Imagine Heaven

Yesterday, I was at a gathering of Christian ministers in South Wales addressed by Julian Richards, leader of New Wine Cymru. He recommended a book, Imagine Heaven – suffice it to say, the fact I have read it from cover to cover in the last 24 hours is a recommendation that it is a good book

Many, many people in the last 100 years and before, have reported “Near Death Experiences” (NDEs) – following a life-threatening injury or serious illness, they have reported experiences of leaving their body, and commonly (but not always), seeing their own body from the outside, travelling down a tunnel, meeting a being of light, and being taken on a review of the positive and negative actions in their whole life. There is a growing body of scientific literature analysing these reports, looking for common threads, and trying to understand what is going on. Is it an artefact of what happens to consciousness in a dying brain? Is it a spiritual gift to encourage or convert a person’s behaviour? Or is it a foretaste of what will happen to all of us when we take our final journey?

There are several ways a Christian could seek to analyse these reports objectively. One would be to look at all the possible explanations and weigh their merits and demerits. Another would be to make the working assumption that they are genuine spiritual experiences and try to list how each experience matched up to a number of spiritual worldviews. The third would be to assume that the Christian worldview revealed in Scripture is correct, and see how the actual experiences reported, stripped of the personal interpretation put on them by the recipients, measure up to what a Christian would expect. It is this third path which has been taken by the author, John Burke, who trained as an engineer and is now a Christian pastor

Burke finds that NDE reports from non-Christian cultures are generally compatible with Christian understanding: a study of Indians commonly found reports of meeting a Being with a Book, which Hindus naturally interpreted as a ledger of karma, but can also be understood as the books of personal deeds and the Book of Life spoken of in the last book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse, or Revelation, of St John. Burke repeatedly notes that atheists, surgeons and pilots – well-paid professionals with nothing to gain and reputations to lose – have reported meeting Christ or a Christ-like being of light, even if they were not Christians prior to their experience.

Imagine Heaven is not written from a Catholic perspective, but I find nothing in it contrary to Catholic teaching. A small proportion of the NDEs are visions which seem to be of hell rather than heaven, sometimes eased when the person cried out to God for help – but by definition, an NDE is not a passage into irreversible judgement, since the person’s earthly life is not yet over. Several case studies have the soul near death being met by pairs of angels (and the author notes the Gospel passage establishing the existence of guardian angels is plural, though ambiguous about whether there is one angel per soul – it only says that ‘children have angels’.) One case study has the soul being met and showed around heaven by ‘a woman’, though Burke does not speculate on who the woman’s identity might be. Nor is Purgatory discussed directly – but there is one fleeting reference to a soul who, having met Jesus, asked what happens if a person is not ready to enter into perfect love? The answer was that they “freeze”, further explained as: “They just lock up and . . . think about themselves. . . . They want to move forward but they’re not ready to.” 

This book has challenged me to think again about my ideas of what happens to us at death. I realised that until now, I had a very hands-on idea of God reaching down, plucking the soul from the body, and putting it where it was meant to go. But if modern medicine is able to rescue more and more patients from the brink of death, this fits poorly with a God who knows in advance who is going to recover. Except for those cases where a soul needs to be challenged to conversion or encouraged in its good works, why would God ‘take’ a soul only to put it back? Rather, perhaps this is evidence for the nature of the human soul, which is unconstrained and able to experience the afterlife as a dying body shuts down but not totally released until the body is beyond repair? (The idea of a ‘silver cord’ is found in scripture, at Ecclesiastes 12:6 – perhaps this is more than poetry?) The ‘judgment’ may indeed be more about the soul’s own response to the pure light which is God, than an active gathering or dismissing by order of a divine judge.

Souls in heaven are generally reported as being shaped like human bodies yet translucent and permeable to the matter of heaven. The appearance is often around 30 years old, but there are reports of children and of ‘eternally young grandparents’ – suggesting that the way appearance is communicated, is malleable. Heaven is pictured as a beautiful landscape, with no seas but a river of life literally flowing ‘through’ those who plunge into it, and as a great city filled with light. Delicious fruits can be tasted from trees which immediately regrow any fruit picked, and a flower borrowed from the ground to sample its scent immediately re-roots itself on being put down. Colours, fragrances and other sensory experiences are reported as being much richer than our earthly experience. Joyful meetings with family members and friends are generally mediated by thought rather than speech, though there are also reports of souls joining with songs of praise. The one image which seems absent is of souls sharing a meal together – perhaps this experience must await the general resurrection of the body?

When I first became a Christian in my teens, I remember reading the Book of Revelation and excitedly pondering what sort of apartment I would have when I reached the heavenly city, and who my neighbours would be. In more recent years, when my closest friendships have been long-distance relationships squeezed into the cracks of priestly ministry, I have sometimes pondered what it will be like when I can enjoy these relationships when they reach their fullness in heaven, without the constraints of limited time or interpersonal misunderstanding. There, I look forward to ‘knowing and being fully known’ (I Corinthians 13:12), not only in my relationship with Christ, but with all the members of His Body I have already started to love on earth.

Burke speculates that St Paul himself may have had an NDE, perhaps at the time he was ‘beaten and left for dead’ – resulting in his ‘knowing a man caught up into heaven’. I had never thought of St Paul as having had an NDE rather than a simple vision, but it is fascinating to imagine how this might have informed his writings, alongside the Book of Revelation which is explicitly framed as a vision of heaven. Imagine Heaven is not Scripture, and adds to Scripture only people’s claimed experiences – and yet those experiences fit so well with what we already know from Scripture that I, for one, will now be daydreaming in richer images when I meditate on the last mystery of the rosary – the Coronation of Our Lady and the Glory of all the Saints!

Glimpses of Immortality

Homily at St Philip Evans, for All Souls’ Day, 2017.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

Each of the readings we’ve just heard offers us a glimpse of immortality.

God whispers to the prophet Daniel that the dead will rise again.

St Paul, who was caught up into heaven and allowed to see long-hidden things, speaks confidently about a day when the dead will be raised and the living caught up into the air with them.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus and the 11 gathered in the Upper Room rejoiced when they met Jesus risen from the dead.

What do these three scriptures have in common? They are glimpses not of heaven, but of the resurrection of the body. We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

When we pray the creed, we profess our belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come”.

When we lose someone we love, is our first instinct to rejoice in their resurrection or hope they are in heaven? And how much is our picture of heaven shaped by Hollywood and popular culture, rather than what God shows us through his Word?

Perhaps it’s true that God allows many people a foretaste of heaven, either through mystical experiences – such as the paintings of child prodigy Akiane Kramarik – or near-death experiences. Two recent films have been based on children who have claimed to have been on the brink of death and returned after meeting Jesus – Heaven is for Real a few years ago, and last year, with an all-star cast, Miracles from Heaven. There are also many adults who have had near death experiences and returned with remarkable stories – such as Stanley Villavicencio, a Filipino man who sat bolt upright after three days in a coma, with a message of meeting Jesus as depicted in the image of Divine Mercy.

These stories are interesting, even encouraging – but they are not God’s word.

There are also stories of souls visiting earth to ask for our prayers. In Rome there is even a small museum of purgatory – a display case holds a dozen artefacts, each with the story of a soul in need of prayers appearing to a living relative to ask for prayers and leaving some kind of mark on an everyday object. An Austrian woman, Maria Simma – who died in 2004 – claimed to have a special gift of being visited by many souls in needs of prayer and wrote about her experiences in a book called Get Me Out of Here!

Again, these claims are interesting – but they are not God’s word.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

The passages from the Bible we have heard today point us not to heaven, but to our own immortality. What happens after we rise again – whether we spent eternity in happiness with God or in agony, forever separated from perfect love – depends entirely on whether we accept God’s gracious offer of salvation during our life on Earth. For those of us who hear the Gospel it’s about whether we turn to Jesus in prayer and ask Him to save us. For those people who never heard the Gospel, it’s about how they follow their consciences. But today isn’t about whether we spend eternity with God or apart from him. It’s about what happens before that.

Today is the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. Today exists on our calendar because we understand that souls who have died are in need of our prayers. The Bible never says this directly, but drops hints. The Second Book of Maccabees notes in passing that it is “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins”. Jesus told a parable about a sinner who was put in prison “until he could pay the last penny” – surely having no money in prison, the debt could only be paid by those who loved him. Other Bible passages also hint at the reality of Purgatory, a final purification before some souls enter heaven – a state that only exists for souls who die before the Second Coming. When the day comes that we’ve just heard St Paul talking about – the day when the living and the dead are raised together – there will be no more Purgatory.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again. But we haven’t yet reached our destiny. So as an act of love, while we still live in these mortal bodies, we pray for the Faithful Departed who have gone before us and await the day when they will be raised anew and caught up with those still alive.

Let’s stand and pray for these souls. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Life After Death

Homily at St Paul’s for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

“When I awake, I shall be filled with the sight of your glory!”recon

What does happen to us when we die? Many people who have been brought back from the brink of death talk about seeing a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Some report meeting God and being told it’s not their time yet. A few people have reported a vision which seems more like Hell than like Heaven.

It’s good to keep an open mind about these reports. Science suggests good reasons why a brain starved of oxygen might experience “tunnel vision” and human imagination is quite capable of wishful thinking or self-condemnation. Even so, there are certainly some powerful stories around, not least from an Anglican vicar I know who prayed for a 19-year-old teenager killed in a motorcycle accident… the boy woke up in the morgue the next morning having had such a powerful religious experience that he joined a church and got baptised soon afterwards!

If we put our trust in what God has said through the Bible, what can we be sure of? When our church leaders put together all the relevant bits of the Bible, what we know goes like this:

  • On the day we die, our souls are judged immediately by God – or some would say that we judge ourselves in comparison to the pure love we see in God. Either way, we can go in one of three directions.
    • For those truly repentant of their sins who do not need to be greatly purified, they go straight to heaven. These are the souls we celebrated on All Saint’s Day.
    • For those who call on God’s mercy but who need significant purification, they go to Purgatory until they are ready for heaven. Those are the souls we remember on All Soul’s Day, and for whom we offer Masses.
    • For those who have not chosen God’s mercy, God allows them to be separated from his loving presence, and this we call Hell.
  • We believe that Our Lord and Our Lady already have bodies in heaven – this is why we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Blessed Mary. The rest of us live there as souls without bodies. We may be full of questions about how that works – the Sadducees in today’s Gospel certainly were, and they tried to trip up Jesus. But he insisted that heaven was real, and left the details to God. Will husbands and wives be re-united in heaven? As long as they have accepted God’s mercy, yes – but not to live as a couple in the heavenly Jerusalem. Like all the saints, they will be members of the body of Christ. They will not love their earthly spouse any less; but the love they give to Jesus and receive in return from Jesus will be immeasurably greater than we can know in even the best marriage on earth.
  • One day in the future, this world as we know it will come to an end. Will that happen through a natural disaster or by God intervening in an amazing miracle? We don’t know. But we are so certain that this will happen that every Sunday in the Creed we assert: “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” When this happens, God will raise every soul who has ever lived and give them a new and everlasting body – or for those who are still alive on earth when this happens, their earthly body will be transformed. This is the moment we call the Last Judgement. Those whose souls were already in Hell, or were alive at the end of the world but had not chosen God’s mercy, will be sent bodily into Hell. Everyone else will be welcomed into what the Bible calls the “new heaven and new earth”.

What Our Lord says today is an uncomfortable message if you are married, even more so if you are widowed. But… don’t panic! If you are in a second marriage, relax. There can be no jealously in heaven. You can hope to be there with both your earthly spouses, and there will be no unpleasantness.

Our Christian faith is not wishful thinking. If it were, we would believe that married couples live happily-ever-after in heaven, and the Sadduccees would have a valid point. So here is a useful check of where your faith comes from. If you believe in heaven because the alternative is too horrid to imagine, open your ears to Jesus! Believe in it because he rose from the dead. If you need to, ask him to increase your love for Him!

Today’s reading also reminds us that there is such a thing as a “fate worse than death”. When a human being is martyred, that is a tragedy for the family they leave behind, but a triumph in being faithful to God. As the familiar reading from Wisdom says, “their going seemed like a disaster, but they are at peace”. And remember that Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

Your loved ones are alive to God. The dead will rise again. Not only will you see them again, but you, and they, are destined to be given new and glorious bodies which will never perish. As for where that body goes, that’s up to the choices you make on earth. Whatever happens, we can be sure of this: “When we awake, we shall be filled with the sight of God’s glory!”

People Matter.

Homily at St Philip Evans, for All Souls’ Day, 2013.
Christ (in gold) reaches down to lift up a soul (bronze, on purple background)

People matter.

The point of this special day in the Church’s calendar is to remind us that people matter.

At the heart of the Bible is the message that God loves human beings, and asks us to share this same love for all humanity.

Today is not about – or at least, not mainly about – remembering our own loved ones. (We have a special day for that in this parish later in November.)

The clue is in the official name of today’s liturgy: The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

It’s a commemoration – so it’s about remembering.

It’s about all the Faithful Departed – so we are remembering every soul who has ever lived on earth and is now being purified on the way into God’s perfect kingdom.

Although we call them faithful departed, we are not making a claim about how religious they were in their earthly lifetime. Every soul which passes from this life into God’s hands will accept God’s love immediately, or slowly, or not-at-all. Yesterday we celebrated those who have already accepted that love fully, and become saints. Today we celebrate those souls who, on beholding God, have faith to believe they will enjoy that love as soon as all their brokenness is purified – and it has always been the understanding of the Catholic Church that the prayers of the living can assist in that purification.

People matter. Today is especially about those souls who have no-one to pray for them. As an act of love, the whole church sets apart this one day in the year to remember and offer Mass for them all.

Today might also be a reminder for us that there is some special act of love which we need to show to the living. Is there a word of reconciliation we know we need to say but have been putting off? Is there an act of kindness we could do but which has never made it to the top of our priority list? We have many ways to show love to the living; once a soul has passed into God’s hands, all we can do is pray.

In our bidding prayers in a moment, we will pray by name for those whose funerals were held at or through this church during the last 12 months. Among them will be those who worshipped regularly and those who never worshipped at all; Catholic funeral registers even contain the names of those who were not themselves Catholic but were given a church funeral by loved ones who share our faith.
Those we could never have helped practically in their earthly life, we assist spiritually today. This is a genuine and powerful act of love, and an expression of our faith in eternal life.

People matter. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Praying for the Dead

Homily at St John Lloyd for All Souls’ Day 2012

Readings: 

  • II Macc 12:43-45 – the offering made for the dead.
  • Rom 6:3-9 – if in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection.
  • Luke 12:32-48 – give alms. Be ready for action. The punishment of an unready servant.

“You’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead!”

When I was an undergraduate, the bursar at my college decided to carry out an unscheduled fire drill – at 6 o’clock in the morning! Bleary-eyed students pulled on dressing gowns and coats, and made for the exit. As soon as the statutory 2 minutes for evacuation was up, the bursar stood opposite the main doors and greeted each exiting student with a wagging finger and the unsettling words that they were dead!

It was a powerful reminder for all the residents that mortal peril can come at an hour we do not expect – powerful enough that the memory is still with me clearly after 20 years! In the Gospel, Jesus uses an equally dramatic image to remind us that our immortal souls will also be judged at an hour we do not expect. Many of us attending this Mass will die peacefully in our old age, but any one of us could suffer from a road accident, stroke, heart attack or other cause of sudden death, and find ourself face to face with God – and then what will happen?

St Paul knows something about this. We might imagine him facing a congregation of Christians with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing smile on his lips, glancing lovingly at each one and saying gently: “You’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead!” Because St Paul knows that each member of his congregation, because they’ve been baptised, has already died with Christ. This is also true for us here today. When each one of us was baptised, our first life ended: in God’s eyes we died. For the early Christians, a rectangular walk-in font reminded them of the tomb of Christ, and the minister baptising them would have held their head under the water so they felt like they were drowning. When we emerged from the water of baptism, our eternal life, joined to Jesus Christ, had begun.

When our earthly bodies expire, our souls will continue their eternal life by meeting God. The Gospel uses the image of a Master returning unexpectedly to inspect the work of his household servants. And Jesus – our Saviour Jesus, our loving and caring Jesus – chooses a very strong image, and one we might not expect to hear on his lips: the servant who did not do what the Master required is punished by the strokes of a whip! The one given clear instructions receives a severe beating, but even the one who didn’t know what the Master wanted receives a beating, though less severe. What are we to make of this?

When any human soul stands in God’s presence at the end of earthly life, it can clearly see the perfect love which is God’s nature. It judges itself against this pure love and becomes painfully aware of its own failures to love unselfishly throughout its life on earth. And for those souls who were Christians, who heard God’s message preached in church, who read it themselves in the pages of the Bible, the pain is even greater, for they become fully conscious of having ignored, at least in part, the pleas of their loving and heavenly Father.

This pain is real, and the Bible uses different ways to describe it. Here Jesus uses the image of a beating; elsewhere he speaks of the soul which is “put into prison until it has paid the last penny”. St Paul has written of our life’s work being “tested by fire”. But we should not interpret any of this as God being vindictive or wanting to punish His children; rather, these disturbing images are the best way God can express in human language the experience of a soul entering heaven. For in heaven can dwell only that which is good and perfect and true, and the soul entering must come to terms with the gap between the life which it has lived on earth, and  the pure life which it is now called to live in heaven.

We can help! In fact, this is the whole point of the observance which the Catholic Church keeps today, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. God’s followers have long asked themselves what happens to the souls of those who have died, and whether the prayers of the living can offer them any support. We can sense this conversation going on in the time of Judas Maccabeus, a Jewish leader who lived 200 years before Jesus.

Many Jewish people had been killed when they revolted against their Greek rulers. Some of the community said that there was no point offering prayers for the dead, but Judas disagreed. He sent money from the community to the Temple in Jerusalem to have prayers and sacrifices made for the dead. In a roundabout way, the writer of the history we now call the Second Book of Maccabees says that this is a good thing.

There is no clear statement about praying for the dead in the pages of the New Testament, but the Tradition of the church shows us that from very early times, when Christians gathered for Mass, they often dedicated it for the soul of one who had died. St Monica, mother of the great bishop St Augustine of Hippo, made only one request of her son when she was dying: that he remember her at God’s altar.

It seems to me that when we remember our dead by praying for them, this adds to the love which they experience when they meet God face to face – for they encounter not only God’s perfect love, but the freely given love of we on earth who pause to remember them. The more intense the love focussed upon that soul, the more quickly the pain passes, leaving the soul free to enter the happiness of heaven. It is, as the author of II Maccabees says, “a holy and devout thought to pray for the dead”.

On this one day of the year, therefore, we remember in a special way all those souls who have gone into God’s hands; we invite them to be present to us as we pray. And as we remember each one in prayer we declare: “You are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved!” – and in this way the prayer of the living makes shorter, yet sharper, the purification of those who have died, that they may quickly enter the eternal joys of heaven.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

Sofa Time

Homily at St Gabriel & Raphael’s for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Two-seater sofa

In the light of today’s readings, I might comment on the fact that Joshua asked the Israelites to make a commitment to do things God’s way. I could point out that the apostles recognised that in Jesus, they had a Teacher who could show them the only safe way to eternal life. Or I might take up what the letter to the Ephesians says about marriage, and ask whether it is unbalanced in the way it asks wives to obey their husbands, while husbands only invited to sacrifice their priorities for the sake of their wives. But I’m going to do none of those things – instead, I’m going to tell you a story which is about marriage, but which can also be applied to other important relationships in our lives.

Betty and George were both practising Catholics when they decided to get married. They attended the Marriage Preparation course which the Church required of them, and during the course, the lead couple suggested that it would be a very good idea for them to schedule a “sofa night” at least once a month when they would make time to sit down together and talk about any frustrations they had with each other, or with life in general – and to affirm the good things, too.

For the first few months after they were married, Betty and George tried “sofa time” but it seemed a bit pointless. They were still in the first flush of romance, and everything was rosy. They didn’t need a special time to communicate affection  because their love for each other bubbled over each day. So they let their monthly sofa date lapse.

Then, along came one, two, three children. All Betty’s attention was on child care, and in the evenings, she was tired. She would have liked to have had a protected opportunity to de-stress by telling George all about it, but it was impossible – either the baby would cry, or the toddler would declare a potty accident, and Betty had to drop what she was doing and attend to their needs. There was no chance of scheduling her monthly sofa time with George. Yet when Betty’s Mum fell ill, somehow she managed to arrange babysitting and spend a whole weekend at Mum’s house, caring for her. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

A few more years went by, and now all the children had learned to keep a reasonable bedtime. George and Betty could have an hour or two for themselves in the evening. But George had accepted a promotion at work, and often had to bring stuff home to prepare for the next day. So when Betty suggested re-starting sofa time, George put it off because he needed the flexibility to set aside an evening for work at short notice. Yet George had also agreed to become a school governor, and his sense of duty and male pride wouldn’t let him quit that when the workload stepped up. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

Fifteen years into their married life, Betty was concerned that she and George were drifting apart. A friend suggested that they go on a weekend retreat for married couples. She timidly suggested the idea to George, but he was embarrassed that they had let their “sofa night” lapse for so long, and didn’t feel that he could spend a whole weekend talking about things which they’d been avoiding until now. Besides, a whole weekend? That was a big commitment. Yet when one of his colleagues at work arranged a stag weekend in Prague, somehow he found time for that. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

Betty felt she was drifting apart from George, and confided more and more in her closest girlfriend. They would spend long evenings together over coffee and cake. Then, an economic downturn forced George on to a reduced-hours contract, and he found he was able to spend more time at home. He suggested they re-start sofa time, but this time Betty was the one resisting. She had grown used to confiding in her friend rather than her husband, and made excuses. She said she was getting tired in the evenings. But on those evenings she wanted to visit her friend, she did so freely. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

When the youngest of the three children left home and went to University, Betty’s frustrations came to a head. She walked out of the family home and went to live with her elderly Mum. She was angry with God for letting her marriage break down, and stopped going to Mass. A year later, when George received the divorce papers, he stopped going to Mass, too. He thought, wrongly, that just being divorced automatically stopped you from going to Holy Communion, so he didn’t feel welcome at Mass. He had forgotten the Church’s teaching that it’s only entering a new relationship that dishonours marriage vows in God’s eyes.

Eventually, Betty and George died, and passed into that afterlife where time flows differently. Betty and George were both escorted through Purgatory by their own guardian angels. And at the very same moment they arrived in the room which, their angels explained, was the waiting room to enter heaven. Set in the furhest wall was a locked door, with the only handle on the other side.

In this waiting room there was a single piece of furniture – a two-seater sofa. Betty and George were free to spend as much or as little time in Purgatory as they wished, where they would experience the pain of being separated from God. They could enter Heaven whenever they wished, the angels explained, but there was one condition: the door to heaven would only open when they chose to take time to sit down on the sofa, together.

A two-seater sofa against a green wall, a white wall and a wooden floor