Lately our family has journeyed through deep suffering. Our daughter had a brain tumour removed. While the surgery was successful, the journey through this passage was very difficult. Then, our dear niece — the same age as our daughter — recently passed away following a lifelong struggle with cancer.
All of this encouraged me to read a number of books about death and new life: Proof of Heaven — A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife and The Map of Heaven — How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D. I also read Life after Death by Tom Harpur. Now, I’m reading Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miraculous Messages from Heaven. All these books manifest faith, hope and love. I’m convinced that heaven — which ultimately is a mystery — is nonetheless real.
Jeremiah also manifests faith, hope and love: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” This passage of forgiveness is healing and also humbling. The Workbook for Lectors and Gospel Readers 2009 says: “While Jeremiah had a reputation of being a prophet of doom and gloom, he was also a man who staunchly believed in the Lord’s love for his people.” Yes, we are indeed sinful people, but if we open our hearts to the Mystery that is God, God will forgive us.
We cannot avoid suffering in this life. Jesus was deeply aware of all our trials — and also our fear of death. Jesus experienced this himself. Paul writes: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”
We see that even Jesus experienced great anguish in the face of a brutal death. In John’s Gospel he says: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name . . . Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ ” Ultimately, Jesus wholeheartedly accepts his death as God’s will, also knowing, as a human being, that he will certainly suffer.
James Martin, SJ, writes in Becoming Who You Are — Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints: “We have to begin with the foundational Christian belief that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. And while we shouldn’t lose sight of either ‘nature,’ it’s the human part that gets forgotten more often. Even devout Christians tend to neglect his real humanity — which means not knowing the future, slowly figuring out one’s calling, and living by faith.”
Martin continues: “I’ve always wondered if Jesus knew for certain that he would be raised from the dead. Now, I may be completely wrong, but I think that while Jesus lived his life in perfect faith, and trusted that something wonderful would come from his acceptance of his mission and his obedience to his Father — as it always had in the past — he did not know precisely what this would mean.
“There are indications of this in the Gospels. Even while he hung on the cross, though freely giving himself to his mission, he cried out in pain and confusion, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ ”
Each day — one step at a time — we can ponder Jesus’ teaching: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In this life, if we offer ourselves with faith, hope and love to our world, we will bear fruit. And when we die, we will — in all of the mystery of death — embrace a new life among angels and our own loved ones who have gone before us.
Martin says: “The life of Christ is the central metaphor for the Christian life. And the way that Jesus understood who he was, what he was meant to do, and how he was meant to do it, is a metaphor for the Christian journey to the true self. All of us are called to meditate deeply on our own true selves, to embrace the reality of our vocations, and to let God transform our true selves into sources of new life for others . . . ”
Our journey toward death includes giving new life to others in the present moment. If we do this, our hope in life after death will expand and grow.
Strachan is married with three grown children and lives in Nakusp, B.C. She is a Benedictine Oblate with St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, Sask., and a member of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild.