But if it should really become manifest–if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself–you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940
Back in April, Jordan and I traveled to Nashville in order for me to have testing and medical consultations at Vanderbilt hospital. I blogged pretty extensively about that trip, so if you want any background information, you can find it here.
I spent our week at Vanderbilt off of my medications, filled with angst, and absolutely sleepless. I picked up a book at the airport, entitled, Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) by Kate Bowler. Kate is a professor at Duke University who, in her mid-thirties, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Her book tackles the belief that we can control our circumstances, God, and everything else that happens in our life if we just “believe enough.” She challenges the fallacy that says that if a person is sick, in poverty, or suffering in any capacity, that they are in some way lacking in faith or not trying hard enough. She is hilarious, endearing, a bit profane, and infinitely hopeful. In her book, she shares profound insights that often only can be won in the presence of great tragedy.
In dying, she is learning how to live more fully.
As I read Kate’s book during my agonizing time in Nashville, one experience stood out profoundly to me: She speaks of near-death experiences through which she journeyed, and many of her descriptions resonated with my heart. In her initial days of her diagnosis, she underwent surgeries, was faced with medical crises in the hospital, and spent a good deal of time wrestling with a fatal diagnosis, pushed to the end of herself. She describes a feeling that also aligns with a great deal of research regarding near-death experiences: In a time when it would make sense for a person to feel scared, abandoned, and in utter agony, they often find themselves enveloped by a very distinctive sense of being absolutely loved.
This experience is shared amongst those who have faced death, overwhelming suffering, and deep grief. Theologians and philosophers in history have identified the same experience. St. Augustine called it “the sweetness“, and Aquinas coined it, “the prophetic light.” Bowler points out that among all of the letters she has received from people who have found themselves touching eternity, they remarkably all share the same experience: God is with them, and they are at peace. Kate said this about her near-death experience:
When the feelings recede like the tides, they leave an imprint. I would somehow be marked by the presence of the unbidden God….God is here. We are loved. It is enough. (Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies)
Marked by the presence of the unbidden God.
Shift the lens to my life, April 2016: It is 4 days after a simple outpatient procedure that my body was nearly not strong enough to endure. I am in a room on the oncology floor of Wesley Hospital. The doctors and nurses swarm my hospital room in the middle of the night. How can a hospital room hold that many medical workers? Why are they all around me? Monitors are sounding, and I’m quickly going under. The darkness closes in to an even deeper blackness. Voices ring out in the night, “Her O2 is dropping below 60, we’ve got to do something.” Jordan is there, we are supposed to be sleeping, but he drops my hand and moves out of the way for nurses and doctors to surround my bed. For a split second, I feel the pang of abandonment, but I slide surprisingly gently into unconsciousness. Respiratory distress has taken over, my blood levels are critical, and I am not in my body. Days pass, and I experience resurrection Sunday in an out-of-body manner. Kids in Easter outfits. Many friends pass through, but experiences are slippery through the haze of pain medicine, the fog of hypoxia, the desert of dehydration and starvation, and the massive wall of pain that burns in my abdomen. At some point, I time travel back ten years to a mission trip and confuse a pulmonologist with a missionary from Guam. When I occasionally swim up to consciousness, I make absurd statements that break the anxious silence with warm laughter, or I say something sappy from my dream-like trance.
Ten days feels like a dream, or a lifetime, or the blink of an eye, somehow all of the above; and when the doctors discharge me on 24-7 oxygen support, I feel total confusion and displacement. My husband drives me to a home that strangely feels like it belongs in another lifetime. Someone’s kids wave signs at me that say “Welcome home, mommy!”. I vaguely remember a world in which I was a mommy and a wife.
They wheel me into my bedroom, and still on the cusp of critical illness, I can’t quite assimilate the pain, weakness, and what feels like the edge of eternity that I am teetering on. I am eclipsed by an extremely uncomfortable feeling of displacement, as if I’m in the wrong world, or an alternate universe. I feel like a square peg that can’t quite wedge herself into the round hole that she was designed for. I am anxious, depressed, and quite scared.
My doctor said it was PTSD. I don’t believe that she was wrong, but I don’t think that she was entirely correct either. When people almost die or have a nightmarish medical experience, they have a difficult time re-integrating back into life. Why couldn’t I remember my week and a half at the hospital? They said that it was my brain’s way of protecting me from the trauma that I had experienced. Why did I suddenly feel like I didn’t belong in my family, with my friends, in this world?
They said to give it time.
Time helped. I re-integrated back into my world.
I slid back into love with my beloveds, and I regained my footing in this world again. I came back from the gates of heaven, and I settled back into my life on earth.
Bowler shares an experience similar to this in her book. I believe that the unfamiliarity with the physical world that I experienced is God’s way of preparing the spirit for a new world when a person is on the brink of eternity. The idea that we can so quickly shift out of our comfort zone and transition to a heavenly world is incredibly soothing to me. When we are fully physically alive, we don’t feel ready for heaven. When we are in the process of stepping out of our physical body, God prepares our Spirits for our new home. During those ten days in the hospital, I found myself marked by the presence of an unbidden God.
The world is like a picture with a golden background, and we the figures in that picture. Until you step off the plane of the picture into the large dimensions of death you cannot see the gold. (C. S. Lewis, Problem of Pain)
A year and a half ago, I glimpsed into eternity in a time of severe illness, and I was forever changed. The soul is transformed when it comes face-to-face with Christ.
I have heard that the worst thing is not the last thing. Physical death is not the end, and it is not the ultimate evil. We cannot understand eternity on this side of it, and the unknown scares little people who exist on this microscopic time line that consists of 100 years, at most. Kindergarten is terrifying for a child first starting school, but my daughter would tell us enthusiastically that it is wonderful, a whole new world, with infinite possibilities.
It is insane to compare heaven to kindergarten, but I imagine that it is entirely insane to compare heaven to anything in this world. So, yes, I did just compare heaven to kindergarten. I’m sure there are better comparisons, but that’s what I have for you today.
I’m still here. My feet are firmly planted on this earth. In later blog posts, I will share more deeply how my life has been changed by my brushes with heaven.
Once I tasted the sweetness of heaven, I keep returning to its gates in any way possible. This is why worship, prayer, rest, and play have become such vital elements of my life. This is also why I am no longer scared of suffering.
I’m back to being a little squirmy about death; It turns out, assimilation back into this world is pretty natural too.
In light of my brush with heaven, I have made it my mission to praise, because we know that all of the gates of the great city of Salvation are praise (Isaiah 60:18). Praise ushers me back to the gates of heaven.
And as Tolkien stated, I have tasted “joy, joy beyond the walls of the world” (J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy Stories, 2008).
Once we have tasted the goodness of the Lord, peace in the face of the greatest evil, and joy that sends the pleasures of this world blushing in the corner, we cannot go back to who we were before. It no longer fits.
But we all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18