña Rafaela greatly, and was disappointed that I could not be present during the meeting you and the others had with her recently.
Diego: Yes, Francisco, it is indeed unfortunate that you could not be there. I heard that you are having legal problems.
Francisco: Yes, the damned escribanos are making me pull my hair out. But that is of no consequence. Could you tell me what Doña Rafaela said? But first, who was there?
Diego: I think I can tell you the essence of what was said, I took notes.
Francisco: I have had the opportunity to speak with her on several occasions, and I can only say that those conversations changed my life.
Diego: I can well imagine it. Doña Rafaela, although no longer young, is still a very attractive woman. Do you know if she has a lover?
Francisco: I’ve never heard of one. I would have no objection to being a candidate myself, but would never have the courage to make the necessary advances.
Diego: And Doña Rafaela has never made advances towards you?
Francisco: Enough! You’re pulling my leg. Now please tell me who was there.
Diego: Beside myself, Ana María, Cordelia and Maximiliano were there.
Francisco: Did Maximiliano travel all the way from Buenos Aires for the meeting, or was he in Córdoba on some other business.
Diego: Knowing that Maximiliano likes to take advantage of all opportunities, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he took care of some business while in Córdoba. But I do know that he took the first flight when I informed him by email of our impending interview with Doña Rafaela – and the subject.
Francisco: Then a subject had been decided on beforehand. What was it?
Diego: Yes, Doña Rafaela insisted. The three of us had to agree quickly, which wasn’t easy. Finally we decided on the subject of immortality. It had already been decided when I invited Maximiliano. I knew he’d be interested.
Francisco: I wish I’d known myself, I’d have sent the damned escribanos to hell. The subject is especially interesting because of that Terri Schiavo case in the United States.
Diego: Yes, and the Pope dying, and everyone so sad about it.
Francisco: So tell me now what happened.
Diego: Gladly. First though, I must add that there was also a young lady present, a Señorita Micaela, apparently Doña Rafaela's companion or housekeeper, and she, Doña Rafaela, asked her upon our arrival to prepare tea. This annoyed Ana María, I could tell, because she considered it so bourgeois. You know how she is.
Francisco (impatiently): Yes, yes, but now please get to the substance.
Diego: Of course. I had already informed Doña Rafaela of our decision that the subject of her discourse should be immortality, but if we were expecting some kind of lecture from her we were mistaken. After the tea had been served and Micaela had taken a seat with us…
Francisco: Diego, I am not interested in tea or Micaela, so please…
Diego: Sorry, but you are truly very impatient Francisco.
Francisco: It is my nature. Sorry. Please go on.
Diego (looking at his notes): Doña Rafaela asked what we wanted to know about immortality. She passed the ball to us, so to speak. No one answered for a while, which was somewhat embarrassing, until finally Cordelia said, “We would like to know, Doña Rafaela, if we are immortal or mortal, that is, if death is the end or we live on somehow. At least that’s what I would like to know.” Doña Rafaela then asked if the rest of us had the same interest. We agreed that we did. “Very well,” she said, “let’s find out what we already know about it. Living as we do in a nominally Catholic country, I assume that you have all received some kind of instruction on the Catholic opinion.”
“I’m Jewish,” Maximilian said.
“I see, and what have you been told about immortality?”
“I am an agnostic,” Ana María said.
Doña Rafaela smiled: “And you would like to drop the “a”.”
“I mean that you would like to become a Gnostic rather than an agnostic.”
“Do mean to know rather than not to know?”
“Yes. But don’t bother answering. You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t the case.”
“I was brought up Catholic,” Cordelia said. “They say that when you die you either go to heaven, hell or purgatory, depending on whether or not you sinned. And even if you did sin, you can go to heaven anyway if you confess to a priest. I left the Church and became an evangelist for a while. They say essentially the same thing, but without the priests.”
“Does that make sense to you?” Doña Rafaela asked.
“And you, Diego?” she asked me.
“Agnostic, I suppose,” I said.
“We don’t have a Muslim with us, but they say essentially the same,” Doña Rafaela said. “Does anyone know the Buddhist point of view?”
We all did, more or less, but I said that they and the Hindus believed in reincarnation, just to answer.
“Very well,” Doña Rafaela said, “so all these religions believe in some kind of immortality, right?”
“That’s right,” Cordelia said, “but our new religion, science, believes in nothing they can’t prove in the laboratory.”
“Science,” Maximiliano objected, “can’t believe or not believe, that depends on the individual scientist. Some believe – or at least accept the possibility of an afterlife.”
“Yes, but you know what I meant, Maximiliano, so please don’t split hairs.”
There was silence for a moment, until Ana María broke it: “What do you think, Doña Rafaela?”
Doña Rafaela smiled that Mona Lisa way she has and crossed her beautiful legs.
Francisco: Ah, so she was wearing a miniskirt?
Diego (grinning): A modified one. She looked at each of us in turn, then said, “You are all unsatisfied with what has been described so far, I take it.” We all nodded. “And you said, Maximiliano, that some scientists accept the possibility of an afterlife. Would you agree that they might even believe in one?” Maxy agreed with that possibility.
“These, then, would be the undogmatic ones, Doña Rafaela went on. “Dogma, you see, is the worst sin of the churches and of science. Dogmatic materialists insist that there is no afterlife, or immortality. Do any of you think that this is reasonable?” I, the proclaimed agnostic, said that it seemed just as reasonable as the church dogmas.” Doña Rafaela laughed. “Excellent. Perhaps we can eliminate all dogma from our conversation then. Is that agreed?” We all agreed of course.
“Very well,” Doña Rafaela went on, “perhaps then we can use thinking – our own, that is.” Again we agreed. “Let’s then think what it would mean if there was no immortality. We would all die and that would be the end of it.”
“The end of all our problems,” someone said, I forget who.
“That’s certainly true,” Doña Rafaela replied, “if it were the case, which we haven’t decided yet. I wonder, though, if we really want all our problems to end so definitively, along with our occasional joys, loves, struggles and thirst for knowledge, to mention a few.”
“An absolute end is inconceivable to me,” Ana María said.
“It may be unpleasant, but inconceivable it’s not,” Maximiliano objected.
“It’s as conceivable as the concept of infinity is,” Doña Rafaela said. “It that what you mean?” Maxy looked uncertain. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“I envy you then”, Doña Rafaela said. “For when I really think about it, I find the idea of infinity very to difficult to imagine.”
“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Maxy said.
“No, it doesn’t. It may very well exist. But does infinite nothing exist?” None of us knew what to say to that. “You see, if infinity exists, it is something; therefore infinite nothing cannot exist. Do you agree, Maximiliano?”
“I guess so…yes.”
“Then infinite nothing, though inexistent, is conceivable?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Neither am I. However, we have decided that infinite nothing, conceivable or not, does not exist. Yet you seem to think that a human being, a living person, after physical death can enter into a state of infinite nothing, which we just agreed doesn’t exist.”
“Well…” Maxy began.
Doña Rafaela smiled. “No wells about it, Maximiliano. If infinite nothing does not exist, then nothing that ever existed can ever cease to exist. And that includes us. Do you agree?”
“Not necessarily,” Cordelia said, frowning. “What about the physical body? That seems to cease to exist when we die. I realize that the physical elements which make up the body continue to exist, but the living body – what about that?”
“You have answered your own question, dear. The form of the body disappears to sight, but its constituent elements do not,” Doña Rafaela said. “But even the form is not nothing.”
“Do you mean that the form continues to exist, but it’s invisible?”
“That’s at least possible,” Doña Rafaela said, “but there’s something else.”
“The soul?” Cordelia asked.
“Yes, if we can agree that the soul exists. That’s essential.”
“I agree that the soul exists,” Cordelia said, “the question is if it’s immortal.”
“Quite. What about the rest of you?”
Three of us agreed. Maximiliano said that he’d prefer to leave it as an hypothesis for the moment.
“Very well, an hypothesis. Assuming then that the soul exists, there are two alternatives to consider. Either it dies along with the body or it does not. Do you agree to that, Maximiliano?”
“I see no other alternative,” Maxy said.
“Good. If it dies when the body does, what is the point of having a soul in the first place?” She was still looking at Maximiliano, who shrugged and said he didn’t know.
“No do I,” Doña Rafaela said. “Now, we already decided that there can be no infinite nothing. That means that nothing ceases to exist…”
“What about the body’s form?” Maxy interjected. “You said that it ceases to exist.”
“I said that it disappears, that is, to our sight, not that it ceases to exist. We don’t know that.”
“Yes, but I still have my doubts about that.”
“Fine, doubts are healthy,” Doña Rafaela said with a smile. “Now, if nothing ceases to exist, the soul doesn’t either. At least you must agree that that is logical.”
“Well, yes, it’s logical, but that doesn’t mean it’s true, Maxy insisted.
“Let me continue,” Doña Rafaela said, “and we’ll come back to that later, okay?”
“Please do, Doña Rafaela,” I said, wanting to kick Maxy in the butt.
“If the soul continues to exist because nothing ceases to exist, then there is an afterlife, and it must be the soul – or the individual “I” if you prefer – that lives on. Furthermore, if the soul doesn’t continue to live on in a corpse, it must continue to exist somewhere else, and that means immortality. Am I right?”
“Yes,” Cordelia agreed immediately and enthusiastically. The rest of us said nothing, we were still thinking.
“Now, Maximiliano,” Doña Rafaela continued, “you are still worried about the fact that I haven’t really proved immortality. Am I right?”
“I don’t want to be disrespectful,” Maxy said, “but I don’t think you have.”
“Not at all disrespectful, especially since you are right,” Doña Rafaela said to our surprise. “You can only prove it to yourself. Only you know if you are immortal. If you are, you know it.”
“Should one believe, then without proof?” Cordelia asked.
“If that helps you, yes,” Doña Rafaela replied.
“The Church says we must have faith, but I think they say that because they can’t explain a lot of things.”
“Faith is good,” Doña Rafaela said. “But it depends on what you have faith in. If the Church says you should have faith in the truth of dogma, then that isn’t good in my opinion, because much dogma is false.”
“Like the Pope being infallible?”
“For example, although they do restrict that to faith and morals. On the other hand, faith in the existence of God is good, even if we don’t know who or what he or she is.”
“And immortality?” Maxy asked.
“Most definitely,” Doña Rafaela replied with emphasis. “Faith in immortality is absolutely essential for mental health.”
“Even if it’s not true?” Maxy again.
“But you can’t know if it’s true or not by denying it; the best way to prove it to yourself is to have faith in it. Then it will show itself to you.”
“What about reincarnation, Doña Rafaela?” Ana María said. “Is that true?”
“Would you believe it if I said yes or no?”
“I don’t know.”
“Good. Then if you really want to know, after the first two steps of believing in God, then immortality, you should think hard about it. Whether one lifetime is sufficient to develop to godliness, whether there is an evolution of consciousness as well as biological evolution, whether the suffering of the innocents is explained any other way. If you really think about it, you will come to your own conclusions.”
“Doña Rafaela,” Cordelia said, “one of the reasons we decided to ask you about immortality is the case of that woman, Terri, in the United States who was in a permanent vegetative state – according to the doctors at least – and the terrible fight between her parents, who wanted to keep her alive, and her husband, who wanted to let her die…”
“Yes,” Doña Rafaela said. “A very interesting situation. And you were right to think it pertains to our subject.”
“What do you think about that, Doña Rafaela?”
“I think that there is a lot of hypocrisy involved. Aside from the parents, who we can assume to have been sincere, the rest, politicians and clergy, acted abominably.”
“Why do you say that, Doña Rafaela,” Maxy asked her.
“Because those people all claim to be religious and…”
“The religious right,” Ana María interrupted.
“Whatever. And if they are so religious they must believe in the immortality we were discussing. Isn’t that true?”
We all nodded.
“So if they believe in immortality, why are they so afraid of death?”
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Doña Rafaela clapped. “Beautiful, Maximiliano, and I think Hamlet was right. Fear and ignorance are behind so many of our actions. All those people who prayed for Terri’s continued existence in a brain-dead body profess faith in God but prefer to bear such ills rather than venture into the unknown.”
“The Pope,” Ana María said suddenly.
“He didn’t go that way. They could have put the tubes in him to keep him alive, but he went home and died.”
“Yes, he had faith,” Doña Rafaela said. “Although he may not have known what to expect, he was willing to leave it to God.”
Diego: That’s about the gist of the conversation, Francisco. It was very interesting, and I think even Maxy was impressed.
Francisco: Did you make arrangements for another meeting?
Diego: We didn’t have the opportunity. Doña Rafaela received a phone call, spoke to someone in German, I think, or maybe it was Yiddish. She excused herself and Micaela stood up and showed us out. I think we’d all like to continue the conversation though.
Francisco: Please let me know when.
Diego: Of course. We should wait a while though. We don’t want to impose on Doña Rafaela. We could also use some time to digest what she said.
Francisco: Does digestion have anything to do with immortality?
Diego: No less than mini-skirts, surely.