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What happens when we die?

We have so often reported on the incredible, intense, and largely -- often unspeakably -- joyous aspects of "passing over."

That's exactly what it is, a passing; nothing halts. It is like going from one room -- one reality -- to another.

We speak much about this at retreats.

What can be more comforting than the many reports from those who have glimpsed the "other side" and felt the fantastic love "over there"?

We can speculate all we want; those who have had extraordinary experiences, however, may lend us valid insights.

"My first visual memory was looking forward and seeing a brilliant light, almost like looking directly at the sun," said Robin Michelle Halberdier of Texas City, Texas, who "died" when she was just one-and-a-half years old from hyaline-membrane disease. "The strange thing was that I could see my feet in front of me, as if I were floating upward in a vertical position.  I do not remember passing through a tunnel or anything like that, just floating in the beautiful light.  A tremendous amount of warmth and love came from the light.

"I began attending church at the age of five, and I would look at the picture of Jesus in the Bible and tell my mom that's who it was in the light.  I still have many physical difficulties with my health because of being premature.  But there is a strong need inside me that I should help others with what death is, and talk to terminally ill patients.  I was in the other world and I know there is nothing to be afraid of after death." 

Few realize that the famous writer Ernest Hemingway had a near-death experience -- which affected a scene in his novel, A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway's occurrence was in 1918 during World War I when he was severely wounded by shrapnel.

"A big Austrian trench mortar bomb, of the type that used to be called ash cans, exploded in the darkness," the writer told a friend. "I died then.  I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner.  It flew around and then came back and went in again and I wasn't dead anymore."

As the International Association for Near-Death Experiences reports, when a woman named Jennine Wolff of Troy, New York, "died," she "saw at a distance, on a hill, Jesus Christ. All He said to me was that it was up to me whether to come back to earth or not. I chose to come back to finish my work. The changes in my life? I am now more aware of people's feelings, beliefs, and needs. I am more compassionate and considerate of others. Also more confident in God's Love."

He is never seen -- in these experiences -- as a harsh judge.

We have to take these cases like any other supernatural reports: with a good dose of questioning. Too many times, they drift toward the New Age. Thus: caution. In other cases, however, the experiences may be unfairly lumped with the "New Age" because they are so different than anything we know or perceive. Discernment is not easy. One can say: there are great consistencies in these reports, particularly when it comes to the importance of love and forgiveness -- themes stressed so much by Pope Francis.

A strictly legalistic approach to spirituality, it seems, falls short.

What's in our hearts is more important than what's on our minds.

We enter a reality -- an endless reality -- that reflects our true selves: who we really are. A woman named Alice Morison-Mays nearly died at the Marine Hospital in New Orleans way back in 1952. " I found myself in a place of such beauty and peace," she said. "It was timeless and spaceless.  I was aware of delicate and shifting hues of colors with their accompanying rainbows of 'sound,' though there was no noise in this sound.  It might have felt like wind and bells, were it earthly.  I 'hung' there - floating.  Then I became aware of other loving, caring beings hovering near me.  Their presence was so welcoming and nurturing.  They appeared 'formless' in the way I was accustomed by now to seeing things.  I don't know how to describe them.  I was aware of some bearded male figures in white robes in a semicircle around me.  The atmosphere became blended as though made of translucent clouds.  I watched as these clouds and their delicate shifting colors moved through and around us. A dialogue softly started with answers to my unfinished questions almost before I could form them.  They said they were my guides and helpers as well as being God's Messengers. Even though they were assigned to me as a human and always available to me - they had other purposes, too.  They were in charge of other realms in creation and had the capacity of being in several places simultaneously.  They were also 'in charge' of several different levels of knowledge.  I became aware of an ecstasy and a joy that permeated the whole, unfolding beyond anything that I had experienced in my living twenty-five years, up to that point.  Even having my two precious children, whom I wanted very much, couldn't touch the 'glow' of this special experience. Then I was aware of an Immense Presence coming toward me, bathed in white, shimmering light that glowed and at times sparkled like diamonds.  Everything else seen, the colors, beings, faded into the distance as the Light permeated everything.  I was being addressed by an overwhelming Presence.  Even though I felt unworthy, I was being lifted into that which I could embrace. The joy and ecstasy were intoxicating. It was 'explained' that I could remain there if I wanted; it was a choice I could make."

Most find it so beautiful they don't want to come back, but are forced to due to unfinished earthly business.

What are we to make when such people mention things like "kundalini" (an Eastern concept of supernatural energies)?

We are to exercise skepticism.

Near-death experiences can stray like any other form of mysticism. Again, it can turn "new age."

Our Church grants us the greatest tools -- through its sacraments and teachings -- in finding the "narrow gate." Through those sacraments we can pray every day to know what God expects of us and how we can best fulfill His Plan for our lives.

After-death experiences were recorded as long ago as 300 B.C. by the philosopher Plato (who wrote of Er, a soldier, who "died" and returned) and there are also the otherworldly images in Ezekiel and Revelation.

They seem to strange and alien to us because we currently are of such limited perception.

But there is a message we can perceive, and that's the importance while on earth of closeness to Christ and through Him "drilling" down through the layers that have crusted over our souls from hardships, from pretenses, from the conceptions of others.

Drill through those and you will find a wellspring of peace.

Layer after layer. Remove them, until you are back to the innocence of purity of a child. That's how Christ likes us: as children (Matthew 18:2).

As we like to say, when you die, the first person you will see will be your real self.

[resources: The Other Side]

[Retreats: Indiana and North Carolina]

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