Images of the Afterlife

I don’t care whether there is life after death.  That may seem odd, but I tend to be a contrarian with regard to my own feelings, a habit since childhood.  So I do not live a roller-coaster of hopes and fears.  My emotions are like the plains of Kansas, so flat water doesn’t know which way to run.  That includes the afterlife.  Still, as long as I had God on the line, it seemed like something I should ask about.

I was reprimanded for asking.  I was told that I didn’t really want to know, I was asking merely because I thought I should, and I should figure out why I didn’t want to know.

At first, I had no idea, but then it came to me.  As I pictured the afterlife, it was boring and lonely, like driving all night on one of those long western highways.

Then I was given a series of images—more accurate ways to picture the afterlife.  The first was to become immersed in wonders of nature of incomparable beauty.  The second was to imagine being an Einstein whose mind now grasped fully all the vast mysteries of the universe, having the ultimate “Aha!” experience over and over again.  Another was listening with full intensity to music more lovely than any the world has ever known.  Or, finally, it was like being in love, but with a vaster compass, sustained over endless time, and receiving boundless love in return.

“I was in the drop of water.”

Abigail asked if I had ever had any spiritual experiences in the past. At first I said “no.” I had forgotten two events early in life. Well, not actually forgotten, but set them aside. That’s what people do in our secular age.

A woman I know recently took a boat trip up the Amazon. One night, she awakened when everyone else was fast asleep, and went up to the deck. The entire galaxy was splayed across the sky. She was enveloped by the dark sights and murmuring sounds of the jungle, teeming with life in the midst of tranquility. It was an immersion in the universe itself. She did not call the experience mystical or even religious, but it was certainly an epiphany, a moment of intimate connection with the Whole, full of awe, wonder, and reverence.

My friend’s experience was in a more impressive setting than my my two moments. The first occurred when I was just a kid. One of my chores was watering the lawn. I had run water in the shrubs and bent down to turn off the faucet. I don’t know why I lingered for a moment, crouching down, looking at the tap but, as I did, a last drop of water slowly formed on the bottom edge and hung there. I looked at that drop of water in a way I had never looked at anything before. I saw it—how to describe it?—in its full presence, its suchness, its integrity as an independent existent in the community of being. When I later read in Buber about encountering Nature as Thou, this experience came to mind. It was not as if the drop of water had a mind or soul or was looking back at me or anything like that. Yet I no longer saw it as merely an it, merely an item in the inventory of the universe. I saw the drop of water as, in a sense, a member of what Immanuel Kant called the Kingdom of Ends—the community of all beings who should be respected as ends-in-themselves, not just as means for the use of others. This is, of course, language I now use. I don’t know how I would have described it at the time. I was just a kid, after all, and it didn’t seem worth telling.

The other experience was more arresting and consequential. It was a balmy evening during my senior year at Riverside Poly high school. We used to go downtown to one of those old-style, elegant movie theatres. My friends and I were outside, standing around and joking, waiting for others to arrive. Suddenly, I was in a world of my own, enveloped by concentric circles swirling around a center, like a small spiral galaxy. Just as suddenly, the experience was over. It would have been hard to describe even then, but its meaning was crystal clear. Time had disclosed its essence to me. I did not mention it to my friends, who had not noticed my “absence.” I did not tell anyone—whatever understanding I retained I could not have articulated even to myself—but the moment left an imprint. Though not much for poetry, I found myself responding to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a deep meditation on the nature of time, and particularly to the lines:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I developed an interest in philosophical questions regarding time and years later published a phenomenological analysis of the experienced “now” that provided a way of understanding Plato’s insight that “time is the moving image of eternity.”

These two moments—and that of my friend in the Amazon—were divine shafts of light breaking through the clouds, as are many experiences people gloss over and relegate to their mental attics.

Later, I was told,

Think about epiphanic experiences. When did you feel close to Me or most spiritually open?

“I can only remember the two experiences. The first was the I-Thou with a drop of water.”

Yes, that is very significant. What did you understand from that experience?

“I understood the subjectivity of all things … but I’m not sure that is quite right. I did not imagine the drop of water looking out at me or having feelings or the like. I just encountered the ‘suchness’ of it, its full independent integrity, my respect for it, that we were in some kind of relationship …”

That was an encounter with Me. I was in the drop of water. Why not? Where else would I be? I am in everything. You suddenly became open to My presence in that drop of water. You did not think of it that way, and you were right. It is not that I as a great mystical being somehow inhabited this tiny object, but you rightly experienced the drop for what it was, and that is precisely how I am “in” things. As you can tell, I am in each thing “fully.”

“With life, spirit comes into play.”

For millions of years, before there was life, there was just God and a barren universe.

“You felt all alone?”

Yes, I wanted more. In retrospect, the inanimate years feel very lonely.  The emergence of life is a delight.  With life, spirit comes into play.  Wonderful to see amoeba, moss, and so forth.  The frogs (and other creatures), each with a soul and personality, each in a sense in tune with God.  I can play with the animals, “walk among them.”  I love their myriad formsI am not alone anymore.

The creatures that began to stir on the earth are amazing, more amazing than anything that had yet occurred in creation.  They move on their own, they have “internal principles of motion” as Aristotle said, have dramatic lives—even the worms and fishes.

There is birth, growth, death, mating, offspring, colonies and flocks, emergent social orders—ideality as well.  There is telos and purpose, success and failure, standards of perfection and imperfection.

And, over time, further developments in the species, a most amazing, creative ramifying of the evolutionary ladder.  New species emerge that could not have been imagined before.  Your paleontology tells the story:  the first horses could easily fit into the palm of a hand, and so forth.  Can you imagine the spectacle?

“Yes, I think I can.”

I have given you some clues . . .

I had received visions of the explosive expansions of time and space, and of divine energy rushing up through all levels of reality. Were these intimations of Creation? I was told,

The work I want you to begin involves reading and writing about My nature. Start with the Creation. I have given you some clues already. Follow up on them.

One day, in quiet reflection, I was taken deep into the Self, taken back, it seemed, to the Beginning. Here is how I described it right afterwards:

“There was a sense of things shattering, like crockery breaking, or like the shell of an egg breaking. (I think of Kabbalah and its image of Creation as divine vessels breaking.) Then there is a river, or milk, flowing out from amidst the shards. The river is clouded in mist and flows a long way down canyons of shards or rocks. Until it settles in a pool below. Tranquil waters. This is when Life begins. Cool, calm but rippling waters.”

 

All this was taking place on a flight to California to visit my ninety-year-old father. Sitting beside me was a nine-year-old girl, traveling alone. She kept looking at me, wondering what I was up to. Ignoring her was unkind, so I stopped praying and chatted with her.

After that, I returned to my own meditations and received a stream of visual images, a vision: the sun cracking up, solar flares that zoomed out into the reaches of space. I then saw, through the mist, an ethereal caravan of camels and their riders, coming up a valley, their long line stretching behind, down a winding road into the distance. I followed the road back to the source. I came upon vast winds, like a monsoon, then a world exploding—and then the vision abruptly stopped. The caravan seemed to represent the long course of human history, traced backward, all the way to the beginning, and then nothing.

I had received hints about the moment of Creation. Then, one day, He told me more. This is where God’s story really begins.

“It’s a mistake to try to control God . . .”

My first impressions of the ancient Egyptians were formed in Sunday School, put to music by gospels such as “Go Down Moses,” and brought to the silver screen by Cecil B. DeMille.  It was not a pretty picture—false gods, harsh rulers, fake magicians, and slave-drivers wielding the lash.  Egypt was on the wrong side of everything.

But now I was told that God was sending divine messages to every culture.  So I had to look at the land of the pharaohs through different eyes, Egyptian eyes.

Written in hieroglyphs that were already old when Sumerian cuneiform was young, the Pyramid texts date back almost five thousand years.  Chiseled into the walls of the dark corridors beneath these monumental tombs, these texts provide the deceased Pharaoh with the keys to a successful afterlife:  how to overcome each obstacle on the way to the divine realm and what words to speak to the guardians who block the way.  One strategy was to enter the cyclical course of the cosmos and accompany the sun god in the barque that transverses the sky each day.  The deceased king went so far, according to one inscription, as to kick the sun god overboard to make room for himself in the divine barque.

The complex mythology of the Egyptians far surpassed the simple piety of preliterate polytheism.  But, however complex, these greedy efforts to compel or trick the divine powers seem spiritually retrograde compared to the sensitive cave paintings and the humble peasant honoring a stream with a pile of stones.

“Isn’t that right, Lord?”

Yes, it is a fundamental mistake of man to try to control God rather than the other way around.  Do not exaggerate it.  It is no different from (no worse than) trying to bribe the king’s mistress or learn the password that goes you through the palace gates, but it is not high spirituality, and in fact is not really a kind of spirituality at all.