I attended a funeral at a Catholic church last week, and I felt like a spectator at an ancient dramatic performance in which costumes, special effects, heart-felt monologues (complete with a Greek chorus of hymns and traditional anthems), followed one another for a solid hour or more.
There were several subplots. In one, the dearly-departed was celebrated for his good and faithful life, admirable in itself but viewed in a context of unending time and space. In another, akin to the role played by the Oracle in the plays of Sophocles and Euripides (whose prophesies pronounce the Fate that rules individual human lives), last week’s service presented a founding story in which a Creator God and his Son have opened the gates of Paradise to flawed humanity–at least to those who accept this promise of eternal life– even though none of us could ever qualify, even if given a million years of evolution, to enter this greater realm on our own merits.
As I sat in a pew near the back of the large sanctuary–in which friends, family, and (judging by how many went up for communion near the end of the service) members of this church who had gathered to celebrate a life well spent on Planet Earth–I felt that I was witnessing the reenactment of an ancient morality play.
It felt refreshingly coherent, integrated, and meaningful—in contrast to the society at large I had left to take a place on that pew in a cathedral with dramatic sculptures on the walls, vivid stained-glass windows, and a quiet, respectful attitude emanating from several hundred fellow human souls who had gathered to celebrate this moment of setting sail upon the great sea of the future.
Indeed, leaving behind, for an hour or so, the noise and chaos of a world in which murder and indifference are on the rise and in which this nation is ruled by a deeply disturbed madman and his band of sycophants (who do not seem to be guided by any story line remotely as coherent as the one I witnessed in operation during this funeral service), I felt both refreshed and bemused. I observed the people, listened to the music, and tried to absorb the plot line which suggested that, for at least one human being, an eternal home was about to be the next stop.
So why do I hold back from exploring this possibility for myself? Why am I content to remain at a distance, a spectator to the most prevalent system of belief operating in the Americas? Do I just not appreciate this particular story–at least not enough to believe that it provides a convincing blueprint for a living realm that extends beyond the visible realm in which I view myself as presently embodied? Or do I not believe that any story, no matter how elaborate and well-integrated, can be anything more than a story?
I prefer stories which acknowledge that all our stories are like a suit of clothes, which can keep us warm and can allow us to walk a little further on the road that curiosity, interest, and natural affinity call us to traverse.
And when it comes to filling in the details about what a fabulous beyond might be like, I prefer to imagine that, upon my death, some form of consciousness—if it continues at all—will have to be the vehicle that then looks around and tries to orient itself in its new surroundings.
Considering that such an experience awaits us all and that, even for the young, old age comes before we know it, it seems advisable to think about such things now and—if the opportunity presents itself—to make some kind of preparation, as we might prepare before taking a trip. But in both cases, I’d rather leave some things undecided until I am already on the road.
“Oh look, there’s a bunch of muddy pick-up trucks outside that café. I bet they have a good breakfast and real coffee.”
“Oh look, I’m in the midst of a palace of light and open space. I wonder if I have wings and can soar . . .a voice and I can sing.”