I recently came across a quotation of John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic Cardinal, which I recognised as having truth in it. He wrote:
No revelation can be complete and systematic, [because of] the weakness of the human intellect; so far as it is not such, it is mysterious … The religious truth is neither light nor darkness, but both together; it is like the dim view of a country seen in the twilight, which forms half extricated from the darkness, with broken lines and isolated masses. Revelation, in this way of considering it, is not a revealed system, but consists of a number of detached and incomplete truths belonging to a vast system unrevealed.
I like his image of revelation as “the dim view of a country seen in the twilight……consisting of a number of detached & incomplete truths belonging to a vast system unrevealed” very much. We only see little bits of the bigger picture, yet they are enough to evoke trust, and to give us a sense of what we don’t see.
It challenged me to ask myself ‘What little bits of the bigger picture has God revealed to me?’, and then to write them down: something I’ve never consciously done before. To my surprise there was more than I had thought there would be. Much of it personal and and thus specific to me, although I infer general truths from it. But some of it clearly with a general application. In particular there is a good deal about the relationship between life and death. I feel compelled to share what I’ve been shown.
Firstly, God has shown me that life goes on in some form beyond death.
Secondly, God has shown me that there’s nothing to fear, Whatever form life after death takes, it will be alright: all will be well.
I sense that it will seem like a ‘Coming Home’. Robert Frost in his poem ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ wrote: “Home is the place, where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I sense that it will be like that.
I have written in an earlier piece on this web-site, about what I call ‘Memories of Home’, memories that we bring with us at our birthing, from wherever we were prior to our birth. So this life after death returns us to a state that we will recognise as we have been there before. As T S Eliot wrote in ‘The Four Quartets”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It has always seemed to me that the question ‘Is there life after death?’, can only be answered alongside the question ‘Where do we come from, before our birth?’
Thirdly, God has shown me that a central aspect of what lies beyond death is reconciliation. There is reconciliation with God, that will bring with it a sense of reconciliation with oneself, and thence with other people, and indeed all creation.
This is not primarily about forgiveness, although I guess that it might include that. Rather its crucially about acceptance, of finding ourselves accepted by God, & thus able to accept ourselves and others. As acceptance is the key, there will be no place for judgement. The acceptance will come as gift, there is no thing we can do to earn it. Maybe we will have the choice between accepting or refusing this gift?
Finally, God has shown me that all of humanity, past, present and future, are eternally present to each other. We are one. The dead, the living, and the not yet born are all one. So in our prayer we can consciously hold all of them in love before God, and we will be similarly held by them.
My friend Paul drew my attention to the prayer Dr Samuel Johnson wrote in the early hours of 26th April 1752, just after the death of his wife:
O Lord! Governour of heaven and earth,
in whose hands are embodied and departed Spirits,
if thou hast ordained the Souls of the Dead to minister to the Living,
and appointed my departed Wife to have care of me,
grant that I may enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration,
whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams
or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government.
Forgive my presumption,
enlighten my ignorance,
and however meaner agents are employed,
grant me the blessed influences of thy holy Spirit,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Those who have died are actively concerned about those who are living life before death: our destinies are bound together. They desire to offer us their wisdom & support. We should open ourselves to receive it. They also seek reconciliation with us now. We should be open to offer it. I assume that those not yet born also hold us in love before God, for we are shaping the earth that they will one day inhabit.
These insights together offer me an affirming bigger picture of the context and thus the meaning, of life, and they have implications for me now.
There is more to Life than what I am aware of in our 3D world. The bigger picture makes many of my earthly concerns look relatively trivial. I can choose to try and live my live out of the bigger picture or I can choose not to.
There is a ‘Home’ from which I come and to which I will return. My life here is best lived in accordance with our Memories of Home. I will be most authentically myself when I do so, and it will be the best preparation for my return Home after my death. But God’s grace is such that there is no compulsion on me.
A key quality of Life is reconciliation, and I can choose to pursue that whenever & wherever I can. I can choose to try and follow Jesus in not passing judgement on God, ourselves and others. Acceptance is a better choice, and it is what God offers me now. Again I can choose not to accept it..
I can choose to see that ‘my life’ is not about ‘me’, but that I am a small, but significant part of something much, much bigger. I can relinquish my vain assumption that I am in control of my life, and trust that Life/God will hold me & that ‘all will be well’.
To return to the quotation with which I began. Revelation is “the dim view of a country seen in the twilight……We only see little bits of the bigger picture, yet they are enough.” I know that that is true.. The strange & wondrous thing is that what seemed like “a dim view…seen in twilight” once recognised for what it is, and named, is so blindingly obvious, and has been seen to be so for humans brighter & wiser than me for ages, that I can scarcely believe that I didn’t see it before. The rest is mystery. I keep finding myself drawn back to Keats definition of what he called ‘Negative Capability that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. I need to fall into the arms of mystery & to trust it.