Saturday, February 2, 2013

Out of the dark theater

The Second Reading for February, 3 2013

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully,
as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain,
these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-I Corinthians 13:12-13

Eben’s story:

“Imagine being a kid and going to a movie on a summer day. Maybe the movie was good, and you were entertained as you sat through it. But then the show ended, and you filed out of the theater and back into the deep, vibrant, welcoming warmth of the summer afternoon. And as the air and the sunlight hit you, you wondered why on earth you’d wasted this gorgeous day sitting in a dark theater.

Multiply that feeling a thousand times, and you will still won’t be anywhere close to what it felt like where I was.”

Where was he? Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon practiced at Children’s Hospitals and Harvard Medical School, claimed to have an afterlife experience in which he experienced what seemed to be the frontiers of heaven. In November of 2008 he came down with a severe case of bacterial meningitis. It was so severe that his brain literally shutdown.

Curiously, as a practicing neurosurgeon, he had many patients who had similar experiences. Although he politely listed to their stories, he dismissed their near death experiences as the result of some neurological activity or malfunction.

However, in his book, Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander maintained that upon death he came into contact with God and what seemed to be heaven. The experience was every bit as lucid and real (even more so) than when he is fully awake or conscious. What is more, his encounter with God conjured up thoughts and feelings that were familiar to him. He said, “It [God] knew me deeply and overflowed with qualities that all of my life I have always associated with human beings, and human beings alone: warmth, compassion, pathos...even irony and humor.” And as with many who have near death experiences, he was overwhelmed with an unconditional love and peace he never knew existed. But throughout his journey into the afterlife he was accompanied by a beautiful girl.

You see, Eben Alexander was adopted when he was very young. He later found out, after this life-changing experience, that his biological sister had died. Upon seeing her picture for the first time, he happen recognize her! Indeed, she was his companion in his journey to  heaven.

Part of his experience was that of flying over beautiful terrain. He saw children playing, happy people and even animals. But what he noticed about his female companion was her loving, deep blue eyes. He said, “She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for a few moments, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far.” And without using words, she communicated the following thoughts: “You are loved, and cherished, dearly, forever...You have nothing to fear.”

Similarities with Fatima:

Eben Alexander’s story was of particular interest to me because much of what he said is consistent with what some of the Saints said about heaven and what the seers of Marian apparitions said about the beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact, those who were privileged to see the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as St. Bernadette at Lourdes and the three children of Fatima, were so captivated by her beauty that wanted to go to heaven immediately. They couldn’t wait to see her again.

But when the Mother of God appeared, she also brought heaven with her. Even Jacinta, the youngest seer at Fatima, saw heaven- with ponies in the background -when Our Lady appeared to her. “Heaven was so pretty,” she said, “there were many wild ponies.”

What Eben Alexander was also privileged to receive was a kind of knowledge about himself and the universe that is difficult to put into words. In his afterlife experience, truth was immediately impressed upon his mind without the mediation of words or things. And he saw himself as he was known by God.

Again, his experience is reminiscent of what Lucia, the oldest seer of Fatima, experienced when the Blessed Virgin appeared to her. She reported that in one appearance the Lady opened her hands and shed upon the children a highly intense light. “This light penetrated us to the heart and its very recesses, and allowed us to see ourselves in God, Who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in a mirror…”

One of the deepest desires of the human heart is to be loved. And for those who encounter God in an extraordinary way say that they are enveloped in a divine love that fully compensates for the suffering that occurs in the world. But another human desire is to know the truth about God, about ourselves and about the world we live in. St. Paul referred to this desire when he spoke of heaven: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”

When Eben Alexander returned to earth, so to speak, he was excited about the world he returned to. It wasn’t just a self-contained world with nothing to show for after death. But it was a world surrounded by another beautiful, unseen world. He realized that the material cosmos was only a fraction of the real thing.

Final thoughts:

Due to medical technology, and the ability of doctors to restart hearts and revive brains that temporarily stop functioning, there are bound to be more accounts of people who experience the other side. To be sure, there are many personal testimonies about both heaven and hell that have come to the surface in recent years. But we have to use caution and discernment in assessing the credibility of these stories. And what may prove to be cause for concern in the future is that people will focus only on the accounts about heaven and forget that people, as Our Lady of Fatima warned, go to hell too. We may even get the false impression that very few people go to hell.

With that said, stories like Eben Alexander’s (assuming it is true) is of value to us because it makes eternity palpable...something that is real...and something to look forward to. It also verifies what Saints have always said about eternal life; that earthly happiness pales in comparison. As Pope Leo XIII said, "...when we have given up this present life, then shall we really begin to live...He has given us this world as a place of exile, and not as our abiding place."

Like Ebben, when we encounter what true life really is- a life that involves not only being fully known by God but fully knowing God -then we will ask: Why did I ever want to stay in that dark theater for so long? This is so much better!