Post-mortem reflections

Gwen’s funeral recently. On the whole a happy event. She was almost 90 and had suffered a long decline into Alzheimer’s disease. It brought the extended family together and that was the happy part. There was much reminiscing by four first cousins sitting at the same table afterwards, all in their 70’s. Only at weddings and funerals, it seems, do we all manage to get together.

It struck me during the mass that it is a pity the deceased does not get a chance to say anything to the congregation. Much is said about him, or her. Much is remembered, but it is all one sided. So I thought that when it comes to my turn I would prepare something to be read out. There are many references to ‘eternal rest’, ‘at peace’ and ‘resurrection’ etc., but all these are stale metaphors and convey nothing of the death event itself, what it might have meant to the individual (and surprisingly, what it must mean to the family). Nor, not surprisingly, apart from the conventional metaphors, is anything said about the post-mortem reality. So here goes.

To my family and friends

“I would just like to say a few words about dying and death. Obviously these lines are written pre- and not post-mortem. It will not be possible for me to make any comments after the event. And the reason for this is very simple. Death is a radical transition from one state of being to another – so I believe. Others question this. They say death is the end – finish. Not so. Just as there is no way a child, a twin, just born can convey the reality of life after birth to a sibling still in the womb – how does one convey the experience of freedom of movement, the clarity of sound, music and laughter, the brilliance of light and colours, what it is like to be cherished and cuddled! So too with death which, I believe, is our definitive birth after the long years of gestation as persons. A foetus could never even begin to imagine the reality of life after birth, so too with us with regard to life after death.

However, a foetus, were it able to think rationally, could easily deduce that there is life beyond the womb. Similarly for us with regard to death. It is no coincidence that religion, with its concomitant belief in an afterlife, is a universal phenomenon. People, from the time of the Neanderthals and down through history, have been aware that there is more to reality than the surface appearance of things. For someone brought up in the wild beauty of West Clare how could I not be aware that there is more, infinitely more, than the material constitution of things. Tennyson confronted by the sheer mystery embedded in delicate beauty said –

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower— if I could but understand
What you are, root and all, all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Later Matthew Arnold, in a more philosophical tone put it thus –

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel – below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel – there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

When it comes to exploring this deep and obscure central stream of our feelings and thoughts I think poets have an advantage because they are not bound by the prescriptions of religious orthodoxy. They do not have to prove anything, or define anything. They simply want to unearth (in more senses than one) the experiences and let them speak for themselves. Living is shot through with hints, glimpses and intimations of a reality that is more real than anything we can touch, feel, or examine. Wordsworth got it the wrong way round. We are not born trailing intimations of immortality, but that is how we die. Heaven lies about us in our old age as the light of common day begins to fade.

When I was younger this obscure stream of thoughts and feelings ran just beneath the surface. It was common to feel a sense of a pervading presence, a sense of union. As I got older the stream plunged, deeper, taking with it the clarity of thoughts and feelings. All became dark, but like R. S. Thomas I could say,

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go

It sounds strange, even paradoxical, to say that God is ‘absence’ and ‘silence’. Yet that’s the way it is. God’s absolute transcendence creates a sort of vacuum into which we are all drawn. So, for me there never was a sense of loss, or doubt, but rather affirmation. In the darkness there was always that gentle pull of the obscure current. Everything is caught up in it – the smallest birds, the song of the bumble bee, light dancing on the sea, children’s laughter. To paraphrase slightly something a Japanese philosopher said, ‘Over time, I came to realise that it is not that love exists because there are individuals, but that individuals exist because there is love’.*

And dying itself? – I suppose one of the advantages of growing old slowly is that one has plenty of time to reflect on death and how it affects the meaning of life. When one is in one’s prime life is for living, living as fully as possible. Old age inevitably means a reduction of energy. Physical systems begin to fail, or work less well. The end is, if not yet in sight, in the fairly near rather than the distant future. This proximity turns a spotlight on the present moment. Of what value is this life now, this moment, this apparently non-productive waiting for the end? I have written about this before in the context of the contemplative life. This seemingly non-productive time spent thinking, contemplating, reflecting, praying – is it simply a solipsistic activity? To the external observer it might seem so but it is not, in fact. There are no private moments. There is no solitude. Experience tells me that all of us are bonded and linked together and that this bond is God’s love, God himself. To quote that Japanese philosopher again, “The centre of the self is not limited to the interior of the individual; the self of a mother is to be found in her child.” So too with God. He is the unseen presence and

…the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God.

…Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

* The original quote was, ‘Over time, I came to realise that it is not that experience exists because there is an individual, but that an individual exists because there is experience.’  (Nishida Kitaro: 1990) An Inquiry into the Good

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