Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Finding Our Loved Ones After Death”

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Curious words? Perhaps. They contain, though, a secret.

Those words were spoken by an angel to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. She had come to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, hoping to anoint his dead body with spices, when an angel told her that it is futile to look for the living among the dead.

That rather cryptic statement speaks not only of Christ’s resurrection but reveals as well a deep secret, one central to understanding the communion of saints: How do we remain in contact, in love, in communication, and in a real community of life with our loved ones after they have died? How do we find our loved ones after death separates them from us?

The angel of the resurrection tells us how: By seeking for them among the living, not among the dead. We do not find our loved ones in their graves, good though it is to visit graves. Invisible angels sit there, at the graves of our loved ones, and send us back into life to seek for them at other places. Just as Mary Magdalene did not find Jesus in his tomb, we too will not find our loved ones there. Where will we find them? In the words of John Shea, “we will meet the ones we can no longer touch by placing ourselves in situations where their spirits can flourish.”Our loved ones live where they have always lived and it is there that we will find them. What does that mean?

Simply put, we find our deceased loved ones by entering into life, in terms of love and faith, in the way that was most distinctive to them. We contact them and connect ourselves to them when, in our own lives, we shape the infinite richness of God’s life and compassion in the way that they did, when we pour ourselves into life as they did. Let me try to illustrate this with an example:

My own parents died more than twenty years ago. Sometimes I visit their graves. That is a good experience. I feel some grounding in it, some deep rooting that helps centre me. But this is not my real contact with them. No. I meet them among the living. I meet them when, in my own life, I live what was most distinctively them in terms of their love, faith, and virtue. Thus, for example, my mother was a very selfless woman, generous to a fault, always giving everything away. When I am generous and give of myself as she did, I meet my mother. She becomes very present, very alive. At those times, I do not experience her as dead at all. It is the same with my father. His great quality was his moral integrity, a unique stubbornness in faith, an uncompromising insistence that one should not give in to even the smallest moral compromise. At those times when I can be his son in these things, when I can, in fact, face down little and big temptations in my life, my father is present, alive, connected, in a vital community of life with me.

Less happily, but just as true, the reverse is also the case: At those times when I am selfish, when I cannot give myself over in sacrifice, my mother is more absent, more dead to me. The same with my father: When I compromise morally, be the issue ever so small, my father is not so alive to me. He recedes like the tide. It is not very helpful to visit their graves at those times; in fact, then in my actual life, I am living among the dead. If I cry out to them in prayer at those times the only response I get is from the angel of the resurrection who tells me gently, what was told Mary Magdalene, why do you search for the living among the dead?

Every good person shapes the infinite life and compassion of God in his or her unique way. When that person dies, we must seek him or her among the living. Thus, if we want a loved one’s presence we must seek him or her out in what was most distinctively him or her, in terms of love, faith, and virtue.

And so when we search for our loved ones after death we must say this: Her great gift was hospitality, well then I will meet her when I am hospitable; his great gift was a passion for justice, well then I will meet him when I am involved in the quest for justice; she had a great zest for life, for meals with her family and friends, for laughter in the house, well then I will meet her when I have a zest for life, when I am celebrating at a table with family and friends.

Our loved ones are not dead to us. One of the central tenets of our faith is that we believe in the communion of saints and in life everlasting. It is everlasting. Our loved ones are alive, doing what they’ve always done, and they are waiting for us, filled glass in hand, at the centre of the circle of celebration.