Anybody with a smidgeon of mature faith in anything connected to our spiritual side is filled with doubts, and wonders what is fairy tale, what is myth with a message, and what is just plain “horse pucky”. What the hell is all of that stuff about those so called last days and an afterlife? Can I take any of it seriously? Or it is that I dare not reject it totally, just in case it might be true?
If you read James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist….”, and the baroque images of hell called up by the Jesuit Mission preacher, you will remember sitting in the Basilica in Lent listening to similar frightening imagery. Our religious upbringing was built on the spiritual cornerstones of sin, purgatory and hell and we were indeed a generation overly focused on the afterlife. As a very young boy I remember being scarred of the idea of being consumed by ‘eternal fire’, knowing all too well what it felt like having once burned by arm on a hot stove. Now as a man in his sixties, I am once again wondering what I really believe as I continue to fight the fight I have fought all my life: how to synthesize a pietistic and authoritarian Catholic upbringing with an intellect and an imagination with no time for deception and manipulation.
One of life’s most profound questions is our mortality—and by extension, its connection to immorality. Ancient animist spirit cults, Egyptian mummification, late Hebrew theories of resurrection, Hindu reincarnation, Christian eternal salvation, Muslim belief in hell and with the supposed paradise for men of a 1000 virgins, Mormon planets and Scientologists other wordly places, all spring from a remarkably consistent impulse to tie a triumph over death to our how we behave in life.
For those among you with a desire to take a walk through the evolution and history of all of these afterlife concepts and theories I refer you to a book by a man named John Casey, a Fellow at Caius College Cambridge [Pronounced Keys], and a man like many of us, educated by the Irish Christian Brothers and preached at by the Jesuits, Redemptorists and other hell fire and brimstone types. Allow me to quote a review:
“In After Lives, British scholar John Casey provides a rich historical and philosophical exploration of the world beyond, from the ancient Egyptians to St. Thomas Aquinas, from Martin Luther to modern Mormons. In a lively, wide-ranging discussion, he examines such topics as predestination, purgatory, Spiritualism, the Rapture, Armageddon and current Muslim apocalyptics, as well as the impact of such influences as the New Testament, St. Augustine, Dante, and the Second Vatican Council. Ideas of heaven and hell, Casey argues, illuminate how we understand the ultimate nature of sin, justice, punishment, and our moral sense itself. The concepts of eternal bliss and eternal punishment express–and test–our ideas of good and evil…”
By the by, 47 years ago this evening my Mother died. I can no longer always remember what she looked like, but I remember being told by my then Jesuit Superior that she was no more; I remember the long flight to St.John’s on the old TCA Vanguard; and I remember a burial in a then new Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in a howling snow storm. RIP-Mom. If I have achieved anything at all, the credit goes to you.