Yesterday I was sent an idea and request for people at home to provide a spiritual presence to those who are dying without the company of loved ones. The rows of beds, people on ventilators, coffins and graves which are amassing has become overwhelming and impossible to process. Additionally, contemplating the feelings of fear, anger, exhaustion and defeat that our brave medical personnel are facing make me think of the only reason I have the gall to press on with a future life as a healthcare chaplain- the ineffable and ubiquitous presence of God- no matter what.
I have had the honor of being at the bedside for more deaths than the average person in my previous work as a hospital and hospice chaplain. Normally, I would not share so openly about what I will; but as these times are most certainly extraordinary, it feels appropriate. When someone is in the last moments of life in their bodies the room is saturated with a dense, not suffocating, but rather enfolding presence of warmth and what I would call liquid light and calm- sheltering love. There is at least one presence, if not several distinguishable “spirits” in the space around the body. I see these things not with my eyes, but as remembering a dream while awake. There is strong emotional quality to the lights. Sometimes there may be colors to them like the dazzling white described in the transfiguration of Christ, or a soft gold or liquid blue, like a picture of a constellation against the night sky, where the featured stars of the constellation are the loved ones or guardians of the person transitioning. Then those lights blend with the airy, liquid light of the soul leaving the body. It is the sensation of vapor- effervescent liquid light dissipating up out of the body, sometimes to different parts of the room, briefly lingering over observers’ bodies; and sometimes it just swirls in with the welcoming spirits, and they all lift away, like steam blown from over the top of a boiling pot. The only response I have ever had is deep slow breaths, and the swelling of tears of pure Joy and release. The experience is both intensely dense, and liberatingly expansive and connective. Words can only begin to capture the process.
I have to concede that all the deaths for which I have been present were relatively peaceful, and expected; without trauma. However, I have no reason to believe that the process of soul joining all that is, ushered by spirit or spirits of love and light would be somehow absent from those lives lost suddenly, by torture, suicide, accident, or force. I believe that even if circumstances in which dying occurs are not filled with love, that dying to what we know and live here is. This is very easy for me to say from my incredibly privileged life and current circumstances. But I believe what I shared above applies to all spirits moving on to what is next. I believe in what I have palpably sensed in my heart and body.
When I consider the fear of being lined up in a hall or room crowded with other people suffering and possibly dying of breathlessness and fear, I shut down to that belief and knowledge. It is a real and understandable reaction to reflexively go into terror and paralysis, leading to daily fear and paranoia. I also think about the people crowded together sharing an incomparable experience, each having their own encounter with whatever way the Holy settles into their experience. I do not try to know what that looks like, such things are private and ineffable. But I am certain they are real. I also believe that those people in the beds, and those working to treat, comfort and save them are a community of their own- a sacred people bonded by an experience no one else could ever fully understand.
Karl Barth once preached a sermon called “The Criminals With Him” on Good Friday 1957 and printed in his book Deliverance to the Captives. In this sermon to and for the imprisoned he speaks of the first true Christian community being comprised of those men suffering and dying on either side of Jesus on the Cross. Yes, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Mary the Magdalene were present, along with several other people; but they were not present in the depth and degree of intense sharing that the other two men were. In the way that the reasons for the torturous, undignified deaths of these men were different; vastly varying circumstances lead them to this final point; that their inner meaning-making of these last moments was completely unique; and fear or comfort in what would come next was all their own, they hung together in a time and space outside of the experience of those gathered around them. Perhaps those rows of people in beds, conscious or medically sedated, are accompanying each other in a way even their closest loved ones never could. The nearness of the women and men who loved Jesus was not the same kind of nearness of those breathing their last together in agony. God was in Jesus and with those men who were criminals. It is my experience that God is with us all, in every moment we live embodied, and AS what happens next.
We do not have to understand how this works, only that it does. We cannot understand the reconciling of all differences, all that would threaten to make us feel separate from the love of God, all that might haunt us unto our own bodily deaths. We have no capacity to understand and integrate these things. We do have the capacity to share the breath and presence of God, and in that way to live accompanied, and die enfolded in the nearness of all that is. If you are feeling imprisoned in your home, at your job, by mental illness, grief, or fear and uncertainty- know that feeling that way, is not mutually exclusive of your being held in God’s mercy; even if that gentle holding is not recognizable to you now. Once the essence of our “soul vapor” mingles with the particles of everything we ever needed to feel loved and known, separation and suffering will be transmuted in ways that hold sacred space and healing for all that we would escape if we were choosing our circumstances.
In your prayers, movements, meditations, conversations, and the freedom of your individual breathing in and out, know in your heart a loving presence especially for you. Know also a presence unlimited by time, space, fear, guilt, or any boundary we here can conceive of, that shows itself to everyone in a meaningful and personal way; always re-membering that soul, over and over, from one moment to the next, into the great family of all things- seen and unseen.