The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
November 2, 2015, All Souls Day
On this All Soul’s Day we might consider heaven--what is heaven like? I would say that it is here now, and after we die. We find heaven now—in our interactions with others. In a sense we create our heaven or hell on earth through our actions, an interpersonal heaven or hell. Jesus’ life was difficult—sometimes our lives are beyond our control. We know deep in our heart that, with rare exceptions, our responses are not.
We find a foretaste of heaven on earth through people: loving relationships that offer us kindness, compassion, challenge, and in which we support each other. And we know it in that peace of God that surpasses anything we can ask or imagine—glimpses of that which awaits us when we are joined with God in death.
The peace we can know today is only foretaste of what is to come. The life to come is life in another dimension, part of our lives today, yet for the most part unseen. We can glimpse this life when have the privilege of being with people as they approach death in this life and move into this transition.
As a parish priest and a hospital chaplain, I have realized that as people near death, the veil between this world and the next becomes very thin. I recall visiting with a man who was having heart surgery the next day. I asked him if he was afraid. He told me that he had had a major heart attack while pitching in a softball league on Cape Cod. Lying on the ground he had seen the faces of all the people he loved who had died looking down on him with love. When he woke up his teammates were looking down on him. He said that because of that experience he had no fear of death.
Ivy, a parishioner who had grown up on a farm in Jamaica had a blue and white print of Jesus surrounded by sheep on the wall opposite the bed where she lay. She told me that Jesus had come to her and told her that he was waiting for her to join him when she died and she wasn’t afraid any longer. Actually this happens to many people who are dying. A loved one, or Jesus seems to tell them they are waiting for them, bringing them hope and peace.
I also recall visiting with a man in the hospital. He was surrounded by family and pointing at the blank wall in front of the bed. When asked what he was pointing at, he named his grandfather, grandmother and other family members who had died. Similarly a parishioner who was near death was looking at me as he said a few words. Then he looked beyond me and smiled.
Ray had lost his 40 year old daughter Lynda unexpectedly to lung cancer five months earlier. He spoke, as he lay dying, of his sense of connection with her and with other loved ones who had gone before them. He seemed to be being drawn into this new life by God, by people he trusted and loved.
These experiences are pure gift. They can move us from seeing eternal life with God as an act of faith to seeing it as mystery yet very real.
In Jesus we know a God of love, compassion, strength and courage. As we hear in Jesus’ words to his disciples, I go before you to prepare a place for you, we hear God call us home. (1) A young girl who traveled often with her family reflected one day as an idyllic vacation was drawing to a close: You know, when you’re on a trip, you’re always looking for something. Then you realize what you’re looking for is home.
It is this home that Jesus tells us awaits us. This home prepared so that each of us can find a resting place uniquely suited to the people we are. The home we go through life looking for, the home to which our journey ultimately leads.
I used to believe, in the sense of those who believe without seeing, that there was life after death. I had and have no idea what that means. However I have no doubt at this point that there is life in some description we may never understand until we are there. I have no doubt that those who die are joined with those who have gone from our presence, They are home, where each of us, deep within ourselves, longs to be, as he awaits our coming.
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago shared his experience with cancer and death in the book published soon after his death: The Gift of Peace. Bernardin wrote about a conversation he had had the last summer of his life with another Roman priest revered for his wisdom and faith, Henri Nouwen. While, of course, neither of them had any knowledge of their future, Nouwen would precede Bernardin, dying himself that Fall. Bernardin relates in his book that Nouwen talked to him about the importance of looking upon death as a friend rather than an enemy. A friend with whom we can converse, with whom we can build a relationship of trust. (2)
Some wonder why we pray for those who have died, especially if we believe that they are with God. When I was in seminary I had the gift of having an elderly monk as my spiritual director. I asked him this question, and it ended up that he had written the Catechism in the back of the Prayer Book. He told me that we believe that all who died are with God. We pray for those who have died that they may be perfected by our prayer and brought closer to God. I believe that as we pray for those we love we are connected with God’s grace, love and support in our grief.
In a culture such as ours that would prefer to deny death rather than befriend it, we can remember Jesus’ words of hope: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. (3) As we remember today those we love, whose memory we respect and honor, let us find our strength, and the deep joy of God’s presence with us as we pray.
(1) Gospel of John 14:3
(2) Bernardin, Joseph Cardinal. The Gift of Peace. New York: Doubleday Books, 1997, p. 79, 127.
(3) Gospel of John 14: 3