Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Life After Death: What is Heaven?

A number of movies have been made, usually comic, about spouses whose dead partners return to the land of the living. "Ghost" comes to mind and the 1940 classic "My Favorite Wife," not to mention "Blithe Spirit" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

The best of the bunch has to be "Truly, Madly, Deeply," by writer-director Anthony Minghella, who died prematurely in 2008 after creating several sensitive, award-winning films, including this 1990 movie, which is moving, hilarious, and serious at the same time. Like so many other movies, it makes the possibility of life hereafter believable.

Juliet Stevenson is memorable as the grieving partner of a man (Alan Rickman) who returns to the London flat they shared, but he brings along a collection of other dead people who watch videos and take over the poor woman's life until she realizes she must let go of the past and start a new life.

This barebones summary sounds trite, but the movie, which begins on a somber note of deep grief, moves with sensitivity and intelligence toward delicious humor, without the usual crudity of language heard in most of today's movies. This is a couple in a totally credible relationship in which the living partner sees that she must learn to live in the present.

The implication here is that the afterlife is real, as it was to me growing up in my parochial school. There I learned about saints and angels and enjoyed serving at funeral Masses because I could ride in the limo with the priest (and get a tip from the undertaker). So I think I grew up with a sense that death is part of life and that the dead are present all around us. And I have always believed in some sort of existence with God when my earthly live ends.

Whether I should call this heaven is unknown. The Gospels speak of the kingdom of heaven being within us, and Thomas Merton wrote that the door to the heaven is everywhere. I have written of the timeless present (found in contemplation of various kinds) as the presence of God.

I was intrigued by what Jon Meacham of Time magazine wrote last month about heaven being God's love entering the present. That is, heaven is less an ethereal region beyond us than what happens on earth when "love and light achieve dominion over darkness and envy." For Christians, this will not be fully realized until the Second Coming of Christ.

For Meacham, heaven is the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved and oppressed. We may imagine and anticipate a fuller experience of God, of course, in the "undiscovered country" beyond death (as Shakespeare called it), but I like Meacham's idea that acts of love and selflessness bring God's grace to a broken world and so bring heaven to earth.

This is a far cry from seeing our life here as merely a prelude to a heavenly existence beyond our world. And it suggests that living fully in the here and now, as Juliet Stevenson's character gradually learns to do, has nothing to do with "eat, drink and be merry" but with seeing earthly life as full of sacred potential.

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