Remembering the Saints and Those Who Have Died
I remember being moved by a photo of a six-year-old girl, Elke Wisbey, communicating with her family for the first time. Elke was born brain damaged, but she’d just been given a hi-tech Smartbox machine that tracked her eye movements. Readers of a local newspaper raised money to buy the specially adapted machine for the family near Maidstone in England. When Elke’s eyes settled on an icon on the screen, a pre-programmed voice spoke the word or phrase for her. The Smartbox detected which icons Elke was looking at by using tiny lasers.
The first time she sat with her mother Glynnis at the machine, she chose icons that spelled out ‘I love you’. Then she repeated the words again and again. Glynnis said: ‘She kept eye pointing to all the bits which said: “I love you.” I thought it was stuck and then I realised what she was saying. It was quite emotional. It’s mind-blowing really. We’ve gone from somebody not being able to communicate to this.’
Chapter 13 of the ICCA. ‘Our Eternal Destiny’ is a wonderful exploration of the end points – which are really the beginning points – in our journey towards and into God-Love. But why don’t we meet up with Jesus as soon as we die? ICCA spells out the meaning of Purgatory, hell and heaven, so a word on each of these relationships:
Chiara Lubich once explained Purgatory like this: she said it’s a suffering those who have died before they’ve become saints (I guess, many of us) want to go through. They’re like a bride preparing herself to meet her future husband on her wedding day, who spends hours on her appearance. It’s only an example, but a bit like the bride, the person in Purgatory wants to be purified of everything that’s selfish, wants to reorient his or her will so they’re ready to say with overflowing hearts, ‘I love you’, to the infinite beauty of the face of God-Love.
Dostoevsky said that hell was the eternal consciousness of not being able to love. Again, Lubich uses the example of a wife who’s being unfaithful to her husband. He invites her out for a meal followed by a trip to the opera. The more he loves her, the worse she feels, because she’s no longer capable of responding to his love with love. So hell must be the awful awareness that we’ve deliberately chosen our own will, have preferred ourselves to God.
And for all the saints, what’s Paradise like for them? What I once heard Bishop Brendan Leahy saying at his mother’s funeral is what comes to mind here: There they’ll be sharing in the life of God the Father, of Jesus, his Son, united with them forever through the love of the Holy Spirit, along with the Mary they asked all their lives to pray for them at the hour of their death. The saints tell us that while Paradise is rest, it’s also full of life. Jesus says of himself, ‘I am the life’. So paradise will always be new. What’s also new will be our unity with those who’ve gone before us into Paradise. Each one will be the Paradise of the other because each will be in God, each with his or her own personality. And, it’ll be a celebration. Some saints who’ve had sneak previews tell us there’ll be dances and music.
But in heaven, what shape will we be in? Central to Christianity is Jesus’ Resurrection and our hope of sharing in that. So regarding those who have died and gone before us, we can be certain that one day we’ll look into their eyes again, hold their hands in ours, hear their voices, walk together with them again. Because God wouldn’t be God, he wouldn’t be love without end if he couldn’t fulfil our desire to be together, not just in mind or spirit, but with risen bodies like his Son. That’s why Mary’s bodily Assumption is so important as reassuring evidence of what we can all hope for. And all that’s most beautiful in our universe, from sunsets, seascapes and galaxies down to flowers and those Australian animals I’m so fond of here – wallabies and koalas, emus, quokkas and quolls – surely they’re all included in the ‘new heavens and the new earth’ the prophets and apostles encourage us to look forward to. One day, freed from all that blocks us in any way, with little Elke’s words, we’ll be saying to God, to the angels, to Mary and all the saints, ‘I love you’.