It is November, a month when we, traditionally, remember our dead. Those of us seasoned by length of days find that, with every year, our remembering becomes almost mirrorlike, reflecting back the reality of our own mortality.
What happens when the great silence falls has forever exercised minds, hearts and imaginations. It’s ironic, but on the flip side of the absolute certainty of death there is complete uncertainty, an eternal question mark. Philosophies of life and faith systems have been built on attempts at answering this question. Armies have gone to war believing their answer and their connections in eternity would give them victory, if not on the battlefield, in the hereafter, where their faith and courage would be rewarded. There is a transactional element to the notion of the beyond that colours many belief systems.
In our religious culture, the prospect of eternal reward was a key motivating factor in living the good life and remaining faithful to one’s religious practice and values. In that belief system, life at this side of the abyss is but ‘a vale of tears’, where existence is a thing to be endured before we enter the land of milk and honey at the other side of the cosmic Jordan.
The hardness of life and the suffering it entails, is nothing compared to the glories of eternity.
Belief in eternal happiness and fulfilment is undoubtedly a source of deep comfort. It can offer meaning to lives that would otherwise be ground down by the absurdity of it all.
Conjectures about what happens after we breath our last vary widely. Here in the west our understanding follows the Greek model where, once you cross the River Styx into the realm of Hades, your eternity depends on how you behaved yourself in life. In the Greek understanding, the virtuous and heroic could forever enjoy the Elysian Fields in the Isles of the Blessed, while those who lived a blameless, but relatively harmless life could pass a pleasant eternity in the Meadows of Asphodel.
However, for those whose lives were wicked they would be sent to the Fields of Punishment where one’s treatment befitted one’s misdemeanours. The less severe cases were deprived of consciousness while the most severe cases got particular punishments. Poor Sisyphus, for example, spent eternity rolling a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down again every time he reached the summit.
The Christian notion of eternity, of heaven and hell, have similar themes of reward and punishment, where your eternity will mirror the choices you made in life. I remember a number of years ago driving with an old friend of mine who declared himself to be less than impressed by my fondness for the accelerator. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, “aren’t you well prepared to meet your maker?”
“Given the life I’ve led,” he responded, “I’m afraid it’s the bucko with the horns I’ll be facing.”
All belief systems don’t have such stark transactional alternatives in their notion of what it’s like at the other side of the great divide. Many have reincarnation as an article of faith providing a few opportunities to prove yourself. It’s a bit like the backdoor system in the GAA championships. The Greeks had elements of this and many eastern religions believe that life is a series of incarnations where you can elevate yourself to a higher level of being each time you come back.
If I am to be reincarnated I want to be tall and thin the next time around, knowing my luck I’ll probably come back as a giraffe.
The question as to what becomes of us when our breath takes leave of our bodies continues to be a mystery, one that many deal with in the context of a deeply held faith. Others hold that eternity is now, that ‘this’ is as good as it gets, or as good as you make it.
Not too many of us spend our days contemplating the ultimate mystery. Even those in the vortex of bereavement may not spend too much time with the mystery, but remain consumed by the loss, the absence and the finality. However, the mystery is always around us. Our books, songs, stories, hymns, films, jokes, plays, paintings, sculptures, scriptures, fears and phobias are laced with traces of death and probes into the beyond.
Contemplating the mystery, I try to avoid getting lost in the detail of what it’s like or isn’t like and try to avoid reducing it to a transaction. There is a broad sweep to the story of the universe, and when faced with the enormity of it I tend to fall back on a few bits of confidence and consolation. There are three in particular; developments in modern physics, a piece of Buddhist wisdom and the words of a Christian mediaeval mystic.
A school of physics, in the Einstein line, holds that we are essentially energy and energy doesn’t die, it goes on and on. This chimes with a primary tenet of Buddhist wisdom which tells us “nothing is lost in the universe”. Finally, the words of Julian of Norwich assure us, that “all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
First published in the Farming Independent on Tuesday, November 3rd 2020