We at Harper’s Magazine are deeply saddened by the loss of our former contributing editor Barry Lopez (1945–2020), who died on Christmas Day. Over the course of four decades, Barry wrote more than a dozen works of criticism, reportage, and memoir for the magazine, all of them informed by the combination of wonder and moral urgency that made him one of America’s most beloved and celebrated authors. A remembrance of Barry by the composer John Luther Adams can be found here.
The Odd Couple
Ann Patchett’s account of the friendship she formed with Sooki Raphael during the pandemic [“These Precious Days,” Folio, January] is one of the most beautiful magazine stories I have ever read, made all the more meaningful because it brought back memories of my mother and her own battle with cancer. Although my mother and I never shared a mushroom trip, we did undertake many journeys together during the last two years of her life, the most memorable being a visit with her five sisters.
I spent that weekend appreciating the love they had for one another, taking picture after picture in a desperate attempt to capture the experience for something like posterity. I want to thank Patchett for her essay, which is timely in so many unfortunate ways. I am certain that she has similarly touched thousands of others, bringing them warmth, love, and hope at a time of so little. Here’s to better days to come.
Port Orchard, Wash.
Patchett’s essay was a blessing in the tedious final days of 2020. Watching from Canada as the United States undergoes a stultifying series of social and political crises has been frankly horrifying—like watching a once sharp-witted neighbor descend into dementia. The luminosity of Patchett’s writing on the unfashionable subjects of compassion, friendship, and beauty gives me hope that such sensitivity might help save the country from its demons.
Reading Patchett’s article, I found myself amazed once again at how fascinated some celebrities seem to think the rest of us are by their lives, no matter how banal they are.
More importantly, I was perplexed that she received such poor advice before embarking on her first psychedelic experience. Paranoia being the most common downside of such encounters, the last thing you should do is let your guide depart immediately after the trip begins, leaving you alone with your fears of death and loss. Oh, and pick your own trip playlist, Ann. Never use someone else’s.
I read Fred Bahnson’s article on the sorry state of America’s “reduced to a platform” Christendom with interest, then with increasing concern [“The Gate of Heaven Is Everywhere,” Report, January]. Although he describes and advocates for the return to a contemplative tradition in Christianity—focusing his attention on the popular Franciscan Richard Rohr—the essay also serves as an obituary for Christianity that I found premature. Bahnson’s view that the people leaving churches are “drawn to more mystical expressions’’ of spirituality is debatable at best. I would argue that they leave just as often because they no longer believe.
Bahnson describes conferences and gatherings that present a secular spirituality, one that shares some common ground with religion regarding empathy and equity, but that rejects any type of metaphysical foundation, religious revelation, or dogma. But secular spirituality would be hard-pressed to simulate the kinds of humility and forgiveness intrinsic to established religious traditions, because the latter demand acting against one’s own self-interest—they require real sacrifice.
He depicts isolated spiritual clusters functioning autonomously within an increasingly narcissistic and secular society, and claims that these groups can provide their transient members with deep, universal spiritual fervor even in the absence of self-sacrifice. This watering down reminds me of what Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says to Christ: “Thou didst ask far too much from him.” Spiritual universalism, in essence, is just another alternative to true engagement with Christendom.
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
While it is true that there has been a painful exodus from all Christian denominations, the large numbers attending Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ conferences don’t help matters. As the old saying has it, “If everything is true, then nothing is false.” A relationship with God requires wrestling with your ego, making room in yourself for God and grace. But God isn’t only an internal phenomenon, He is also an external one—the leap of faith required for the latter half of this conception is substantial but crucial. He is with you but not of you.
West Frankfort, Ill.