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The Hereafter, Perhaps?


The larger-than-life French writer Francois Rabalais is reported to have said on his deathbed, “I am going to see a great perhaps. Draw the curtain; the farce is played.”

Last Sunday in the congregation I serve, we celebrated All Saints Day. It’s always a very moving service. We say aloud the names of those we’ve loved who have died. We pause to remember those we don’t even know—the tens of thousands who have died this year alone, victims of natural disaster and the violence of war.

This year, as most other years, we put carnations, one by one, into a large vase by the font of water to symbolize the mysterious and ongoing life of the dead.

But really, what does that mean? What are we doing when we do that?

Where are the digital photographs of heaven? How do you search www. to find out what the rooms are like, if there is air-conditioning, room service, wi-fi? Where’s the signed contract that assures us an eternal lease?

Is hope of ‘a great perhaps’ good enough?

I used to joke that the real reason I went to seminary was to find out what happens after we die.

I started in at a progressive Methodist seminary, a place that favored inclusion and diversity. My favorite story from there was the time the Navaho chief came to perform the peace pipe ceremony. Everybody was real excited—here was diversity, inclusion and religious pluralism all in one!

But the first thing the chief did was to say that menstruating women would not be allowed to stay for the ceremony; they would have to leave the room. Some women who weren’t menstruating —and some men—left in solidarity with those who were. And no doubt some who were menstruating stayed as protest against the exclusion.

Worlds collide.

And I never did find out from the Methodists what happens after we die.

I finished up my studies at a Lutheran seminary with a bunch of middle-aged and older white male professors who taught us to keep our theology impeccable—as buffed and polished as a vintage Jaguar. If anybody was going to tell me anything about heaven, it would be this cadre of high-minded and committed intellectuals.

Seminary was a great experience in a lot of ways. But it never did teach me much about what happens after we die. And there isn’t much anecdotal evidence.

My father died when I was nine. It was the finality of his absence that I couldn’t get my mind around. For years I had some semi-conscious expectation that he would return home to us, kind of like the way Sir Ernest Shackleton strolled into the whaling station on South Georgia Island after being given up for lost in Antarctica.

My mother, who died five years ago, visits me a lot in dreams. She shows up playing the Lucy Ricardo role, half mad, half mad-cap. But dream-life and life are not the same things. And I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t wonder—with sweaty palms—about what happens après mort.

Because it strikes me that it’s not faith in the unknown that’s hard—the existence or non-existence of God is, either way, a matter of faith. It’s faith in the known that’s such a bear. We know we’re all going to die. What we’re all hoping for is that that unknown God will show up for it with us.

Albert Camus, the brilliant atheist and existentialist wrote: “There is but one freedom, to put oneself right with death. After that everything is possible. I cannot force you to believe in God. Believing in God amounts to coming to terms with death. When you have come to terms with death, the problem of God will be solved—and not the reverse.”

If there is value in saying the name of a loved one who has died or pausing in silence over the deaths of many, if there is value in laying a carnation by a basin of crystal water, I think it is more than simply psychological. Each action, each name is a way of letting death into our lives, not as the thing to fear, the thing that obstructs, the thing that torments, but as the force that sharpens our senses and snaps us to the awareness:

No life is ever finished. No belief in God is ever perfected. No permanence is ever fully rooted. But in the varied, transient processes of living, believing, rooting we find each other and we experience ourselves most fully.

When you get right down to it Rabelais’ “great perhaps” seems a little over-the-top, a bit of a farcical statement itself. How did he manage to time his final words just right?—if these really were his final words? How did he know enough to be so certain in his sarcasm?

I prefer the rocky faith of Robert Frost, unwilling to crack the code of mystery:

Now let night be dark for all of me.

Let night be too dark for me to see

Into the future. Let what will be, be.

—from “Acceptance”

—Jo Page

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