It is at times of death that religion has its greatest potency.
It had been a long time since I had been to mass. As I listened to the liturgy during my sister’s farewell, I could hear the rhythms of the service in a way I had not as a regular attendee. I heard the constant beats – death, hope, death, resurrection, death, death, death. In the midst of life we are in death. In the midst of death we are in life.
I often think about religion and faith – most often when I am driving and my mind has some time to itself. But on Tuesday at my dear sister’s funeral, I thought about religion in a new way. As something you can only really think seriously about at a time like this, when the veil between us and the enormity that humanity is part of is at its thinnest. I thought, This is when I should think about religion. This is what religion is for – to prepare us for death.
Buddhism is quite overt about this. It has specific meditations where you visualise corpses, skeletons, and remind yourself that all is impermanent. For great practitioners, their final days are spent in a meditative spell, attempting to refine the subtle mind to the point that reincarnation is as conscious a choice as possible.
Christians live in the reality of death and the possibility of hope, through Jesus. I heard the words about sin and redemption and it sounded to me just like the kind of faith that would be born from a culture struggling to assert a moral hold on itself. Christianity offers hope in death. Imagine. What a thing.
Hinduism, like Buddhism, celebrates rebirth and enjoins us to merit during our living years. I don’t know enough about Judaism and Islam to speak about their after-death beliefs, but from my reading of theology and history (especially the excellent book, a History of God, by Karen Armstrong), I know that many faiths embrace mystery and remind us of the unknowable.
Islam, Judaism and Christianity each have mystic practices which acknowledge, through rules and symbols, that God is beyond naming.
I have been through the common journey from devout Catholicism to agnosticism in my life. But for years there has been something hopeless about my materialist worldview, something spiritually bereft which I dismissed as hankering after the community of faith rather than a reflection of some hidden truth I was missing.
Upon reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, my views changed and crystallised again. She gave me a way to understand faith as an attitude towards life, and acceptance of mystery in the world we know and do not know. Whether this is hopeful, I don’t know, I couldn’t say.
When my sister died, I had no butterfly on the windowsill moments. I did not feel her leaving me peacefully, farewelling me to go to a better place. I had a very strong feeling that she was confused – that perhaps she did not even know that it was over for her. I spoke to my husband about this, and we cried together. I tried to explain what it made me think – how I could explain this sensation in the material terms I thought about the world. Perhaps people’s souls are the electric frequencies, the patterns of us, which are left even when we die. Our bodies cease to work, but the brain frequencies that made us who we were linger in some sort of sub-atomic way, like a code, like an electric version of DNA for the soul, but far more fragmented, and much harder to observe scientifically. Music resounds with certain frequencies in our head, which is why we experience dissonance and consonance the way we do, and the same is true of stories. Why not then, personalities?
In my nascent theory, this then is the soul – a lingering pattern which eventually, perhaps brokenly, perhaps in perfect form, rejoins the life energy of the universe (wince) for want to a better term – I am still working on that. (Please don’t think I am falling into a mind/body dualist position, which is such a moronically gross concept that I don’t want you to think I am going there.)
The soul is as close as we get to experiencing the unknowable.
In those days after my sister left us, I felt that I could sense my sister’s soul’s confusion. In the hours after she left us, I felt strongly the lack of a cultural ritual which would have let me stay with her body through the night and into the next few days, before her final farewell. We should be able to sit with our loved one, and be as involved in preparing them for disintegration as we want to be. But that is a topic for another essay.
This sensation triggered my theorising. I spoke to my Buddhist monk friend about it. He is the closest I could get to an expert on dying.
He said, ‘I don’t know if it [my feeling] is real or not, but it is all so interrelated, and maybe people who are close to the person who has died can feel it more. I don’t know, but it can definitely help to just keep sending them calm, peaceful thoughts that it is OK to go.’
‘And even, um, information?’ I asked, not wanting to sound stupid. ‘I am not sure she knows she is gone.’
‘Yes, that can happen when people pass away with problems or lack of clarity in the mind, or drugs in their system. I have seen it a lot and it is really, really common.’ This was a relief. Even if it was not true, it was something I could do for her. And who knows? No one can definitively prove there is no such thing as a soul lingering, clinging to familiar matter, waiting for the all-clear to go.
So over the next few days, I sent my sister calming thoughts and most importantly, the information that she had died: that this next journey was hers. Gradually, the sensations grew less urgent, and when the funeral directors collected her body form the morgue. the sensations stopped all together. I do not know what was real or not. As my monk friend, said, It is all so interrelated.
So this is my theory of the soul, and I am still working on it. I can say that some sort of spiritual practice to prepare for death is necessary for me. I don’t know what form it will take. All advice welcome.