Have you seen Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin? It’s horrifying.
The Feast of the Ascension was celebrated last month and idle conversation over breakfast inspired a discussion about the Assumption versus the Ascension. A “Would you rather” for lapsed Catholics, if you like. Google threw out an image of the fresco, which decorates Parma Cathedral. In it, Jesus is shown descending to greet his mother. It’s a chaotic Baroque scene, composed of many moving parts: The Virgin, St Hilary, St John the Baptist, Judith and Holofornes, Adam and Eve – the whole cast. Mary, shrouded in ill-fitting swaddling, holds her hands up in despair while the crowd around her bays. The atmosphere is more chaotic Bosch than serene Boticelli, exploding with fleshy figures clambering to the top.
The afterlife is not nearly as culturally prominent in our everyday lives as it once was. Indeed, the promise of life after death, together with the fear of an eternity in hell, were once societal disciplines that guided the minutiae of daily existence. No longer.
These days we are instead focused on living – and living for as long as possible. The events of the past 12 months, including Boris Johnson’s exasperating strapline “Stay home. Save lives. Protect the NHS”, have been testament to our collective desperation to avoid death. A geriatric friend recently signed off an email with: “Just off for the second vaccine. Why on earth should the government want to keep us alive?” He has a point.
It isn’t just coronavirus that’s brought out our inner Peter Pans. The dogged determination to live forever has been part of our nation’s narrative for years. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Walk 10,000 steps each day. Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables. Avoid sugar. Shut up. Tell your children you love them. Go to therapy and complain that your parents never loved you. Etc, etc. A fetishisation of self-preservation has been around for a while; Covid-19 simply fed the monster.
It makes sense to want to stay alive if this is as good as it gets. A survey conducted on behalf of the BBC in 2017 found that 46 per cent of participants did not believe in “some form” of life after death. We are a nation of non-believers.
This is because, these days, science trumps spirituality. Scientists want to gain mastery over our environment; they want to control it – and us. (In doubt? See SAGE and lockdown.) A kinder-hearted writer (and one with a science GCSE) might propose that in mastering our environment, science can reduce suffering, which of course rings true.
Dr Bruce Greyson, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, believes science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. His recent book, After, explores the science behind near-death experiences (NDEs). It is a provocative book that leads to Greyson’s conviction that our consciousness continues beyond our bodies: death is not the end. The NDEs recounted are far-reaching and fascinating. One “experiencer” explains: “What I say here is limited by the English language, for no words have been invented to tell this story with adequate beauty… [describing it is like] trying to draw an odour using crayons.” Another says: “I found myself in a meadow… and this was a beautiful green meadow with beautiful flowers, beautiful colours, lit again with this glorious, radiant light, like no light we’ve ever seen.”
Greyson relies on his extensive research to support his conclusion that “almost without exception, people who have NDEs hold a firm belief that some part of them will live on after death”. He tells the Herald that 50 years of research has led him to believe “we can’t fully understand ourselves or our world unless we take into account both the scientific and the spiritual perspectives, just as you can’t fully describe an object without taking into account both its composition and its shape”. His findings echo Plato’s theory of the soul – that after death, the soul continues to think.
I mentioned After to a friend who is also a priest. He warned me that such research is “very dangerous and should be avoided”. Why? “We must give ourselves to God with abandon.” It is easier said than done. But perhaps Greyson’s book shows that, when it comes to believing in life after death, the tide is starting to turn back again.
Martin Kemp’s Visions of Heaven: Dante and the Art of Divine Light, published in March, brings the visual element of the afterlife to the fore. Kemp writes: “Within the context of the physical phenomena of the material world, there are extremes that lie outside the scope of our vision”, which explains the infinity of divinity in art.
In March last year, Disney released Soul, a film that follows the journey of a music teacher who seeks to reunite his soul with his body after they are separated by way of a pothole accident. It is complete with a purgatory-esque chamber, also a “Great Beyond”, a “Great Before’’ and lots of jokes that surely brought comfort to the lonely grannies contemplating eternity in lockdown.
Are these productions and publications something of a Jacob’s Ladder for the contemporary non-believer? Perhaps, for all Boris Johnson’s attempts to keep us alive, we are becoming less afraid of what might wait for us when the lights go out.
Constance Watson is Assistant Editor of the Catholic Herald
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.