At any given time, most of the world believes that death isn’t final, that some form of immortality exists. Most people believe that those who have died still exist in some state, in some modality, in some place, in some heaven or hell, however that might be conceived. In some conceptions, immortality is seen as a state wherein a person is still conscious and relational; while in other concepts, existence after death is understood as real but impersonal, like a drop of water that has flowed back into the oceans.
As Christians, this is our belief: We believe that the dead are still alive, still themselves and, very importantly, still in a living, conscious, and loving relationship with us and with each other. That’s our common concept of heaven and, however simplistic its popular expression at times, it is wonderfully correct. That’s exactly what Christian faith and Christian dogma, not to mention deep intuitive experience, invite us to. After death we live on, conscious, self-conscious, in communication with others who have died before us, in communion with those we left behind on earth, and in communion with the divine itself. That’s the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints.
But how is this to be understood? Not least, how do we connect to our loved ones after they have died? Two interpenetrating biblical images can help serve as an entry point for our understanding of this. Both come from the Gospels.
The gospels say that at the instant of Jesus’ death, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised (Mt 27, 50-52). The gospels then go on to tell us that on the morning of the resurrection several women came to Jesus’ grave to anoint his dead body with embalming spices, but rather than finding his dead body, they meet instead an empty grave and two angels who challenge them with words to this effect: Why are you looking for a live person in a cemetery? He isn’t here. He’s alive and you can find him in Galilee (Lk 24, 5). What’s contained in these images?
As Christians, we believe that we are given eternal life through Jesus’ death. Among other images, the Gospels express that in this metaphor: Jesus’ death, they tell us, “opened the tombs” and emptied graveyards. For this reason, Christians have never had a huge cult around cemeteries. As Christians, we don’t do much in the way of spiritual practices around our cemeteries. Why? Because we believe all those graves are empty. Our loved ones aren’t there and aren’t to be found there. They’re with Jesus, in “Galilee.”
What’s “Galilee,” in terms of a biblical image? In the gospels, Galilee is more than a place on a map; it’s also a place inside the Spirit, God’s Spirit and our own. In the gospels, Galilee is the place where, for the most part, the good things happen. It’s the place where the disciples first meet Jesus, where they fall in love with him, where they commit themselves to him, and where miracles happen. Galilee is the place where Jesus invites us to walk on water. Galilee is the place where the disciples’ souls enlarge and thrive.
And that is also a place for each of our deceased loved ones. In each of their lives, there was a Galilee, a place where their persons and souls were most alive, where their lives radiated the energy and exuberance of the divine. When we look at the life of a loved one who has died we need to ask: Where was she most alive? What qualities did she most uniquely embody and bring into a room? Where did she lift my spirit and make me want to be a better person?
Name those things, and you will have named your loved one’s Galilee — and you will also have named the Galilee of the gospels, namely, that place in the heart where Jesus invites you to meet him. And that is too where you will meet your loved ones in the communion of saints. Don’t look for a live person in a cemetery. She’s not there. She’s in Galilee. Meet her there.
Elizabeth Johnson, leaning on Karl Rahner, adds this thought: “Hoping against hope, we affirm that they (our loved ones who have died) have fallen not into nothingness but into the embrace of the living God. And that is where we can find them again. When we open our hearts to the silent calmness of God’s own life in which we dwell, not by selfishly calling them back to where we are, but by descending into the depth of our own hearts where God also abides.”
And the “Galilee” of our loved ones can also be found inside our own “Galilee.” There’s a deep place inside the heart, inside faith, hope, and charity, where everyone, living or deceased, is met.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.