The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Whats before birth?

I have for a long time been puzzled by a number of what I consider to be related questions. The first is ‘What happens after death’, which is something some people do wonder about; the second is ‘Where do we come from?, or Where were we before birth?’ which hardly anybody gives any thought to. And the third is ‘Are these two questions not likely to be related? How can we consider one apart from the other?’ ‘What is the bigger picture to the life we lead?’

 

In his ‘History of the English church and people’ 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, with the Good News that because Jesus had been raised by God from death, those who followed Him would similarly rise and ascend into heaven as Jesus had. But King Edwin’s advisor understood the Good News to be about a much bigger picture than that, one that included a vision of where we come from prior to our birth. John in his Gospel sets Jesus life in this much bigger picture, asserting that Jesus was from the beginning with God, before His birth as a human being, and subsequently returned to God after his death. I’m inclined to believe that is the model for our story too, that we come from God prior to our birth and that we return to God after our death, and that our lives only truly make sense within this bigger picture.

 

When Paul talks about Christ letting go of equality with God in order to become human, he is presumable saying that Christ had to let go of insights and knowledge that He knew from the beginning with God in order to be born as a human being.  Do we as humans have to perform a similar letting go when we are born?  I think we probably do.

 

Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that when we are born we bring with us memories of that pre-existence experience with God, which we have had to let go of. John Drury in his fine book ‘Painting the Word’ tells how Marcel Proust describes the “ dying writer Bergotte on a gallery sofa, lost in admiration for the perfect ‘little patch of yellow wall’ in Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft, ‘painted with so much skill and refinement’ as to suggest that ‘everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life’ so that we ‘consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even polite’, and an artist feels obliged to dedicate himself to the same rules of perfection, even though, ‘there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth’ for her or him to do so. And perhaps, Proust continues, we return there when we die ‘to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer. So heaven is not an irrelevance even to one whom Proust called ‘an atheist artist”

 

This makes quite a lot of sense to me, that when we are born we bring with us memories of the heaven we left behind. Hence nearly all human beings recognise certain ‘eternal verities’ things like truth, beauty, love, peace, justice, mercy, harmony, kindness, compassion, hospitality, creativity and wonder. We might struggle to define exactly what we mean by each of these, and different cultures and fashions may have differing understandings of them, but we all certainly seem to recognise them when we experience them, and where else might that common recognition come from?

 

Some poets know this insight too. Here are the words by William Wordsworth [1770-1850] 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.

 

 

And here’s Henry Vaughan [1622-95]

 

Happy those early days! when I

Shined in my angel-infancy,

Before I understood this place

Appointed for my second race.,

Or taught my soul to fancy ought

But a white, celestial thought;

When yet I had not walked above

A mile or two from my first love,

And looking back—at that short space—

Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

When on some gilded cloud, or flower,

My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

And in those weaker glories spy

Some shadows of eternity;

Before I taught my tongue to wound

My conscience with a sinful sound,

Or had the black art to dispense

A several sin to every sense,

But felt through all this fleshy dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

Oh how I long to travel back,

And tread again that ancient track!

That I might once more reach that plain,

Where first I left my glorious train;

From whence the enlightened spirit sees

That shady city of palm trees.

But ah! my soul with too much stay

Is drunk, and staggers in the way.

Some men a forward motion love,

But I by backward steps would move

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

 

 

So what am I trying to say here? What is this bigger picture that frames our earthly existence?

 

That we each come from God in the beginning, and something of the divine spark always remains alive within each of us, waiting to be nourished into life.

 

Like Jesus we leave God and something of the things of God in order to be born, but we all bring with us memories of that first experience, memories that can sustain and enrich our lives if we nourish them.

 

They also express themselves as certain longings for a home we dimly remember.  As Rubem Alves says: ‘what we have lost makes itself present as longing & desire’.

 

We are gifted to our parents: they are the ones who provide the context in which we will grow, perhaps they were chosen for us to teach us things we needed to know, and which they were well equipped to teach? And perhaps we were gifted with them to a similar end:  we are a mutual gift to each other, providing an opportunity for us all to grow and teach each other.

 

But we are God’s first & foremost a member of God’s family before we became a part of a human family. And an important part of the duty of human parents is to know this truth themselves, and to teach their children to recognise and honour it.

 

Our early experience is that we learn familiarity with darkness and silence in the womb where we have been nourished and have learnt to trust. Our mother’s body is like God. Once we are born we have a strong desire to survive but we cannot do so alone. Left alone we will soon die, we need the loving relationships of others. But the time will also come when we have to separate from those nurturing early relationships in order to continue our growth into independence: ‘if you love your child send them on a journey’ is a quotation I like, and which maybe applies to God as to us.

 

And the God in Whom we have our beginning comes to meet us on our journey through life, through the whole created order of which we are a part, through other people whom we meet, and through epiphanies when God breaks through directly into our awareness.

 

Perhaps our part in this process is that with our awareness we alone are able to discern its meaning, to be aware of what God is up to here. And that awareness means that we can share in something of what God is doing, such that we can become active participants in God’s activity. Its as if God needs our active cooperation, is reaching out in relationship to us to be co-creators together. Hence our gift of creativity, which we share with God and which is what scientists and others are striving after all the time: shaping and continuing the process of creation. Artists do this too, as we each do, in our own particular ways when we use our creative gifts wisely, however humble and small our contribution may seem to be, but who are we to judge let alone know??.

 

And in this is our greatness, if we can see and believe it. But we doubt our potential, we know all too well our capacity to mess it up, we know that we cannot do it alone and we doubt God’s invitation for us to  do it together. That puts me in mind of the words that Nelson Mandela used in his 1994 Inaugural Speech, words of Marianne Williamson:

 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous ?

Actually, who are you not to be ?

You are a child of God

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

Its not in just some of us; its in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

 

Like Jesus I am incarnated at birth to release the image of God in me, and to redeem negative inherited stuff.  This is the earthly task: to transform myself; to be ready to return to be with God

I can read the story of Prodigal Son as a story that exemplifies this task.

 

I find this a wonderful vision, that holds together and makes life an exciting and hopeful adventure. I cant prove rationally that its true, indeed what I have shared here is not first and foremost a rational argument. But my imagination and intuition leads me to know that there is truth in it, not the whole truth of course, but enough of the truth to be getting on with, truth that I am daily learning to trust and which leads me ever deeper into knowing, and knowing myself known, by God or whatever word we use for the divine and the holy.

 

The question for you, dear reader, therefore is less whether your rational sense agrees with what I have written, [although that is not unimportant], rather it is, does my intuitive experience as described here chime with yours, does it help you to put into words what you already sense that you know, does it seem to lead you deeper into what you recognise as truth? If so, then it may be worth your mulling it over. If not, probably best to let it go and forget it.

 

I have for a long time been puzzled by a number of what I consider to be related questions. The first is ‘What happens after death’, which is something some people do wonder about; the second is ‘Where do we come from?, or Where were we before birth?’ which hardly anybody gives any thought to. And the third is ‘Are these two questions not likely to be related? How can we consider one apart from the other?’ ‘What is the bigger picture to the life we lead?’

 

In his ‘History of the English church and people’ 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, with the Good News that because Jesus had been raised by God from death, those who followed Him would similarly rise and ascend into heaven as Jesus had. But King Edwin’s advisor understood the Good News to be about a much bigger picture than that, one that included a vision of where we come from prior to our birth. John in his Gospel sets Jesus life in this much bigger picture, asserting that Jesus was from the beginning with God, before His birth as a human being, and subsequently returned to God after his death. I’m inclined to believe that is the model for our story too, that we come from God prior to our birth and that we return to God after our death, and that our lives only truly make sense within this bigger picture.

 

When Paul talks about Christ letting go of equality with God in order to become human, he is presumable saying that Christ had to let go of insights and knowledge that He knew from the beginning with God in order to be born as a human being.  Do we as humans have to perform a similar letting go when we are born?  I think we probably do.

 

Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that when we are born we bring with us memories of that pre-existence experience with God, which we have had to let go of. John Drury in his fine book ‘Painting the Word’ tells how Marcel Proust describes the “ dying writer Bergotte on a gallery sofa, lost in admiration for the perfect ‘little patch of yellow wall’ in Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft, ‘painted with so much skill and refinement’ as to suggest that ‘everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life’ so that we ‘consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even polite’, and an artist feels obliged to dedicate himself to the same rules of perfection, even though, ‘there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth’ for her or him to do so. And perhaps, Proust continues, we return there when we die ‘to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer. So heaven is not an irrelevance even to one whom Proust called ‘an atheist artist”

 

This makes quite a lot of sense to me, that when we are born we bring with us memories of the heaven we left behind. Hence nearly all human beings recognise certain ‘eternal verities’ things like truth, beauty, love, peace, justice, mercy, harmony, kindness, compassion, hospitality, creativity and wonder. We might struggle to define exactly what we mean by each of these, and different cultures and fashions may have differing understandings of them, but we all certainly seem to recognise them when we experience them, and where else might that common recognition come from?

 

Some poets know this insight too. Here are the words by William Wordsworth [1770-1850] 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.

 

 

And here’s Henry Vaughan [1622-95]

 

Happy those early days! when I

Shined in my angel-infancy,

Before I understood this place

Appointed for my second race.,

Or taught my soul to fancy ought

But a white, celestial thought;

When yet I had not walked above

A mile or two from my first love,

And looking back—at that short space—

Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

When on some gilded cloud, or flower,

My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

And in those weaker glories spy

Some shadows of eternity;

Before I taught my tongue to wound

My conscience with a sinful sound,

Or had the black art to dispense

A several sin to every sense,

But felt through all this fleshy dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

Oh how I long to travel back,

And tread again that ancient track!

That I might once more reach that plain,

Where first I left my glorious train;

From whence the enlightened spirit sees

That shady city of palm trees.

But ah! my soul with too much stay

Is drunk, and staggers in the way.

Some men a forward motion love,

But I by backward steps would move

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

 

 

So what am I trying to say here? What is this bigger picture that frames our earthly existence?

 

That we each come from God in the beginning, and something of the divine spark always remains alive within each of us, waiting to be nourished into life.

 

Like Jesus we leave God and something of the things of God in order to be born, but we all bring with us memories of that first experience, memories that can sustain and enrich our lives if we nourish them.

 

They also express themselves as certain longings for a home we dimly remember.  As Rubem Alves says: ‘what we have lost makes itself present as longing & desire’.

 

We are gifted to our parents: they are the ones who provide the context in which we will grow, perhaps they were chosen for us to teach us things we needed to know, and which they were well equipped to teach? And perhaps we were gifted with them to a similar end:  we are a mutual gift to each other, providing an opportunity for us all to grow and teach each other.

 

But we are God’s first & foremost a member of God’s family before we became a part of a human family. And an important part of the duty of human parents is to know this truth themselves, and to teach their children to recognise and honour it.

 

Our early experience is that we learn familiarity with darkness and silence in the womb where we have been nourished and have learnt to trust. Our mother’s body is like God. Once we are born we have a strong desire to survive but we cannot do so alone. Left alone we will soon die, we need the loving relationships of others. But the time will also come when we have to separate from those nurturing early relationships in order to continue our growth into independence: ‘if you love your child send them on a journey’ is a quotation I like, and which maybe applies to God as to us.

 

And the God in Whom we have our beginning comes to meet us on our journey through life, through the whole created order of which we are a part, through other people whom we meet, and through epiphanies when God breaks through directly into our awareness.

 

Perhaps our part in this process is that with our awareness we alone are able to discern its meaning, to be aware of what God is up to here. And that awareness means that we can share in something of what God is doing, such that we can become active participants in God’s activity. Its as if God needs our active cooperation, is reaching out in relationship to us to be co-creators together. Hence our gift of creativity, which we share with God and which is what scientists and others are striving after all the time: shaping and continuing the process of creation. Artists do this too, as we each do, in our own particular ways when we use our creative gifts wisely, however humble and small our contribution may seem to be, but who are we to judge let alone know??.

 

And in this is our greatness, if we can see and believe it. But we doubt our potential, we know all too well our capacity to mess it up, we know that we cannot do it alone and we doubt God’s invitation for us to  do it together. That puts me in mind of the words that Nelson Mandela used in his 1994 Inaugural Speech, words of Marianne Williamson:

 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous ?

Actually, who are you not to be ?

You are a child of God

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

Its not in just some of us; its in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

 

Like Jesus I am incarnated at birth to release the image of God in me, and to redeem negative inherited stuff.  This is the earthly task: to transform myself; to be ready to return to be with God

I can read the story of Prodigal Son as a story that exemplifies this task.

 

I find this a wonderful vision, that holds together and makes life an exciting and hopeful adventure. I cant prove rationally that its true, indeed what I have shared here is not first and foremost a rational argument. But my imagination and intuition leads me to know that there is truth in it, not the whole truth of course, but enough of the truth to be getting on with, truth that I am daily learning to trust and which leads me ever deeper into knowing, and knowing myself known, by God or whatever word we use for the divine and the holy.

 

The question for you, dear reader, therefore is less whether your rational sense agrees with what I have written, [although that is not unimportant], rather it is, does my intuitive experience as described here chime with yours, does it help you to put into words what you already sense that you know, does it seem to lead you deeper into what you recognise as truth? If so, then it may be worth your mulling it over. If not, probably best to let it go and forget it.

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Phnmeneoal breakdown of the topic, you should write for me too!

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