Consuming Fire, River of Fire

Live long enough, and we will have plenty of dead friends to remember along the way to our own hour of death. But, as the anonymous author of the Meditations on the Tarot poignantly tells us in his letter on Death, the thirteenth arcanum, there are different levels of remembering. It is possible for instance to remember a friend in one’s thoughts while having completely forgotten him in one’s feelings. Or, one can remember him in one’s thoughts and feelings – he can be warmly present in one’s soul as if he were still living – while one forgets him completely in the will. One might grieve his death, one might miss him, one might indeed cherish many fond memories of him, but one does nothing for him.

Does nothing for him? What might I do for a dead friend? What might I do for any or all of my dead friends, relatives or family members? Well, there is something I can do, because, come to think of it, there is this rather pressing matter of purgatorial fires . . .

“. . . The physical body does indeed die and its elements return to the earth from which they were fashioned,” writes Martin Israel, Anglican priest, in the 14th chapter of his book Dark Victory, “but the essential being, which we call the soul, enters into the realm of divine unity, depending on its ability to face the physically blinding but intellectually illuminating uncreated light of God, the same that Saul of Tarsus (later St Paul) encountered on the road of Damascus (Acts 9.3-9). In those of evil lineage, the soul retires to the darkness of hell, whereas the saint’s soul passes effortlessly to the light of paradise. Most of us proceed to the intermediary zone of Purgatory.”

“I believe in Purgatory,” writes C. S. Lewis, another Anglican author, in his book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and he goes on in his rather homely way:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” – “Even so, sir.”

I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

My favorite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round’,’ a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.

We have the fourth-century teacher Saint Gregory of Nyssa expressing this idea more generally: “We must either be purified in the present life by prayer and the love of wisdom or, after our departure from this world, in the furnace of the purifying fire.” And we also have Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, his contemporary, writing in his poetry of the “fearful river of fire” that will purify the sinner after death.

Then there is Pope Gregory the Great declaring in the late 6th century, “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.”

“For our God is a consuming fire,” says Hebrews 12:29.

 Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), in his book Theosophy, who usually calls Purgatory in his lectures and books Kamaloca, has much to say about the working of these “purifying fires”, distinguishing seven levels to pass through. For brevity’s sake, however, let us go to his 1906 lecture series An Esoteric Cosmology (SteinerBooks, 2008, pp. 46, 47):

What happens at the moment of death? After death, the etheric body, the astral body and the Ego of man have left the physical body. The corpse alone remains in the physical world. A short time after death the etheric and astral bodies unite. The etheric body imprints in the astral body the memory of the life just passed; then the etheric body slowly dissolves and the astral body passes alone into the astral world. The astral body then contains all the desires generated by life and, being bereft of the physical body, has no means of satisfying them. This gives rise to a sensation of devouring thirst – the basis of the imagination of the punishment of Tantalus in Greek Mythology. There is also the impression of being immersed in fire — Gehenna or Purgatory. The idea of the fire of Purgatory which is laughed at by materialists is a true expression of the subjective state of man after death. By contrast, unsatisfied thirst for action produces the sensation of cold in the soul. It is this cold — born of action unrealised on Earth — that is said to be sensed by the spirits in mediumistic séances. The soul living in the astral body must learn to break free from the forces of the physical organs and acquire a new organism for existence in the astral world.

The soul now begins to live through the past life in backward order, beginning at death and going back to birth. Not until the life has been lived through in this purifying fire to the point of birth is the soul ready to pass into the spiritual world — into Devachan. Such is the import of Christ’s words to His disciples: “Verily, verily I say unto you, unless ye become as little children, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Man is impelled by desire when he is descending to earthly incarnation. Not for nothing is desire for the Earth born in man. The end and aim is that he shall learn.

We learn through all our experiences and they enrich our store of knowledge. But in order that man may learn on the Earth, he must be allured by, [or] involved in enjoyment.

When the soul is experiencing the past life in the astral world after death, in backward order, there must be abnegation of enjoyment, while the essence of the experience itself is retained. The passage through the astral world is thus a purification whereby the soul learns to forego all taste for physical pleasures. Such is the purification of the Hindu Kamaloca, of the ‘consuming fire.’ Man must grow accustomed to existence without a physical body. Death gives rise, at first, to the impression of an immeasurable void.

In cases of violent death and of suicide, the impressions of emptiness, thirst and burning are much more terrible. An astral body that is not prepared for existence outside the physical body, separates with great travail, whereas in natural death the detachment of the matured astral body takes place easily and smoothly. In the case of violent death that is not caused by the will of man, the process of separation is less distressing than in the case of suicide.

After these remarks, who will not take more seriously what the ghost of Hamlet’s father, having been dispatched suddenly across the threshold of death by Claudius his brother, has to say about his own suffering in Purgatory?

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

“Of course I pray for the dead,” writes C.S. Lewis in Letters. “The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?”

A friend of mine recently died. It was a violent death, and the circumstances of that violent death were somewhat peculiar. It may have been a suicide. Since November 2 is All Souls Day, a special day of remembrance of the Dead in the Church year, I have decided to make a novena for the Dead in preparation for this feast day. Each day for the nine days preceding this feast day, I am going to pray for the soul of this friend, and I am going to pray for all the souls of all my other departed friends as well. I cannot say that this person who may have committed suicide was a really a friend before death, because I did not find this person very likeable, but now I consider that this person to be truly a friend who, suicide or no suicide, stands in great need of help.

Truth to tell, dear Reader, my conscience stabs me. Might not my coldness, my lack of charity, have contributed substantially to this act of suicide, if suicide it was? I confess that, feeling used, I quietly spurned this person three times before that violent death. If I felt used, why didn’t I say this directly to the person? In the third chaper (lecture) of At the Gates of Spiritual Science, Steiner has this to say about the experience of a suicide in Purgatory:

When death comes naturally, the three bodies [astral, etheric and physical] separate relatively easily. Even in apoplexy or any other sudden but natural form of death, the separation of these higher members has in fact been prepared for well in advance, and so they separate easily and the sense of loss of the physical body is only slight. But when the separation is as sudden and violent as it is with the suicide, whose whole organism is still healthy and firmly bound together, then immediately after death he feels the loss of the physical body very keenly and this causes terrible pains. This is a ghastly fate: the suicide feels as though he had been plucked out of himself, and he begins a fearful search for the physical body of which he was so suddenly deprived. Nothing else bears comparison with this. You may retort that the suicide who is weary of life no longer has any interest in it; otherwise he would not have killed himself. But that is a delusion, for it is precisely the suicide who wants too much from life. Because it has ceased to satisfy his desire for pleasure, or perhaps because some change of circumstances has involved him in a loss, he takes refuge in death. And that is why his feeling of deprivation when he finds himself without a body is unspeakably severe.

I resolve from this hour on to remember with warmth good things about this person. I resolve that what was not fully friendship in life, will now – at least on my part – be true friendship across the threshold of death. Here is the meditative prayer I will pray for my recently departed friend, and for all my other departed friends and family members, having adapted three meditations from Steiner’s Verses and Meditations for this purpose:

Departed Souls, Holy Souls,
[Here will I name each of the departed, warmly picturing each]
I gaze upon you
In the spiritual world
In which you are.
May my love mitigate your warmth,
May my love mitigate your cold,
May it reach out to you and help you
To find your way
Through Spirit-darkness
To Spirit-light.

Departed Souls, Holy Souls,
[Here will I again name each of the departed, warmly picturing each]
Into the fields of Spirit will I send
The faithful love we found on Earth,
Uniting soul with soul.
And you will find my loving thought
When from the Spirit-lands of light
You hither turn your seeking souls
To find what you seek in me.

Departed Souls, Holy Souls,
[Here will I again name each of the departed, warmly picturing each]
I was united with you.
Stay now united in me,
So shall we speak together
In the language of eternal Being.
So shall we work together
Where deeds find their fulfillment.
So shall we weave in the Spirit
Where human thoughts are woven
In the Word of eternal Thought.

Truly, dear Reader, through prayer and meditation, we can help the Dead. Through prayer and meditation we can maintain, we can continue, and we can enhance our relationships with the Dead. This was the conviction of Rudolf Steiner, it being fundamental to his work. This is integral to the living tradition of Christianity, it being the reality of “the communion of saints”: communion of saints, as in the Apostle’s Creed, because the Dead also, dear Reader – these Holy Souls – can in return help us, the living. And God only knows how much help we need.

But that is a matter for some other blog.

Pax et bonum,
Randall Scott

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One Response to Consuming Fire, River of Fire

  1. Ingrid Fraser says:

    Thank you Randall, that was an inspiring text. Best wishes and thoughts from Ingrid. At Roncegno I have have been touched, enlivened, and warmed. There was a supportive group as well as a deepening into the seven seals of the apocalypse lead by Robert, which created a sacred and blessed atmosphere. I feel lifted into a new level of working. The school feels as a reality weaving in the etheric web of love which shimmers and resonates around the earth. Peace to you and to Josie. Please pass my message on. Love from Ingrid

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