Hey, What Happens When We Die?
But you know what they say -- something to the effect that one letter to the editor is equivalent to maybe a thousand or so others who feel the same way. Just yesterday I was telling Mrs. G. that I really object to spiritual teachers who go wobbly at critical points, and evade the issue with gauzy platitudes -- or, at the other extreme, come up with some eccentric BS to paper over the gaps in their spiritual knowledge base. I can't tell you how often this happens. Or maybe you already know.
It was in the context of a discussion of What Happens When You Die?, which, when you think about it, is functionally equivalent to What About Walt?
I remember how it got started. In just the last few days, Tristan has been asking questions about death. He's certainly seen enough of it, since he's so obsessed with superheroes, and those guys leave an awful lot of bodies in their wake. I mentioned to Mrs. G. that the most clear, compelling, and unambiguous account I've ever read is by Father Serpahim Rose, who wrote a controversial book on the subject.
Two things about Father Rose's account: first, he pulls no punches, and is extremely straightforward. However, unlike the occult and paranormal new-age types who appear on Larry King, his is not an eccentric account that cannot be reconciled with tradition and collective experience. To the contrary, he undertook a careful study of the matter, from the earliest desert fathers to more recent luminaries such as Theophan the Recluse, in order to put forth a rather detailed vision that is surprising in its specificity, and yet, does not overreach and spookulate in the manner of new age pneumapaths.
And although his vision is undoubtedly "fantastical," all I can say is that it intuitively reasonated with me on a level beyond sense. It has the ring of Truth and Fire. He writes with a great deal of authority, and yet, like Schuon, I wouldn't call him "authoritarian." In fact, this is a common misconception in dealing with an enlightened or realized person.
Yes, like Paul Anka, their wisdom slices like a hammer, but the point is not to hurt but to help you -- to help break up knots, impasses, and blockages that are interfering with your inward mobility. If and when Cousin Dupree comes at you with his flame thrower, do run away. Even so, he never takes a corrective action merely for purposes of insultainment, but for inneratunement. The wise troll understands this and says thank you sir, may I have another?
Jesus himself came after people with a big ol' sword, and for you etymologists out there, you know that science is related to cut -- as in to cut reality right down the middle, between Truth and error, or Life and Death. Thus, any number of scientists are cut by their own sword, since they have no celestial idea of how to properly wield it. Like Charles Johnson, they grasp the wrong end, using it as a blunt instrument while bloodying their own soft and girlish hand.
I hope that all people, materialist and religious alike, can agree that if one confines oneself to this world, one will have a pretty paltry existence. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- also lives on "the other side," for you couldn't do otherwise and still be human. In other words, heaven and earth -- the celestial and terrestrial -- clearly intersect, and humans spend most of their time at this intersection.
For example, the most materialistic scientist, if he has a passion for truth, actually has a passion for heaven. He is trying to enter that spherical realm that transcends and circumscribes the earth, and to understand it from a godlike perspective. To the extent that pursuing truth gives him "pleasure" -- which it surely does -- only a true moron would conflate this more subtle type of pleasure with lower types of merely hedonistic pleasure. Otherwise, why not eat pizza and ice cream all day instead of developing string theory, or working on the genome?
So Christianity merely takes this a bit further, into the first principles that also reveal our last ends. As Father Rose put it, it "tells us about what we are going to be doing in eternal life. It is to prepare us for something eternal, not of this world. If we think only about this world, our horizon is very limited, and we don't know what's after death, where we came from, where we're going, what's the purpose of life. When we talk about the beginning of things, or the end of things, we find out what our whole life is about."
As Damascene explains, one purpose of Father Rose's project was to present false teachings as clearly -- and fairly -- as possible, in order to expose their errors. One cannot say of him that he didn't give the devil his due. In fact, he begins with a survey of the contemporary "near death" and "out of body" literature, which surely has something to it, but is twisted and misunderstood by scoundrels who merely wish to sell books, not save souls.
Whatever else you can say of them, I don't think there is any serious question that people have had these experiences (their interpretation is another matter). Indeed, my own father had one after suffering an abdominal aneurysm, and my father-in-law -- who is and remains a devout atheist -- had one at the time he underwent a very risky open heart surgery. In his case, he was very aware of having a choice to "drift away" or "come back" at the conclusion of the procedure. Of course he chose the latter, just for spite.
Just kidding. But I can say that I don't think I've ever met anyone with such a fierce will to live.
As we all know, people who undergo these near death experiences often report roughly similar experiences of encountering "beings of light." Father Rose analyzes this evidence in light of Orthodox experience and doctrine -- both written and oral.
An important point: much of what Father Rose discusses is empirical, or at least phenomenological, nor could it be otherwise. This is true in studying any human reality, for example, what it feels like to be in love. In so doing, you have to take people at their word. You cannot study love "from the outside." Nor can the scientist who presumes to educate us about Man really have any idea what he's talking about unless he's at least kissed a girl. But enough about Charles Johnson.
As mentioned above, Father Rose does not equivocate. He does not patronize with warm platitudes. He does not go wobbly just when things are getting interesting. Thus, Tradition affirms that "the newly deceased is usually met by two angels.... The mission of these angels is to take the soul of the newly reposed on its journey into the afterlife. There is nothing vague about them, either in appearance or action; having a human appearance, they firmly grasp the 'subtle body' of the soul and conduct it away."
Damn! I hate to go wobbly on you at a critical juncture, but I'm flat out of time. To be continued.....