Monday, 1 August 2011

Presence and the Near-Life Experience

The wisdom of the great spiritual writers is that we human beings are too often not present to our own lives. We are in the past or the future, or too tired or distracted, angry or in denial about reality.  I said to the St John's students recently that if they disbelieve me they should try to see how many seconds they can be present to their lives before some thought, feeling or other distraction intrudes. I said if they lasted 7 seconds they would be doing well.

The older we get the harder it becomes to switch from living outside our lives to living in them. We become calcified in our distractedness and the habit of living elsewhere than right now. A near-death experience can shake us up. Sometimes people 'find' God after a near-death experience. It is my experience that the near-death experience shakes us up not only because we could have died, but because we gain a new sense of the beauty, meaning and sheer goodness of  every moment of life. And although this new sense might only be temporary (because to live in the present and break old habits takes spiritual discipline) it remains evidence, I think, of the truth in the original insight itself, we are not present to our own life. And it is not just near-death experiences that lead people to grasp the sheer gift of life, but the process of dying itself. Sometimes people acquire a sense of the goodness and giftedness of life, their own waste of the gift, and can even move into receiving the gift of real livingness in a moment, as they move to death. (Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is a fictional account of just such a movement.)

There is also a parallel here with the complaint that God is absent in our lives. "I prayed but it didn't make any difference, and I didn't feel God's presence ... I don't think God exists."  Is there perhaps a parallel here with our absence from life? We think that life is dull and boring, or that it will begin when ... or that my life would be great if only such and such hadn't happened...  But what if, as Ron Rolheiser says, the fault of absence, both in terms of our lives and in our sense of God's presence in our lives, is on our side? It is easy to live as though God does not exist just as it is easy to live unaware of the life waiting to be lived!

See also Leunig's cartoon entitled " a Near-Death Experience (see picture above).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Warren

    I noticed in the pew sheet you are having a discussion on the near death experience on Thursday. I have a doc appt at 2pm but I will drive past and see if you are still there. I was given a DVD on Friday about a true story of a near death experience and was going to pass it on to you to watch. Joe Schinella who is a good friend of Father Gary gave it to me to watch. I was very moved by it and from other accounts of reading about near death experiences they all have a common thread. If I miss you on Thursday I will drop round some time soon.