I was praying for the dead one Sunday morning, and in particular I was holding my Dad in love before God. I don’t know why I was praying for him rather than anyone else, but I’d felt led to do so, and then I sensed him suggesting that I visit the local Quaker meeting one Sunday for worship. I knew that this was good advice, I trusted it and duly went a couple of weeks later. It proved to be very good advice indeed. [see ‘More Feral Priesthood’]
Subsequently I have been mulling on that experience. How did I happen upon that insight? Objectively, I obviously don’t know, but what are the possible subjective explanations? My heart and soul were focused simply on Dad and maybe that was enough? Dad had been a regular attender at Quaker meeting all of my life, and I’d been occasionally, but never with him, so maybe it came out of that somehow? But he wasn’t someone to suggest that I do something, to do so would have been out of character for the man I knew. Maybe my soul knew that it was good advice and delivered it to my conscious mind in language it would recognise? Or might there be an alternative explanation?
I’ve learnt not to believe in coincidences, but to assume that when they seem to happen I am often being alerted to something. A week or two prior to the Sunday morning I’m writing about, my friend Paul came to talk and was enthusing about Boswell’s ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’ that he had been reading, and in particular he read me a prayer of Johnson’s that had impressed him and deeply moved me. It had been written in the early hours of April 26th 1752, immediately after the death of Johnson’s beloved wife:
‘O Lord! Governour of heaven and earth,
in whose hands are embodied and departed Spirits,
if thou hast ordained the Souls of the Dead to minister to the Living,
and appointed my departed Wife to have care of me,
grant that I may enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration,
whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams
or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government.
Forgive my presumption,
enlighten my ignorance,
and however meaner agents are employed,
grant me the blessed influences of thy holy Spirit,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The thought that the dead whom I hold in love before God in my prayers, would likely be doing the same for me is not new to me, and indeed I’ve come to trust that it is so. And the idea they might sometimes intervene in my life to my assistance, because they continue to “have care of me”, is not new either, for I’ve had several experiences when I’ve known that someone who is dead was communicating with me, out of a gracious concern. In two of those experiences it was someone whom I knew personally & recognised, and they acted a bit differently from how I had known them to act when alive: rather like my experience with Dad. But in both I had ‘seen’ the person concerned, while in this recent experience I saw nothing, heard nothing but simply intuitively knew something and from whom the ‘knowing’ came.
These intuitive knowings are quite common. I was praying this morning and a train of thought popped into my mind, that was certainly not consciously bidden. I ‘knew’ there was something in it, without knowing whence it came. Recognising both its authority & its authenticity, I trusted it, and followed to where it took me. Not all such thoughts that pop into my mind are deep and meaningful, but some certainly are, and usually I can recognise the wheat from the chaff. But where do they come from?
In one sense knowing where they come from is less important than learning to recognise and trust them. But in another sense perhaps not. Perhaps I can assume that some of them, [maybe all of them?] are of the order of what Samuel Johnson refers to with respect to the continuing care of his late wife, as:
“the good effects of her attention and ministration,
whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams
or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government.”
If so, then I am connected into a network of the dead, who seek, from time to time, to be actively involved in this earthly world in a positive and creative way. And it would be foolish of me not be open to their wisdom and advice. Sometimes I may have a clear sense of from whom the suggestion is coming, but often I don’t, and maybe it doesn’t matter?
Whenever I have tentatively aired these ideas I have been surprised by the number of people who not only take what I’m saying seriously, rather than ringing for an ambulance, but who go on to share personal stories of the known presence of some dead loved one giving them advice that they recognised as being loving and practical. Other faith traditions take all this more seriously than we do, although we in Western Europe probably did, before the Reformation..
There is another matter that intrigues me. The early Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was now their Risen Lord and that for a time he appeared and spoke to them, and certainly could be relied upon to respond to their prayers, leading and guiding them with advice beyond anything he had said while walking the land of Palestine. Over the centuries the Church has continued to believe and trust in this, and has changed its mind on a wide range of matters because of it. I believe that the Risen Lord continues to act in this way: the problem isn’t that He no longer does, but rather that we don’t expect Him to and therefore don’t recognise Him when He does.
What is the difference between experiences of what I might take to be the Risen Lord, and say, the experience I had of being addressed by Dad? The obvious answer is that they are identified as coming from different people, one of whom has a greater authority. But is it as clear as that? I am able at least in theory, and sometimes in practice, to distinguish between the known felt subjective experience, apart from and before I began to put it into words and identify its source. Could it be that all of these experiences come from a single greater authority beyond myself, and that the culture in which I stand determines whom I identify as its source?