Guest reflection: What happens when we die?

All Saints Day: "In heaven we will not only be with God, we will be with the ones we love." Photo: Daniel Sicolo
Published November 1, 2010

In the late 1980s my mother was battling stomach cancer. The disease left her extremely weak and in constant pain. Surgery followed by chemotherapy seemed to help for a time, but after a second surgery her condition worsened. She started to lose weight rapidly. Her spunk, her zest for living, began to wane. It was obvious that mom was fading and that she didn’t have long to live.

My mother did not like to talk about death. Every time I would try to raise the subject, she changed the conversation immediately. Only once did she speak about the topic to me. We had just gone through her finances, when suddenly she looked at me and said, “What happens when you die?” I started to talk about heaven, but found myself stumbling for the right words to say. How do we on earth speak with any clarity about a state of being that none of us have ever experienced or can even imagine?

Finally, in frustration that I, as a priest, could not answer the one question that I should expect from any person facing death, I mentioned that Jesus had spoken of being “in paradise” to the thief on the cross. Mom then asked what paradise was like. I mumbled something about being with God forever. And with that the conversation ended. Two weeks later mom died.

What happens when we die? That’s a question people are asking these days. Actor and film director Clint Eastwood is asking that question with his new film Hereafter. As he approaches his 81st birthday next year, he says that now is the “right time” for him to take on a film about mortality. It is a film that has resonated with audiences who are asking the question, “What’s next?”

The film tries to answer that question by focusing on three geographically disparate people who have been traumatized by close encounters with death – a San Francisco psychic, a youngster from London mourning the death of his twin, and a Parisian-based journalist whose life changes after she is almost killed in the 2004 tsunami. What the film suggests is that no matter where we were born, where we have been, where our travels have taken us, we all end up converging at the same place.

Sooner or later we must all pass through death. Before we pass through it ourselves, we pass through it with any number of friends and loved ones. After weeks and months and perhaps even years of trying to avoid it, we must hold the hand of someone very dear to us and face that inevitable journey through the valley of the shadows.

For Christians we never pass through death alone. God is always with us, God is always present, God is there even as we take our last breath and bid this life farewell.

Jesus assures us that God’s love for us is larger than life and stronger than death. When God called each of us out of nothing into being, it was not a careless or irresponsible act, but rather the beginning of a process that God wants to go on forever. Quite simply, God who created us out of love will not abandon us out of love. If God made you, then God loves you. And God’s love lasts forever.

In heaven we will experience God’s love like we have never known it before. How will it be, I don’t know. I can’t describe it. Nobody can. But even in this life I have had glimpses of heaven. Maybe you have, too.

When I was eleven years old, a group of classmates and teachers climbed a mountain in upstate New York. About half way up we stopped along this mountain creek churning down. Around us were the black-green trees, and the soft black-green moss on the rocks and banks. Out of the small brilliant blue patches of sky above came these shafts of white light which turned the splashing waters into showers of diamonds. It was an almost mystical experience, and I thought to myself, “In a place like this, it’s very easy to believe in God.”

One Easter Sunday when I was a college student in New York, I attended Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church near Columbia University. Corpus Christi is the church where Thomas Merton worshipped until he entered Gethsemani Abbey to become a monk. That Easter Sunday the choir sang a Palestrina Mass. As the polyphony of sounds intertwined with each other, built and rebuilt, it took my breath away. I felt as if my heart, lungs and stomach had come into the physical grip of God. The Easter message was mine! God really did raise Jesus from the dead! God did that. God tore that rock away from the tomb and called forth Jesus of Nazareth and set him on high. I knew that. It really happened!

Glimpses of heaven – you could write yours. These are the moments that come to us only occasionally in this life, perhaps because we couldn’t take them with much more frequency. They are moments of exhilaration and deep, deep peace which are foretastes of the day when we will be with God forever.

But there is more. In heaven we will not only be with God, we will be with the ones we love. Your parents, your spouse, your children, your relatives and friends – in heaven you will see them again and be with them forever. No more tears. No more sorrow. Just one great fellowship of love united in the presence of God.

When you get home, sit down and write out a list of all the people you love. Carry that list with you wherever you go in the future and add to it as your circle of affection grows. When you die, take that list with you into the next life. When you get to the gates of heaven, St. Peter will stop you and say, “Look, you can’t bring anything with you from the other life. Let me have that piece of paper.”

And you will probably say, “Oh, it’s really not anything. It’s just a list of people whom I have loved and who have loved me across the years.”

And St. Peter will say, “Can I look at it?”

You will hand the list over to St. Peter who will take the list and begin to read it: Joseph, Carol, Frank, James, Jean, Gloria, Marie, Nick, Douglas.”

Then a great smile will break across the face of St. Peter, and he will say, “When I was walking over to work this afternoon, I saw these very people. They were making a poster. It had your name on it, and it said, Welcome Home!

This is our hope, because the love that created us in the beginning is larger than life and stronger than death.

So what happens when we die? We will be with God and our loved ones forever. The love we have experienced in this life, in heaven there will be no end to it. Amen

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at Saint James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont. He delivered this sermon on Sun. Oct. 31, 2010.


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