Some years ago Roy Gregory and I edited a book entitled ‘The God you already know’. The thrust of the book was that most people with whom we came into contact, in a spiritual direction setting, deep down knew already what they needed to know about God. They mostly didn’t need new information. What they did need was to get in touch with what they already knew and begin to honour and trust it. Hence our title.
What we didn’t ask in that book was, why is this so? Why do people already seem to know not only about God, but also about what they need to do to deepen their relationship with God? How did they acquire this knowledge? Where did it come from? They must have learnt it somewhere, and it isn’t obvious to me where.
Roy and I also majored on the largely unrecognised value of religious experience. The evidence suggests that the vast majority of people claim to have had a religious experience at some point in their lives, although many would not use religious language to describe it. But people don’t talk about it, and it tends to get buried and forgotten. Is this the source of peoples’ inner knowledge of God?
I’ve puzzled over this question for some time, and my puzzling was sharply focused by having an operation for cancer followed by six months of chemotherapy. There’s nothing like a brush with cancer to get the grey matter working overtime on matters of life and death, and their meaning.
It intrigues me that there is speculation about what happens after death, and even a quiet confidence in many that there is in fact something beyond this life. But I’ve never heard people speculating about where we came from before birth. I find that strange. I was present at the birth of each of my four daughters and every time I was overwhelmed by a sense of incredulous wonder at the miracle of new life: I understood something of the biology, but it didn’t seem adequate to explain where this spark of new life came from.
To my mind the question of ‘is there life before birth?’ must be linked with the question ‘is there life after death’? I’m fascinated by Deepak Chopra’s notion that every life is framed by two mysteries: birth and death. But we only consider one of them, birth, as a miracle. The reality, I suspect, is that both are miracles and both are gateways from a previous state into a new one. This is not an original idea.
In his ‘History of the English church and people’ St Bede [673-735] tells how King Edwin consulted his advisers about whether he should embrace the Christian faith, and one of them said:
“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
The new teaching did indeed bring some more certain knowledge, certainly about life after death but also of where we come from prior to our birth. I am repeating what I have written in “The Cosmic Christ” and so I will keep it brief. John’s Gospel begins by telling that the Word, was with God from the beginning, was involved in the creation of everything, and is the light of every human being, but laid down divine status to become human, before dying and returning to God. Paul speaks in very similar terms.
I assume that this template is ours too: Bede certainly thought so: we are with God in the beginning, before birth, and return to God after our death. It seems reasonable to wonder if we might have brought some memories, some distant echoes, of that life with God that we left behind, with us at our birth.? But are there any grounds for believing that this might be true? Well, I think that there is some circumstantial evidence.
 It struck me that those who work with children, nurturing their spiritual development, might have some insight into this. So I read Rebecca Nye’s book ‘Children’s Spirituality’, and read that many workers in this field have come to the conclusion that nurturing spirituality in children is more a matter of nurturing and encouraging what children already in some sense innately know, rather than rushing to put ‘in’ what they appear not to have: i.e. that children seem to come with some knowledge of the divine ‘fitted as standard’.
 Poets seem to have recognised this too. Here are the words by William Wordsworth from ‘Intimations of Immortality’ from Recollections of Early Childhood.’
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily further from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
 I have written elsewhere about Beauty. For me beauty stands in line with other ‘eternal verities’ like truth, peace, hospitality, friendship, justice, and many others, which seem to share certain common characteristics. They are not easy to define; yet there is general agreement about what constitutes them; we reckon that we’d recognise them when we saw them; and crucially, while expressions of them may vary, knowledge of them seems to be common across all cultures. Now why is this? Why this universal knowledge of things non-material? Where does it come from, and why do we all seem to possess it?
 It appears to be a common feature of life, and one seemingly necessary for our growth, that we are forever having to leave the familiar for the unknown: from the very beginning when we leave our mother’s womb for what awaits us outside; through to leaving home for nursey and school; to leaving one school for another; to leaving the home and family unit we’ve grown up in to start another; to leaving one job to start another; and so on, with finally having to leave all that we’ve loved and valued when our death calls us.
This is surely true on a corporate level too. We humans have our origins in Africa, but most of our ancestors left that original home for new homes across the globe. And we have never ceased from doing that: humans have always been on the move. We’ve always been migrants: we’re all immigrants if you go back generations.
Does this pattern teach us something new, or might it be a regular reminder of a deeper reality we have known before and that we can’t easily forget? Is it somehow hard-wired into us all?
James Hollis in his book ‘What matters most?’ suggests that “We are all exiles, whether we know it or not, for who among us feels truly, vitally linked to the four great orders of mystery: the cosmos, nature, the tribe, and self? He quotes Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf approvingly, “We have to stumble through so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is our homesickness.”
He also reminds us that most cultures have a myth of an original expulsion from Paradise, as Jews, Christians and Muslims do in the Genesis story. Feeling expelled from Paradise might just another way of saying that we have memories of a home that we have left behind.
The Bible takes up St John’s template by beginning with such an expulsion and ending with the creation of a new heaven on earth. Perhaps our memories are not just things of our past, but also a blueprint for our destination. As Rubem Alves says: ‘what we have lost makes itself present as longing & desire’.
To sum up: my experience in spiritual direction is that deep down most people know what they need to know about God, but have lost touch with that knowledge and no longer consciously trust it. Those who work nurturing the spirituality of children seem to have come to a parallel conclusion: that children come with an innate spirituality that needs nurturing and encouraging. Poets know of this, and there is a Christian tradition of our pre-existence before birth that supports it. The common human experience of the ‘eternal verities’ seems to point to a similar conclusion. And we seem to be hard-wired for growth through the experience of leaving behind and moving on, but taking our wisdom with us. All of this seems to me to hang together.
This doesn’t constitute proof of the existence of Memories of Home, but I don’t think that proof either for or against is an available option here. We have to make our decision on a different basis. I suggest that we apply the question ‘If this is true will it make life more meaningful and rich or less?’