Awareness of mortality

When we are young our thoughts are directed forwards to the coming day; when we grow older our thoughts are often drawn involuntarily backwards to previous episodes in our life. If we are wise we do not resist this indrawing of consciousness, on the contrary we co-operate with its insight and start to reflect quietly yet deliberately on what we are shown. In my own life I was first taken back almost year by year to my boyhood and youth in South Africa, vignettes of which illuminate the early chapters of this book. Topography has always meant much to me, so that I could in my memory trace the very streets of Johannesburg, where I spent virtually all of my early life. The reminiscence brought back nostalgia and pain, as I came to my social ineptitude and paralysing shyness with renewed sensitivity. But the house in which I lived and received my domestic education remains a permanent landmark in my memory, rather sadly in fact, for when I revisited the suburb after I had been in England for about seven years, I could scarcely recognize either it or the locality. I returned to say farewell to my dying mother, and the house was in a state of disrepair even on the outside. It was in fact in the process of being sold at a ridiculously low price, for my father's state of mind caused him to dispense with it at any cost. Much of the city had also undergone radical alterations with the creation of motorways and the development of new areas of habitation. All this occurred in the late 1950s and when I came back once more some twenty years later to bid farewell to my aged father not too far off his own death, the place was scarcely the same as I knew it in my childhood.

There is nothing remarkable in all this, but what matters in my life is the memory I have retained as part of my life's journey, and I believe that memory is immortal: it will I am sure accompany me in the life I shall know after my physical body dies, as will the subsequent memories I have of my life in Britain in the various pursuits of postgraduate medical student, hospital doctor, pathologist, army medical officer, lecturer in pathology, investigator of paranormal healing, counsellor, church worker, and ultimately priest. The medical side ran concurrently with my priesthood until the lectureship came to its own end because of a failure of financial means in the institute that employed me, but within a year I was appointed priest-in-charge of the church in which I had previously acted as an assistant non-stipendiary. In the course of my "spiritual" journey I was befriended and supported by a number of older people, nearly all women, and these have now not surprisingly died. Of greater poignancy is the death of some of my contemporaries, mostly in the medical field, but also some who accompanied me on the deeper journey of the soul, which is what the spiritual journey is about: the end is the vision of God. Some died fairly recently, but others a decade or more ago. I remember my South African contemporaries at school and university, and I have heard that some also are deceased. It happens that I have an especially acute memory, but in any case with the advance of years it is well recognized that distant childhood remembrance tends to persist, while one's memory for recent events becomes increasingly capricious. So far this embarrassing amnesia has not seriously afflicted me, but I have no doubt that the present spate of activities will also reach their end.

In the middle of the night I sometimes awaken, and find myself living momentarily in the past, one, two, three or even more decades ago, and the pain of realizing how old I now am (in my later sixties) is quite overwhelming. I have learned that there may be another factor involved in this temporary feeling of desolation, and this I shall discuss in Chapter 13. However, be this as it may, the death of old, partly forgotten contemporaries of long ago brings one up sharply to thoughts of one's own mortality and the fact of death. In waking consciousness I have an extremely positive view of death; I see it as a moment of great transition of consciousness from the limited perspective that the physical body necessarily imparts to the far greater freedom and vision of the soul at last broken free from its earthy moorings, and now able to participate in something of the felicity of an afterlife far closer to the vision of God. Indeed, I believe that during sleep I have a privileged work of accompanying some less experienced souls to the portal of the afterlife: they enter while I am turned back for further service on this side of the Styx. This duty of "boatman" which seems peculiarly mine has been shown to me in a consciousness midway between sleep and waking, and has on occasions been corroborated by the unexpected death of someone who was close to me in a counselling situation. I knew that they were ill, even victims of inoperable cancer, but I had not anticipated their demise at that particular time and so suddenly. As a result, as I have already said, I have a very constructive view of the afterlife, and certainly not one that should fear death. All this shows that in any one mind there may be two contradictory attitudes, somehow managing to exist together in at least a superficial harmony. This is to be contrasted with wishful thinking on the one hand and frank hypocrisy on the other. Wishful thinking strives to evade the less acceptable aspects of reality by covering them with a fabric of oblivion; another metaphor would be that of sweeping them under the carpet of consciousness. Hypocrisy by contrast is well aware of the contradictory aspects of its assertions, but simply pretends to dismiss the less acceptable ones as non-existent. The hypocrite alternatively amuses and infuriates by their attitude of rectitude that is so clearly at variance with the life they lead. If we are wise we should start to see through these ways of faulty action by coming clean, at least to ourselves, about what is really happening deep within ourselves.

The conflict is between the conscious self and the vast tracts of the personal unconscious which merge with the considerably more spacious realm of the collective unconscious, in which our own experience of an inner level meets with that of the human mind in its collective experience. "We belong to one another as parts of one body" (Ephesians 4.25). St Paul, if indeed he did actually write this letter, was referring to Christian believers, but twenty centuries have imparted a global consciousness to all humanity, indeed all creation, that makes our coinherence obvious to anyone with psychic sensitivity. In the early hours of the morning when we awaken from a deep sleep, the unconscious is much more at the surface than during active life at the height of daytime. We often tend to see matters in a peculiarly personal and biased light so that our worst suspicions are confirmed, and all our prejudices justified. Physiologically it may be that the brain is less well supplied with glucose at that time of comparative fasting; as in all such considerations it is wise to marry the physical and psychological rather than to separate them. Certainly the brain is immensely powerful in its sensitivity to changes in our internal environment, which in turn evoke emotional and other mental reactions. In this condition (in the early hours of the morning) we are more open to our true attitudes than in the heat of the day's work, when all that is adverse can be overlaid with exciting activities and positive thoughts. If we grow into our full humanity there is a corresponding marriage between the conscious and unconscious in our lives, so that finally nothing is, and need be, hid from our private inspection. This is the end of the psychoanalytic process, but not a few of us attain it by courage and the constant help of the Holy Spirit.

It is in this mature attitude, where faith joins ranks with reason and fear is sensibly illuminated by hope, that our response to death finds its most satisfying synthesis. Then nothing need be hidden from our awareness, and we may move ineluctably, yet peculiarly comfortingly, into the vast expanse of the unknown, which I suspect is closer to our knowledge than many daylight hours with their planned activities that so often follow a course that none of us would have predicted. It is therefore right to be terrified by the advent of death, the cessation of our mortal activities and our strange transition into the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, to quote once more from Hamlet's famous soliloquy. Jesus' agony in the precincts of Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36-45) was due in part to his awareness of his imminent death, though I personally sense a far greater battle with the concerted forces of evil that had merely revealed their hand during the time when he was tempted in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4.1-11). But then I have no difficulty in accepting the presence of evil forces outside the human personality that can create havoc when one is spiritually unguarded. If this is so, it could be that all states of concerted terror have a demonic component working alongside our own unprotected psyche, and only too apt to create trouble if once given the opportunity. When we come more properly to ourselves in a wider consciousness, we can grapple with the darkness around us, while more positive forces of light sustain us in the great encounter now at our very doorstep. When believers confess their fear at the prospect of death, feeling that a really sincere faith would move beyond all doubt and terror, I assure them quite composedly that they need feel no shame. To be a Christian does not lift one above all mortal concerns into a world of spiritual beauty; on the contrary, such a confession of Christian faith brings one more solidly down to earth than ever before. The object of the work is to elevate the earth to be a place of spiritual beauty, in the course of which we all undergo at least something of the passion that Christ experienced fully in his own ministry. Of course Christ is with us in our mortal journey, and his Spirit infuses and inspires us for each day's work, but he leaves no path untraversed whereby we too may know something of his suffering. The end is our own participation in his glory, which first revealed itself at his resurrection. Therefore we have to become progressively acquainted with the totality of our own nature, the unbecoming no less than the admirable, the terrifying as well as the strengthening. The end of this rather unremitting process of self-disclosure is the emergence of a fully integrated person, "the attainment of the unity inherent in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God - to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ" (Ephesians 4.12-13). To be sure this passage applies specifically to the infant Christian community, but it also reflects the essence of the hope in the life of the individual believer.

It is the physical body that fears death, and understandably too, for its purpose is the provision of a vehicle and a dwelling place for the soul on this side of the grave. While we are alive here, it is necessary that the body is well taken care of in order to provide a mechanism for the soul's outer action in the world. The healthier we are, the more efficient may be our work, and the more help we can be for all that lies around us. We soon learn to care considerately for our brethren no matter how outrageously they may have behaved, for it is in their conversion that the future of our world depends. Once we can enclose the body in a greater awareness of the soul's immortality, its desperate struggles for mere survival are subsumed under a concern for the spiritual development of the whole person. This is a truth that comes slowly to us as we confront the dissolution of the physical body as a part of the process of growth of the whole person into the way of immortality. "In very truth I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest" (John 12.24). In this statement, the grain does not, of course, completely die, for if it did there could be no further development of any kind. In fact, the grain dies to its present form, and from its mutability, a minute shoot can emerge, the precursor of a plant immeasurably greater than the grain from which it originally sprung. The restraining elements of the grain are shed so that a new plant can develop from its heart, tiny as it is.

It seems profitable to regard the dying physical body in a rather similar light: its mortal elements are shed but from them a spiritual body emerges which encloses the soul in its onward journey. Of course, we are in the realms of mystery when we speculate thus, but St Paul does rather similarly when he writes: "But, you may ask, how are the dead raised? In what kind of body? What stupid questions! The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died; and what you sow is not the body that shall be, but a bare grain, of wheat perhaps, or something else; and God gives it the body of his choice, each seed its own particular body. All flesh is not the same: there is human flesh, flesh of beasts, of birds and of fishes - all different. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; and the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one thing, the splendour of the earthly another" (1 Corinthians 15.35-40). He goes on later to speak of the resurrection of the dead: what is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body (verses 42-44). He amplifies this by noting that flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, the perishable cannot possess the imperishable (verse 50). St Paul no doubt wisely does not indicate the basis of this spiritual body. In the case of Jesus' resurrection body, I can envisage a direct transformation of his physical body to a spiritual body, but with us lesser mortals this is not the case: the physical body is laid to rest by interment or else cremated, in either event taking its place once more among the elements of the earth. What I personally believe constitute our own spiritual body are the thoughts, attitudes and aspirations that have formed the basis of our spiritual life while we were alive on earth. They have emanated from the physical body, and constitute the wedding clothes mentioned in Matthew 22.1 2, in connection with the guest invited to a wedding banquet (verses 1-14). If one sees the resurrection of the body that is mentioned in the Apostles' Creed in this type of light, it tells us how important is the life we lead while on earth in forming the body of the resurrected soul that is our identity in the shadowy realms of the after-life. The shadow refers to our poor understanding at the moment, not the state of the after-life, at least for those who lived in compassion and loving service while they were alive in the flesh.

I have explored this great mystery in some detail in order to allay the fears that we all, at least to some extent, share about the total extinction of the personality when the physical body is laid to rest. If we can see its great contribution to the life in eternity, that is here now as well as in the distant future, we need cling less obsessively to its ageing, disease-wracked substance and move on with greater equanimity to the immensity of life that is ours now, and will be even greater when we have shed the outer form and discovered the inner essence of our individual being. Having said all this, I would not like to give the impression that I despise the eternal value of matter, such as the substance of the physical body. The earth has its own life cycle and its evolutionary pattern, and St Paul in one of his greatest cosmic visions speaks of the hope of the universe itself being freed from the shackles of mortality and entering upon the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8.21). The spiritualization of matter is to me the most profound fulfilment of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. With thoughts such as these in mind we can, at least to some extent, confront the moments of terror that wake us up in the middle of the night when we see only a golden youth behind us and the decrepitude of old age yawning menacingly in our shadow, the seeds of a misspent life pointing an accusing finger at our perennial selfishness.

The more positive aspect of our awareness of mortality is an acknowledgement that the present time is very important. Since no one knows when they may die, each of us should use what we have left as profitably as possible. In the end the only considerations that remain are love and forgiveness. It is wise to face our feelings of resentment and our innate prejudices that we regard as immutable truths with that sense of divine humour which sees the absurdity of so much of our attitudes in the light of eternity. Jesus advises us not to nurse anger against our brother, but to do all we can to come to terms with those who irritate and act against us, always remembering to put our own house in order and make peace with anyone who has a grievance against us, before presenting our gift at God's altar (Matthew 5.22-26). We cannot always effect a reconciliation, because the other person has likewise to play their part. Justice cannot simply be annulled, but there may be occasions when it has to be superseded by the finer action of loving forgiveness. Thus Jesus forgives those who effect his crucifixion because they are ignorant of the enormity of the crime they are committing (Luke 23.34). The religious elements are overcome with jealousy and fear, whilst the common people are easily misled: they expect a national hero, not one who suffers for the sins of the world.

If we are wise, we examine our motives and our reflex actions and attitudes with quiet deliberation, for most evil is committed when we think emotionally without due consideration of deeper issues. It is universal practice to make a final will in which we bequeath our possessions to those whose lives succeed our own, but few of us construct a mental testament, noting our grievances and shortcomings each day. This should be part of our daily recollectedness, for then we can start to put matters on a right footing in our spiritual ledger. We never know when death may call us to account, but even more important is the moment when we may truly start a new life in the immediate future. When we become wise, we recognize the propinquity of the new life and death. Thus I frequently tell those who come on retreat with me, that a retreat properly kept is a preparation for death, and I stress that this, far from being a morbid thought, should be an occasion for joyous release. In the silence of a retreat one can let go of many hindrances, experiencing life, perhaps for the first time, as pure uninhibited joy. I have little doubt that many of us will experience the transition of death in a similar manner. The release of past associations causes us immediate terror, just as Peter felt when he suddenly became aware of walking on insubstantial water. The presence of Christ reassured and supported him (Matthew 14.28-31).

And what happens when we are about to confront our own imminent death in stark reality? The intimations of the dark hours of the past now afflict us directly; we may, indeed almost certainly will, divert our full attention from the burning issue by consoling hopes that there may yet be a reprieve, that remarkable miracles have happened in the lives of people whom we know or have known in the past, therefore why not in ours also? In this way the unconscious dread is mollified by fully conscious hope. Soon there comes a reconciliation of this fearful juxtaposition: hope is broadened into a sweeping acceptance while fear is eased into a widening confidence in the process that is enveloping us as it has the countless numbers of others who preceded us in the strange, yet distantly known, journey of the soul to the promised land of rest prior to its next adventures. I have long been taught to compare the dying process with travelling on a swiftly moving escalator: our work is to stand upright and deliver ourselves with absolute confidence to the One who directs operations.

Of course, not all fear can be so easily disposed of as this. There is the fear of retribution after death for past sins; severely conventional religion, often pejoratively equated with orthodoxy, emphasizes this impending punishment and fills the dying person with mounting apprehension. I believe that God is love (1 John 4.16), and I cannot visualize, let alone accept, a love that punishes unceasingly, even if a temporary punishment may be necessary for the health and growth of the person, as taught in Proverbs 3.11-12. Therefore, as I have already said, the wise person keeps an account of their actions while they are still in fine health, for no one knows when death may strike. The fear of sudden death, as after an accident, stresses the acknowledgement of spiritual awareness in all our hearts, no matter how stridently our minds may deny an organizing process outside our little world of obsessive activity. If there is something that really hurts our conscience, it is wise to make a confession to someone in spiritual authority at once; absolution has a healing effect on the whole person. But one should avoid being scrupulous; none of us is perfect, and a sense of humour is at least as important as deep contrition, which, if persistent, indicates a psychological problem (with egoistical overtones) rather than spiritual sensitivity. The words of 1 John 3.19-20 are useful in this respect: "This is how we shall know that we belong to the realm of truth, and reassure ourselves in his sight where conscience condemns us; for God is greater than our conscience and knows all." Most priests know of penitents who go the rounds, also visiting the same confessor on a number of occasions with the same problem. The absolution they receive pours over them like water off a duck's back, because they are not really paying attention, their minds full of their own concerns rather than the word of God. The most that can be said in their favour is that this superficial conversation has a relieving effect, but unfortunately this does not last very long. Giving the last rites of a particular religious tradition is very much to be recommended, because these put the dying person's mind in the right attitude for what is about to befall it in the immediate period after the body's death. A confession is often very valuable in this situation.

In the case of the great majority of people the course of their lives has been illuminated with a surprising amount of naked courage in the face of really harrowing adversity. They themselves are far too modest to conceive this, let alone acknowledge it. It is hard to live completely virtuously in this world of shadow, so much under the influence of dark forces far beyond our knowledge, unless we are gifted with special sensitivity (frequently a very unpleasant gift, I need hardly add). But this spiritual struggle seems to be at the very heart of our incarnation. As Jesus says in admittedly very much higher authority, "Now my soul is in turmoil, and what have I to say? "Father, save me from this hour"? No, it was for this that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name" (John 12.27). This Gethsemane-like episode in John's Gospel indicates how closely linked are suffering and glorification. We too are called to actualize this glory that lies latent in all of us, the apparently insignificant (by the world's standards) no less than the phenomenally gifted. We achieve this by giving ourselves unconditionally to the present moment, so that the ego has been crucified on the cross of loving service and the Spirit of Truth can enter our soul and free the spirit within it. Then we can say with St Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2.20).

When I consider the august subject of death, my mind invariably hearkens back to John Donne's beautiful sonnet.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go -
Rest of their bones and souls' delivery!
Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
  One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
  And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!

Yes indeed, the physical body departs from our earth in order to give space, nutriment and opportunity for those who follow on. But the soul moves on from glory to glory depending on the type of life it ordered while it worked within the limitations of its physical body. Death will be finally vanquished when we all travel from a carnal to a spiritual consciousness. Then the earth itself will be sanctified and enter into spiritual glory, while the living forms that once inhabited it will enter into the peace of God, with a little child leading the way.

Chapter 12
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