This is Holy Week, during which we meditate about human wickedness and perversity in the minds of official religious clerics, regardless of the faith they claim. We contemplate the death of Christ, and throughout Lent, we have considered our own mortality. We all have to die sooner or later, and our Christian faith exhorts to be ready at any time. We don’t know the day or the hour.
We live in a time when many tell us that there is nothing after death. Our bodies die and we cease to exist – we lose consciousness forever. Our life depends on our body and our thoughts on our physical brains. It is easy to have doubts and wonder if this is so, the inescapable reality that no amount of wishful thinking can push away. Even for a Christian, we sometimes wonder.
On the other hand, there are testimonies of near-death experiences, out-of-the-body experiences and séances with mediums who have direct communication with the dead. There have been apparitions of Our Lady and the Saints to certain souls, and the communication between the worlds was no less real. At Fatima in 1917, there was a miracle of the sun seen and experienced by thousands of people, including atheists. The evidence seems overwhelmingly in favour of the continuation of consciousness after physical death. I recommend an open-minded examination of claims on a website by Victor Zammit, a retired Australian lawyer who devotes his life to the cause of acceptance of the afterlife.
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson was son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and became a Roman Catholic in the very beginning of the twentieth century. He died in 1914 of an illness at the age of only 43. A friend of Mgr Benson, Anthony Borgia, allegedly received channelled communications from his friend, and wrote them in a book with the title Life after Death in the Worlds Unseen. Here is a quote from Benson on experiencing death:
I saw my physical body lying lifeless upon its bed, but here was I, the real I, alive and well.
For a minute or two I remained gazing and the thought of what to do next entered my head, but help was close at hand. I could still see the room quite clearly around me, but there was a certain mistiness about it as though it were filled with smoke very evenly distributed. I looked down at myself wondering what I was wearing in the way of clothes, for I had obviously risen from a bed of sickness and was therefore in no condition to move very far from my surroundings. I was extremely surprised to find that I had on my usual attire, such as I wore when moving freely and in good health about my own house. My surprise was only momentary since, I thought to myself, what other clothes would I expect to be wearing? Surely not some sort of diaphanous robe. Such costume is usually associated with the conventional idea of an angel and I had no need to assure myself that I was not that!
Such knowledge of the spirit world as I had been able to glean from my own experiences instantly came to my aid. I knew at once of the alteration that had taken place in my condition; I knew, in other words, that I had ‘died.’ I knew, too, that I was alive, that I had shaken off my last illness sufficiently to be able to stand upright and look about me. At no time was I in any mental distress, but I was full of wonder at what was to happen next, for here I was, in full possession of my faculties and, indeed, feeling ‘physically’ as I had never felt before. … the whole process must have taken but a few minutes of earth time.
(Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Life in the World Unseen 10-11.)
Of course, we are relying on apocryphal texts that may or may not be authentic. We can only take it on a certain degree of belief rather than empirical evidence. I think that if we do have this sort of doubt, we need to pray for the gift of faith. We can also read Mr Zammit’s site and see the various videos of him explaining things and other videos from other sources including scientists specialised in quantum physics.
For a long time, I have been convinced that Christianity must have a purpose other than being the only way to a happy afterlife, when evidence from elsewhere indicates that Christianity changes nothing in this respect, except by raising the soul’s spiritual life. The purpose of Christianity is not saving “souls from hell” but bringing them to the beauty of God’s gift to humanity and the world (the universe) through Christ and the unique way he showed and taught. It is a much higher ideal, and it also can help us to live better and more selflessly, and therefore to be ready for a degree of beatitude not known on this earth.
Christ, being divine and human, had the reassurance that death was only a passage (in his case the resurrection of his body into a spiritual-physical body), but feared the torture and the agony together with the hatred of lewd and bigoted people. He lived his Passion both divinely and humanly in this great mystery of the hypostatic union.
I often think about death, and have always done so since my childhood. Sometimes I am horribly anguished, and sometimes it calls me gently and lovingly – but always in God’s hands. That is also a part of my self-discovery of having everything in common with the Romantics. Love this life and we will lose it. Lose it for Jesus’ sake and we will find it. Unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth fruit. We read this a few days ago in St John’s Gospel. It certainly changes our perspective in life!
Death is bitter and sweet at the same time. As we celebrate the death and Resurrection of Christ, may this Paschal Mystery be a type of our own passage sometime soon (the way the years flash by when you pass the 50 mark!).
Oh, and by the way, hat tip to Fr Jonathan Munn in Holy Week 2014: Tuesday.