Before I Wake

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   August 1, 2023

For many of us, this little prayer was the first – and possibly the only – one we ever learned:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

There were several lessons contained therein: (1) That there is a God, who can be communicated with. (2) That we each have a Soul, which can’t be lost, even when we die, and for which God is ultimately responsible. (3) That we may die in our sleep. 

Surprisingly, these words might be said to have been born in America – to the extent that the earliest known printing of this version appeared in The New England Primer, which was basically a school textbook, first published in Boston in 1690, and which ran through many editions, and was used in classrooms throughout the Colonies, over the next century. But of course, the sentiments are universal.

The prayer’s opening makes it plain that this is a one-way bedtime message. The following parts express confidence that, whatever happens, everything will be OK. The idea of dying in your sleep, which, for various reasons, was an occurrence that must have been much more common at that time, especially with young children, was no doubt very frightening. As we age, however, (if my own feelings are at all representative) that same idea tends to become more comforting. If death must come, why not let it happen when I’m not aware of it? But then, what about dreams? As Hamlet soliloquizes,

“To sleep – perchance to dream.
Ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death
what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off
this mortal coil?”

But, what about the Soul, which can be kept or taken (only by the Lord, apparently)? This must mark the great divide between believers and non-believers.

However, Hamlet then goes on to refer to death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns” – which seems odd, since his own father has just returned from it!

The soul is a very strange object. People who claim to have had “near-death” experiences tell all sorts of stories about leaving their bodies – perhaps floating above the operating table on which they are lying anesthetized, or even going on journeys, which often seem to involve moving through some kind of tunnel, and being aware that, at the end of it, there is – yes! – a light. All this is happening to their “soul.” Others, perhaps less imaginative, may concede the existence of some kind of soul or spirit, but insist that it is as mortal as the rest of our corporeal apparatus, and will perish when we do.

The concept of mortality has naturally led to its opposite, and a belief in immortality has great appeal, despite all the “progress” of modern science, which seems to point in other directions. Why does religion still exist and have a controlling influence over the minds of so many people, even though there have been flourishing long-lasting regimes, such as the Soviet Union, devoted to its suppression? It seems there must be some part of our psyche, some need which nothing else can fill.

But neither the authors of the Communist Manifesto nor those of the New England Primer apparently considered the possibility of reincarnation, also known as the transmigration of souls – which is based on the idea that, after death, the soul not only survives, but finds a new home in somebody else, or – depending on the particular belief system, in some other creature. Teachings of this kind have been propagated by cults ranging from Egypt to India. They are, however, not to be found anywhere in the Hebrew or Christian Bibles.

But there are other lessons we can learn about souls, from other sources, including popular songs. For one thing, we learn that souls can march. This information comes from a song which was popular about 200 years ago, which tells us that “John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave – But his soul goes marching on.” (In case you didn’t know, John Brown was a very radical leader in the pre-Civil War movement against slavery.)

For the final word on these subjects, let me quote myself:

“The secret of happiness is to take one life at a time.” 
“My body is on temporary loan to the universe, 
but my soul belongs to the permanent collection.” 


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