I’ve often talked about death with aging folk. Invariably the subject of an afterlife comes up. The discussion soon revolves around ideas of a soul and whether such a thing survives after our death. The soul’s been talked about forever. It’s tricky to define and mysterious.
As a child, I recited this prayer as a nightly ritual. I knelt by my bed, reverently placed my folded hands on the covers while saying:
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Next, I prayed for all my deceased relatives, asking God to look after them. I didn’t want them to feel abandoned, the way I did when they died.
Their souls, I imagined, were like Casper the Friendly Ghost. Like wafting smoke in its incorporeal state, my soul would one day go through walls and closed doors like Casper unconstrained by any physical obstacles and soar between heaven and earth as it chose. I wasn’t frightened in imagining the soul’s ghostly mien. In fact, I thought it was really neat.
I believed that the best time for actually seeing souls during the day was when cumulus clouds rolled overhead. Their cotton-like configurations took various forms. I believed them to be the heavenly host, particular those recently deceased. Heaven, I noticed, had a lot of old men with long white beards and there were always loads of sheep. Like the childhood myths that I once treasured and that served me well, they became less credible as I grew older. The feeling that I somehow possessed a soul, however, I never lost. I had only vague notions about what it might be.
Many people believe the soul survives our bodies. The specific formulas vary with religious and cultural traditions, but the belief that there’s life after physical death is remarkably persistent throughout all traditions. Is it a wish? Is it a fact? On our spiritual journey, at some point, we’ll wonder about it.
As children, we see the world with a clarity we might never have again. A child is always curious. What he or she hears, sees or touches is approached with an anticipation filled with wonder. The child’s fascination at Christmas is a case in point. In childhood we live expectantly, anticipating the next wonder to appear. I believe that as children or early childhood, we are closer to what I understand a soul to be. To see deeply. The locus of a soul is in the imagination. I don’t mean this dismissively, like “It’s all in your mind,” but, yes, it’s really all in our mind. I would add “and heart” to that.
There’s a spiritual tradeoff when going from childhood to adulthood. The adult mind becomes conditioned by information that, rather than enlightening us about what we see, often skews the clarity of our perception. The greatest receptor in a child’s mind is his or her curiosity and imagination. A child’s curiosity is voracious and its imagination boundless. A child encounters the world by wondering. There’s a purity in that way of seeing that’s hard to retrieve as we grow into adults. By the time we are adults, we have developed “opinions.” Opinions are the gatekeepers of our imagination. These gatekeepers admit into our awareness only what has been first thoroughly vetted or censored. The imagination is quickly compromised. I believe that the search for our souls will lead us back to our imagination. We’ll find our souls, but only after having rummaged through all the opinions that have kept them hidden from us. Our souls are the elusive agency by which we see to the heart of a matter.
Einstein, one of history’s geniuses, changed the world because he had an insatiable curiosity, a florid imagination and some wacky ideas. As a child, he loved to imagine that he was riding on a light beam. This product of his imagination became the impetus for eventually developing his theory of relativity. He liked playing with his imagination – he called it “Gedankenexperiment,” the German for “thought experiment” or what some might call head-trips. The head-trips, however, were deeply rooted in the seat of his imagination. To say the revelation he had was all in his mind is not an understatement. The mathematical computations eventually validated the science of the idea, but the revelation of it came first; it appeared to him as an image, in his imagination.
In the spiritual life, the same phenomenon is called revelation.
An old tale gets at this mystery in another way.
The gods in their celestial abode convened an emergency meeting. Human beings were increasingly encroaching on the gods’ divine attributes and they were anxious that they’d lose their powers to humans. Humans had invaded heaven with their space rockets, decoded DNA, developed computers that speak, transferred hearts from one person to another and made new limbs for the lame to walk. “They think they’re god,” one minor divinity grumbled.
The gods decided they must hide their divine spark where humans would never find it. A variety of proposals were made: hide it in the earth’s core; lose it in black holes; or place it on the highest mountain. They finally agreed on this proposal: hide the divine spark deep in the human mind (I would add, heart) and they’ll never guess in a thousand years that’s where to find it.
Ever since we first walked the earth, we’ve been searching for our souls and, bless my soul, they’ve been right there within us the whole time.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.