When someone we love dies, it gives us an instantaneous and stark reminder of what mortality actually means – for us and for our loved ones. Reading Norman Lebrecht’s book, Why Mahler? when on holiday last week, it was hard to reconstruct the composer’s grief at the harrowing death of his young daughter from diphtheria on 12 July 1907. Lebrecht writes, “Mahler, haunted from boyhood by child deaths, faces as a father the most terrible of losses.” We can all vibrate to this, imaginatively or otherwise. Yet our response to death is also the great dividing line between Christians and non-believers; whatever our sorrow it is a fundamental tenet of our faith that bodily death is the (painful) prelude to eternal life with Christ (how much Mahler, born a Jew and baptised a nominal Catholic for the sake of his musical career in anti-Semitic Vienna, who wrote such deeply mystical music, actually believed in a Christian afterlife is a different and complicated question.)
James L Papandrea’s What Really Happens After We Die (Sophia Institute Press) provides a scriptural and traditional response to this question, which haunts all of us in different ways, religious or not. He rightly states that “Heaven” is a state “you can’t really understand until you get there”; yet it is human instinct to yearn to know. Certain theological truths are enunciated by the author: we do not become angels when we die – in contradiction to the mawkish sentiments sometimes expressed on farewell messages; the spirit is separated (for a time) from the body; we do not turn into ghosts but face an initial personal judgement; the spirits of most people will be purified through purgation before they enter into Paradise.
This is, of course, not the end of the story; we believe in “the resurrection of the dead” i.e. that at the Last Judgement, the souls of the just are reunited with their bodies which, crucially, are not ”resuscitated” in a physiological sense, but changed and transformed into radiant reflections of Christ’s own glorious body. Here the imagination comes to a necessary halt; our conviction of these truths is carried by our faith. And the period between death and the resurrection? Catholics believe in the immensely consoling communion of the saints; “we believe that the spirits of the saints can hear our prayers and pray for us even now”, for “those who die in Christ are alive in Christ.” Indeed, more alive than they have ever been on earth.
Papandrea provides his own perspective on the meaning of being made in the “image of God”; he states that “our agency, our creativity, our relationships, our minds and memories, even our sense of humour, will all be retained” for these are the things “that make us who we are.” Despite the metaphysical nature of his conjectures here, they seem intuitively right: what we all dread in this life is the loss of our identity, our personality; ultimately, after the dross that has wounded and scarred our nature has been purged, what will emerge is the uniquely lovable and infinitely attractive person whom God always intended us to be. Pie in the sky? No; deeply and amazingly true.
Alongside scripture, the author relies on the testimony of the Church Fathers to make his case (as well as early Christian saintly women authors whom he calls the “Church Mothers”). There are several quotes from the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s theological work, Eschatology, reminding me to read it. My small caveat is the author’s occasional mention of his own books in the text itself, rather than reserving these references to footnotes.
Such a book requires a leap of faith; but haven’t we Christians already in our lives made that leap?