Center for Sacred Psychology

Soul Food Archive: Wisdom Traditions & Sources

Main Courses are offered on a frequently changing menu. Here are words and images to ingest and digest for inner nourishment. We hope these hearty meals invite you to taste and savor, to muse, reflect and remember, to journal, to create art...that is, to feast on food for the spirit.


Pascha #2, by Archimandrite Kiprian,
Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY*

Our current main course, below, is just one of several Soul Food offerings. Please visit, also, our buffet of Guest Caterer Specials and, for lighter fare, our Desserts & Snacks counter. And, to sample earlier menus, we hope you'll check out the Soul Food Archive. Like all who prepare foodstuffs, we hope to hear from those we serve! Space to leave comments, or read others' comments, on our cuisine follows each Soul Food offering.

 

 

§

 

Well, that sounds like good advice—but how do we 21st century soul-tenders put it into practice?  Autumn brings us useful reminders of death: fading leaves, grasses turning to brown, shorter days, holy days and anniversaries of tragedy.  Perhaps we cherish photos of those who have died, hoping to meet them again at the time of our death.  If we lived in Turkey, on the Dalyan Çayi River near the Mediterranean, daily we could look up to see these impressive cliff tombs.  Carved over two thousand years ago, they've reminded locals and tourists ever since that death comes to all.* 

And why would we want to "think on death?"  Because living without an awareness of our mortality is very different from living as though we have, as the saying goes, “a dash between birth and death” (dash as on a tombstone, separating two dates).  C.G.Jung spoke of “accomplishing our death,” or “conscious dying,” a necessary act of high consciousness.  Mohammed instructed his followers to “Die before you die.”  Without being morbid, many of us are aware of 'dying a little bit every day,' as the pages of our lives continue to turn and/or as we bury old ways in exchange for new.

 

Different Attitudes Toward Death

~ Fear, Anger:

Is death the enemy? Death comes like a thief in the night…say the Christian scriptures,* and Dylan Thomas' advice was, Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.* Are our horror/slasher films ways to acknowledge death vicariously, while insulating us and keeping its terrors “out there?”  Why do stories about the ‘undead' continually recycle (that would be vampires, mummies, zombies, and kin)?  Do we devour mystery and detective fiction because it makes us aware of our mortality, but keeps the reality of death at arm's length, happening to someone else?

  

~ Welcome Release and Rest:

The Big Sleep—yes, the title of a famous Bogart film.  How many of us (not up on gangsta-talk of the mid-40s) realize this is an old euphemism for death?  But, a gentle one, even if used in violent context, as in the film.  The Big Sleep is about eternal rest.  (We were more likely to have gotten, from similar noir films, the meaning of “sleeping with the fishies,” a way in which some unfortunates were terminated.)

An old spiritual has as its chorus, Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world… Have I not sung this refrain at different times?  Similarly, have I ever heard anyone say, In 50 (40, 20..) years we'll all be dead…as a way of looking forward to rest after trials?
And Shakespeare, in Cymbeline,* speaks so beautifully of rest and rewards to come (or not):

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou, thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta'en thy wages...

~ Humor: (a reaction formation to fear)

Centuries ago, friendly skeletons appeared in mystery plays throughout a Europe decimated by the Black Death; half of western Europe's population was carried off, making awareness of Sister or Brother Death inescapable.  Actors dressed as skeletons led members of congregations in lively processions, as a ‘warm-up' that, it was hoped, might siphon off some fear of the dreaded Visitor.  Here's a Parisian picture of the Dance of Death, the Danse Macabre, showing women able to face the dead and even join in their dance.*

Many years later, in the late 1700s and afterwards, smiling skulls with wings showed up on New England tombstones (and elsewhere).  Some thought this was Death grinning over its victory—but, no…the image represents the buried soul, now free and ascending heavenward.*

This marked an advance over the earlier dancing skeletons enticing humans toward their graves.  With such symbolism, death could lead to…

~ Anticipation of New Beginnings:

Many religious traditions offer the hopeful expectation of an afterlife, and speak of "a happy death" and "blessed death"—the transitus, or death as the portal through the veil or across the river or over the bridge. For example, a Sufi saying tells us that death is 'the entrance into the realm of beauty.'  Rabindranath Tagore, the exquisite Bengali poet, wants us to remember that, Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only the blowing out of the candle because the dawn has come.*  Zen Buddhists tell us that ‘we come from brilliancy and shall return to brilliancy.'

Monthly, the moon wanes and ‘dies,' then is reborn: a celestial reminder that dying is also a beginning.  And fairy tales about people who are dead (or seem dead) and come back to life, or are revived, have been folkloric shorthand for centuries about death leading to new life.*

An updated version of the jovial dancing skeletons, coupled with Christian trust in the afterlife, comes from the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos: Day of the Dead.* The tone is not that of the Grim Reaper, but of comic skeletons enjoying daily life, altars decorated with foods and flowers to celebrate others' now-completed lives, and family picnics at cemetery gravesides.

Just a Few Questions:

•  Which of these attitudes—if any—best describes my stance vis-à-vis death?
•  Am I content with that stance—or would some other be worth exploring?
•  What preparations—practical, spiritual—have I made for my own death?

 

§

 

Here is an art quilt, famous among quilters and needle artists, which deserves to be known far more widely. Amigos Muertos (My Deceased Friends) was made by Jonathan Shannon in 1994 to commemorate friends lost to cancer and AIDS. His work extends the time-honored American traditions of mourning quilts and political quilts. Along with the dancing skeletons, altar, fruits and flowers, are fabric interpretations of cut tissue-paper art, also associated with this tradition.*

 

 

 

Enough…The reason for 'thinking on death' is so as to live life more fully!

§

We're interested in ways this Soul Food may have touched your life.

Click HERE to send us your comments...

 

Read Others' Comments...

 

Thank you very much for the essay on death. I am old enough to seriously contemplate the lack of a future on this earth. The magnificent quilt by Jonathan Shannon is heart warming, in every way. Joyful, playful, musical and spiritual. Thank you for sharing it.
nancy head
California

Dear Nancy, Thanks for your comment, and especially the appreciation of Jonathan Shannon's wonderful quilt. As you may have noticed (see the Soul Food Archive), we have often featured art quilts on our website (and will continue to do so). Being able to share quilts such as this one and the others is one of our especial delights. (Are you aware of the Faith Ringgold quilt which is at the opening of each Guest Caterer page?) Many thanks for writing!
The Center Staff
Los Angeles

Your site enthralls me, the spiritual writings, the beautiful art work, the pleasing layout indicates an artist of the first rank.
neil
CALIFORNIA

 

Thank you for this rich soul food. Death has always fascinated me and its inevitability terrifies me at times. However my fear is lessening as I grow closer to that day and the number who have already "passed over" is greater. I trust in "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God" (Greene) for myself and all the world.
ena
San Pedro, Ca

§

 

* Credits for this page:

~ Pascha #2 by Archimandrite Kiprian, Holy Trinity Icon Studio, Jordanville, NY
A family in old Russia welcomes visitors with special Pascha (Easter) treats. Gratefully used with permission from Holy Trinity Icon Studio, Jordanville, NY, 13361. This excellent website is the source for inexpensive traditional icon prints and mounted icons.
~ Lycian cliff tombs, c.400 B.C.E., Dalyan, Turkey.  Image from Wikimedia Commons.
~ Thief in the night: First Thessalonians 5:2.
~ Dylan Thomas on experiencing his father's death.  From Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas
(NY: New Directions, 1957; p.128).
~ Cymbeline, Act 4, Scene 2 (1609).
~ Block print from La Danse Macabre des Femmes, France, 1480s.  See also The Dance of Death, 41 woodcuts from 1438 by Hans Holbein the Younger (NY: Dover, 1971 facsimile ed.).
~Tombstone from Early New England Gravestone Rubbings, Edmund Vincent Gillon,Jr. [New York: Dover, 1966].  Source unidentified.
~ Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Nobel Laureate in literature,1913.  From Gitanjali (Prayer Offerings in Song); English version, 1913.  Tagore was the first non-European to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
~ Snow White, Grimms' fairy tale #53 (their title: Snowdrop).  Drawing by H.J.Ford from Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book (1890); Dover Publications edition,1966 (used with permission).
~ Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos Paper Dolls, by Kwei-lin Lum, Dover Publications, 2009; a bilingual gallery of costumes and altar offerings for the holiday.  The two skeleton shopkeepers at the bottom of this page are from the sticker collection included in this work from Dover's Pictorial Archive series.
Amigos Muertos, Jonathan Shannon, ©1994; 89”x89”.  When this memorial quilt was first submitted to a juried art quilt show, it was rejected as possibly too upsetting to the venue's viewers! That decision was reversed and, ultimately, Amigos Muertos was chosen as one of the “100 Best Quilts of the 20th Century.”  Many thanks to Jonathan Shannon, who has graciously given us permission to reproduce his quilt here. When asked, What makes a great quilt?  The artist stated: “Artistic integrity, by which I mean having something very personal to say and saying it in the best possible, the most appropriate technical manner one can.”  (See "Quilters' S.O.S. [Save Our Stories]" www.allianceforamericanquilts.org for interview with Jonathan.)

 

§

 

 

WATCH FOR OUR NEXT MAIN COURSE—IN december!