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Living With Only a Thin Veil Between Earth and Heaven

April 13, AD2017

I tend to rush through my daily duties like a solitary soul, disconnected from God and other people. However, I became aware that humans are actually intimately connected not just to God and the living but also to those who have died and are alive in Christ after recent encounters with birth, death, and dying. There is only a thin veil between heaven and earth; I can communicate with all who abide in the Mystical Body of Christ simply because I am a member of the communion of saints.

A Near-Death-Experience

Exactly three years ago, I finally became cognizant of how thin the line between life and death really is when I nearly lost one of my daughters as she struggled to give birth. During labour, she almost bled out when she lost a litre of blood in mere seconds after an emergency C-section, the result of a series of unforeseen complications, a one-in-ten-thousand chance.

Of course, in a large teaching hospital with an excellent Maternity Ward, an emergency team of no less than ten people descended on her in the recovery room, whipped off the sheets and even her nightgown which upset her husband. He had to be dragged out of the room and told why she was being treated like a piece of meat, naked with doors and curtains around her bed left wide open on a public corridor. It took ten minutes to restrain him and keep him out of the room. Life comes before propriety. No one stops to close a door when a life is at stake.

An hour later, I gazed down at my daughter’s limp form, as a tear trickled down her pale face. She whispered, “I felt myself slipping away.” The veil separating life from death is thin, indeed. My daughter knew she was dying. Years ago she would have died. Even today, in the third world, she would have most certainly died. She was so weak after this near-death experience that her husband had to carry her to the washroom, and the nurse supported her new son’s weight as he nursed.

Life is precarious. Life is fragile.

The process of birthing is similar to the process of dying because in both cases, a person must give up control completely and allow a force of nature stronger than themselves take over.  I admit, every time I gave birth, there was a moment of panic, terror really, during the transition period when I had to completely surrender even though I was in excruciating pain. Giving birth and dying are not that different.Life and death are not as far apart as I had once presumed but this is no longer a depressing thought.

Looking Death In The Eye

An encounter with death shook me to my core last year. One of my husband’s athletic younger brothers, Mark, lay dying of cancer. The day before his death, he had been semi-conscious but unable to speak as a priest administered the Last Rites. While the priest led the family in prayer, Mark looked extremely self-conscious, hard, and even angry. It seemed like he was still rejecting grace. Unbeknownst to me, the grace of that last Sacrament was working in my brother-in-law as the priest prayed over him:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian! May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
. . . .May you return to [your Creator]. – CCC, n. 1020

The next day, I was finally alone with Mark, sitting beside his narrow bed with the sound of ragged breathing filling the hospital room. It felt eerie, unnerving even because he was now in a cancer-induced coma. Hours before death, his tanned, chiseled face was propped up by white pillows, a dramatic testament to the rough life he had embraced as the self-proclaimed black sheep of his religious family. Since he was unconscious and he could not interact in the normal manner, I decided to pray right into his inner spirit:

Mark, I call your spirit to attention and invite you to turn to your Heavenly Father because He created you, called you by name, and now welcomes you home again with outstretched arms. His Mercy is boundless. God sees you exactly as you are; He knows all your sins yet still loves you. The moment you turn to God in repentance, He will embrace you as His son.

I opened my eyes and my heart started pounding because Mark’s eyes were wide open. Even though brain cancer had left him comatose, he was looking right at me with intelligence. His gaze was not that of a jaded adult but like a child who was vulnerable and afraid of the unknown. His eyes seemed to plead with me. This brief glimpse into that man’s inner spirit is seared in my mind.

Flustered, I did not know how to respond, so I simply closed my eyes and continued praying. When I dared open my eyes again, my brother-in-law had slipped back into a coma but, this time, I was filled with joy. There was a tangible presence of peace in the room. I knew he had turned his face towards God and his spirit was forever connected to mine in the Mystical Body of Christ.

The Other Side of the Veil

Death itself is final in that the soul has left the body, not to rejoin it until the Second Coming. For many people, it feels like there is an impenetrable wall between themselves and those who have died, most probably because they cannot see the dead with their own eyes.

Yet death does not end our relationship with the deceased because those who have passed on are not lost to us. The veil between the living and the dead is thin when we are part of the Mystical Body of Christ. This might sound like a pious phrase memorized and repeated to offer shallow comfort to the grieving. However, Christians have the ability to communicate with each other in prayer when we are rooted in Christ. This is the communion of the saints who are alive in Christ in heaven, which we declare we believe in every time we repeat the Creed.

When Jesus speaks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Gospels, he explains that the Father “is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living” (Matt. 22:32). Luke adds, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him” (Luke 20:38). Abraham is alive in heaven and can communicate with the rich man. Furthermore, the saints and angels see and hear what we say and pray; they are alive in God and intercede for us.

Even though the Catholic Church teaches us about our relationship with those who have died in Christ, people fail to grasp this truth and then actually live it out in prayer. When we do learn how to pray for and relate to those in purgatory and in heaven, a whole new heavenly world opens up to us. My husband and I “see and hear” those in purgatory we pray for and sense their gratitude and joy.

The Fear of Death

Death is usually avoided in our modern society.  Most fear death and do not know how to prepare to die. Bishop Barron, in his reflections on John 11:1-45, addresses this fear of death:

[D]eath as we experience it—as something fearful, horrible, terrifying . . . comes from having turned from God and is a sign of spiritual dysfunction. The story of Lazarus represents someone who is totally sunk in sin, totally dead spiritually. The voice of Jesus calls Lazarus, and all of us, back to life no matter what we’ve done, no matter how dead we are.

It is precisely during the important process of dying that God often manages to pierce through people’s wounds and the walls they have built to shut out His love. God tries to lead people who are dying back into His heart.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us the  real meaning of a Christian death:

Death is transformed by Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father’s will. The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing. Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” . . . In death, God calls man to himself. Therefore the Christian can experience a desire for death like St. Paul’s: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ. “. . . I am not dying; I am entering life. – CCC, n. 1009-1011

For a Christian, death is not the end but the beginning.

My Father Is Dying

And now, I face death once again in western Canada, three time zones away from my husband, nine children, and seven grandchildren with my eighty-four-year-old father who is dying, slowly fading away. At 132 lb, he is a shadow of his former self, staying in bed in a dim room with his eyes closed for 23 hours a day. Perhaps he is giving up on life because he is deaf, almost blind from macular degeneration, and is in pain all over, making even swallowing is difficult. Although he is not fighting to live, he is afraid of death, of the unknown.

My father’s family left the Church after the tragic death of his mother when he was just nine years old. Even though he faced tragedy after tragedy during his life, almost always due to the failings of others, he remained an honest, good, kind man, even when living with integrity meant he suffered financial setbacks. He faithfully loved only one woman for sixty-three years, giving his all to raise his family. He is not an outwardly religious man and does not speak of his faith, so my Evangelical sister is frantic that he might not be saved. As for me, when I pray for my dad, I experience pain, tears, and joy all at the same time while entrusting him to the Mercy of God. I have to let go and surrender once again.

The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). – CCC, n. 1058

I have an inner sense Christ will reveal Himself to my father, perhaps at the instant before death when my dad will be free enough from childhood wounds to see and choose eternal life. God comforts me with a recurring inner vision which never fails to bring tears to my eyes.  My father is walking towards Christ who is surrounded by a semi-circle of saints clothed in white, all smiling with their arms outstretched. His mother, who died in the 1940’s,  steps forward as a young woman dressed in 1940’s style clothes and reaches out to embrace her son. As my dad walks closer heaven, he slowly stands more erect, grows younger and younger and begins to smile.
.

When my father dies, I don’t have to say goodbye but just whisper a prayerful hello as I let go of our earthly relationship and embrace a new, invisible relationship with him. God mysteriously unites all of us and I know from experience there is neither time nor distance when we live and move and breathe in the Spirit. Life and death are not as far apart as I had once presumed.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Melanie Jean Juneau serves as the Editor in Chief of Catholic Stand. She is a mother of nine children who has edited her kid's university term papers for over a decade. She blogs at  joy of nine9 and mother of nine9 . Her writing is humorous and heart warming; thoughtful and thought-provoking. Part of her call and her witness is to write the truth about children, family, marriage and the sacredness of life. Melanie is the administrator of ACWB, a columnist at CatholicLane, CatholicStand, Catholic365 , CAPC, author of Echoes of the Divine and Oopsy Daisy, and coauthor of Love Rebel: Reclaiming Motherhood

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  • Mark McCann

    Wow…I’m almost afraid to comment because this is so beautiful; its depth is beyond words. I read it on Resurrection Sunday (God’s timing is perfect) and I was incredibly moved. In my life there have been struggles. Your words gave me a new sense of hope. As I writer, I’m searching for something profound to say in response, but nothing but this dribble is coming – that is how wonderful this article is! Happy Resurrection Sunday and thank you for these powerful words and a peek into your beautiful soul!

    • Melanie Juneau

      wow . . . I too have only this dribble as a response to your uplifting comment. All I can say is- thank you.

  • captcrisis

    Most of us might fear death, but not old people. I’ve noticed they don’t fear it, even if they’re atheist. In fact a lot of them feel like they’re ready to go. I think that’s the case with your father. Maybe when you get into old age you’ll be the same way.

    • Melanie Juneau

      Good point. I think fear of death can also be the result of not receiving the Love of God. My husband’s 102 year old grandmother was extremely religious, faithfully praying the rosary every day for almost a century but she was afraid of dying. Perhaps her fear was the result of a stern, harsh, even judgmental and condemning attitude towards herself AND others.My husband prayed that the Love of God would pierce through to her heart and she died peacefully while she napped the next day, after breakfast and a cup of tea.

  • I am still reflecting on your deeply personal and moving article Melanie, written when you must be feeling so raw and so sensitive as part of you is preparing to die with your beloved father. I am also reeling at the tasteless and insensitivity of one of the correspondents whose insensitivity adversely mirrors your sensitivity, and whose choice of words therefore does not reflect the new commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you”. Healthy debate and disagreement have always been part of the Christian tradition that we cherish, but always whilst observing this teaching, symbolised by the Great Mandatum that we have just celebrated this Holy Thursday. I have just completed my book after more than twenty years studying the profound spirituality bequeathed by Jesus himself to the first Christian Church. What is clear from my studies is that the early Christians were convinced that God desired to save everyone. It was not God’s choice to exclude anyone from his love. He was only excluded by those who refused to receive him. May I assure you that your outstanding blog is not only totally in conformity with that spirituality but it is a timely reminder to us all of what can so easily be forgotten, most especially by those who do not continually go back to immerse themselves in their true and earliest origins that are the foundations of the Christian faith.

    • Dr. Edouard Belaga

      +
      pax
      I am grateful to you for your previous support of my remarks. I’m also sharing your vision of the Saviour who cares about everyone — this was in particular the main point of the hostility of pharisees to Jesus. As to the comment of Laurence Charles Ringo, I also believe that it was enough for Mrs Melanie Juneau, answering this brutal disciplinary act, to remind us that Jesus has open the salvation on His Cross to one of the burglars crucified alongside with him.

    • Very good point Dr Edouard Belaga. Thank you for it.

    • Melanie Juneau

      David, I thank God for your gift of words as you pull together the historical , liturgical and theological foundations of authentic spirituality in your writing. You provide a firm foundation and explanation for my own experiences of living in Christ. I can’t wait to read the final version of your book.

  • Bill

    I loved this Melanie.

    • Melanie Juneau

      Thank you, Bill, thank you so much.

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    Hmm…Interesting.So,can it be assumed that in the Roman Catholic world, all one has to do is die,and you’re in. Whether one has…”confessed with their mouth Jesus is Lord,and believed in their heart that God has raised Him(Jesus) from the dead”…thereby being saved,or even whether or not they’re Born-Again,as Jesus informed Nicodemus, in Roman Catholicism one can simply die,as long as their loved ones simply wish it to be so,hey…they’re in the Kingdom. Who knew it’s that easy? Shucks,Ms.Juneau—what’s the point of even claiming that the Gospel must be believed?? Wishful thinking will do the trick–just co-sign God’s Name to what you wish to be true,right?

    • Melanie Juneau

      Of course you are correct in implying it SEEMS like I am endorsing an easy way out for the unbeliever who is dying.

      I was waiting for this kind of comment and considered covering my back by adding another paragraph which addressed your point but decided it was off my main thesis.

      I believe in 11th hour, death bed conversions.Remember the Gospel parable of the workers in the vineyard? Those who worked all day received the same reward as those who came at the last moment. The thief on the cross merely pointed out to the other man on the third cross that Christ was innocent and Jesus said, “You will be seated at my right hand in heaven.” He was not baptized, he did not accept Jesus as his Saviour, in the protestant sense, he did not receive the Last Rights or go to confession, he did not have to endure purgatory, even though he knew he deserved to be crucified but he was ushered right into heaven and seated beside Christ.

      God looks at the heart and God has conveyed to me that my father’s name is written in the book of life. So I trust and intercede for him and surrender his soul to the Mercy of God.

    • Dr. Edouard Belaga

      +
      pax
      I’m intervening only on the regretfully totally absent aspect of your critics. You are fully right in a sort of “horizontal” meaning of Ms. Melanie Juneau, and I do appreciate her clear precisions. But I do not see the need of your “horizontal” elaborations. In fact, the pharisees were almost always right, “horizontally” too, when they reproached Jesus with his “liberties” and “inconsistencies”. They just fully ignored the “vertical”, toward the God, meaning of His testimony. The topic of Ms. Melanie Juneau’s testimony is the death, and especially the deaths of those she loved and loves. Jesus cried confronted with the death of Lazar; sure, it was His private matter, but it was also — very important for us today — His everlasting public testimony.

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      What the what are you talking about, Dr.Belaga? I need some clarification here; your post made no sense. Try again, please.—PEACE IN CHRIST,ALWAYS! 😊.

    • Melanie Juneau

      How I understand Dr. Belaga’s comment : He is contrasting a pharisaical attitude which rigidly follows the letter of the law but misses the heart of God with Christ with Christ who did not worry about appearing religious (a horizontal , social concern) but reached up to connect with His Father ( a vertical movement)

    • Melanie Juneau

      You understand Christ’s position and my viewpoint perfectly. The pharisees were almost always RIGHT from the perspective of their religious rules when they reproached Jesus
      but they missed the true meaning of His testimony- the powerful Love of God and Mercy Of God.

    • Dr. Edouard Belaga

      +
      pax
      Thank you, Melanie, thank you very much. I’m a weak foreigner in this American “paradise” with its common brutality.

    • Melanie Juneau

      Thank you for your deep insights- it often takes a “foreigner” to see what citizens are blind to

    • Your comment Dr. Edouard Belaga illustrates that common brutality that misunderstands Melanie’s viewpoint. Thank you for it, and for making your very valid point so clearly.

  • Dr. Edouard Belaga

    +
    pax
    Dear Melanie, facing the eighty years old photo of my father, the Russian officer who died in the WWII and whom I do not remember, I wish you and your dying dad all consolations of Our Crucified Lord.

    • Melanie Juneau

      Your thoughts and prayers are a balm for my soul- thank you.

  • Thank you for this moving piece Melanie. Close to your dad within the mystical body and praying with and for him and all those he has loved during his remarkable life.

    • Melanie Juneau

      Thank you, David, for you truly understand.