There has been renewed speculation recently over the credibility of so called ‘out of body’ experiences.
These are what some people who have been near death know as various forms of other consciousness, when one sees oneself from a distance, or sees a kind of light at the end of what appears to be impenetrable darkness.
It is possible that those with severe disabilities, especially children, exist in this dimension, perhaps for a considerable amount of time, but that they are unable to speak about it. Sometimes these experiences are entirely light. It is argued that the fact that we hear of such experiences means that people were either not, properly speaking, dead, or that certain brain patterns are discernible during the final few seconds of life as we know it. These patterns have been observed during experiments on rats.
Speaking as someone who while very young used to regularly journey ‘out there’, as I thought of it at the time, I do not think these recent scientific observations tell us very much about life after death. Neither do they tell us very much about the finality of death itself, as oblivion or complete non existence in the limited realm of consciousness as we know it. They tell us a little about what losing sight of life feels like, but that is only one very small part of the journey outwards, whatever that consists of. All that we possibly know is that it is a one way trip. During my own infantile experiments with the ‘out there’ I always knew that I had to get back to my body before someone came into the room. I sensed that the appearance of another person would have broken the fine thread which keeps us connected to the here and now at the earliest stage of life, and perhaps at the final stages too. I suspect that some cot deaths may be partly caused by the infant going too far ‘out there’ and finding that she is now unable to get ‘back in’, but all of this is pure conjecture.
What I learned from these moments of extreme detachment was that the business of dying faces us with having to let go, not only of what we have, but of what we are – or at least what until now we have always believed ourselves to be. In terms of Christian teaching on death and judgment this makes sense. Judgment, as we understand it, is not about being lumbered with all our past sins, as if God had been saving them up and was now relishing the moment of weighing them in a gigantic set of kitchen scales before pronouncing failure. Rather, it is about a revelation of the truth about who we are. What we actually sense, in out of body experiences, is light and weightlessness, a paring away of the essential self and the things which have accumulated around that self and encumbered it during the course of its life on earth.
Put simply, I believe that this refining process, or judgment, is a paring away of every moment which has not been of love. It is a refining, or burning away of everything which has been corrosive in our lives, everything that has destroyed our humanity, or that of others, revealing only what is left of our true self as it was originally created by God. The really daunting thing about death and judgment is that this true self may have all but disappeared. That is about as near as we can get to oblivion.
We spend most of our lives not being true to what we were meant to be because so much of our time and energy is wasted on realising aspirations which do not in themselves amount to anything. These aspirations, which may have been noble and selfless to begin with, seldom realise their potential because they get short circuited by our own need to ‘exist’, or to live life primarily for our own advancement or satisfaction in the dimension which we currently inhabit. Such a limited existence is all too often the result of suffering and psychological deprivation experienced in the past. When Jesus speaks of treasure which does not corrode, and which is not prey to destructive insects like moths, he is talking about the extent to which we have allowed love to refine our selfish concerns and priorities. Living like this requires that we allow God’s love to start refining us now, so that we can live generously towards him and towards the whole of creation. To this end, we are offered grace.