I watched a tv show this week called Scorpion, which is a cross between The Big Bang Theory, and The A Team. A group of social misfits who also happen to be scientific geniuses, with off the chart IQ’s to prove it, band together with an FBI agent to solve problems and do crisis management when something big and bad is about to happen.
In this episode, the genius team was called in to do a last minute fix on computers that control a decommissioned nuclear power plant. The place was about to overheat, and blow up, or melt down, or whatever an out of control nuclear power plant would do.
After watching the events of Wednesday morning unfold, in which Corporal Nathan Cirillo was killed, and Parliament and much of downtown Ottawa were under lockdown, it was actually a weird kind of relief to watch a fictional action show about geniuses who could quickly resolve a crisis. Real life problems are not fixed in 44 minutes plus commercials.
There was a moment in the show when it seemed the geniuses could fail. The dramatic arc of these kind of shows requires a serious crisis in which the heroes seem to fail about halfway through the show, then pull together, renew their bonds of friendship, and solve the problem just before the last commercial break. After the break, there is the obligatory winding down celebration, with some variation on, “That was a really close one!” Like I said, after watching real life horror and drama in Ottawa, there was a strange comfort in this escapism.
At the moment when it seemed all was lost, and the nuclear power plant would explode, and send out clouds of fallout that would kill everyone within a hundred miles, one of the non-genius characters said, “ I am going to say a little prayer.”
One of the geniuses, with the unlikely name of Happy, said, “I don’t really believe in death. First rule of physics: Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it just changes shape.” Then she paused, as if pondering the need for prayer, then nodded her head, and said, “But, still..”
I am obviously not a scientific genius, and can’t say if Happy got it right about matter and energy. But I like what she said, that no energy can be destroyed. Most people I know hope that whatever happens to our physical bodies, that something of us, a soul, a spirit, whatever, will persist.
We seek assurance, when someone we love dies, or when we are pondering our own mortality, that we will be reunited with our loved ones, that we will be with them again, beyond this earthly life.
This is perhaps the season for this topic. It will be Hallowe’en in a few days. In the liturgical calendar, it is called All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints Day, which is followed by All Souls Day. All Saints Day was established to honour the saints of the faith. All Soul’s Day was the time to remember all those who had departed in the past year. Some traditions said the souls of those who died continued to roam the earth until All Saints Day.
Many elements of Hallowe’en have ancient roots. Candles lit up rooms to help guide the souls on their way. People wore costumes to disguise themselves from enemies who had died, or evil spirits who might come to haunt them one last time. People went door to door, and collected baked treats called “soul cakes”, in exchange for offering prayers for the recently departed. In some countries, families gather at the graves of loved ones, and have a big party, to celebrate their memories. In some places they leave special pastries on the grave.
My favourite poet, the Irish mystic John O’Donohue wrote “On passing a graveyard”:
May perpetual light shine upon
The faces of all who rest here.
May the lives they lived
Unfold further in spirit.
May the remembering earth
Mind every memory they brought.
May the rains from the heavens
Fall gently upon them.
May the wildflowers and grasses
Whisper their wishes into the light.
May we reverence the village of presence
In the stillness of this silent field.
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, there is something about this season that is well suited to thoughts of endings and beginnings. Summer has ended, the farmers have reaped their harvests. Fields and trees are barren of fruit. The leaves are falling, and the cool of the air tells us that autumn is soon turning to winter, the cold, dark, dormant time of year- the season most like death.
The ancient Celts looked upon the times when the seasons change as having special significance. They saw them as liminal times, when the boundaries between the seen and the unseen were thinner, more porous, and it might be possible for souls and spirits to slip between worlds.
We heard a poetic description of heaven this morning from the Book of Revelations. In this time, with our memories of missions to the moon, and our scientific view of the world, how do we think about heaven?
In the ancient world people, including those who wrote our scriptures, shared a view of the physical universe that included an actual physical place for heaven. It is called the three tiered view of the cosmos. There was the ground, where people live. Above the flat earth, there was the vault or arch of the sky. Below the ground was the world of the dead, and above the sky was heaven. But we know that beyond the atmosphere of our big round planet, there is the vastness of outer space, filled with galaxies of stars, and other planets.
So how and where do we imagine heaven? The early Celtic Christians had some ideas about the soul, and about heaven that I think can be of help. There is a beautiful phrase used in the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, which talks about how we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses”. It comes after a discussion of people mentioned in the Old Testament stories of God’s people, who lived out their faith, and sometimes endured hardship, and who now have died. The idea that we are surrounded by these unseen witnesses is part of how Celtic Christians talked about heaven.
In their view, when a person died, and their soul left behind their physical body, they moved, not so much to a different place, but to a different way of being. As the poet I mentioned earlier, John O’Donohue would say it, “When the soul leaves the body, it is no longer under the burden and control of space and time. The soul is free; distance and separation hinder it no more. The dead are our nearest neighbors; they are all around us.”
O’Donohue quotes another mystic, the 13th century priest and philosopher Meister Eckhart, who was once asked, “Where does the soul of a person go when the person dies?” He said, no place. Where else would the soul be going? Where else is the eternal world? It can be nowhere other than here.”
We have been brought up, most of us, to think of heaven as way up there some place, far away from us. But there are other ways to think about it.
The Celtic Christians also believed that our soul is the part of us that can each across the thresholds between this time, and eternal time, and can get glimpses of the eternal. Maybe that is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
God has made each of us with an appetite for a life beyond the life we live every day. Some people feel when they are drawn into a beautiful piece of music, or some great passion, or into the depths of a memory that seems as real now as when the events happened, that part of them is connected to the eternal.
When our hearts are filled with love for another person, even if they have died, and our hearts are also filled with grief and the pain of not seeing them anymore, we know how powerful love is, and how it is so much more than our physical selves. I have come to believe that the presence of love in my heart is a glimpse of heaven, and of God, because that love has its source in God’s love.
God loves us before we were born, and loves us each of our earthly days, and God’s love is not interrupted when we die. We continue to be held in God’s love, which is eternal, and has no beginning, and no end, it just goes on and on, and around and around, like the seasons. The cold of winter gives way to the newness of spring, and a cycle begins again. Or to borrow an idea from Happy the genius in that television show, perhaps Love is the energy that cannot be destroyed. Amen