by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Then the other disciple (John) who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed. John 20, 1-9
In recent years, surveys conducted in both the United Kingdom and the United States have revealed that a little more than 50% of respondents in both countries believe in an afterlife, without necessarily believing in God. Moreover, there has been a spate of books describing near-death, out-of-body experiences attesting to a life after death. In 2010, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was published, and sold millions of copies. It is the story of Alex Malarkey who was left a quadriplegic after a traffic accident, and describes the boy’s experiences of heaven, angels and hearing God’s voice while he was in emergency surgery. It was written by the boy’s father, Kevin who was in the accident with his son. Kevin later admitted that the story was a fabrication. Alex’s mother, Beth, subsequently told reporters that her son was not some kind of supernatural being and is still a quadriplegic. As a consequence of the writing and publication of the book and its subsequent withdrawal from sale, Alex’s parents are now separated. In stark contrast, Heaven Is For Real, also published in 2010, has sold more than 10 million copies. It recounts the out-of-body experience of Colton Burpo during emergency surgery to remove his burst appendix. It was co-written by Colton’s father, Todd Burpo and a family friend, Lynn Vincent and has been made into a film that has pulled in more than $101 million at the box office. It describes Colton’s experience of seeing Jesus and Mary in heaven. While I am not inclined to recommend either of these books to anyone, the volume of sales point to the urge in people to want to believe in heaven or an afterlife.
If that’s not enough, the popularity of the TV show, The Walking Dead, reinforces this acceptance in people of an afterlife. The programme is so popular in Australia that Foxtel tied up rights to it, preventing fans from buying weekly episodes from iTunes and Google (Sydney Morning Herald, October 2016). All of these contemporary productions get some of their inspiration (perhaps unconsciously) from very old creations like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Despite the advent of rationalism and the cynicism of Post-Modernism, there seems to still exist a deep conscious or unconscious longing in much of humanity for the existence of an afterlife.
I suggest that this longing is somehow connected to humanity’s search to find meaning in the unanswerable questions that life’s struggles and disappointments throw up. Somehow, very ordinary people instinctively conclude that the efforts they make to live decent, honest lives really come to nothing if death is the ultimate winner. Whether we are of any religious faith or none, deep down we cling to an intuition that we are going to die into life (albeit different) rather than away from life. We have within us a sense that the intangible realities of love, faith, hope, kindness, compassion and beauty will never die. The very fact that so much of humanity experiences a longing for more is testimony that there really is something more. Our continuing living and longing work together to keep this “truth” alive. It’s not a factual truth to which we can point, but it is a “truth” we come to by deduction.
I am writing this reflection in New Rochelle N.Y. where I have been for about a week. Yesterday, I came upon a story recounted by Michael Shermer, a member of the Skeptics Society and founder of their magazine Skeptic. The story was published in the magazine and is an account of an incident that happened on the day he married Jennifer Graf, who had emigrated from Germany to the United States in 2014. They married a year or so later. In transit from Germany, a trunk carrying some of Jennifer’s possessions was damaged, together with a transistor radio she treasured because it belonged to her deceased grandfather who reared her after her own father had died. All efforts to repair the transistor radio proved fruitless. Following their wedding, and during the reception held in their home, Jennifer confided to Michael that, despite her happiness, she felt really sad that there was nobody from her German family at the wedding and that the person she missed most was her grandfather. Shortly after confiding this to Michael, they farewelled guests and went up to their bedroom, where they heard music coming from somewhere. Eventually they traced it to a drawer in one of the cupboards. The 1978 Phillips transistor radio had come to life, and with tears running down her face, Jennifer acknowledged that her grandfather was at the wedding after all. She and Michael fell asleep listening to the classical music coming from grandfather’s transistor. By next morning, the music had stopped, and the transistor did not work again.
One final story: People who knew Pope Francis when he was a bishop and cardinal in Buenos Aires, find it difficult to understand what they see as a marked change in his personality since his election. In Argentina, he had a reputation for being shy, even boring, with no spark in his interpersonal engagements. When he was asked to be Pope, he said he was reluctant but accepted because he saw it as God’s will for him. When an interviewer in 2015 asked him: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”, he replied: “I am a sinner. That is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” However, he did confide to a good friend and fellow bishop from South America some time before the 2015 interview: “On the night of my election, I had an experience of the closeness of God that gave me a great sense of interior freedom and peace, and that sense has never left me.”
Stories like the ones above give me reason to pause and ponder. They challenge me to ask myself exactly what it is to which I am committing myself when I recite the Creed at Mass on Sundays. Do I really look forward to “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? These have been some of my thoughts and ruminations as I approach Easter.
Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, confronts all of us, the sisters and brothers of Jesus, with the prospect and hope of renewed life. It is resounding testimony to the power of love. It is not only God’s validation of the life and death of Jesus, but a profound affirmation that goodness, love, compassion, beauty and hope are enduring.
In the latter years of his life, the great impressionist painter Renoir suffered severely from arthritis. His arms and legs became stiffened and his hands twisted and distorted. Matisse, then one of his students, asked him one day as Renoir was working on a large canvas, barely able to stand: “Why do you keep on torturing yourself like this?” The master painter merely replied: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” Jesus came to teach us by example how to be authentically human, how to live with dignity and integrity through the disappointments and ordeals we encounter. His efforts brought him cruel execution from those who could or would not see or listen. But God raised him as proof positive that beauty, love and life will ultimately triumph. It’s for us, now, to reflect some of that life and love and beauty to others. The apostle John “saw and believed”. All the puzzling pieces he had heard previously from Jesus fell into place. He needed no further convincing. Do we?