Friday, July 15, 2005

Heaven is my home

Late last night, I received word from my dear Friend Elizabeth that her partner, Louann, had decided to “let her life come to an end,” meaning that she had decided not to accept a feeding tube in order to gain the weight and strength necessary to continue chemotherapy for the ovarian cancer she was found to have about three months ago. Today, they were meeting with the palliative care people to make arrangements for Louann to go home to die.

The news felt like a blow to my chest.

I have been part of a group of people – dubbed the Merry Pranksters – organized by a Friend on our meeting’s committee of ministry and counsel to provide support, fun, and diversion to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, each of my times to be with her had to be cancelled at the last minute because of a sudden change in Louann’s condition or needs. But I was cheered by the efforts of my fellow Pranksters to give Elizabeth some semblance of a normal life: a walk in the woods near their home; a trip to an art museum to see this exhibit; a movie; and the one I most regretted being unable to attend, singing to Louann and Elizabeth in the hospital.

The immediate purpose of Elizabeth’s call was to ask me to do some legal work that she and Louann and I had discussed earlier and which Louann’s decision had made necessary. I met with them this afternoon at the hospital, and I’ve done the work they wanted. While I have mostly enjoyed my work as a lawyer-employee of larger organizations (the state supreme court, attorney general, a large corporation, and, now, a large hospital system), I’ve regretted that I haven’t found a way to use my skills and experience to help individuals directly. So I was happy to be able to help them in this small, concrete way.

When I arrived at the hospital, Elizabeth was discussing Louann’s memorial service with another friend – an Episcopal priest, it turns out – and how to incorporate a Quaker-like unprogrammed meeting for worship in the context of an otherwise Jewish liturgy. It was heartbreaking to sit there, just outside Louann’s room, discussing the service, but it needed to be done, and Elizabeth approached it with her typical combination of rational sanity and emotional vulnerability; as painful as this is, she has been preparing for a moment like this for a very long time, building the character and practice necessary to experience the reality and the pain fully, but with equanimity.

* * * * *

Elizabeth and I taught a Quakerism 101 course this past winter, ending just a week before Louann was diagnosed. In our last session, one of the participants asked what Quakers thought about the afterlife. Our answer was “not much.” Neither of us recalled reading any writing by a Friend discussing life after death, except for some who have expressed belief in some kind of reincarnation. Instead, Friends seem to have accepted the biblical definition of heaven as being completely in the presence of God and argued that such an experience could be achieved prior to death. Salvation means being liberated, from bondage to our sin in this world, not some idealized world hereafter.

I was pretty satisfied that our answer was an accurate representation of traditional Quaker thought on the subject, and fairly described my own sense of it, but one of the students asked, “But where’s the comfort in that? What do you say to someone whose loved one has died if you can’t assure them of a better life in the hereafter?”

I could not answer her.

That is, I simply do not know or have any “real” idea of what happens to a person metaphysically after the death of the body that I could use to reassure a dying person or comfort a grieving one. Is there a spirit or a soul continues to exist in some other realm? If so, what is it like? Are there different realms to which the soul may go? If so, how is this determined? Or does it simply end, a fade to black and an end to consciousness? I really don’t know, or know if it’s knowable. This is one area where I am radically ignorant.

But it now occurs to me that what my Friend was asking about wasn’t a metaphysical question about the material nature of a non-Earthly reality, but a pastoral one about how to help people think about and relate to the fact of death. For example, Lewis Benson writes that George Fox seldom used the phrase “that of God in every man” in his doctrinal vocabulary – that which explains reality, like the doctrine of the Inner Light or the Day of Visitation – but almost exclusively as part of his pastoral vocabulary, the concepts he used to help Friends live in that reality.

Similarly God gives us the creation story in Genesis not as an historical, factual account of the physical origins of the universe the way you’d describe how to bake a cake; rather, God gives us the story in order to explain the relationship between God and creation in order to help us understand it and to live our lives in it more fully.

It’s the same way that Van Gogh has described the beauty of Arles in his non-photographic but highly evocative style of painting. You wouldn’t want to use his paintings as a map to the local restaurant, for example, but if you look at them you may well have a more “real” understanding of what Arles is like than if you saw a photograph of the area.

So it is – or may be – that the images of heaven as the home to which we return, or the promised land across the Jordan, or the New Jerusalem are offered to us as comfort and solace at a time of loss, or in anticipation of release from a painful and suffering life on Earth. It’s more like stories that a mother tells her frightened child than what an astronomer would report seeing in a telescope.

(Caveat: I am not a fan of the modern tendency to treat the Bible as mere poetry or myth or metaphor, subject to infinitely variable individual human interpretation. I think it usually describes a spiritual reality, but that its descriptions are literally true. So this part of the essay is the kind of thing I’d often criticize. The problem is that this is how I perceive the question of the after life. The inconsistency is acknowledged, if not embraced.)

I still don’t know whether there’s any characteristically Quaker explanation of physical mortality and what, if anything, there is afterwards, but this Quaker thinks about it in two ways.

The first is how Kurt Vonnegut puts it in Studs Terkel’s wonderful book Will the Circle be Unbroken. Vonnegut says that he knows what death is like, and so do you. It’s like going to sleep.

The other comes from years of singing Sacred Harp music, much of which deals with the suffering of this life and the hope of the next, using a rich range of biblical images. Here’s a random sampling:

When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies,
I’ll bid farewell to every fear and wipe my weeping eyes.
I feel like, I feel like, I’m on my journey home. (Saint’s Delight, #114)

Oh, when shall I see Jesus and reign with him above?
And from the flowing fountain drink everlasting love?
Oh had I wings, I would fly away and be at rest.
And I’d praise God in his bright abode. (Ecstasy, #106)

O the transporting, rapturous scene that rises to my sight!
Sweet fields arrayed in living green and rivers of delight. (The Promised Land, #128)

There is a land of pure delight where saints immortal reign.
Infinite day excludes the night and pleasures banish pain. (Greensborough, #289)

And so on.

I turn to Vonnegut’s image most often when I am in my analytical mind and grow too tired to think about it any more and I just want to stop thinking. But when it’s comfort I want, rather than an explanation, I turn to the Sacred Harp.


Larry said...

Paul, you pose so many problems in this long post. I would like to address each, but unfortunately my span of attention does not rise that far.

Re the law: Dear Friend, John Surr, clerk of the Langley Hill (No VA) meeting worked a good while as an attorney for the World Bank. He gave it up and started tutoring young children.

Item 2: My son, Rob, finished W&L Law, but his court room experience was extremely brief. Now he's studying Psychology, but in the interim he worked at the White House (until that ended abruptly on 1-20-01).

I had tried to talk him out of the law, but now, years later, he feels it was a good experience.

ITEM the beyond: I also see heaven as my only home. For me the eternal is now, as well as then, and later. Heaven is in Eternity, and we are in it when we fellowship with God.

As for Quaker doctrine re the Beyond, as Fox might have said, not what Quaker A or Quaker B would say, but what doth thou say.

ITEM Thanks for the lovely van Gogh; I'm not very artistically inclined, but that sends me.

ITEM Like you "I am not a fan of the modern tendency to treat the Bible as mere poetry or myth or metaphor, subject to infinitely variable individual human interpretation."

However poetry is not mere, but more. It enables God to say various things to us according to our condition. I'm sure you recall that you didn't say exactly the same things to all your children, so it is with God, and the Bible is one of the important ways that God speaks to us.

The beauty of Quaker Bible Study (thanks for commenting to our blog) is that we read what other Friends have heard from God in the given passage and thus broaden our understanding and consciouness.

Well this has gotten almost as long as your post; it didn't intend to, but honest Quakers have a lot to say to one another.


Paul L said...

Thanks, Larry. I'm having to learn that long essays are not the right message for this medium. But I'm glad you plowed through it.

I want to affirm "However poetry is not mere, but more." Yes, yes, and yes. My objection is to those who devalue poetry or metaphor by calling it "not real" in some sense.

Liz Opp said...

The journey that Elizabeth and Lou Ann are going through is blessed with grace, despite the quick turn of events.

There are others in my life who are making their way on a similar journey, and I suppose it is the task that God gives me, these days, to be as present as I can be; to be as supportive as I can be; to be as tender as I can be.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Songbird said...

One more Sacred Harp text, the refrain of Ten Thousand Charms:

I will rise and go to Jesus,
He'll embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Lo! There are ten thousand charms.

Do you know Hal Kunkel's tune? It rises with the words, the heavy emphasis on "arms" in the third line. That heaven can be here and now as well as then and where(?).

Paul L said...

Oh yes, Songbird, one of my favorite refrains. Doesn't the song begin, "Come thou font of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise"?

No, I don't think I'm familiar with Hal Kunkel's tune, but his name rings a very dim bell in my brain; do you think he has come to the Minnesota Sacred Harp convention ever?

And yes, heaven is to be completely in the presence of God which is here, there & everywhere and now. "'Tis heaven to rest in thy embrace and nowhere else but there."