Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Astonishing Love

There has been a lot written in recent years about what they call “Near Death Expereiences” (NDEs). I certainly believe in the possibility of such things, because I certainly believe in eternal life after death. But I do question many of them, for they can come from sources that are not God, and hence people can be deceived by them. If someone writes of having a NDE in which they float into some sort of non-judgmental “light” that tells them all is well and to go back to earth and enjoy life, I will find it hard to believe.

But there are some that correspond to what has already been revealed by God about the afterlife, even though we don’t have many details in Scripture or Tradition. One thing is clear, however: there will always be a judgment. And there will always be love. The two are inseparable in an encounter with the true God.

I recently read an article on certain aspects of a book I had read years ago about the NDE of Dr George Ritchie from Texas. He was “dead” for nine minutes after a serious illness, and he met the Lord Jesus. There are several elements about his experience that resonate with the truth.

The articles states: “When he saw Jesus…it was a far more masculine power than he expected, not the meek image so often presented to us through artwork, and yet at the same time a Presence filled with ‘astonishing love.’” It was, in his words, “a love beyond my wildest imagining.” We can hardly imagine such a love—since it is beyond imagining!—but we ought at least be aware that it is infinitely greater than anything we have considered or experienced thus far.

Yet “this love knew every unlovable thing about me,” Dr Ritchie said. This is the judgment that goes with the love. He wasn’t condemned at that time for his sins, but he learned that they were unacceptable to the God of Love, who calls and enables his children to live in his love and to extend it to others. As scenes from his life passed before him, there was an underlying question: “What have you done with your life? What have you to show Me?” This doesn’t mean personal accomplishments or achievements, for when he tried to offer something important that he did, the Lord simply said: “That glorified you.” He realized through many other scenes of his life how he had indeed served and glorified himself instead of the Lord, how he had not loved as Jesus requires.

The doctor then became afraid. How could he have known? How could he have prepared for this unexpected revelation? The Lord answered: “I told you by the life I lived. I told you by the death I died.” Even though this hard truth was announced to him, he still felt only love from the Lord. It is this incredible combination of the uncompromising light of truth with the warm support of love that indicates a genuine spiritual experience.

“This was not the Jesus of my Sunday school books. That Jesus was gentle, kind, understanding—and probably a little bit of a weakling. This Person was power itself…” Yet not a threatening or inimical power, but the power of Truth and Love incarnate.

What can we learn from this? First of all, that we have no excuse not to live a life of love, of obedience to the word of the Lord. We can’t say we didn’t know. There’s a saying: “Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t stand up in court”; still less will it stand in the court of the divine Judge and King. When that searching light of Truth illuminates our souls, we will see ourselves as clearly as God does, and we will have nothing to say in our defense. Yet Christ is not a “hanging judge,” eager to punish us for our sins. Rather, He is eager to forgive us. He wants us to experience his “astonishing love,” the overwhelming, penetrating, joy-giving, and healing love that He can’t help but communicate to all. It is up to us, however, to receive that love and respond to it with our own, however feeble it may be in comparison.

Don’t wait for a NDE to wake you up to the astonishing love and all-illuminating truth of the Lord. He wants us to experience it now, through faith, prayer, the sacraments, and through living the kind of life that opens us to recognize, receive, and give love. Christ is not the mild, effeminate figure of greeting cards and children’s prayer books. He is the Holy, Mighty, and Immortal One who reigns over heaven and earth—and He will demand an account of our lives when we at length stand before Him. Let us love now, so that when Love examines our lives He will find some correspondence with his own—and we will rejoice forever in a love beyond our wildest imagining.