This I Believe: Sheila Moriarty (2003)

These words are an effort to give my personal view to the following questions: What do you believe happens to us when we die? Where does your belief come from? Has it been a comfort to you in times of grief? Are your beliefs different from your parents, family, and friends? What do you say to mortality?

Where My Beliefs Came From

In Paradisium is the title of the hymn that is sung at Catholic funeral masses. As the body is transported from the church sanctuary to the cemetery, a choir sings the lyrics, ”May the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs greet you upon your arrival and lead you to the new Jerusalem, may the choir of angels greet you, and like Lazarus, a poor man, may they grant you eternal rest.” I have always loved this hymn and many of the rituals that surround death and dying in the Catholic Church.

One result of my early immersion into sacramental rituals was that I never felt afraid of death as a child. Indeed, sometimes it seemed as if eternal life were better than actual life on earth. In my child’s mind, the promise of eternal life seemed inviting and reasonable. If we died in the state of grace, our souls would go to a place called heaven where we would see what was called the Beatific Vision or God. Together with all those who had died, we would live in a state of absolute bliss until the final judgment day when we, together with all creation, would be reunited with our bodies. Like Jesus, we too would rise from the dead.

My mother was a devout Catholic. Throughout her life her faith gave strength and comfort. She looked forward to dying because for her, this was simply a passage into a life she had always longed for. When she was dying, I rushed to be at her side in the nursing home where she lived. She had already slipped into a coma. The chaplain, a Jewish rabbi, suggested that I sing to her. I did. I sang every song we ever knew. Then at one point, she sat up and stretched out her arms to me. Her face was radiant as if she had seen some vision. She said, “I am going home.” I burst out crying because I thought she thought I had come to take her home. She meant, of course, heaven.

I live now in a very different universe than that of my childhood. It is hard to believe that I once accepted, without thought, the elaborate eschatological framework provided by my church. The unified world view of childhood has given way to a universe of incredible diversity. So I no longer divide the world into Catholics and non-Catholics. I no longer think that those who believe differently from me are somehow “anonymous Christians,” people who can be saved in spite of their beliefs. I no longer believe in a God who divides the people in the world into the saved and the damned, the lucky and the unlucky ones. So what do I believe?

The Question of God

For the past few centuries popular Christianity has spoken of God in a dualistic and even anthropomorphic way. “God’s in his heaven, all is right with the world.” The mystics like Eckhart, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross, and others were not guilty of this oversimplification. God is not in a place. He is not there in the same sense that I am here. It is true, of course, that we may think of him in the place for convenience’s sake, just as we may paint pictures of God the father. The psalmists speak this way of God:

Who or what is God? Christian mystics would say, “God is not someone else.” They say God IS your being, not God is IN you. Simply be! Lose the sense of your own being for the being of God. God is the one “in whom we live and have our being.”

I believe that we all share in the consciousness or divinity of God. As the Quakers would say, there is a spark of the divine in each of us. We find God in our love for one another. We especially see God now whenever we apprehend the holy or numinous experience in our everyday lives.

Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes and we see it maybe frequently. God shows himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him. It is impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it. (Thomas Merton)

What About Heaven?

The journey to heaven is a journey into the present. To look forward to some heaven in some far off future is like watching for a bus that has already parked right in front of us. Stephen Mitchell describes it this way in his book, The Gospel of Jesus:

When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was not talking about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday reach here. He was talking about a state of being, a way of being among the joys and sorrows of this time.

Like all great spiritual masters, Jesus taught one thing only, presence. Ultimate reality, the luminous compassion and intelligence of the universe, is not somewhere else, light years away. It does not manifest itself more fully to Abraham or to Moses than to us, nor will it be any more present at the end of time. It is always right here and right now.

Why Jesus Matters

For me, Jesus is the one who shows us how to live and especially how to die. I do not know if Jesus was divine. I do know that when he gave up his spirit at the crucifixion, he emptied himself and surrendered himself totally to the loving reality he named “Abba” or Father. He died just as we do. He had no knowledge of what lay beyond death. He simply died trusting the darkness would in some way give way to light.

A Christian sees the spiritual journey is always all about dying and rising. Every day we live, we learn to die a little. We learn to let go of dreams and ambition, of pride, of ego. We let go of relationships, of perfect health, of loved ones who die, of children who move away, of hopes now realized. Hopefully, we learn to die to our small selves and open out to a larger life, one that is freer, roomier, and more joyful than we could have imagined. We get ready for our final death where we let go to let God.

It takes us a lifetime to become our separate selves, to develop our unique gifts, to form our own story line. The struggle to reach maturity is life-long. We need our egos in order to become our fullest, most complete selves, and sometimes we only reach our true selves at the moment of death itself. Yet in the end, this whole process is directed to my being willing to let go of my own ego, to surrender self and become empty, centered. We do this at our final death. And every day, we learn to let go of self and die a thousand smaller deaths.

What Happens When We Die?

So, what happens when we die? Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way:

Visualize yourself as a wave on the surface of the ocean. Watch as you are being created. You rise to the surface, stay a little while and then return to the ocean. You know at some point you are going to end. But if you know how to touch the ground of your being, water, all your fears will vanish. You will see that as a wave, you share the life.

The moment of death brings the physical dissolution of our physical forms and the end of our personalities. But many believe something of our true natures survives.

Out of time I am carried into wind and weather, into the enduring drift of unbroken, enduring affection among all things, a communion in which body is no longer something I inhabit, but a vehicle of presence that sustains the experience of all other bodies in their joining, tree to earth to sky to bird to seed to shadow in an endless continuity. Then I know why I am here. Then I behold the great belonging in which all things are made one. All things are at home in themselves within the whole. Body and soul are then a singular participation in the divine web of spirit made flesh. (Elizabeth Carrothers Herron, “Except by Light,” Parabola, Volume 30, No. 3, pp 52-53)

I think these themes are found in many other religious faiths including Buddhism and Muslim faith. Here is an excerpt from an article by Omid Safi, a Muslim, excerpted from “All that Is Between Them,” Parabola, Summer 2006:

When a human being passes away, indeed passes on to the realm Beyond, Muslims say inna lillah we inna ilayhi raji un. The statement can be read thus:

We come from God and we are perpetually returning to him.

Even as we are “here,” we are even now returning to the Divine: the here and now is not fixed, but is in fact part of the process of coming from God, being with God, returning to God.

In the perfect symbolism of the Haji, we come from the periphery to the Center, both in the sense of journey to Mecca but also in the sense of moving from a state of being scattered emotionally and spiritually to one of being centered, becoming one, becoming whole. Who among us does not feel scattered and “all over the place?” And who does not yearn for a sense of being whole at long last, healed, and united inwardly?