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.”
I used to joke that the reason I went to seminary was to find out what happens after we die.So I started in at a progressive Methodist seminary, a place known for being inclusive and diverse. But my favorite story was of the time the Navaho chief came to perform a peace pipe ceremony. Everybody was real jazzed—diversity, inclusion and religious pluralism all in one!
But the first thing the chief did was request menstruating women to leave the room; they would not be allowed to stay for the ceremony. Big problem. Some women who weren’t menstruating left as an act of solidarity with those who were. Some men left, too. And no doubt some menstruating women stayed in order to protest their exclusion.
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 older white male professors who taught us to keep our theology impeccable—as buffed and polished as a vintage Mercedes. 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 obviously there isn’t much anecdotal evidence.
My father died when I was nine. It was the finality of his absence that frustrated me the most. 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 over a decade 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 la 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 question of what you believe. It’s faith in the known that’s such a bugbear. 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 into a crystal vase of water to memorialize the dead, 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 I think that in the varied, transient processes of living, believing, rooting, that’s where 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 and not just some myth? 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 the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.