Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Mortality of the Soul

If you believe in the immortality of the soul, having a loved one with Alzheimer's might really rattle your existential cage.

There are medical conditions where somebody can't interact with the outside world, but relatives and nurses sense that the person is still aware in there. Also real and sad are cases when nobody's home in the wake of a brain-injuring accident. With Alzheimer's, though, there isn't a normal human being trapped inside. Nor has the mind flown from the mortal coil. It's more like dry rot of the cloth of the person's mind.

The Alzheimer's person loses vocabulary words—the window air conditioner becomes "that machine." They lose the ability to recognize people, including their loved ones. A friend of mine told me that when her grandfather developed Alzheimer's, the family relocated the old gentleman to Texas. He was more or less his congenial self, but halfway through the trip, he asked, "Who are you people?"

Then there is the paranoia. Here is a recent telephone exchange with my mother, who moved into an Assisted Living facility last December.

Me: "How are you doing tonight?"

My mother, resentfully: "I wish I had my nice blouses! When they emptied my house, they gave all my nice blouses to 'somebody' who 'needed' them."

Me: (thinking, damn it, you've got your nicer blouses in that closet behind you. And when my cousin and I gave up days of our Christmas vacation to make your house ready to sell, four sacks of your utterly redundant, cheap polyester blouses went to a charity that serves indigent ladies released from the hospital to the nursing home without any street clothes. And I've gently, kindly, clearly told you this several times already.) "I'm sorry to hear that."

When Alzheimer's paranoia gets really bad, the person may not recognize a loved one or caregiver, believe that they're an intruder, and attack them. One of the first things my mother's neurologist said, after he determined that she had Alzheimer's and I told him my concerns about her living alone at home until we could get her into Assisted Living, including my concern about her keeping a loaded gun under her bed—was, "Get that gun out of the house!" The gun went into my cousins' safekeeping.

With Alzheimer's there definitely isn't a normal person trapped inside. There's a somewhat normal-seeming shell of appearance and conversation. But it's more and more just a fragile shell. When it cracks, and broken bits fall away, musty voids can be seen inside.

I think one of the earlier things to go as Alzheimer's gets worse is what they call theory of mind: "the ability to attribute mental states, beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. to oneself and others. As originally defined, it enables one to understand that mental states can . . . explain and predict others’ behavior." (Wikipedia). My mother has less and less ability to conceive of my feelings, intentions and motivations. Or to assess her own state of mind, either.

This might unnerve me, even more than it already does, if I believed in the immortality of the soul. I don't. I'm convinced that the essential reality of human beings is embodied. When our bodies succumb to trauma or illness, when our brain's neural pathways are attacked by Alzheimer's plaques and tangles, we will die—not necessarily all of a sudden. I can live without immortality of the soul until the end of my life, at which time I will die without it.

Immortality of the soul seems to have been a Greek idea that floated into early Christianity along with philosophical idealism and a devaluation of matter. Progressive Christian theology tends to see it as a metaphysical Trojan horse: loaded with distractions and detriments to the faith. For that matter, Eastern Orthodox theology apparently doesn't posit immortality of the soul either. Eastern Orthodoxy is highly conservative in many ways. Yet in the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology there's this remark from an essay by Andrew Louth on Orthodox eschatology: "The central truth affirmed by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is that human beings are not simply spiritual but are constituted by both soul and body. . . . Recurrent temptations strong (though not universal) in the late classical culture in which Christianity first developed to think of human life in essentially spiritual terms are to be resisted. At death, the body becomes a corpse; the gift of life in the kingdom of heaven means, in some sense, the restoration of the body."

In other words, theologically speaking, death is utterly real; and yet the end of human life is not death but resurrection. As in, the whole human being remembered or recreated or whatever the Divine does. The myth of humans being resurrected whole—body and mind woven together—seems to me to be a much better myth than an immortal soul that lives on apart from the body. How could there be mind without matter, feeling without physiology, emotions without neurotransmitters? Don't know. Can't imagine.

Easter was a few weeks ago according to the calendar, and I went to church, but then I more or less reverted to a Lent of doubt and darkness. I'm coping with my mother's condition and her finances, while my fiction writing career gives me all the work I can possibly do, more self-promotion opportunities than I can tolerate, and not much income, so I have to earn a living by means of additional work. Some of my friends find themselves in a long dark season of life too. Every week I hear from good friends coping with aging parents, mentally ill siblings, paid work that seems like a daily uphill battle, careers in danger-and-opportunity crisis, and surgeries or serious illnesses and health insurance trouble. A few nights ago one friend, who is in position to know whereof she speaks, gave me advice in the form of a quote from Winston Churchill: "If you're going through hell, keep going." With so many people in my social circle having that kind of experience, it certainly feels like Lent hasn't ended.

Fine. The Eastern Orthodox Church has been observing Lent since March 10 and only now is it almost over!

Sunday, March 30, was a week after the Western Easter, but the exact middle of the Orthodox Lent this year. Friends invited me to St. Joseph Orthodox Church. It turned out to be the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. Veneration means prostration—as in, a whole church full of people on hands and knees touching their foreheads to the floor. And kissing a cross surrounded by roses. Starting with the Veneration, being in church that morning was a very physical experience. Sweet incense hung in the air. The walls gleamed with golden icons of saints, and above all there was a great golden icon of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos," the one who gives birth to God." There wasn't a crucifix in sight—the Orthodox don't have much use for statues—but there were icons of Christ the child of Theotokos, Christ the Teacher, and Christ's liberation of the dead from Hell. All of the worshipers, including those not taking communion, were offered chunks of holy bread to munch on. (The holy bread isn't communion, it's just bread that had been blessed: a very nice Orthodox practice, perhaps for the sustenance of those who fasted before communion, but generously shared with everybody else.) So even on the Sunday of the veneration of the Cross, there was no overwhelming impression of Christ crucified, the crucifixion and the victimization of the body of Jesus, and by extension, the physicality, rest of us. Instead it was Christ victorious over death.

In the classic 1931 book titled Christus Victor, Gustav Aulen wrote that it was the view of the early church, and it remains the Orthodox view, that the resurrection of Christ was above all else a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil. To appreciate how significant that might be, you don't have to tally up sins or invoke a literal devil. For sin, think greed, hatred, misogyny and all of the other destructive human impulses reported in the newspaper every day. For the devil think dictatorships, predatory corporate capitalism, war and all of the other powers that make so many people in the world afraid to get out of bed in the morning or afraid not to. And as for death, just contemplate a parent having an inescapable, ugly, and gradual but overwhelming death.

My mother's Alzheimer's torqued me again the other night. It seemed she'd walked twice around the outside of her Assisted Living facility that morning. Good, good—exercise is very beneficial for her. She sounded almost like her old self, telling me she'd seen birds and a tree that another resident identified as a Pin Oak. My mother was always most alive when walking in the woods, walking in the park, or gardening around her house. Then, however, came the following.

My mother, resentfully: "I wish I had my nature books! When they emptied my house, they gave my books to 'somebody' who 'needed' them."

Me: (I was seriously nettled, because when she moved we asked her which books she wanted and we dutifully schlepped them over to her new place. Then I thought, why not make a little game out of this, so my feelings are not just a doormat for her paranoia?) "I'm sure am sorry to hear that, what else is missing?"

My mother: "Oh, well, I think, my Halley's Bible commentary."

Me: "Oh, dear. How do you suppose something like could have happened?"

After another vague response from her, and another prompt from me with the implication that I was shocked, shocked, shocked about her things having been taken, she lost track of why she was upset and drifted to another topic! That's having a loved one with Alzheimer's. Maybe what they feel inside is something like a river drying up. Where a stretch of thought, feeling, and conviction still flows strongly—whatever misshapen waterfall now happens to stand in the broken bed of the river—it feels terribly important to them. They won't react well if you try to tamp it down. So if at all feasible, you just go with the flow of what's left to flow.

After seeing my mother's Alzheimer's, I can't imagine what would bring me back to a conviction of the immortality of soul.

Could anything give anyone or me back a belief in Heaven—? As in, your immortal soul goes to Heaven, where you meet up with all of your departed family members? I've doubted that since the age of twenty. Heaven, as the nearer presence of God, may not mean existence as a separate ego. Many religious and meditative traditions, plus people who practice depth psychology, identify the disembodied, deluded individual ego as the main problem of the human condition, not the salvation of it.

Then, though, there was the experience of attending St. Joseph's in the very middle of the Orthodox Lent. My friends explained that in Orthodoxy, going into church is entering into Heaven. The saints surround you, chandeliers shine in the high ceiling, sweet incense suffuses the whole place and ornate processions of mystery flow up and down the aisles. From what I can tell, Orthodoxy is neither intellectual nor anti-intellectual; it's all about mystery. It isn't defined by what beliefs you subscribe to; it's about the liturgy you participate in. I think that means you don't have to believe in Heaven; just go to church. How very interesting. That Sunday and this long hard Lent, it was also unexpectedly comforting.

Today is the Orthodox eve of Palm Sunday: it's Lazarus Saturday. Never heard of that one in the Episcopal, Lutheran, or Methodist churches I've attended, and definitely didn't hear about it in the Southern Baptist church I grew up in. But it's a remarkable commemoration. The Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote these words (found at

"The joy that permeates and enlightens the service of Lazarus Saturday stresses one major theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. Hades is the Biblical term for Death and its universal power, for inescapable darkness that swallows all life and with its shadow poisons the whole world. But now—with Lazarus’ resurrection—'death begins to tremble.' A decisive duel between Life and Death begins giving us the key to the entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. Already in the fourth century Lazarus' Saturday was called the 'announcement of the Pascha.' For, indeed, it announces and anticipates the wonderful light and peace of the nextThe GreatSaturday, the day of the life-giving Tomb."

For me that works infinitely better as a mystery, comfort and hope than the immortality of the soul works as a belief and expectation.

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