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The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 18512

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The wisest of men have little to guide them when they approach that mysterious realm from which no traveler has ever returned. With humility and the consciousness that we must, at the best, walk in the twilight, I take up one of the most mysterious and fascinating of themes. No one has any right to speak positively on such a subject, and I shall not do so. Those who have the assurance of sight when they write about what lies beyond the grave are both to be envied and to be pitied,-envied because of their confidence, pitied because they may be self-deceived.

Let me make my exact purpose as plain as I can by an illustration. A dear friend, one with whom you have associated for years, enters the silent life. The morning following, as has long been your custom, you offer your prayers to the Heavenly Father, and, as usual, mention that friend by name. Suddenly you stop and say to yourself, "I can no more offer that petition, for my friend is now beyond the need of my poor prayers." Then, suddenly and swiftly, come the questions, Although my friend is called dead is he any less alive than when he was in the body? Will not all that constituted his personality continue to grow in the future as in the past? Does the death of the body do anything more than change the mode of the spirit's existence? And the result is that you say to yourself, "I will continue to pray for my friend, for, if he is alive now, every reason which led to prayers before his death justifies their continuance."

From more than one person I have heard words similar to these which I have put into this hypothetical form; and because of these expressions of sane and sacred experience I am led to ask my readers to follow me in the consideration of a subject which is seldom mentioned, except with incredulity, by most Protestants.

No one who may not appreciate the importance of this subject should be either troubled or heedless. We learn our lessons concerning the profounder mysteries simply by living. No one can be blamed for not appreciating what he is not yet, either intellectually or spiritually, ready to receive. Providence takes good care of us. When we are prepared for the reception of any truth it usually finds us.

This subject has been regarded with suspicion by two classes of thinkers: Protestants who have revolted from the extent to which praying for the dead has been carried in the Roman Catholic Church, and the much smaller number who hold what they delight in affirming is "the true theology," and who have insisted that when men die their state is irrevocably and forever fixed, the good going at once into the perfect bliss of heaven and the wicked into the suffering of hell.

It will be more profitable for us to deal with the positive side of our subject than to attempt to clear away misconceptions and half truths.

What is meant by prayers for the dead? Exactly the same as prayers for those in the body. When the body dies the soul, or the essential man, is not touched by death. The personality is that which thinks, chooses, lives. Your mother is not the form on which your eyes rested, or the arms which encircled you, but the thought, the devotion, the affection concealed, yet revealed, by the body, and which use it for their instrument. In reality we never saw our dearest friends; what we saw was color, form, but never the spirit. That is disclosed through the body, but is not identified with it. Now just as we have prayed for a mother, or a child, or a friend whose physical form is familiar, but whose personality we have seen only in its revelations, so we continue to pray for that loved one which we do not see any more, or any less, after what is called death.

In other words, instead of thinking of any as dead, we think of all as alive, although many of them are in the unseen sphere. Love and sympathy have never been dependent on the body except for expression, and there is no evidence that they ever will be. Sympathy and affection, thought and will, are matters of spirit; and why may not spirit feel for spirit and minister to spirit, when the body is laid aside? Your hands, your feet, your lips did not pray for your child; your spirit prayed for his spirit, and now that his body is laid aside, like a worn-out garment, you may keep on doing just what you did before. This is what is meant by prayers for the dead.

I am well aware that it may seem to some that these statements rest largely on assumptions, but they are not baseless assumptions. One other assumption must be made before we can proceed in our study, and that one is the truthfulness of the Christian teaching that death is not cessation of being, but only the decay of the bodily organism.

How may prayers for the dead be justified? Are they taught as a duty in the Scriptures? The privilege rests not so much on particular exhortations as upon the whole Christian teaching concerning immortality. God is the God of the living. Bishop Pearson in his exposition of the Apostles' Creed has an impressive passage, which I quote: "The communion of saints in the Church of Christ with those who are departed is demonstrated by their communion with the saints alive. For if I have a communion with a saint of God, as such, while he liveth here, I must still have communion with him when he is departed hence; because the foundation of that communion cannot be removed by death. The mystical union between Christ and His Church ... is the true foundation of that communion.... But death, which is nothing else but the separation of the soul from the body, maketh no separation in the mystical union, no breach of the spiritual conjunction, and consequently there must be the same communion, because there remaineth the same foundation."[9]

Jesus taught that death is but a change of the form of existence. On the Mount of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appeared alive, and as interested in human affairs. If death is not cessation of being, but only a change in the form of its manifestation, why should we think that human sympathy ends when breathing ceases, and why should we conclude that mutual service may be rendered impossible by "a snake's bite or a falling tile." Tennyson in "In Memoriam" gives the Christian doctrine exquisite expression,

"Eternal form shall still divide

The eternal soul from all beside;

And I shall know him when we meet."

Jesus teaches the reality of immortality He represents those gone from us as not dead but as still living and still interested in human affairs. If His teaching is true, is it not as reasonable to try to serve those of our loved ones who are out of the body as those who are in the body? So far as we can see, the only way in which we can serve them is by prayer, although they may, possibly, minister to us in other ways.

If immortal existence means the possibility of unceasing growth, then every reason which prompts prayer for those who are bodily present remains a motive when they have entered the state which is purely spiritual.

But what efficacy will prayers for the dead have? My answer is two-fold. All the efficacy that prayer ever has. If death is relative only to a single state of existence, and if those whom we call dead are living, and still free agents, then they may still choose good and evil, and they may still grow toward virtue. Choice always implies a possibility of freedom; and freedom is a necessity when there is moral responsibility. If prayer helps any one, why not those who have passed from our sight? Surely we must believe them still to possess the power of choice and, therefore, that of choosing evil as well as good.

You ask why pray at all. My answer is simple and free from all attempts at casuistry: simply because we must. Prayer is not so much a Christian doctrine as a human necessity. It is as natural as breathing. By prayer I mean not only spoken petitions but, equally, the longing and pleading of the soul, either blindly or intelligently, for things which are beyond our reach, and which only a higher Power can provide. Those longings may have formal expression, and they may not. Prayer so far as it is petition is the soul pleading with the Unseen for what it deeply desires. I do not suppose that God needs light from any mortal man, but all men do need many things from Him, and, as naturally as children present their desires to earthly parents, even though they know them to be already favorable, we go with our deeper needs to our Heavenly Father.

Much time has been wasted in trying to formulate a rational basis for prayer. When a child in the smaller family no longer asks his father to accede to his wishes, when he no more pleads with his father for his brother or his sister, then it will be time enough to inquire if, in the larger family which we call humanity, we may do without prayer. Until then let us believe,

"More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of."

Leaving now the apologetic side of the subject, which is alluring, we observe one evident blessing which always attends praying for the dead. It keeps ever before our minds the thought that they are actually alive. It makes the doctrine of the communion of saints a sacred reality. If

I may in this essay be allowed to assume a hortatory tone I will say, if you have been in the habit of praying for your friend, do not give it up simply because he has ceased to breathe. As regularly as ever continue to pray for him, and he will be to you more than a memory. What would have been but an occasional remembrance will then be a daily communion; and what would have been only formal praying to God will be an hour, or a moment, of association with those who will grow nearer and dearer, and not farther and vaguer, with the passing years. The hour of devotion will thus be hallowed, because it will be a holy tryst with absent friends, as well as a time for making our requests known to our Heavenly Father. Who can exaggerate the delight and benefit of such an exercise? What sources of strength are to be found in spiritual association with our beloved! If we are thus helped why should we presume that they may not also, by such sweet hours, be strengthened for their duties? I know this may seem fanciful. I ask no one to follow me who is not ready to do so. I do not speak dogmatically, but with great earnestness, when I say that prayer for our beloved after they are gone is a privilege and a help-I would fain believe both to them and to us.

But it may be objected that the moral state of men is fixed at death, and that nothing that we or they can do can influence it by a hair's breadth. That this has been a popular opinion is true; and it is equally true that many have supposed that all who have had faith on the earth are in bliss; and that all who have been without faith are in misery; and that the beatitude of all the good is equal and alike, and that the misery of all unbelievers is the same.

Such inferences, though held by many for whose scholarship and character I have profound reverence, seem to me to be contrary to Scripture, to the analogies of nature, and to the moral sense. Such a theory is contrary to Christian Scriptures; for the parable of the talents shows that some will have greater and some lesser reward; and the parable of Dives and Lazarus has relation only to Hades, or to the state which in the thought of that time intervened between death and the judgment.

This theory is contrary to the analogies of life on earth. Here change indicates not a finality but a new opportunity. Every crisis of life is an opening into a newer and larger world. Why should we say that what we call death, alone of all the changes through which we pass, leads to that which is unchangeable?

The theory is contrary to the moral sense of all earnest souls. Who does not have to compel himself to believe, and that with difficulty, that death determines forever the fate of all, and that there is neither possibility of progress nor of going backward after the body is laid aside?

Let me quote a noble passage from Bishop Welldon: "But if a variety of destinies in the unseen world, whether of happiness or of suffering, is reserved for mankind, and yet more, if the principle of that world is not inactivity but energy or character or life, it is reasonable to believe that the souls which enter upon the future state with the taint of sin clinging to them, in whatever form or degree, will be slowly cleansed by a disciplinary or purifactory process from whatever it is that, being evil in itself, necessarily obstructs or obscures the vision of God." He continues, "And this is the benediction of human nature, to feel that, as souls upon earth are fortified and elevated by the prayers offered for them in the unseen world, so too by our prayers may the souls which have passed behind the veil be lifted higher and higher into the knowledge and contemplation and fruition of God."[10]

We do not know that death forever determines the condition of the soul. On the other hand, as I grow older, the idea seems to me to be opposed to Scripture, to the analogies of nature and history, to reason, and to the universal moral sense.

If any one should object to prayers for the dead because the privilege and duty seem so distinctively a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, my only reply is that we should never ask who are the advocates of any teaching, but, only, is it true? Each branch of the church emphasizes some phase of truth. The Roman Church has given more prominence to prayers for the dead than Protestants, and because of that it will have the gratitude of many honest souls who cannot believe that they are entirely and forever severed from those whom they have loved and still love.

I am well aware that there are many difficult questions concerning this subject which it is impossible for me to answer. Some truths are clearly revealed and of others we have only glimpses. Concerning some we feel more than we know, and feelings which are not selfish are prophetic. What an earnest and inquiring spirit feels must be true is quite as likely to be found true as conclusions which seem to have been reached by a process of faultless logic.

I fully believe that we are justified in praying for those who have departed this life, that the good may grow better, that the clouds which obscure the vision of the unbelieving may be removed, that all taints of animalism may be washed away; and that we should pray even for the wicked, that the disciplinary processes through which they are passing may some time and somehow lead them to submit their wills to the love and truth of God. We may pray for our loved ones, not simply by way of asking something for them, but in order that there may be a meeting place,-a time for communion and fellowship between those here and those beyond the veil. That meeting place must be found in our common approach to God.

Does this teaching seem mystical and fanciful? What if it does? It is in line with the human heart's deepest desires, and with the soul's immortal aspirations. What they most earnestly affirm in their hours of deepest need, and highest illumination, cannot be altogether without foundation in reason and in the Scriptures.

The unity of life cannot be too strongly emphasized. Life is one. It is all under the eye and in the strength of God. It has to do with spirit; death, if there is any such thing, has to do with matter. Spirits always grow because they always live. The universe is not composed of two hemispheres, in the upper one of which are to be gathered all the good and in the lower all the evil. It is saner and better to believe that the universe is a sphere in which, in their own places, are all the spirits of men, some beautiful with the holiness of God; some only beginning to rise toward Him, like seed that has broken the soil and begun to move toward the light; and still others like seed whose possibilities are all hidden, but which are not destroyed and which some day also will hear the divine call, feel the touch of God's light, and begin to move toward Him.

We live in the midst of mystery. In the future we shall probably find that our best attempts at rational answers to many questions have gone wide of the mark. The most that any of us can do is to be true to ourselves, and to respond to every call from above. In the midst of the gloom of mortal existence it is safe to follow our hearts.

We long to commune with those who have gone, to help them and to be helped by them. This longing is natural and rational. That it is not without reason is proved by the example of our Master, who, after His death, is represented as ministering to those whom He loved, and who, we are told, ever liveth to make intercession for us.

What our hearts desire, what harmonizes with reason, what is confirmed by the revelations and example of our divine Teacher, will persuade none far from the path which leads to light and felicity.

Those whom men call dead, it is best to believe, have but entered upon another phase of the eternal life of the spirit.

The Roman Church has an act or service called "The Culture of the Dead." It means the "practice of the presence" of those who, though gone from us, in spirit are with us. The Creed has an article which reads, "I believe in the communion of saints." The Christian year has one day called "All Saints' Day." We shall not be far from the traditions of the church when we pray for our beloved, whether they be in the body or out of the body.

Those who would realize the beatitude of this privilege should remember the truth in this stanza from "In Memoriam:"

"How pure at heart and sound in head,

With what Divine affections bold,

Should be the man whose thought would hold

An hour's communion with the dead."

* * *


But Thee, but Thee, O Sovereign Seer of time,

But Thee, O poet's Poet, Wisdom's Tongue,

But Thee, O man's best Man, O love's best Love,

O perfect life in perfect labor writ,

O all men's Comrade, Servant, King, or Priest,-

What if or yet, what mole, what flaw, what lapse,

What least defect or shadow of defect,

What rumor, tattled by an enemy,

Of inference loose, what lack of grace

Even in torture's grasp, or sleep's, or death's,-

Oh, what amiss may I forgive in Thee,

Jesus, good Paragon, thou Crystal Christ?

-The Crystal. Sidney Lanier.

* * *

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