Father Guidalberto Bormolini asks people to take a new view of death—and life. After training as a lute maker, he became a priest and monk and studied extensively about both ancient and modern spiritual and religious teachings.
He has created the Borgo Tutto è Vita (Village of Everything is Life) outside of Florence. It is a spiritual community, a school to teach others how to support the dying, and a hospice for those at the end of life (www.borgotuttovia.it).
This interview was conducted for Parabola by Jon Pepper and Patrizia De Libero. Ms. De Libero was both co-interviewer and translator to and from the Italian for Father Bormolini. It was conducted via Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.
Parabola: Virtually every spiritual tradition places a huge importance on facing our death. You see this in the Mahabharata, Judeo-Christian teaching, Gurdjieff, Buddhism, and so on. The Dalai Lama said that “without this awareness all other practices are useless.” Of course, it is about the last thing we want to accept. How do you see this dilemma and why do you think it seems so difficult in today’s world?
Father Bormolini: All the greatest religions, wisdoms, philosophies, have always put at the center of their teaching the theme of death. That is, that life has an end. Therefore, for millennia, the greatest teachings have been doing what the Dalai Lama said. We have to become totally aware of the fact that we are mortal. And from there starts the true spiritual search from this point.
That does not mean that in earlier eras people were not afraid of death or hid from that fact. In the Mahabharata it was asked to one of the wisest: “What is the most absurd thing for human beings?” And the answer, was, that he can see everyone dying around him but does not accept that he himself will die. So, for millennia in the West and the East the greatest traditions, the most profound spiritual philosophies kept their attention around this theme, and it was less possible for people to ignore completely.
After the Second World War, especially at the birth of consumer culture, there have been no schools able to influence the civilization in the same way—they didn’t have the same influence in the world. So, the problem is just that. On the other hand, there are always wise people who try and point civilization to keep looking at this and avoid the behavior of the ostrich—hoping not to see the problem.
So, the greatest of the temptations of all time, which is ignoring death, finally took place because of that change. And in fact, because of this something in civilization itself died. Because history teaches us that it is really the reflection on death that supports the highest level of wisdom.
P: The theme of the upcoming issue is Wonder. In a moment of real contact, one feels the wonder and beauty that exists in life itself. At the same time, life and death are intimately related. Can you say how you see the experience of wonder in this light—life, death, and dying?
FB: This a beautiful question. Because this is one of the things, this is one of the strongest points I bring to people in my teaching. Things that we consider very precious, they are such because they are limited. For example, diamonds, because they are few, have a very high value. If our days are limited, they are super precious. There is wonder in this life, but there is also wonder in the afterlife. But we want to focus wonder on this life, of course, because it is the only thing we know.
The rise of consumerism, on the other hand, transforms life into another object to consume. This is why today life doesn’t have its proper space. The trap of consumerism—it imposes its own religiousness and its own values because it is really a religion. It imposes in a raw and refined way at the same time—it asks us to sacrifice life to the phenomenal. Consumerism proposes to sacrifice life to what is useless, the idea that we can acquire phenomena.
The moment you are aware that life has a limit you are not going to waste your time in a shopping center or a nightclub or other superficial things—or in human relationships that are not deep and profound. Life, every day,
has the value of a diamond, because it can be the last. And this is very important. Therefore, you live that last day very intensely. Life without death loses the intensity.
I am here with you now. In an hour I might not be here. So, what I am living now with you is the most important moment in my existence because it could be the last moment. It can make this moment a diamond. Because we know our life will finish—but we don’t know when. So, I am obliged to become aware of death. My human duty is really to live every moment as a diamond. Not only every hour but every second. So, if you have a spiritual awareness you can feel that every moment of life is the real wonder that you can experience. It is unique and not repeatable.
So, to answer your question—there are two aspects that make life a wonder, the limitation of it, and not knowing the moment it will end.
P: Close to the end of his life, William Segal [a seminal figure in the Gurdjieff tradition] said the essence of the practice is in two words: Be still. Stillness in spiritual practice is experienced as full of life, not emptiness in the ordinary way. In death, the physical body stops of course, but is there also a stillness after death that can be experienced?
FB: Yes, even before dying you can experience stillness in a positive way.
There are different mystic traditions, and they talk about very similar things. But each tradition has specific ideas and different languages. So, I am not going to give an answer on comparing mystical traditions. Because it would take a long time. We’d have to go in depth and speak about what we intend by emptiness and by the void in different traditions.
So, what I can answer, is more from the anthropological perspective and from mystical Christianity. But I am very aware that the things I am about to say, we can find in other traditions, but because Parabola is a high-quality magazine, I want to be very specific. Otherwise, it will be very complex.
In the mysticism in Christianity as well as some of the greatest traditions—Judaism, and in pre-Christian Greek traditions, and also Indian and Islamic teaching—it includes the ideas of stillness and emptiness; both words mean a process of emptying oneself from what is perishable, of all the things that will die. To stay with what is imperishable, with all that will not die. In order to be still—which is emptiness—you need to empty yourself from everything perishable.
Emptying everything that is finite, to open oneself to the infinite, the immortal. The process of the greatest mystical traditions is not reaching an empty void, but to create the space for something to enter. In the world of the spirit there is no void. Once we create space it is filled with something else—that is the law in the spiritual world.
If we empty ourselves from the ego, this part will be filled with the spirit. But if we fill all our space with the ego, there is no space for the spirit to inhabit.
The goal of spiritual mysticism during the Middle Ages was described as finding the cup of mystery. The famous grail of the legend. In fact, this grail is a cup which is made to be filled—not for staying empty. But in order to be filled, it has to be emptied first. And if you want something very precious inside, you have to get rid of what is not precious inside of the cup. If you want the wine of mysticism that intoxicates, symbolizing the unity with the divine.
If you want this wine, you have to empty what is not precious from the cup, the things of low quality. In Egyptian hieroglyphics the cup symbolizes the heart. The heart must be free in order to be filled with the drink of immortality. The nectar of immortality. If we have this empty cup, then the divine can fill it and it will continue to fill it to infinity.
Therefore, death will not be a fearful experience anymore. Because the heart will be full of the divine. If we fill our heart with worries, anxieties, attachments, possessions, death will scare us, because we will certainly lose all these things. If we are identified with money, possessions, unrefined pleasure. Real pleasures are the goal of the spiritual life—but they are noble pleasures, spiritual pleasures. If we throw in this cup all things that will die, that is when death will be something to fear.
P: And the question of stillness?
FB: Yes, we can talk now about stillness. Stillness is something difficult to understand, in a way.
Even “quietism” was condemned from the Catholic church. As we should not look for stillness as a withdrawal from life. But we have to find a different stillness, a different silence. You could say a zealous quiet or stillness. An active stillness. We have to find this zealous stillness within the divine.
I will give you an example. Meditation can be the product of consumerism, when the attitude used is as follows: I am doing meditation just to feel better, to look for peace. But it is the compassion [which in Italian means con pathos from the Greek—feeling with the others] which is key. If I sympathize with the others, then I will feel that too, myself. This is the only way that we have to reach the real peace that is within oneself. If I look for peace only for myself, I will never find peace. And death will terrify me. It sounds like a paradox, but that is what it is. Death is part of the whole.
The peace we are looking for is not an egoistic withdrawal from the life of a planet that has been hurt, that has been wounded, polluted, destroyed from injustice, from dishonesty. I cannot be truly quiet in a world where the higher values have not been realized. But I can be in quiet when I enter into the realm of meditation, and I bring the others with me and embrace their existence too. If I withdraw myself and do not connect to the whole, how will I understand or connect to the vastness of death and life?
We must understand that the peace that some spiritual schools propose now is not something that is lasting. It clashes with death—it does not embrace death. Just being still and feeling good is not enough. In these cases, the peace that is looked for is a possessive, egoistic type of peace.
The peace that we are truly looking for allows us to go beyond the threshold of death because the nature of the peace of death is the same as the peace that we are essentially looking for. For a Christian, it is the peace of a God that did not consider his own divinity as a treasure separate from us but wanted to share his divine nature with us. So, the vision of a Christian God is not someone separated from the world but incarnated into this world with his own life to embrace us and bring us into his life.
If you look at this vision to embrace everything in meditation you will be able to overcome death as you are connected with the same peace that is within the nature of death. Not just peace for my small self. This is the path we have to follow. Entering into life, to suffer with the others. [Meaning of suffer as presented in Italian—to bear, feel or resonate with others] In this way we can reach a peace that cannot be taken away.
This is the peace of infinite love, which is simultaneously inquietude and peace, quiet and non-quiet. Inquietude of love and satiated with infinite love. And at that point we will drink out of the cup that we left intentionally empty, and drink the intoxicating wine of divine love, which will allow us to participate in his infinite life, the divine life.
P: What do you feel about the afterlife? Is there a second body or soul that can be developed and exist after death? Something beyond the old image of heaven and hell?
FB: According to some of the ancient fathers of the church, only God is not made of matter; even the angels have a corporeal body. According to the mystics after death we will have a body of light, and therefore, we will have a tool that will allow us to walk on a pathway postmortem.
Listening to the prophet Isaiahs’s words, “Who among us can be in a devouring fire?” With perennial flames. In the collective imagination, the perennial flames are hell. But he describes the person who stays within the devouring flames as a saint, a person who is just. So now we are talking about a paradise. Not hell.
This is all the same place. Probably this means that after we die, we enter into the devouring flames and perennial fire—but this is one place that can become purgatory, hell, or paradise, according to the way we enter. The final decision for everyone is the devouring flame. We are in this life the body that we will wear after.
In a way we can adopt the Chinese idea of paradise and hell. They said
hell offers us a mountain of rice with the most beautiful aromatic spices—but the problem is the people there have very long chopsticks, so they can pick it up but not put into their mouth. Paradise is the same mountain of rice, but people use the long chopsticks to feed each other.
It is our egoism that turns that place into hell, or our love turning it to paradise. If one part of it is made of combustible material, we would have to do a journey until all that is not necessary is purified. That is the idea of purgatory. Otherwise, we won’t be able to be complete in the peace of divine love.
God did not think of a place to be punished. He thought of his love as a welcoming place. We transformed this place into hell or paradise with our free will and that is what will wait for us after death.
P: Sometimes one dies quietly surrounded by family and friends, and there are also accidents and sudden death and so on. Does that make a difference in the transition?
FB: This is a very, very important subject. I would say it is a central subject in the assisting and supporting someone who is dying.
To everybody, we must say, do you have life? You must play this life. Live this life. Everything else is just illusion, because maybe there might not be a possibility of afterlife. Even in India it is said the possibility to play another life in this world [reincarnate] is as difficult as a turtle trying to surface into the center of a donut in the middle of the ocean.
We must live the very fullest in this life, to live completely this possibility. It is not even ethically correct to say, try again, you might be luckier in the next life. Because I might be fooling you to say that, as I do not know.
In any case, this life must be lived spiritually and ethically in its own plenitude. The only criteria for this is love. Other criteria are very dangerous, and opportunistic. I am not going to say, I should be a good person because I am afraid of hell. Or I do good things because I want a reward. This is a very dangerous vision.
We cannot use a calculation for the outcomes of our life. This is why I believe death in the Western contemporary world, even the theory of another life, is the fruit of consumerism. I do not want to deny the most important freedom, which is freedom of expression. People can say what they feel is essential in life—I respect that. But I want to highlight that using this theory in the Western world comes from consumerism.
Whether death comes suddenly or not, no matter how we die, what really matters is the way we have lived our life.
To summarize, there are three ways of dying:
In ignorance, and unconsciously and unaware. Having lived a very poor life. This is just terrible.
The second, dying unprepared and not fully conscious, but having lived a life with love. There might be an interesting surprise after that.
The third: if you have spent a consistent part of your life dedicated to preparing yourself for the moment of death, there will be what in the Bhagavad Gita (I will not quote exactly), Brahma said, Whoever would think about me in the moment of death will find himself in my arms after death. And you can be certain about this.
Therefore, if I prepare myself to die and I go through this door holding space for God, my death will certainly not be banal.
P: In life I can be aware I exist. Do you feel there can be awareness and even individuality after death?
FB: Yes, for sure, that is the vision of Christianity. The beauty of the divine gift is to participate into his symphony. So, some trace of individuality exists—this is the reciprocal beauty of the symphony. I do not believe that life beyond is an annulment into the divinity—sometimes this can be explained in the following way: In the idea of a drop dissolving into the ocean, the drop of water might keep its own essence. It might be us who do not understand this vision. The drop of water could maintain its memory, its own individuality, and enrich the ocean.
I cannot put myself to speak on behalf of God—even the saints can’t do that. That is a mystery. But maybe just with a little bit of poetry and creativity I feel he might rejoice of his love, because love is his life. In order to have love, there must be a relation, not confusion. I do not believe that when we reach the divine life, we are dissolved into him. We will be one thing, but like two lovers. We could overcome this dualism, this separation, with a loving embrace. I don’t want to turn this to a theological discussion. I want to speak simply so everyone can understand. I just want to reach people who are trying to find some sense in their life.
One loses oneself into the other—abandons into the other—but stays also himself. It is the ego that is the obstacle that prevents this from happening. It is not the real I, the real self that will remain and embrace the infinite self. In light of this, we can change our perception of meditation. Is it a void that is an empty space where God is everything or are we creating an empty space for God to enter?
This is a subtle but very important difference. To be honest, I would love to be with him there—I don’t want to annul myself—I want to be with him after death. Even before!
P: It seems in a way facing life and facing death are the same—the demand is to be as present as possible in this moment. How do you see that?
FB: This is a very important subject — in the old Christianity this was called the art of the present, or the art of the attention. And they said this art was stimulated by the remembrance of our death. Momento mori is the phrase in Latin. Momento mori had the function to bring people to the here and now and live fully each moment.
As a provocation, I say to people who ask if there is life after death: I answer not to be worried about that (even though for myself I know there is, for sure), but ask yourself rather, if there is life before death. This is a more serious problem. Because if there is life before death, only then we can hope for life after death. And in order to have a life before death, we must live it.
Live must be lived, immediately.
Therefore, the art of presence, the art of being here and now, from the spiritual perspective is the art of living. Because if I am absent, I am dead. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says that non-awareness, non-consciousness is the way to death, and consciousness is the way to life.
In Christianity this is called the practice of the presence before God. In old times we were helped by the bells of the church. By passing from one hour to another, at every hour you stop and have a chance for a pause and to put yourself in the presence of God—or the angels—and then you start your work again. This is called the spiritual clock, and this is a very ancient practice. And it is a shame we have lost that because it is fantastic. The intention was remembering every hour and then eventually moving toward the practice of constant presence.
If you are present before death, then there will be life after death. If you are “dead” before dying, then how can you be alive after?
P: It seems what you are speaking about is similar to the practice of self-remembering … which is in a way remembrance of God. Do we have anything similar in the Christian tradition?
FB: Yes, the practice of self-remembering is very strong in central Asia—it is a very strong practice. In Christianity, it is leaning toward the remembrance of God in order to remember oneself. It is not like we do not exist and only God exists; but we exist in God. Therefore, we reach our real selves through God. So, there are close similarities with self-remembering but just different shades of the practice.
P: Those who engage in the well-known practice of the prayer of the heart—“Lord Have Mercy”—and the awareness of the breath might sometimes feel they are called to be part of a larger prayer, something not personal. How do you see the balance between one’s own life and being part of this larger movement?
FB: The musical and symphonic image is one of the best images we can use for this. There is the primordial sound—similar to the “Om” of the Indian tradition, which is the “amen” in our tradition. Which means “and so it will be.” A divine word, pronounced at the very beginning becomes multiple notes, an infinite number of notes.
It is known as the infinite melody of the divine symphony—a great liturgy of the cosmos, as the fathers of the church used to call it. Within which, we need to find our own notes, and this is what the use of the mantra [Lord Have Mercy] is. As it is intended in the East, and in the recital of the divine name, which is more to the Western tradition. In the classical Prayer of the Heart, the actual words are the generic type of words, and each one of us must listen to what comes from tuning to the sound. I must find my own note within this. We tune our note to the original note, like an orchestra tuning. Each instrument tunes to this note, but each instrument is different. In this way you can gain a harmonious symphony.
In this world right now, we can see the disharmony that exists. We see it in relations between people and the health of the planet, which is not in harmony.
When we accept the Prayer of the Heart as a practice, we tune to the original “la” in order to participate to the symphony. In this way we enrich the world he has created. He has created this possible symphony, but if we do not participate, we deprive the cosmos of some level of beauty. So, if we tune our own note and take part in this, perhaps we can rebuild something of what is the lost Eden.
P: Is there any last word you wish to share with the readers?
FB: I would close with two things that might be interesting for an American reader regarding death. Number one, paradise, purgatory and hell…. At the end of life, do not be afraid because we do not enter into a judgmental place. It is not a tribunal, or a place for condemnation.
Rather, we enter in a place where we have chosen to enter. There is only the divine love waiting for us. But the divine love is the fire. So, as I said earlier, it is up to us to see the way we enter into this fire. Whether we are combustible material or the fire of love. In that latter case we would feel at home.
This is fundamental.
Also, I want to say to everyone, let us stop any image of fear related to death. We choose what becomes of us after death. He is waiting for us with an eternal loving fire.
And the last thing I want to bring to us, which is from a Midrash [ancient Jewish commentary] that describes the death of Moses as the “kiss of God.” I was very touched by this and pondered about it. At the end of the day, what we want to build is a covenant of love—we give life. The moment we decide to bind ourselves with another person, we unify our blood.
My life enters into your life. In the Old Testament he says that love and death are the same thing. Giacomo Leopardi [Italian poet] says something similar.
Another form of an alliance of love is the breath. My breath enters into the breath of my loved one with a kiss. So, the kiss is something very sacred, not something vulgarized by the mass media. It is something extremely sacred.
We become one breath. Jewish and Muslim do not eat meat unless it is treated in a certain way, not to eat meat where the animal has been suffocated because the meat contains the last breath, and the breath belongs to God, and that is life.
When we share breath, we become one being with another. And dying is exactly this. My breath enters finally and fully into the divine breathing. Therefore, dying is a kiss between us and the infinite—an infinite kiss.
How can this possibly scare people? ◆
This conversation appears in our Spring 2022 issue, “Wonder”. Purchase the issue here.