Some Sundays, I sit in my pew and watch all the other parishioners. I tend to sit pretty close to the front, given my failing hearing and so I can study folks as they return to their pews from taking communion. When I am in these contemplative moods, I often think about whether my fellow Episcopalians believe. The obvious answer is, well of course they do, but I wonder whether that belief goes beyond death. In other words, when we say we look for the life to come, do we believe there is an afterlife?
At some level, I think we react in an almost robotic way. Of course, we believe, that is Christ’s promise to us; if we follow him, we will be reunited with our loved ones in heaven. We are promised a better life, and Episcopalians are not the only ones, most of the world’s major religions have some form of afterlife promise. However, recently I have begun to wonder if I and perhaps others indeed believe what they confess to, that someday we will be reunited in heaven.
My pondering has been brought on by a series of events that has left me thinking about what happens as we “pass on.” The first of these events was reaching a birthday that made me the same age as my mother when she died.
I refer to this as my “scary year.” At this age, I am beginning to connect with the notion that my mother died relatively young because she was not in excellent health, a heavy drinker, and smoker most of her life. She also died because she was ready to go. Unlike me, Mom was depressed because her career had slowed down with mandatory retirement, and she was facing major knee surgery. When she had a bronchial attack in the middle of the night, she didn’t fight; she just passed on. I think now as I look back on it, she was ready and she believed. Likewise, my father had passed away in his sleep, but he was 96 and ready to get out of his very old painful body. I am not sure he believed, he was just tired.
Believing that you know where you are going is hard to buy into. I mean, there hasn’t been any real news about what happens since Christ’s resurrection, and we live in an age where there are very few mysteries anymore. We are bombarded every day with facts, some are true and some made up, but either way, the facts are full of evidence. The leap of faith that we all take in facing death and beyond is just that, a massive jump over a vast canyon with absolutely no proof that we won’t fall in. On the other hand, not believing leaves one with little to look forward to and indeed no motive to live a good and righteous life.
I suspect, for many of us, the question rattles around in our brain, to believe or not to believe. As I have mentioned before, the Episcopal Church, in my opinion, encourages this type of musing, while supporting the faithful in their final leap, after our reflecting on the subject.
So as I continue my mediation on the issue, I am reminded of a beautiful book and film I Heard The Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven.
Published in the 1970’s and later made into a TV movie, the book tells the story of a young Anglican priest in Canada who is dying but doesn’t know it. He is sent to a remote Indian village in British Columbia where he learns about living. At one point, his Bishop tells him that the people in the village taught him so much about life that he was ready to die. In essence, once you have learned what life and living is, you can not help but believe and be prepared to pass on. This sentiment was also expressed by my mother-in-law who died at 96. She would always say, even with dementia, that we should tell everyone she had a wonderful life and she was ready for the next adventure. So many people I know have a sense of real joy at believing and knowing where they are going – and it is something I envy.
At my mother’s funeral, Father George Zabrinski explained to a congregation (which was at least fifty percent Jewish) why we sang songs of joy and celebration at a funeral. We read about a house with many rooms he explained because we, as Christians, know where we are going, and we are not afraid. While we are sad to not have the person with us anymore, we rejoice in knowing that we will see them again.
This belief may make it possible for us to face death, especially when the loss is intolerable like the loss of a child. It may help us mourn and heal. Faith in knowing where you are going can ease the dying and help prepare a soul to rest.
I wish I knew where I was going, I want to embrace the faith. Without a doubt, I am not quite there yet, but I am working on it.