I never get tired of talking about ancient belief in ghosts and apparitions. We’ve reduced ghosts to the trivial or the easily dismissable, from Casper to cranks to dopes on the Discovery channel bumping into each other in grainy green night vision footage.
Ghosts stories, however, are not merely told in all cultures: they’re quite prominent. There’s a very simple reason for that: the ghost story points to the afterlife, and we want to know what lies beyond that dark veil that separates the living from the dead.
I’ve written about Augustine and Evodius before, but recent reading has deepened my appreciated for their exchange and changed my perspective a bit.
If I asked you to describe what happens to the soul after death, how would you do it? How would you explain it to someone who asked?
We know what we believe. At the point of death, the soul is subject to the particular judgment, and either is ushered into the divine presence or damned for all eternity. Those who die in their sins, but not in mortal sin, undergo a purgation: a cleansing to make the soul worthy to enter the courts of the Lord. Since Augustine, we’ve understood this as a process with a temporal element, despite our understanding of a God who transcends time. It allows us to grasp the ungraspable and imagine the soul after death as embarking upon a journey, helped along by our prayers, alms, and devotions.
But what is it like, practically? Anything we use–vision, light, pleasure, notions of place, etc–rely on material to make them function, which why we understand them metaphorically. That wasn’t the case among many early Christians. In giving alms, many believed they wereliterally transferring treasure to heaven. In book four of his endlessly fascinating Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great describes a vision of the afterlife in which a mansion made of gold bricks awaits a rich man who gave away his money.
The problem of the fate of the soul exercised the mind of Augustine, but he was content to draw a veil over much of it and acknowledge that we simply cannot know all the details of how a soul leaves the body at the point of death and enters into eternity. But the fate of the soul was of immense and pressing interest to his flock and his correspondents. He was besieged with questions about it from people who wanted to know if their actions, customs, and rituals were effective in protecting the soul after death and seeing it safely to heaven.