Friday, June 04, 2010

On Dying, and What Happens After

About a month ago, my grandmother passed away after a long period of mental and physical deterioration.  She was ninety-six, and had had a good long life, with children and grandchildren and even a couple of great-grandchildren who gave her great joy.  She died peacefully in her sleep, and we buried her next to my grandfather not far from where they'd lived their lives and raised their children.

She had a Catholic funeral, since she was a devout Catholic her whole life (her last words, so far as I know, were near-endless iterations of Our Fathers and Hail Marys), and we all agreed that it was right and proper, since she remained strong in her faith to the end, even if none of us really shared it.

And that's the thing I'm wrestling with.  Not the funeral, but her faith, and, I guess, what (if anything) it means for her after death, and what that means for me.

There's been a lot of death in my world this past year.  When my mother died last summer she left it to me to decide what to do about her memorial service and the disposition of her ashes (she did specify that she wanted to be cremated, so there was that).  But we shared the same skepticism about organized religion and the worldview that goes with it, and though she'd been baptized and confirmed, it didn't really seem appropriate to have Last Rites performed for her.  When it came time for her funeral, I gave it a great deal of thought and, given my mother's love of nature and the beach, and her fond memories of growing up on the Atlantic coast of Florida before it was overrun with people and pavement, what made the most sense to me, and seemed best to reflect my mother's life and character, was to return her ashes to the ocean at MacArthur Park, a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of unspoiled Florida coastline just north of Riviera Beach, where she'd grown up and, by all accounts, been quite happy (for those inclined to read it, I wrote a bit about her funeral here).

To my knowledge, my mother did not believe in an afterlife.  I don't believe she claimed to know what (if anything) happened after death, but I think she thought that it was probably nothing, and so when she died all I could wish was that maybe she might find some better, happier existence somewhere else, or at least some comfort in oblivion, and try and honor her memory and her wishes as best I could.

But my grandmother did believe, in life after death, and Heaven and Hell, and all that goes with it.  She was, as I said, a devout Catholic, whose life was lived in the faith that if she confessed and prayed and jumped through all the hoops that the Church held up that when she died she would be rewarded with a place in Heaven everlasting.

And here's the part I'm having trouble with, because I do not think that I believe in Heaven, but I want for her to be there.

I've always had a difficult time with Christianity and Catholicism.  I'm sure it has a lot to do with being raised in a secular environment (I did go to church a few times as a kid, sometimes with the families of friends, at least once with my father, who was not a believer but was happy enough to take me if and when I wanted to go, which was probably not more than once), but on a gut level it just doesn't make sense to me.  There are too many contradictions, and too much history of evil and intolerance and genocide and just general awfulness for me to be able to make the leap of faith that the God of the Old Testament (with the plagues and the smiting and the razing of cities and peoples for their lack of faith) turned himself into some sort of ethereal spiritual essence in order to impregnate somebody else's wife (and a virgin to boot) in order to incarnate himself as the nicest, most forgiving guy in history, whose memory has been used to justify some of history's biggest assholes and most horrifying atrocities.  Even if I could get around the bits that just don't make any sense (except, possibly, metaphorically, but even then...), the things that Christian faith has been and still is used to justify are pretty much deal-breakers for me.  I know there are many people for whom faith is the rock on which their world is built, and that it gives them a great deal of comfort in the face of an imperfect, unjust world in which bad things happen to good people with depressing regularity, and I don't mean to denigrate their belief or the comfort and strength they derive from it.  But I find it exceedingly difficult for my own part to see my way to sharing it.

But I loved my grandmother very much.  She was the very essence of that grandmotherly beneficence that every child should know growing up, and I remain eternally grateful for that.  And I want for her lifelong faith to be rewarded, because as far as I know she did all the right to deserve that reward.  But that puts me in a weird conundrum, where I want for her to have something I don't really believe exists, and there's a tension and a dissonance there that I'm having a hard time trying to resolve.

I remember once, many years ago, when I was travelling Europe, I spent a week in Paris, and one day I visited Notre Dame.  I went, I suppose, as a tourist (what else would I have been?), but while I was there I lit a candle and said a prayer.  I didn't and don't know that I had a right to do that, since my faith is more or less non-existent (manifesting as nothing stronger than an openness to the possibility that there might be something to Catholicism), but I did it anyway.  Adding even more to my theoretical apostasy, what I prayed for was this:  that my grandmother would die.  See, even then, she was much deteriorated, and having trouble remembering things, and walking, and just generally functioning.  All her friends had already passed, and my grandfather, the love of her life, too, many years before.  It was clear to all of us that she was unhappy, and ready to go, but her body wasn't ready to quit just yet, and wouldn't for almost another decade.  But I thought that that was what she wanted, and because she would never ask that for herself (suicide being a cardinal sin), I asked God for her.  Suffice to say, my prayer went unanswered, at least for many more years, and I felt guilty for even thinking it, much less asking, but I swear my intentions were good.

But now she has died, and I find myself hoping that she did get what she wanted, and did ascend to Heaven, to sit at her Lord's feet and revel in his glory and benevolence forever and ever (Amen).  But if I wish that, does that mean I have to wish that Heaven were real?  And if I do that, does that mean that I have to believe what she believed?  Because I don't, or at least I don't think I do.  Catholicism (and Christianity in general) have never really resonated with me as spiritual ontologies, and I've certainly never had much love for the Church.  But if I hold fast to my own spiritual inclinations (which amount, I suppose, to a sort of Taoist animism), then I have to believe that my grandmother was wrong, and that she did not go on to her Heavenly reward, because it doesn't exist.  And I don't want that to be true, either.

I can't see a way to resolve that conundrum.  Not yet, anyway.  I suppose I could posit a sort of American Individualist vision of spiritual ontology, in which everyone goes on to the afterlife they believed in in life.  It would certainly be a comfort, because I could believe that Grandma went to Heaven and that Mom rejoined the Earth Spirit by way of the Ocean, and that the feeling of joy and wonder that overtakes me sometimes when I am walking in the mountains or on the beach, away from the works of man, can offer me clues as to my own fate after I die.  But I'm not sure that I do believe that, even though I want to.

Then again, I guess that's what faith is.  Because I do know this:  if you don't have doubt, then it isn't faith.

UPDATE: An old friend responds (mad props to Jenny P-L):
Maybe it would comfort you more to look at it as though there is a place "out there" that is a beautiful place where the most brilliant spirits go to commune with a powerful spiritual being that is so amazing that it's mere presence is like extacy. So, while your Grandmother may be where she wanted to go, and it's as wonderful as she imagined, the... See More paradigm in/through which she viewed Heaven was off (at least as far as you and I maybe are concerned).
My belief is that mankind has used messages and gifts from God by too often misinterpreting those messages and gifts. Sometimes through ignorance, sometimes through direct manipulation - the power of religion to control mankind is always dangerous. Religion is the tool of the devil! So throw out the religious perspective on the situation and think of it in a deeply spiritual way. You had every right to light a candle and pray in that church, a love of God and your fellow human traveller is all that's necessary. AND, it's between you and God. Jesus said his body was his temple, which I interpret as an admonition to make sure the relationship with God is between the individual and God and should not be interfered with by the conscriptions of any given religion. In the end Dallas, I'm not entirely sure that what you wish for your grandmother is in conflict with your beliefs. You want your grandmother in that best of places, knowing as you do that if any deserve such a reward, she does. Just because her perception/definition of that place was very different than yours, it doesn't mean the place doesn't exist.
Blind faith has never seemed like an intelligent thing to me. But faith in what you feel you know must be true, even though you may have no tangible proof, is an intelligent guided faith, in yourself more than anything else, and a healthy mechanism for remembering that in the end, we cannot control everything.

1 comment:

chrissie said...

There is beauty in accepting that there are some conundrums we will never resolve.

The summer after my grandmother died I lit a candle in Westminster Abbey. I had very similar concerns afterward, upon reflection, but at the time it felt right and (dare I say) even holy. And I felt that doing so was honoring her memory.