With the observance of Undas once again at hand, we’re beset face-to-face once more with the perennial and seemingly unsettling question: Do souls really exist? If they do, do they survive even after death – and, as the popular tradition goes, they come to visit us, the living, this Undas time?
I still vividly remember an uncanny, if eerie, experience of mine some 26 years ago when I was yet a Dean of Student Affairs in a private Manila college.
In mid-1990’s, the infamous Ozone disco fire broke out, the worst in Philippine history, leaving at least 162 people dead and injuring 95 individuals.
My somehow creepy experience involved two of our students – “RG,” who survived, and his girlfriend “LH,” who died at the height of the Ozone fire tragedy.
First is with “RG.” On the aftermath of the tragedy, after I learned that RG was confined at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) Manila, I organized a fundraising campaign at the school for him. Thus, along with a group of student leaders, we went to the PGH to deliver our aid.
Upon reaching PGH, my students were not allowed to enter the exclusive burn ward where RG was confined – and so up I entered the ward alone clad in sterilized protective clothing, or in today’s pandemic lingo, “PPE” or personal protective equipment.
As I entered the burn ward, I started walking through its corridor, to my left and right were the burn patients on their beds partitioned only by curtains – thus I could hear all their moaning and groaning in pain.
Towards the half-way or middle part of the corridor, I saw to my left a nurse station, a lone nurse (I bet she was a nurse as she was wearing a nurse’s cap) was there. I asked her where’s the bed of patient RG and she pointed to the far end of the corridor, right side.
I was about to go to RG’s bed when the nurse called me back and said, “Father, you forgot this one,” as she tried to hand me a small metal vial used in administering the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
I returned back to her and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not a priest. I’m only here to visit and give our donation to one of our students who’s a victim of the Ozone fire.”
But the nurse insisted, “But Father, this is yours…”
Realizing that what was more urgent for me was seeing RG rather than arguing with the nurse, I gave in to her persistence and tucked the anointing vial into my pocket and quickly proceeded to RG’s bed. “Mamaya na lang pag-palabas na ako, isosoli ko ito,” I told myself.
So, there I was at the foot of RG’s bed, his mom sitting at the bedside, to whom I gave our donation. With third degree burns all over this body, RG was all covered with white plasters, was conscious but can’t talk – and he would just respond to me by wiggling the bell attached to his right hand.
Then, ‘twas time for me to leave, so I quickly dropped by the nurse station to return the anointing vial. This time, another nurse was there and I told her, “You see, when I came in there was a nurse here who handed me this (the anointing vial), and who called me ‘Father.’ But I am not a priest, and so I’m returning this.”
The nurse asked, “Sinong nurse po yung nagbigay sa’yo?” I replied, “I wasn’t able to get her name, but she’s more or less petite, with short hair, and fair complexioned.”
The nurse showed me some photos of the nurses who were assigned at their station, and – gosh! – nobody resembled the one who gave me the vial!
Obviously, in disquietude, the nurse didn’t accept the vial and so I just brought it home. And likewise, to my wife’s trepidation when I told her what happened, I decided to give the anointing vial to one of our priests in the school the following day.
Then, the second story is involving another student of ours, “LH,” who died on the spot during the Ozone tragedy, and girlfriend of RG (the one at PGH).
On a Saturday morning barely three days after our PGH visit, I was alone in my office at the school. My office (Student Affairs Office) has two rooms – from the entrance door is the ante-room for the staff, and the inner room is my office with its door kept open. That Saturday morning, my secretary and a student staff asked that they will be late in coming to the office, so I was alone at the office, doing some work on my table.
Suddenly, I heard the entrance door opening and I presumed a student entered with some request, like issuance of a Certificate of Good Moral Character, the most requested document from my office. Quite busy on what I was doing, I just yelled without trying to know who the student was, “There’s a request form on the table there. Just fill it up with your name, year level, and course. The secretary will attend to it when she comes.”
When the secretary then reported to the office, I told her to check on her table a request from a student who came in beforehand. Then, the secretary approached my table carrying the request form supposedly filled up by the student who came in.
With her voice shaking, the secretary said, “Sir, ito pong estudayanteng ito ay patay na. Nakasama sa Ozone!” END OF STORY.
Whether somebody alive who entered my office and spooked on me or it was LH’s soul trying to communicate to me, I can never tell – until now.
Now, resonating with our observance of All Souls Day, it behooves re-asking: Does the soul really exist? If it does, is it immortal or does it proceed to exist even after death?
While unflinching “physicalists” claim that “we are nothing more than our physical bodies, and everything about us – from consciousness to higher rationality – can be explained by biochemical processes,” I am a firm believer in the existence and immortality of the human soul.
Let me put forward the following argument postulating that the soul’s existence can be proven “a posteriori” or indirectly through its effect indicators.
In contrast to the “physical, corporeal, tangible, mortal, and material” attributes of the body (including the brain), we generally understand the soul as something “immaterial, intangible, immortal, and transcendent.” Now, according to experience or empirical evidence, we – human beings – have the operative capability to “know” (consciousness or awareness) and to “reflect, analyze, and decide” (free will). But the effects or products of these operative functions – which are “ideas, knowledge, love, beauty, goodness, truth, etc.” are not in themselves material or physical. They are immaterial, intangible, and even immortal (such as idea, love, goodness, and truth, which cannot suffer corporeal or physical death). Ergo, these operative functions and their by-products must be coming from something immaterial and immortal, which is the soul.
In sum, yes, the soul may be undetectable, incomprehensible, or unmeasurable by material means, but its existence is plausible, tenable or reasonable.
Blessed All Souls Day!