Essays, Featured

Life After Life After Death

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What a way to go!

At some point most of us will say it, and when speaking of death usually mean some preferred, or else dreaded, scenario—drowning in a pool of chocolate say, as compared to being drawn and quartered. According to a new Canadian poll though, we are not exactly exhausting ourselves plumbing the metaphysics of the exit.

In general, going, happens in one of three ways: Instantaneous, a catastrophic high-impact injury, for example, or a bullet to a so-called kill-zone; Sudden, as when an event results in death moments or hours later, and Delayed.  About this third, we could be glib and say that the leading cause of death is life, but I am talking here about terminal illness, both protracted and brief.

I do not think I would be good at any of them, and am in no rush to find out. Unfortunately, over the past year, seven friends have. All “folded their tents early,” and since none lived in a global hot spot, seven seems a startling number.

If there was a bully in my early life, it was death. Starting at age eight in a terrifying epiphany, it cast a shadow across the psychic playground of childhood, and landscapes beyond. The discomfort it carried was a shame I never dared confide.

An easing of sorts came in discovering Woody Allen. His confessional fear was not just refreshing, it was hilarious, as in this exchange with Annie Hall: Handed yet more books on the topic, an exasperated Annie asks, “How come every book you give me has death in the title?!” He responds with impatient eye roll, “It’s an important issue.”

Allen’s comic inversion of themes treated solemnly by idol, Ingmar Bergman, appealed to the religious sensibilities not only of whippersnappers like me. Historian Martin Marty observed that if seminarians could make life as interesting as Allen made death, they might produce a generation of theological winners again.

It helped to know I was not alone in seeing death as “an important issue,” but Woody’s existential squirming began to wear thin, and before long I bumped into someone who also took death seriously, yet rather than squirm, drilled deeply into it. The face of Teilhard de Chardin on the cover of his, How I Believe, caught my eye from the edge of a bookstore shelf. I had not heard of this Jesuit paleontologist, but was quickly impressed by his belief that life is a continuous meditation on death.

Teilhard was not unique of course, but this was before I knew anything of the ascetics who were his spiritual forebears, psychotherapists in the full etymological sense.

It is amazing how fast awareness of the Judeo-Christian foundation of so much we take for granted is draining from public memory. That goes for many of our assumptions about the prospects of an afterlife.

Even among those connected to that foundation, there is more than a little confusion about what Scripture actually says, and what the Church teaches about it. Before that though, an observation.

I would adjust Teilhard’s view of life as meditation on mortality to say that though life can be that, most of us go to lengths avoiding it—the syndrome commonly known as the denial of death, laid out brilliantly by Ernest Becker in a book of the same name.

Life is shaped by death. In fact, I would suggest that scourges such as tribalism and myriad forms of cruelty are best understood as byproducts of its denial.

Relief from all that conspires with death, indeed relief from death itself is ultimately . . . death. A grim remedy perhaps. And yet, it’s precisely here that we encounter the deepest mystery, and steepest claim, of Christian experience, the Resurrection.

Jews in antiquity expressed reality as a relationship with the God inviting them into covenant. By the first century, CE, attitudes towards the afterlife had evolved such that resurrection was accepted by one of Israel’s two leading schools, but without the theological detail of Christians struggling to process Easter.

It may not sit well with some, but there is no getting round it—without an actual, integral, resurrection event, Christianity would never have made it out of the first century, let alone set in motion the definitive revolution of history.

It is easy to forget that the chronicle of the Jews is at heart a love story. Devout Jews themselves, the first Christians understood the Resurrection as the fulfillment of that story, and did so by the only human faculty capable of it. The philosopher Wittgenstein puts this about as well as anyone, “It is Love that believes the Resurrection.”

Twenty centuries later, it is not easy to contend with. Consequently, those of us who would prefer not to deal with death, will hardly be eager to take on resurrection. And yet, for Christians, bodily resurrection is the word—the full flowering of the buried seed; what N.T. Wright provocatively calls in The Resurrection of the Son of God, life after life after death.

The Gospels report that Jesus dies, and emerges from the tomb three days later. What happens in between? Where does he go? I found it helpful to learn that in Jewish symbology, the number three points to perfection, categorically real and substantive, but  active too, that is, a dynamism of completion.

The New Testament stops there, while Tradition more or less leaves it to the imagination. In Eastern iconography, for example, you’ll find depictions in which Jesus, descended to a dreamscape strewn with shattered locks, stands upon the broken gates of the netherworld, hauling Eve and Adam from the abyss of the universal tomb.

Such images are why icons are said to be written, rather than painted. A visual language communicates an ineffable story: Jesus steps from the tomb, inaugurating a new age. Reality, pre- and post-history, enters our world of space and time, and like the jaws of life, begins to pry the doors of mortality. The lesson: ours is not to escape the world and go to heaven, but to help the Kingdom come.

Should this strike us as so preposterous? If the cosmos was brought forth from nothing, what is to prevent its transfiguration? I put this question to myself first.

I say I believe, yet I weep. Jesus wept, but for a different reason. I weep because I miss my friends, my father; weep because there will be more goodbyes; because belief is more demanding than knowledge; and I weep because if faith is a virus, it does not seem very contagious.

The hour of our death forges us to a solitude equaled only by birth. A purgative furnace of truth. A saint, I forget which, said that at the moment of death would we be able to pray, and truly mean, the Lord’s Prayer. There is a signal difference though, between solitude and being alone, and I confess to feeling strengthened at times, knowing there are far more who have gone than have yet to go, including those I love, and deeply miss.

Through the ages, the holy ones exhort us to cultivate awareness of how near death ever is. And yet, left to our own insistence, awareness can become obsession, memento mori, mere morbidity.

This past Holy Week, after Liturgy, I was by myself, gazing at the iconostasis, that liminal screen in Byzantine churches that joins the earthly nave to the heavenly realm of the sanctuary. Each screen has two, Royal Doors, that form a kind of gate at the center.

Sitting in that rarified stillness, with candles animating ancient images, those Doors stirred me to see that every moment is a gate, each capable of opening to eternity; to the Kingdom here “already, but not yet,” and that the liturgy I had just witnessed is the very pattern of Christ’s life, and in him, our own—birth, life, Calvary, tomb, and as the Royal Doors open a final time, the glory of the Resurrection only Love can believe.

What a way to go.

Featured Image: Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ [Detail], c. 1490; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Tim Kelleher

Tim Kelleher is the former New Media Editor at First Things where he wrote and directed the documentary film, The Creed: What Christians Profess, and Why it Ought to Matter. A Film/TV actor, writer, and director, his credits include, Thirteen Days, Inception, and NCIS. He did his graduate study in theology at The Catholic University of America, and is a frequent contributor to First Things, Real Clear Religion, and other publications.