This is Part 2 of 3 of the review of The Soul after Death by Fr. Seraphim Rose. In this part we review his analysis of near death experiences. The next part will deal with the soul’s post-mortem journey through the toll houses.
⇐ Part 1 Part 3 ⇒
Around the beginning of the 20th century, the attempt to prove life after death in a scientific way was being taken seriously. This attracted men of exceptional intelligence and erudition, including William James and Karl Jung. Of course, those they depended on were of lesser accomplishment, as Rene Guenon amply documented in his book The Spiritist Fallacy. Fr. Rose does not mention Guenon’s book, although he dealt with the topic.
This brings up the notion of “scientific proof” which is different from just seeing. For example, from just looking, it appears that the earth is still and the sun is in motion. Yet that is not a scientific conclusion. Now, there may be cases where looking suffices. The existence of a black swan can be shown simply enough, but finding such a bird. We know what a swan is and what black is; the opinion of the swan is irrelevant.
The situation is not the same in regards to a dead soul. Usually, there is nothing more than a medium and her claim to be communicating with the spirit of a dead human, or perhaps a discarnate higher being. I have had the occasion more than once to witness a medium communicate with such a spirit. She was a pretty Swiss woman who would enter the trance state, close her eyes, alter her voice, and then ramble on for an hour or more in florid prose. I recommend it for its soporific properties.
Sometimes the spirits affect material things through rappings or breaking things. Guenon denies that discarnate spirits can affect physical objects, so I’ll accept that for now. Sometimes they may make an appearance, but that is hardly a proof of anything. What does it mean for a spirit to “appear”? A non-material being cannot be experienced through the senses. Thus, it can never be as conclusive as finding the black swan.
So ultimately the only proof there is of the identity of such a being is his own claim. Fr. Rose then shows how to understand what is really going on based on the Traditional teachings of the Eastern Empire.
Out of Body Experiences
Fr. Rose begins by discussing certain phenomena that have been gaining currency. These are near death experiences and deliberately induced out-of-body experiences. Although these reports are not new, they seem to be, probably because of the improvements in medical technology that have made it possible to resuscitate patients who were nearly dead. Fr. Rose summarizes such near death experiences. The person seems to have left his body while retaining consciousness of events around his body. Fr. Rose provides many such examples, whose veracity he does not deny, when he concludes:
None of this should sound very strange to an Orthodox Christian; the experience here described is what Christians know as the separation of the soul from the body at the moment of death.
To make his point, he quotes similar experiences from Orthodox sources. He then makes use of the cross-cultural study, using data from the USA and India. What is common is the apparition of dead relatives and friend, although in India there are also apparitions of Hindu gods around the time of death. Fr. Rose again makes the point that such studies are startling to the modern mind, but not at all to the Orthodox Christian. Interestingly, he quotes Pope Gregory the Great, who wrote extensively on this topic. Although Pope Gregory was quite influential in the Medieval west, this aspect of his teaching has not been effectively transmitted. He explains:
It frequently happens that a soul on the part of death recognizes those with whom it is to share the same eternal dwelling for equal blame or reward. … It often happens that the saints of heaven appear to the righteous at the hour of death in order to reassure them. And, with the vision of the heavenly company before their minds, they die without experiencing any fear or agony.
Fr. Rose draws attention to what this really means. At the time of death, ordinary sinners recognize people, but the saints of heaven appear to the righteous. That is because deceased sinners have no contact with the living, save in exceptional circumstances, but the saints actively intercede for the living.
We also have the authority of St. Augustine who asserts that the souls of the dad are in a place where they do not see the things which go on and transpire in this mortal life. I know this is contrary to the sentimental feelings of people today that their deceased relatives are somehow watching over them. It is not so simple, as there may be apparent manifestations of the dead, through the workings of the devil, as well as true manifestations of the saints through the workings of the angels.
There are two other experiences to draw attention to. One is the contact with the “Being of Light”, which rapidly increases in brightness. Since it is formless, it is described in different ways since the person will project his own interpretation onto it. Note that the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the same experience.
The other one is the feeling of peacefulness that is experienced. This is accounted as the normal sensation of the soul separating from the body. Since he body is so heavy and tends to dominate the life of the soul, it should not be surprising to have that feeling of release. Since in most of these cases the person has been sick or physically hurt, it makes sense that the separation from such pains and agonies would bring such relief. However, such natural phenomena do not necessarily reflect a supernatural cause.