In sterile scientific terms, we all understand the nature of death. It is, by definition, the shutting down of the biological functions of the body, rendering it lifeless and susceptible to corruption and decomposition. It happens to all living things, from the simplest plant to the most intelligent humanoid. However, the essence of life is of primary concern here, and such a pithy dictionary definition is incapable of answering our most profound questions, desires, and fears. Perhaps it is time to dip into the perennial tradition about the apex of mystery, and allow ourselves to be drawn into it.
The real question is not what death is, but rather what we are, both as living beings in general and human beings in particular? What is it that makes us living, on a fundamental level? What is life, light, recognition, from out of the primal mystery and primordial chasm from which all things came forth? What is consciousness? What is intelligibility? What is soul?
The soul is what we call the essence of our being, the animating principle, and that which sings through our bodies, like an instrument, and both connects us to all things and makes us distinctly us. It is the glow within us and without us, encompassing and running through our physical composition like an electrical current. It is our personhood, embodied but not defined by any material dimensions; it is our immortal image of the Eternal Face.
Love is the face of the soul. We, out of all creation, have been marked in this way, capable of reason and will, of self-awareness and spiritual awakening, of the recognition of beauty and search for truth, and of the pangs of suffering and the piercing of love.
There are many different traditions with regards to the soul. The Hindu belief is that the soul radiates out from the organ of the heart, bringing consciousness as a symptom to the entire body. The Celts believed the soul was not so much in the body as the body is within the soul, and the aura surrounds and permeates the physical, lending it life and lighting “the fire in the head.” The Jewish traditions relegate many aspects of the soul, with on part residing in the individual and another part residing in the heavens among the stars. The well-wishes conveyed in the phrase “Mazel Tov” roughly translates as “a drip from the stars”, signifying both nourishing rain and a flash of inspiration from the fullness of the soul.
We find ourselves both many and one, diverse, yet unified. We each have our own story to tell, and it interweaves with every other story ever told. We each have our own song to sing, and it echoes the “Oran Mor” of the universal birthing, when “nothing” becomes “something.” We all come forth from that, and to that we will return, as rain to the ocean, as dust to the earth. And yet the river is where the adventure lies, with the rush of the rapids and the trickle of tranquility alike. We are in it to the neck, until the sea waves wash over us.
We often question our situation. There is something in the world which makes us feel decidedly like a fish out of water. We are part of creation, and yet in some ways out of sorts with it. We yearn for a sense of belonging, and yet can never completely find it here. “How time flies,” we say, and God knows it scares us, not only because we know it will run out its course sooner than later, but because our dearest treasures, the moments-turned-memories, cannot be ever-present. Each passing moment becomes a loss as soon as it goes by. We inhabit a world in which time must trundle on, lest all things become static. And yet our deepest sensibilities long for a place in which time is not past, present, and future, but ever now, ever always, inviolable and whole, yet also dynamically alive and coursing with energy. We wonder how this energy could possibly be extinguished. This is our shock at the specter of death.
The Celts had a strong belief in eternal time, and the “thin places” in the world that allow us to penetrate the veil. All of history would be open like a book, and the lost moments would be immortalized through eternity, crystallized through light, and spiritualized through the divine. For the sacred sees differently than the mundane and Love alone will be our portion. History, in eternal time, will not measure greatness by invading armies or industrial development, but by the smallest acts of goodness exercised, even though they seemed inconsequential at the time.
All of humanity must struggle with one problem or another, touching the fundamental question of our identity. For spiritualists, it is the Problem of Pain; for materialists, it is the Problem of Beauty. Perhaps the hidden answer to both is that, in this physical realm of time and space, one cannot exist without the other. It is a mystery that seems shot through with the very nature of the Divine, the dual attributes of all-powerful and all-vulnerable. If beauty comes at a price, I do believe it is one we all ultimately find worth paying. Evidently God did, for in Christian tradition He takes up our natures and perishes transfixed on a tree.
It is something so far beyond our comprehension, and shoots us through with the realization that “the problem” is more in the way we address pain than in experiencing it. We are meant, in some sense, to embrace the mystery of it. It is the essence of “Quia Amore Langueo” – “I Languish for Love.” For God is here, in the joys and the sorrows and the glories, all tied up in the human story, covered in blood and dirty, disfigured and transfigured, a shepherd ever seeking his lost sheep, and smelling of the grazing field. He holds nothing of himself back. He falls into the mysterious chasm that is death.
In Celtic tradition, death is considered yet another phase of an ongoing journey, and whether as pagans or Christians, their belief in the supernatural was always especially strong. Even the Romans marveled at their seeming lack of fear on the field of battle, so certain were they of an afterlife. They believed that the spiritual world and the temporal one was deeply intertwined, and that everything that existed was mystically united through the Soul.
This makes sense, since one of their most important deities was the Morrigan, “the Great Queen”, who embodied the power of both fertility and death, wild as she makes love or wrestles the soul out of the body. She is the one who strips us of all that is not eternal, so that through this stripping, we might know a new surge of passion, making love with our physical ending, and moving on in our journey.
She is represented in Celtic mythology as being able to shape shift as a young, sexually virulent woman, smeared with war paint for battle, or an old, wizened crone, cloaked in a cape of black raven feathers. She was the thunder that descended at death, and the lightening of the soul being torn from the body. Her own body was seen as the conduit of death, a web of energy that mapped out the stormy pathways of the soul. She is the Cailleach, the Old Woman of the World, the divine hag who defines the formation of the land, and stimulates it with geotectonic power and keeps the animals of the land wild.
The Morrigan is triple goddess with “three faces”: Macha (Queen of Fertility), Badbh (Queen of Battle), and Nemhair (Queen of Death). They sometimes appear as women at the river ford, washing the bloodied clothes and weapons of warriors who have been or are about to be slain. They also made themselves manifest as ravens, picking among dead bodies after a battle. The Morrigan is the ominous “banshee” (English rendering of “bean sidhe”, meaning “faery woman”), the shrieking female spirit who foretells and laments death. Thus it is that Celtic women throughout the centuries have imitated her by “keening” at funerals, a term which derives from the Celtic “caoin”, denoting the Morrigan’s wail.
She was both life-giving and life-taking in a cycle to preserve “the fitness of things”. She is both creator and destroyer, embodying the fate of the universe in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. She is the great leveler, whom none can escape. Throughout mythology, she is the constant reminder of the temporary nature of all earthly things. In legends, she is a shape-shifter witch who haunts the banks of the rivers, garbed in red with a candle held in one hand and a stick in the other to beat out the wash. She will beckon to you, and you must come; she will take the wet clothes, and ring out the last drops.
In some stories, she also stands in as a symbol for humanity’s revulsion at the prospect of their physical death. She is the Goddess of Sovereignty, the one who we all must kiss, as ugly as she may appear. And in the end, it is that kiss which transforms her into a youthful beauty again. This is not unlike Christian poetry depicting the way a soul at peace with God goes from seeing death as a taunting, fickle tormentor to an angle of gracious countenance, as our own kith and kin. “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,” St. Francis proclaimed in his Canticle of the Sun, “from whom no living man can escape.”
No escape, and yet what is this thing we cannot escape from? Perhaps the most relentless force in the universe is that of transformation. And the most transformative element in the universe is love. There is something deep-set in the psyche of humanity to believe that true love, and that part of us enable to engage in it, never dies. It is not merely a chemical reaction or time-bound transaction. It resides in a place beyond the senses and deeper than memory, although it encompasses both. The Song of Songs relates: “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the waters drown it.”
Mystics and saints from across the spiritual spectrum are those most in touch with their own souls. This commonly helps them to transform their natural fear of death. This is why the Eastern Church refers to Mary’s death as the “Dormition of Mary”, for we are not afraid of sleeping, knowing that we will wake. In this way, Mary truly spans the gap of maiden, mother, crone, coming to us at the ultimate crossing, at the hour of our death. She is the comforter in the hour of deepest fear, the bridge between worlds which we tremor to cross. She is the sign for us of something crystalline within ourselves, more timeless than the stars.
Our stories and songs resound with this holy haunting, this recognition that something at the root of us remains inviolable, and that the brevity of life pales in the face of the longevity of love. Perhaps this is because, on some instinctive level, we believe that the heart of ourselves, the very center of our essence, cannot be broken down or disintegrated. It is not at the mercy of time or place. Once it is brought into being, it can never cease to be. That which is filled in such a way can never drain. In a simple yet profound way, the romantic ballad from Disney’s animated adaption of Robin Hood captures this concept:
“Love, it seems like only yesterday you were just a child at play/Now you’re all grown up and suddenly/Oh, how fast these moments flee/How we watched the lazy world go by/Now the days seem to fly/Life is brief, but when it’s gone/Love goes on and on.”
As the ever-so-popular theme from Titanic relates, “Near, far, wherever you are, I believe that the heart does go on.” No distance, no space, can have primacy over this, for we are made for eternity, and the eternal cannot be found by the finite. It is like new wine being poured into old wine skins; trying to cause the spiritual life within a materialist container causes the casing to burst open, and the essence to overflow. We love even though our love may have vanished from our senses. We feel them with a sixth sense, and we never are able to pull out the root of that love, for it is not dead, but rather alive:
“I am stretched on your grave, and I’ll lie here forever/If your hands were in mine, I’d be sure they would not sever/My apple tree, my brightness, it is time we were together/For I smell of the earth and I’m worn by the weather.”
Science, quite simply, is unable to test the quality or the nature of what it means to be human. It is too intense, too fundamental a thing. And if it cannot explain life, it surely cannot explain death. As Rumi wrote, “If you look too closely at the form, you miss the essence.” He also said: “Anything born in spring dies in the fall, but love is not seasonal.”
The arts do a much better job of exploring its mysteries. Songs flow forth from the heart, and with them the native wisdom of people grounded in life, not as an experiment but as a story. There is something that stretches beyond all mortal confines, and it courses out like music. The old folk ballads repeat this theme with use of the elements, especially when taken from Celtic extraction, and seemingly in unison with the concept of the pentangle, with the 5 pointed star, marking out the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air, and at the tip, the soul, encircled by eternity:
“When the fire to ice has run/When the tide no longer turns/When the rocks melt with the sun/My love for you will have just begun.”
Avellina Balestri (aka Rosaria Marie) is a Catholic freelance writer from the scenic and historic Penn-Mar borderlands. She the editor-in-chief of Fellowship & Fairydust, a literary magazine inspiring faith and creativity and exploring the arts through a spiritual lens. In addition to her regular contributions to The Wisdom Daily, her writings on matters of world history, popular culture, current events, and universal spirituality have been featured in a variety of publications including St. Austin Review, Catholic Insight, Latin Mass Magazine, Mvslim, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Network, , etc. In all of this, she seeks her inspiration from the Ultimate Love and Source of Creativity, and hopes to share that love and creativity with others.