The approach of Good Friday is an appropriate time to reflect on death and on what happens when we die. Not that I need an excuse for such speculation.
The fear of death for many is probably due to the sense that this most final and inescapable event, over which we have no control, means the end of life as we know it. Even if part of us lives on, it is impossible to imagine what such a life might be.
Even if death means extinction, Socrates taught, it would be a wonderful gain, an endless sleep with no dreaming. He thought that a dreamless night of peace is infinitely preferable to our ordinary nights in which the unconscous mind keeps on producing images.
This assumes that the death of the brain ends conscious as well as unconscious life. Yet myth and religion have always portrayed the souls of the dead as having some identity. They speak and retain their names. Christianity (Catholicism in particular) has always insisted that the souls live on in God. The saints are said to intercede for us with prayers and are linked with those who walk in this life. Of course, the nature of heaven is a mystery about which there is only speculation.
In The Circle Dance of Time, Notre Dame theologian John S. Dunne explores various faith traditions in speculating about the possibility that, like the souls in Dante's afterlife, our post-mortem selves have a kind of consciousness. In the Hindu Upanishads, he says, there might be a conscious union of the soul with the ultimate reality.
Dunne makes a distinction between consciousness and perception: such a union might be conscious without meaning that is a perception of God as an object. This implies a oneness with God that is nonetheless conscious: we blend into the reality of God while retaining some spark of identity. Thus it might be possible to say that there is consciousnes after death.
After several readings of Dunne's challenging chapter "Reasons of the Heart," I found by accident--or Providence--a statement by Thomas Merton, whose study of the mystical tradition in Christian theology led him to assert (with greater confidence than I could ever muster in such territory) the following:
"When we all reach that perfection of love which is the contemplation of God in his glory, our inalienable personalities, while remaining eternally distinct, will nevertheless combine into One so that each one of us will find himself in all the others, and God will be the life and reality of all."
So, it would seem, according to this teaching (which I hope is true), that while we merge in the great eternal ocean of God's being, we still retain our essential individuality. Merton does not reference Dante's Paradiso, but those who have read it can picture the souls leaving the celestial rose to make a guest appearance in one of the heavenly spheres before returning to the One divine reality that is beyond depiction.
As for me, whether or not heaven is a state of contemplation, I take comfort in Merton's summation belief in God as Being itself (not a being) who exists in us as we exist in God in the present and forever. And I like to think that my essential self, freed of my memories and desires along with my body, will not be totally extinguished. The whole thing promises to be an interesting experience that I look forward to being fully aware of.