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Are levels of the afterlife really demarcated areas -- like rooms in a house, or homes in a neighborhood, or separate cities?

Or are they -- as the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago recently wondered, just before he died -- rather more conditions or states of the spirit? "Spirits donít inhabit space and time," he told a reporter. "Bodies inhabit space and time. So itís not a place, and we donít know what that means either," he said. ďFor example, we talk about Ė in technical terms Ė a beatific vision; that is, to see God as the blessed see him. What does it mean to see without eyes? We donít know what it means to live without a body." He told the newsman that there is so much about life, and the afterlife, that is unknown, and that we canít figure out anyway, so we just have faith.

Places or states?

There is a "chasm," Scripture tells us, in that account of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), a separation between Heaven and hell. But what about other levels?

That question takes us to an experience reported by RaNelle Wallace, a television reporter who had a near-death journey after a horrid plane crash in central Utah that scorched most of her body. During her encounter with the other side, RaNelle claims, she ran into her dearly loved grandmother, who was in a heavenly state, but also was able to see and communicate with a friend named Jim who had been killed in a car crash a few months before.

Jim was not in a Heavenly state. Yet, because he was purifying, he was happy.

"What about Jim?" RaNelle said she'd asked her grandmother, during a little tour of the other side.

Immediately, RaNelle says she saw him in the distance, walking toward them. (In the afterlife, questions are answered instantly.)

"I wanted to run and embrace him, but my grandmother put out her arm and said, 'No, you cannot.' I was startled. There was a power in her words, and I knew I couldn't oppose them. 'Why not?' I asked.

"'Because of the way he lived his life,' she said."

Jim, as it turns out, had used and sold drugs, damaging himself and others. Yet, knowing that one day he would be whole, he was content. "He smiled and I could feel his happiness," says RaNelle in a written account. "Although he didn't possess the same kind of light or power that my grandmother did, he seemed content. He gave me a message to give to his mother, asking that I tell her to stop grieving over his death, to let her know that he was happy and progressing. He explained that he had made certain decisions in life that had hindered his growth on earth. He had made the decisions knowing they were wrong, and now he was willing to accept their consequences."

All for our pondering only. It does sound like a purgatorial state. But in Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory, a Church-approved revelation from a deceased nun, we get this: "It is beautiful in Heaven. There is a great distance between purgatory and Heaven. We are privileged at times to catch a glimpse of the joys of the blessed in paradise, but it is almost a punishment. It makes us yearn to see God. In Heaven, it is pure delight; in purgatory, profound darkness."

"I looked at my grandmother and asked why she had prevented me from embracing him," wrote RaNelle of her presumed encounter with Jim. "She explained that it was a part of his 'damnation.'"

In accounts of purgatory, souls suffer but are described as happy knowing that one day they will be in Heaven.

Most important were the lessons RaNelle learned about life on earth from -- allegedly -- her grandmother, who said, "We grow by the force of our desires to learn, to love, to accept things by faith that we cannot prove. Our ability to accept truth, to live by it, governs our progress in the spirit, and it determines the degree of light we possess. Nobody forces light and truth upon us, and nobody takes it away unless we let them. Jim chose darkness over light often enough that he would not choose light again. And, now, to the degree that he became spiritually dark, he is consigned to a similar degree of darkness -- or lack of light -- in the spirit. The Lord never gives more challenges in life than can be handled. Rather than jeopardize someone's spiritual progression or cause more suffering than can be endured, He will bring that spirit home, where he or she can continue progressing." For our discernment. "No one can imagine what purgatory is like," said the nun. "Be kind and take pity on the poor souls."

As for RaNelle, she says she saw how in her own life she had sinned when she ignored responsibilities such as visiting lonely people. "I had founded my charity on conditions of repayment," she wrote. "I had served people when it served me to do so. I had founded my charity on conditions of repayment, even if the repayment was merely to stroke my ego. Some people had been helped, however, by the small acts of kindness, a smile, a kind word, little things I had long forgotten. I saw that people were happier because of my actions and in turn were kinder to others." Our acts of kindness, even small ones, can be our salvation.

[resources: afterlife books, especially What You Take To Heaven]

[retreat: Vancouver]

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