A recent book, written by a professor at the Harvard Medical School, purports in its title to provide “Proof of Heaven.” The author is an experienced and distinguished neurosurgeon who contracted a rare brain illness and fell into a coma for seven days. I have not read the book, though I’d like to. I have heard Dr. Eben Alexander talk about his experience in a radio interview, and I must say it is quite remarkable. According to promotional material for the book, “While his body lay in coma, Alexander journeyed beyond this world and encountered an angelic being who guided him into the deepest realms of super-physical existence. There he met, and spoke with, the Divine source of the universe itself.”
The material difference between Dr. Alexander’s book and another recent book, “Heaven is for Real,” is that the former was written by a neurosurgeon and the latter is the account of a four-year-old boy whose near-death experience is recounted by his father.
Let the reader understand that the neurosurgeon is supposed to have greater credibility than the four-year-old boy. This seems an open question to me, and perhaps it will seem so to other people of faith, too. After all, Jesus never said of neurosurgeons that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, but I verge on digression.
The titles of both books seem to be answering questions that have not actually been on my mind. Heaven is for Real? Yes, thank you, I have been working with that assumption for quite a while. Proof of Heaven was not something I was anxiously awaiting, nor would I have expected a considered treatment of such a thing to come from Harvard Medical School.
St. John the Divine received not a single degree from Harvard, nor is it widely suspected that he was in a coma when his vision of things to come was given to him. We heard a bit of it tonight, particularly the tantalizing image of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God….” This image has captivated the Christian imagination for centuries. Perhaps part of the reason it has a grip on us is that the old Jerusalem is such a mess – and a useful marker for all the countless other messes we human beings seem to make of things. And yet we are not without hope for Jerusalem or for ourselves.
Jerusalem, the city that is holy to all three great monotheistic religions, is a place of division, disquiet, and discord. It did not get this way overnight. Centuries of warfare, hatred and distrust have contributed to this reality, and there is blame a-plenty to go around on every side. The point is this: Jerusalem is no heaven. It is, however, a place where God has chosen repeatedly to make himself known, even to allow his sacred Presence to rest there, where the Temple once stood, in a way that he would no where else rest. Many of us believe that God’s Divine Presence rests there even now, mysteriously hidden behind the cracks between the stones that once provided the foundation for his holy Temple.
It has never occurred to me that someone might need to prove that God is to be found there by the Western Wall. Either you believe it or you don’t. Either you are on the way to believing it, or you are on the way to dismissing it. Once you were a believer, now you are not. Once you doubted, but now you believe. These aspects of faith are not built on proof, and they surely do not require a near death experience of the kinds recounted in the books I mentioned.
Many of us have already come to know that life itself is a near death experience. Life in this world is never very far from death. It is a very recent idea – very much promoted, I suspect in places like Harvard Medical School – that life and death are any further away from other than arm’s length. Most of our ancestors knew better than that.
For two nights of the year the church makes a special effort to re-assert this truth: that life in this world is a near-death experience. Death comes to us all, and when it does, God has someplace to lead our souls. I rejoice to think that an ivy league neurosurgeon is able to participate in this revelation – that has also been given to children not yet in kindergarten – that God has another life for us to live in a new Jerusalem where his Divine Presence is also to be found, perhaps more obviously than amongst the mortar and stone of the Western Wall of the old Jerusalem. These two nights of the Christian year are meant to celebrate, on the one hand the saints whose holiness of life has been rewarded already and who rest in the nearer presence of God’s love in the heavenly regions. And on the other hand, all the other souls, for whom we think there is work to be done before reaching their heavenly reward. To my thinking, it is extremely helpful to think that God affords such opportunities to us, the work of his own fingers. He is creating a new Jerusalem for us to make our home; but some of us may get there faster and more easily than others!
In days gone by we used to think of these things in terms of gated communities. Heaven, on the one hand, where Peter stood by the pearly gates. And Purgatory, on the other hand, which was its own quite separate neighborhood, and which required a lot of upward mobility if you were ever to find your way out. (The third option – which includes weeping and gnashing of teeth would seem to involve something more like a cage than a gate – but that’s another sermon.)
These days it seems unwise of many of us to speculate about how God has organized life in the New Jerusalem, which we are told has twelve gates, with walls built of jasper, and a river flowing through the middle of the street. Organization has never seemed like one of God’s strong suits anyway. Un-wiser, still to give up hope for such a city that lies beyond the grave, and beyond the end of time.
To the church’s way of thinking, these things require no proof, and are, in fact, un-provable. So the saints themselves are proof enough – brothers and sisters in Christ who simply lived their lives in such a way as to lift our eyes to heaven and dream of a new Jerusalem.
What a shame it would be if we’d been waiting all this time for the testimony of a neurosurgeon who could attest to what we have known all along, to what the saints themselves point toward.
What a shame it would be if it had required such a brush with death to bring this news at last to the world.
Why should we have to fall into a coma in order to learn what the church long ago taught us: that God made us to be pilgrims who have someplace to go, not only in this life but in the life to come – a lesson the saints have always taught us? We already know that life is a near-death experience. Some of us know it better than others. Some have had to live closer to death than others.
Why should we have to fall into a coma to dream of angels who guide us through the heavenly regions?
Dr. Alexander recounts that after a week of sickness that brought him near death, his eyes popped open, his life was restored, and he was given the gift of a vision of life bigger than he had heretofore imagined. This story should sound familiar to nearly every Christian – for it is our story. Some time after losing our innocence we discover that the world around us, or maybe the world inside our own minds, or maybe both, is dark and getting darker. But our encounter with the living God awakes us from our descent into darkness and shows us a new life, a new reality – tantalizingly real, somehow apparent in this present tense, but not yet ours to claim. entirely.
The vision of the new Jerusalem changes our lives even though we cannot yet emigrate there. But the vision has shown us that there are enough gates for four-year-olds and neurosurgeons, and maybe even for Episcopal priests to enter in. And although I don’t yet know the details, I give thanks for all the saints, who have lived their lives to show you and me the Way.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
All Saints’ Day 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia