Once again I must express my gratitude to Alicia Hamberg, whose thoughts from a perspective that is often critical of anthroposophy, have from time to time provoked me into writing posts on this blog.
The proximate cause of what follows is something that Alicia wrote as a reply to my post of April 6th 2015, “The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death”. Here is part of what she said:
“You may very well be right that your approach — or illusion — is ‘rational’ in some ways, regardless of whether it conforms to truth. But it only works as long as you’re able to tell yourself that it is at least likely to be true! The second you start to doubt it — at least if this doubt is more than just a fleeting thought — its ability to comfort diminishes, because if there’s serious doubt, you can’t lay the worries entirely to rest! (As a side-note, what happens after death according to anthroposophy is not necessarily a comforting thought — it is quite daunting.)”
I mentioned in that posting that I’m someone who is certain that life continues after death and therefore I have no fear of dying (although I am of course afraid of a painful death or a long drawn-out disabling illness). But there is another aspect of death that I do find daunting and that is the possibility that one could be caught in a kind of limbo, unable to return to earth but either terrified or completely unaware of the possibility of moving on into the spiritual world.
As it happens, I’ve known some people with clairvoyant and healing abilities who are able to do what is called rescue work with souls who “get stuck” in the astral plane after death. This very unfortunate state can happen to people who during their earth lives have no belief in reincarnation or life after death, or who for whatever reason are very earth-bound – and it can last for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is these stuck souls who are sometimes perceived as ‘ghosts’. What seems to occur is that their very strong non-belief that life continues in a different form after death (or their shock, in the case of those who have died a violent death) prevents them from becoming aware of the higher frequency spiritual beings who have come to help them make the transition. This is where clairvoyants with a particular gift for this kind of rescue work can help, because their own “vibrations” are low enough (because they are still attached to their physical bodies) so that souls trapped in the astral plane can actually perceive these earthly helpers, and may begin to listen to their advice about how to move on.
According to a lecture given by Steiner in May 1913, “the earth is neither a mere transitional stage, nor a vale of despair, but it exists so that on it a spiritual knowledge can be developed which can then be carried upwards into the spiritual worlds.” More than this, he says that it is only on the earth that such knowledge can be acquired – it’s usually too late once you’ve died: “This is due to the fact that the content of earthly theosophy can only be acquired on earth within a physical body. It can then be made use of in the spiritual world but it must be attained within a physical body….” Steiner gave quite a few lectures in 1912 and 1913 on what life is like between death and re-birth. You can read them, if you’re interested, in the invaluable online RS Archive.
Steiner’s message in the quotation above (you can tell by the reference to theosophy that it was given at a time when he was still the general secretary of the German section of the Theosophical Society) is the same as the message of Jesus Christ’s parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The parable does not criticise the foolish virgins for sleeping, because the wise ones also fall asleep – but instead it takes them to task for being unprepared, for not having the oil for their lamps. The oil we all need, so that our lamps can light us into the spiritual world when the time comes, is the knowledge of what to do when we die. It’s pretty astonishing that there is so little preparation for death – after all, we have the National Childbirth Trust and pregnancy classes for the beginning of physical incarnation but when it comes to excarnation, we have few equivalents for the final stages of life – although the soul midwifery movement is doing excellent work in this field.
Rescue workers say that the basics are not that complicated – all we need to do is recognise our deceased family members and friends and go with them, or sometimes just look for a beckoning light and then follow it. I do think that atheists in particular should be prepared to be open to such possibilities when they die, even if they despise themselves for entertaining such ideas – the alternative of getting stuck for centuries is too terrible to contemplate.