Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Night of Fire

 

Blaise Pascal, mathematician, scientist, inventor, and philosopher, a man who from the age of 16 had been making historic contributions to mathematics and the physical sciences, who, despite a sickly constitution and a capacity for intense abstraction nonetheless oversaw the material construction of his experiments and inventions with great zest, was barely past 30 when saw something unexpected one raw November night. He saw fire. The vision of it so branded him that he sewed the record he made of it, his Memorial, into his coat, carrying it with him the rest of his life:

Memorial, Pascal

In school, I was taught that Pascal meant it when he said, “GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob / not of the philosophers and of the learned” – that after his night of fire that fateful November, Pascal really did renounce all scientific thought as libido excellendi, the concupiscence of the mind. Bertrand Russell called this renunciation “philosophical suicide.” Nietzsche called Pascal “the most instructive victim of Christianity.” By contrast, Pascal’s sister and hagiographer, Gilberte, who first related the renunciation, regarded it as a triumph of faith over the illusions of this world. Years earlier Jansenists had stayed with the Pascal household, and young Blaise had convinced his sisters to adopt Jansenist teachings – teachings so passionately attached to Augustine’s vision of man’s total depravity as to be almost Calvinist despite their nominal Catholicism — so attached as to believe even reason itself was corrupt, a chimera, a mirage misleading the minds of men. The mirror we see in so dimly is far too dim to show reason undistorted, or at least not the reason that matters.

Hence “not of the philosophers and of the learned.” Quite a grim prospect for any of us trained to believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of the cosmos and of all who study it. And what would it mean if the “not” were true? What would it be like to abandon the whole edifice of scientific understanding, to kick off the twin traces of evidence and proof, and plunge, headlong and burning into… something else altogether. I am not sure what. Only that for a very long time, it has been hard for me not to wonder.

And so, the story goes, the man who, only months before, had been collaborating with fellow mathematician Fermat in founding an entire new discipline, probability theory, abandoned it all to become first a sarcastic theological crank (see the Provincial Letters), and finally the tortured soul dying tragically young, leaving his magnum opus, an existential defense of Christianity, so unfinished that only scattered fragments and notes could be gathered and published – the Pensées.

Or at least that’s the story as it’s commonly told. The real story is not quite so pat. Accounts differ as to how deep Pascal’s renunciation of scientific thinking went. Like Nietzsche and Russell, the folks at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seem to believe it went pretty deep. Other sources, though, point out he never did fully abandon his interest in math and science, and still pursued the odd project here and there. Moreover, scientific habits of mind do not disappear overnight, even if you’re not doing science. Certainly, the famous Wager of Pascal’s Pensées shows a mathematical mind still at work. It isn’t often that a theological conceit with all the deference of a mugging is credited with mathematical innovation, but Pascal’s Wager is counted as one of the first uses, ever, of decision theory. (As well as a kind of argument irresistible during election seasons: “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?” – of course Pascal, already believing his beliefs, thought everyone must see themselves as already embarked, as already consigned to his binary choice, no matter how much unbelievers might see it otherwise.)

Still, it’s worth asking why the renunciation went as deep as it did, when it did. After all, Pascal had been a Jansenist for years while remaining active in scientific circles. His mind had been converted long before. The night of fire, though, was a conversion of the heart.

For Pascal, the heart was supremely important, though not in the romantic or emotional sense, or even, necessarily, in the same sense other pious Christians speak of it. Perhaps the heart meant the faculty of perception “transcending reason and prior to it”[2], what Schumpeter (and Sowell after him) called Vision. Within mathematics, Pascal spoke of an esprit de finesse that leaps ahead of reason and draws it onward. Polya would later quite charmingly call this intuitive spirit just “guessing,” though Polya would make guessing into an art. Polanyi would point out that this intuition, though not emotion itself, demands emotional commitment. Pascal opposed l’esprit de finesse to l’esprit géométrique, the “geometric spirit” of articulated, deductive reasoning – the faculty of the mind that, however persuasive it might be, is often just on janitorial duty, tidying up the syllogisms after l’esprit de finesse has passed. The “heart” (coeur), as Pascal spoke of it, seems to encompass the intuition preceding reason just as it encompasses the “revelation” that reason is in vain. If this seems contradictory, perhaps Pascal would point to Jeremiah 17:9: “the heart is deceitful above all else.” Even so, “some faint glimmer or trace of the instantaneous, clairvoyant understanding that the unfallen Adam was believed to enjoy in Paradise”[2] must remain, else faith and reason would both be blind.

And the eyes of Pascal’s heart saw fire.

Fire – fire consuming the flowering thorns on sun-bleached prairies; fire arcing from the tips of the branches of roadside trees, from towers and steeples, weaving a net as visible to the mind’s eye as it is invisible to the body’s eye: these visions are not hard to have, and not particularly special, either, if no moral sense gives them meaning. There’s speculation that Pascal, like Hildegard of Bingen before him, suffered migraines, headaches causing hallucinatory auras. If so, both visionaries made something out of those auras, they made them into something revelatory, unlike other sufferers who may just regard the auras as a nuisance, an impediment to everyday adult responsibilities, and all the more painful for being so.

Pascal_Pajou_Louvre_RF2981But then, Pascal, for all his accomplishments, never did lead what most of us would call a life of adult responsibility. He never held a job. If his sister’s account is to be believed, not only was he so sick in infancy that he screamed continually for over a year, but he “continued to be so ill that, at the age of twenty-four, he could tolerate no food other than in liquid form, which his sisters or his nurse warmed and fed to him drop by drop.”[1] Pascal relied on nursing care not only throughout his sickly childhood, but throughout adulthood as well, exhibiting “an almost infantile dependence on his family.”[1] By contrast, I suspect the attitude in most modern American households would be, “If you’re well enough to scale the heights of intellectual and spiritual achievement, well enough to mortify your own flesh in penance (something Pascal did in his later years), then you’re also well enough to feed yourself like a normal adult, thank you very much!”

In some circles, habitual suffering does seem to excuse a body from everyday obligations. In others, it seems to impose extra duties. (Thou Shalt Suffer Extra-Discreetly. Thou Shalt Endeavor Doubly To Not Impose.) Not that these circles are mutually exclusive – there’s no rule saying the same social circle must treat all who suffer equally, despite differences in social standing, other gifts, and the suffering’s nature. We ordinary mortals sometimes surmise that suffering spurs not stifles genius, as if suffering itself could cause genius. We may overlook, though, how much the great suffering geniuses rely on their caretakers to manage life’s little inanities for them. Stephen Hawking certainly had to depend on others to turn his paralysis into opportunity. Pascal was, by comparison, far more able-bodied. Though Pascal suffered greatly, he was also cared for greatly, so greatly it’s not hard to suspect he could have gotten by on less.

Had Pascal been expected to shift for himself more, would he have burned as brilliantly? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not.

The world of math can be an escape from suffering, a winter Eden – the bones of the trees of life and wisdom freed from the flesh of their leaves, the pages of innocent snow awaiting inscription, all stilled, all crystallized – a nature “out of nature,” set apart from the bloody, sticky summer which commends “whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” The mental stillness demanded by l’esprit géométrique beckons as a refuge from the ravages of mind and body, but entrance to this refuge costs a fee. Some of my own most peaceful memories are of solving math problems to escape life’s vicissitudes – while feverish, in a hospital, in the rubble of a shattered future. But even then, no matter how restorative, the problems demanded something of me first: If I couldn’t muster that something, the hope of refuge was lost.

It’s not hard to imagine that a man like Pascal, dogged since infancy by suffering, first fell in love with math because he could make it a refuge, a pursuit absorbing enough that his suffering ceased to matter. Is it possible that he fell away from math and into theology and mysticism when, despite all the care he received, he reached a point where he could no longer get his suffering to cease to matter?

Neither mathematical nor scientific reasoning is intended to answer suffering. The freedom they offer from suffering is just the freedom of a perspective where suffering doesn’t matter either way. That perspective can be a great comfort as long as there’s enough oomph to maintain it. When the oomph is gone, though… Inhabiting a winter Eden means fueling your own fire, else you freeze. When your own fuel runs out, where do you turn? Perhaps to some greater fire outside yourself. Perhaps to the fire so great it appears to be a God. And perhaps that great fire is an illusion. Or perhaps it isn’t. The only witness to the fire is the heart, as clairvoyant as it is deceitful.

No wonder Pascal wagered.

For @nanda-panjandrum.


  1. Blaise Pascal, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Blaise Pascal, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

There are 136 comments.

  1. Nanda Panjandrum Coolidge

    Lovely, Midge…Thank you!

    • #1
    • August 9, 2016, at 11:46 AM PDT
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  2. Arahant Member

    Is it Truth or is it phenomena? Phenomena only matter in how they demonstrate Truth.

    • #2
    • August 9, 2016, at 11:49 AM PDT
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  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Arahant:Is it Truth or is it phenomena? Phenomena only matter in how they demonstrate Truth.

    Hmm… maybe it’s time to ask @titustechera.

    • #3
    • August 9, 2016, at 11:55 AM PDT
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  4. Titus Techera Contributor

    I’m all for saving the phenomena. The universe, after all, is only politics.

    • #4
    • August 9, 2016, at 11:58 AM PDT
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  5. Arahant Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Hmm… maybe it’s time to ask @titustechera.

    He’s a kid who doesn’t even remember thousands of years of past lives. :P

    • #5
    • August 9, 2016, at 11:59 AM PDT
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  6. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: The universe, after all, is only politics.

    Seen from the human perspective.

    • #6
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:02 PM PDT
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  7. Titus Techera Contributor

    I certainly like to think of myself as a child.

    • #7
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:04 PM PDT
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  8. Titus Techera Contributor

    Arahant:

    Titus Techera: The universe, after all, is only politics.

    Seen from the human perspective.

    I don’t really have another. Now, if you ask Midge, who’s got a vasty wisdom, who knows!

    • #8
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:05 PM PDT
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  9. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera:

    Arahant:

    Titus Techera: The universe, after all, is only politics.

    Seen from the human perspective.

    I don’t really have another. Now, if you ask Midge, who’s got a vasty wisdom, who knows!

    I saw a video from a squirrel’s perspective today. But the OP has a Midge perspective. Does that qualify as human?

    • #9
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:07 PM PDT
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  10. Front Seat Cat Member

    That is sad and fascinating – both brilliant and blessed, did he have a real vision? Reading his bio, he founded a lot of modern thought and produced theories that developed into many modern products. The piece that he sewed in his jacket and transferred to new clothing was amazing.

    I wonder what it was about the 1500’s and 1600’s that produced people of such great vision and capability, like Michelangelo and many others. I picked up a book by Nietzsche for 1.00 at library sale – I never read him – what a nutcase – he was vile and hated anything Christian – it wasn’t even worth throwing into a landfill!

    • #10
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:08 PM PDT
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  11. Titus Techera Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Titus Techera:

    Arahant:

    Titus Techera: The universe, after all, is only politics.

    Seen from the human perspective.

    I don’t really have another. Now, if you ask Midge, who’s got a vasty wisdom, who knows!

    I saw a video from a squirrel’s perspective today. But the OP has a Midge perspective. Does that qualify as human?

    Dunno. But I promise to read carefully with a mind to demolish it & I’ll write a friendly comment about it when once I’m free to shuffle off the mortal coils for a while…

    • #11
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:10 PM PDT
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  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Front Seat Cat:That is sad and fascinating – both brilliant and blessed, did he have a real vision?

    I don’t have a reason to doubt that his vision was real. Though I suppose it might depend on what you meant by real – do you mean really a vision or a vision that really saw God?

    Talk of having visions strikes me as suspect to all but the most religiously fervent conservatives – it seems having a vision is a very un-conservative thing to do, a hippie thing, a druggie thing, an artsy-fartsy, radical, bohemian thing. Visions are for wild-eyed leftists. Sensible conservatives shouldn’t have them. But I think of having visions as just another facet of having a brain. Whether the visions become grandiose or life-changing – or even memorable – may depend on what you do with them. Ignore them? Use them for good? For evil?

    • #12
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:26 PM PDT
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  13. OldDanRhody, 7152 Maple Dr. Member

    Thanks, Midge. When I first read of Pascal’s vision I was impressed with his sense of detached observation in keeping track of the times of beginning and end, as well as the profound effect it [the vision] had on him. I was not aware of his health issues, nor (not being a Catholic Christian) am I familiar with the Jansenists although, being in some sense a spiritual descendant of Augustine, I suspect would be sympathetic with their teachings.

    It is obvious you’ve put a lot of time into this; I don’t know how you do it. Thank you, again.

    • #13
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:41 PM PDT
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  14. Arahant Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Talk of having visions strikes me as suspect to all but the most religiously fervent conservatives – it seems having a vision is a very un-conservative thing to do, a hippie thing, a druggie thing, an artsy-fartsy, radical, bohemian thing.

    An epileptic thing. Also good for mystics, even conservative ones. Now playing in a brain near yours.

    • #14
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:47 PM PDT
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  15. Front Seat Cat Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Front Seat Cat:That is sad and fascinating – both brilliant and blessed, did he have a real vision?

    Talk of having visions strikes me as suspect to all but the most religiously fervent conservativesWhether the visions become grandiose or life-changing – or even memorable – may depend on what you do with them. Ignore them? Use them for good? For evil?

    I had a “vision” once-I was a guest at West Point for a weekend – it was great. Then on the last day leaving church in my clumsy, clutsy way with new shoes, I slipped at top of outdoor stairs of the chapel, worn smooth from generations of feet. I landed on my butt and began to sail down the entire stone staircase. I think sparks were coming off my elbows. Crowds were chasing me. I stopped at the bottom and everyone said are you ok? I was mortified, so embarrassed. I got up with help and said yes, ok, then began to faint. Now I have fainted before and the lights go out – fade to black. This time however, as I felt myself fainting, the entire landscape, buildings, trees and people were bathed in a golden glow. This was 35 years ago and I never forgot it – it was so beautiful, then bang – out I went. I was not religious, but it was unforgettable. Then I woke up to everyone laughing. They laid me on top of a stone wall and I was snoring!!!!!! More humiliation!

    • #15
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:49 PM PDT
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  16. Arahant Member

    OldDan Rhody: nor (not being a Catholic Christian) am I familiar with the Jansenists

    Oh, they were great fun. Seriously, look them up and read a bit. It wasn’t as much fun as being there, but it should give a flavor. The crazy isn’t new. It was sprinkled throughout history evenly.

    • #16
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:50 PM PDT
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  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    OldDan Rhody: It is obvious you’ve put a lot of time into this; I don’t know how you do it

    Obviously, by missing the deadline! ;-P

    OldDan Rhody: Thank you, again.

    Thank you for reading :-) – I seem to remember your saying that you had led a life also in tension between technical knowledge and religious knowledge, and for that reason the Memorial piqued your interest. Do you have a Memorial story to share?

    • #17
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:50 PM PDT
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  18. Arahant Member

    Front Seat Cat: This time however, as I felt myself fainting, the entire landscape, buildings, trees and people were bathed in a golden glow.

    More seeing reality for the first time than seeing a vision. Welcome to the Land of Creation.

    • #18
    • August 9, 2016, at 12:53 PM PDT
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  19. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Arahant:

    OldDan Rhody: nor (not being a Catholic Christian) am I familiar with the Jansenists

    Oh, they were great fun. Seriously, look them up and read a bit. It wasn’t as much fun as being there, but it should give a flavor. The crazy isn’t new. It was sprinkled throughout history evenly.

    The Jesuit versus Jansenist squabble reminded me a bit of the “Catholic versus Puritan” skit from Blackadder.

    • #19
    • August 9, 2016, at 1:00 PM PDT
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  20. Front Seat Cat Member

    Arahant:

    Front Seat Cat: This time however, as I felt myself fainting, the entire landscape, buildings, trees and people were bathed in a golden glow.

    More seeing reality for the first time than seeing a vision. Welcome to the Land of Creation.

    No this wasn’t real like anything you’ve seen. The golden glow around every single living thing was “pulsating” like an aura filled with energy. Everything was gold colored but had energy around it as well – It kept getting lighter and brighter – if I had stayed conscious, I probably would have to close my eyes it was becoming so bright – or put on sunglasses. It was really hard to even describe.

    • #20
    • August 9, 2016, at 1:20 PM PDT
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  21. Arahant Member

    Front Seat Cat: No this wasn’t real like anything you’ve seen.

    You only think you know what reality is. :D

    From one of my upcoming books:

    She opened her eyes and saw the ocean below her was sparkling with beautiful golden light. She tried to move around, but it was as if gravity had gone away. She was just floating in the air. She got herself turned enough that she could plainly see the end of the pier and Franklin looking over the edge into the water…She was becoming frightened of more than ruining her dress, but was distracted as she noticed that Franklin was also glowing a golden color with some other overlays of colors around him. She noticed that the wood of the pier was glowing golden. Everything had an extra golden glow around it, even the winter sun.

    • #21
    • August 9, 2016, at 1:28 PM PDT
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  22. Front Seat Cat Member

    Arahant:

    Front Seat Cat: No this wasn’t real like anything you’ve seen.

    You only think you know what reality is. ?

    From one of my upcoming books:

    She opened her eyes and saw the ocean below her was sparkling with beautiful golden light. She tried to move around, but it was as if gravity had gone away. She was just floating in the air. She got herself turned enough that she could plainly see the end of the pier and Franklin looking over the edge into the water…She was becoming frightened of more than ruining her dress, but was distracted as she noticed that Franklin was also glowing a golden color with some other overlays of colors around him. She noticed that the wood of the pier was glowing golden. Everything had an extra golden glow around it, even the winter sun.

    Yes – You nailed it (?!) – it was just like that except I wasn’t the graceful lady you describe – bleeding elbows and backside, snoring ….people running, not a pretty scene….

    • #22
    • August 9, 2016, at 1:45 PM PDT
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  23. Arahant Member

    Front Seat Cat: Yes – You nailed it (?!) – it was just like that…

    It’s a real place. You aren’t the only one who has ever been there.

    • #23
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:16 PM PDT
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  24. Nanda Panjandrum Coolidge

    Arahant:

    OldDan Rhody: nor (not being a Catholic Christian) am I familiar with the Jansenists

    Oh, they were great fun. Seriously, look them up and read a bit. It wasn’t as much fun as being there, but it should give a flavor. The crazy isn’t new. It was sprinkled throughout history evenly.

    We’re still dealing with an overly-nebulous counter-reaction to the Jansenists today: they cast a long shadow.

    • #24
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:39 PM PDT
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  25. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Arahant:

    Front Seat Cat: Yes – You nailed it (?!) – it was just like that…

    It’s a real place. You aren’t the only one who has ever been there.

    This place? “Everything that is not God with intellectual fire”?

    Firebird cropped 2

    • #25
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:40 PM PDT
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  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Nanda Panjandrum:

    Arahant:

    OldDan Rhody: nor (not being a Catholic Christian) am I familiar with the Jansenists

    Oh, they were great fun. Seriously, look them up and read a bit. It wasn’t as much fun as being there, but it should give a flavor. The crazy isn’t new. It was sprinkled throughout history evenly.

    We’re still dealing with an overly-nebulous counter-reaction to the Jansenists today: they cast a long shadow.

    You mean the Jesuits? (Someone or something else?…)

    • #26
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:42 PM PDT
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  27. Arahant Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: This place? “Everything that is not God with intellectual fire”?

    Colors aren’t right.

    • #27
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:43 PM PDT
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  28. Titus Techera Contributor

    Ok, I’ve done with reading. I can make a few comments before I give this some serious thought.

    1. The prophet: Jeremiah is voicing the opinion of God before & after the Flood. The heart means what you would call nature–it is from childhood evil. (There’s no word for nature in Hebrew; the New Testament uses the Greek word physis, learned from the philosophers, who learned it from Homer.)

    2. The Gospel. Pascal is famous for having writ: The heart has reasons reason knows not of–that is talk of revelation. This should address another part of your question. What’s to guide a man but his reason? The Gospels.

    3. Pascal is right that to be a philosopher is to think that man’s reason, unaided by revelation, is the only guide there is to human life. How to understand the relation between the ambition of philosophy–wisdom–& its achievements is far harder to explain.

    Philosophy is superior to mathematics in the way in which first philosophy or the study of the understanding we can have of the world is superior to the axioms–because these cannot really be proven & do not involve the most radical questioning of world & intellect. (The original understanding of axiom was far closer to self-evident truth than to something like what you might learn in modern science.)

    4. The body. Supposedly, philosophers surpass the accidents & chance events of this world; they have learned how to die & be dead. (See the Phaedo.)

    • #28
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:45 PM PDT
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  29. Arahant Member

    Jansenism

    Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard

    • #29
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:48 PM PDT
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  30. Front Seat Cat Member

    Arahant:

    Front Seat Cat: Yes – You nailed it (?!) – it was just like that…

    It’s a real place. You aren’t the only one who has ever been there.

    Good stuff you have there Arahant – carry on! PS – I can’t explain what I saw – I’m just glad it wasn’t “the tunnel”……

    • #30
    • August 9, 2016, at 2:50 PM PDT
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