A season that starts off with “You are dust and to dust you shall return” seems like a good time to contemplate dying. So Sue and I signed up for a Lenten retreat called “Life After Death: Intimate Union with Infinite Love.”
When I was younger, I always pushed back thoughts of death with, well, I still have nine tenths of my life ahead of me. Or three fourths. Or two thirds. Or even half. Now I am 61. Even if I live till 100, which I am not even sure I want to do, I am definitely on the down side of this earthly life.
When I was a young Southern Baptist, I still planned to go to heaven. I wasn’t sure there were pearly gates and streets paved with gold, but it was an eternal place that kept me from worrying too much about dying.
Now I am not sure there is anything I want to do for an eternity. At any rate, I am convinced our human pea brains have no clue and cannot comprehend what happens after we die. Bright white tunnels of light notwithstanding.
The death retreat, at the Episcopal Diocese of Easton’s Retreat House in Hillsboro, Md., offered a continuation of the spiritual themes I have encountered since I have been an Episcopalian, Ignatian retreat attendee, and voracious reader of Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and their contemplative compatriots. I will try to sum it up with this quote from Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and spiritual author:
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God . . . This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us . . . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”
In other words, God is not just “out there.” We are of God. We are spiritual beings on a human journey, not the other way around. It’s impossible to try to recapture the essence of a six-hour retreat, but I came away solidified in my belief that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and because of that our loved ones – who are of God – also are closer to us than we are to ourselves. Not “out there” somewhere, up or down.
As for heaven, the day’s offerings included a poem from John O’Donohue that touched both of us. Here is an excerpt:
We have falsely spatialized the eternal world.
We have driven the eternal out
into some kind of distant galaxy.
Yet the eternal world does not seem to be a place but
rather a different state of being.
The soul of the person goes no place
because there is no place else to go.
This suggests that the dead are here with us,
in the air that we are moving through
all the time . . .
With the refinement of your soul,
you can sense them.
You feel that they are near.
The Lenten challenge is to continue refining the soul so that death is viewed as just another part of our spiritual journey.