The Journey of the Soul – What Happens to Us When We Die?
One of the most natural and at the same time most challenging questions children ask is this: What happens to us when we die?
Our response, geared to the young, is meant to offer solace in a simple, straight-forward way. We say, When we die we go to heaven. Or, grandma is up in heaven looking down on us.
These explanations might temporarily satisfy an eight-year-old, but it does little to assuage the fears of adults as they face the biggest transition in their lives. Those of us who hold some kind of traditional religious beliefs usually acknowledge, in an abstract or a theological way, that there’s something more than life here and now. Catholics and other Christians profess this, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, the resurrection of the body, and life eternal, Amen.”
Somehow, though we recite the words, when we receive a serious diagnosis, they don’t seem to resonate, because as adults, that question – What will happen to me when I die - begs a greater response.
After years of studying the Scriptures in the context of the Catholic Church’s tradition and walking this path with so many, I’ve found the following imagery helpful. Think of an escalator that carries us from the moment of birth to eternity. Let’s take a ride on this escalator through the three phases of the Journey of the Soul.
First Phase of Living: A Spirit in God – Birth – Life – Dying
Even before our birth, each of us existed as a spirit in God. When we’re born into this world, this spirit of God continues to dwell within us. Though we’re largely unaware of it, there’s a “generative thrust,” a deep longing inside us that continually draws us toward wholeness and a sense of oneness with God and all God’s creation. We’re born with the gifts of God’s unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness, and healing. If we open ourselves to these gifts, if we explore and nurture them, we recognize that the question God is always asking is this: Will you let me love you?
Unfortunately, as we grow and become members of the culture, we often lose touch with this core spirit of God that gives us life. We grow into adulthood, establish ourselves, build our ego strengths. At the same time, life wounds us. People let us down, we experience every kind of loss. Often, we hurt ourselves. Through it all, our God waits, eager for us to open the gifts we have inside, asking again: Will you let me love you?
The degree to which we recognize the indwelling of God and cooperate with the life-giving thrust also changes the texture of how we deal with every aspect of life. The rest of this book explores the earthly portion of the escalator ride – how we can cooperate with God’s generative thrust, and how we can respond to his ongoing overture of love.
Regardless of the extent to which we respond to God, death allows not only the complete release of our bodies and of all of our human concerns - it also releases the self-induced restrictions on the God-given gifts that we’ve had inside us all along. Death is the doorway that brings us to Phase Two…
Second Phase of Living: Resurrection of the Dead – Purification – Oneness with God
At the moment of death, we emerge from the darkness and travel toward a great light – the living and loving presence of God. We call this “the resurrection of the dead.” This departure of the life force, the energy, the very essence and soul leaves the body inert and empty. Though the body is present, we say things like “He’s gone,” or “She’s passed.” What moves on to this second phase is the heart and the soul, carrying with it any unhealed wounds and sins. But that’s not all. We also carry with us God’s gifts of unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness, and healing. These gifts had been given to us at birth, but the challenges of the first phase of living often prevent us from being open to them. But, in phase two we have the opportunity to experience God’s gifts in a greater way.
Sometimes people worry. They say to me, “But Fr. Tom, I wasn’t much of a church-goer.” Even for those who had little interest in their faith during most of the first phase, when seeing their God face-to-face, have the opportunity to say “yes” to God’s question: Will you let me love you? They can finally open their hearts to a loving encounter with their God. When I explained this to one family, the wife, who was just a month away from death said to me, “Fr. Tom, this is good news! It gives me tremendous hope.”
Of course, some may choose not to say yes to God, intentionally extending the isolation they established during Phase One – and we call that separation hell. The choice is always ours. I tell families that this is why it’s important to pray for the dead – to pray that they may finally say yes to God’s open invitation, to surrender to God’s love. When this happens they will be able to love those left behind as God loves them – unconditionally.
The wounds of the heart are very much entwined with the spirit self, and during the process of purification (sometimes referred to as purgation) the spirit fully opens to God’s compassionate love (which we call God’s mercy). This involves the cleansing of any sin that remains, and the healing of any stories or wounds that, during life, prevented us from letting ourselves be loved by God and others. We experience God’s forgiveness so that we can, at last, forgive whoever or whatever placed these wounds on our hearts during the first phase of living. In other words, hanging onto un-forgiveness prevents the wounds of our hearts from being healed by divine love. When we allow ourselves to be unconditionally forgiven and healed we can finally and fully enter into oneness with God – our hearts becoming one with God’s heart.
In Phase Two we continue this movement toward “wholeness” in a deeper way, and realize our true, undefended selves in God. We embrace this new oneness with God and all that is - Where God is - that is where we are: in all of creation, in every person we left behind, as well as all who ever lived (Catholics call this the Communion of Saints). Pope Francis affirms this powerful reality: “There is a deep and indissoluble bond between those who are still pilgrims in this world -– us – and those who have crossed the threshold of death and entered eternity.” I tell families, “When your loved one dies, the rest of you will be left behind in the first phase of living. But when you access the God within, you’ll also touch into the love of the deceased.” In this oneness with God the deceased also shares in God’s longing, “Will you let me love you?” Unlike human love, their love for you is now pure and unconditional. This love doesn’t present itself as a dramatic apparition or message from beyond. Instead, you will be presented with gentle promptings of the spirit that encourage you to respond to God’s presence within you. Experiencing a greater ability to love, to forgive, to serve others – these are the fruits of this divine union.
Third Phase of Living: Resurrection of the Body – Life Eternal
At the end of all time, at the close of the world as we know it (the last days), we will be birthed again into a glorified body to embrace life eternal, in love with our God and with all that is. This is the promise, the covenant between God and humankind, revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Book of Revelation (Chapter 21) God promised us “new heavens and a new earth.” But what this will look like remains a mystery.
But what we do know is this – after his death Jesus appeared to his disciples as a living and loving presence, but they had a hard time recognizing him in this new form. The Gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener at the empty tomb, and his disciples as a traveler along the road to Emmaus. In his reappearance Jesus demonstrated that there’s life after death, and that we’ll be birthed again in a new form (a glorified body.) This is reflected both in scripture and in ritual. In John 6:39-40 Jesus says, “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”
(Will you let me love you?)
Likewise, in the funeral rite of the church, at the committal, the presider prays: “The Lord Jesus Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like his in glory, for he is risen, the firstborn from the dead. So let us commend our brother/sister to the Lord that the Lord may embrace him/her in peace and raise up his/her body on the last day.” (Will you let me love you? )
To be human is to be embodied. At our birth, in the first phase, we’re born in flesh and blood, and the promise is that we’ll be enfleshed again in the third phase. Jesus showed us this when he returned to his disciples, emphasizing that “it is real,” insisting that they touch him, speak with him, share a meal together. He wanted them to understand that just as he lived among them in the first phase, so he would live among them again, in a new glorified form. This is our hope as we journey toward the end of our earthly existence. It’s what we proclaim in our creed and celebrate in the Eucharist. It’s just that we tend to look at it theologically and intellectually, with little pause for the ramifications of what Jesus sought to show us.
This is where the escalator stops, at life eternal. It means we’re going to be in love with God, in love with one another, forever. This is our destiny and purpose, at the end of all time.
That is the Good News.