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Where Will You Spend ETERNITY?

I may have mentioned that my drive to work and back is unusually beautiful. I drive past three different waterfalls, five working farms, and past a parade of old stone walls, apple trees, and white clapboard houses. It is eye candy.

It is also the beginning of serious countryside. And one thing about rural America: it takes its religion seriously.

Near the end of my morning drive, or the beginning of my evening commute, there is one particular ranch house that works hard to make sure everyone who drives past understands how seriously everyone inside that house takes religion. They have one of those signs, one of those semi-professional ones, that can be changed to show a different Christian slogan every month or two.

Perhaps because my drive is my best reflection time, I not only read the sign, I read it and think about it, too.

Lately, the sign reads, in one direction, "Jesus will give you REST," which I actually try not to focus on, because I read that side on my way into work in the morning, and I am quite sleepy enough without thinking about REST, whether it comes from Jesus or from turning off the alarm clock.

But in the other direction, for my return trip, the sign reads, "WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY?"

Now, I haven't been living under a rock for the past forty-nine years of my life. I am well aware of what thoughts of eternal damnation and salvation I am meant, by the poster of that sign, to be having on my commute. And it's not his fault that I'm a bit of a rebel: I have never been impressed by the carrot-and-stick approach to theology the sign is meant to imply. The god it is meant to imply has always seemed to me to be a bully. Worship me, or I'll torture you forever would be a pathetic demand from a human being, and I, for one, expect more from my gods than from people--not less.

However, as I said, I do take that sign seriously. I think about it. And what I think is this: Where will I spend eternity? I don't really know.

The likeliest possibility seems to me to be this: that I will die one day, and my body at least will go either into a small wooden box to be planted in the ground--if my Quaker meeting is able to work out the details around green burial before my death--or will be put into a superheated furnace, to emerge as smoke and ashes.

I'm not sure about the smoke, but either the ashes or the decaying body I leave behind will go into the ground.

I've given some thought to where in the ground. Part of me would like to have my remains put right here, in the land under this house I live in. My molecules and atoms can leach into the soil that nourishes the woods I love.

I do like the idea that, although land can never really belong to us, perhaps we can eventually belong to the land.

But Peter might not want to live for the rest of his life in this same house. What if What if he were to become too ill or too weary to manage to live well here, in this house? I would not his needing to move away to be made even harder and lonelier than it otherwise would be, if he felt as if he was leaving me behind.

So perhaps Mt. Toby's burial ground is the best place for what is left of my body, whether as ashes or decaying flesh.

We chose Mt. Toby as our meeting, after all, in part because we loved its land. Mt. Toby sits at the edge of pastures, and owns pastures and woods, a beaver pond, a hillside. There are trees there, and grass, and even if it is not land I have lived on daily, it is land I have loved.

And it is New England.

I love my home. I love New England. Could I ask for a better end than to be here, as seasons wheel overhead, as generations of dandelions, sugar maples, white-tailed deer and black bears are born, grow, and die? Could I ask a nobler home than stone walls warmed by sun in summer, and by hibernating squirrels in winter? Than hillsides that are home to hidden spiders spinning webs in hemlock gloom, or even over the snow and ice of midwinter?

There's life here! The earth is rich and smells like spices, and birds set up a racket first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I would like for my body to feed that life. I would like to return to the home I have loved since I was born, "giving something back," in the simplest and most literal way.

Someday, the continents will move into fresh shapes; mountains will grow and be crushed. Ice will recede and grow again, species will disappear, and even the sun will go dark. But I'll still be here: home, however changed.

What of my spirit, though?

Well, what of my spirit?

Sometimes I think there may be something more that happens when we die. I know that, if there is a heaven--a Summerland, as the Pagans and the Spiritualists like to call it--for me, that heaven could look like nothing so much as a New England autumn. Give me the smell of woodsmoke and fallen leaves, the tang of apples in the air and a chill beneath the day's warmth, like the bones beneath the fur of a cat... that's my heaven. Keep the harps! (But send my Herne to me, to carry me there, if that is what there is. I only want to look into his eyes, and see that he can see how I love him.)

Sometimes I think there might be such a thing as reincarnation. That might be nice. I don't care if I come back as bat or owl or white pine tree, as long as I am alive, part of this wonder. (Of course, do I need a spirit to be part of life that way? Isn't that what happens when we go back into the soil, the earth, anyway?)

Then, sometimes I think that my spirit, all the things that go into shaping me, and making me who I am, may be a bit like this body of mine: cobbled together from whatever good things were on hand as I've been accreting over time, from birth to the grave. What happens to my spirit then, when I am done living as who I am? Perhaps, like my body, I go back, flowing out again to become part of the landscape... part, perhaps, of God.

But you know what? I'm here, now. Today is the Kingdom of Heaven. Today is the day of Spirit. Today is the day I give myself, recklessly, laughingly, delightedly, to Eternity.

I hold myself out, like a handful of ashes on the wind, and I give myself to this earth I love... right now.


Alyss said…
What a beautiful post! I read a Rudolph Steiner lecture recently where he uses a fantastic analogy to talk about humans and god/spirit. He says we are like little sponges floating in a tub of water. Spirit infuses us, makes gives life to our shell of a body but can not be distinguished from the spirit in other bodies, or the spirit not in bodies. I think that when we die the spirit leaves our bodies like water leaves a sponge when you squeeze it. Some may get back into other sponges, some may stay in the bucket. I think its similar to how the elements and molecules of our body go back into the cycle of the earth. Some become soil, some trees, some bears and some other humans.

You speak so eloquently of the New England land you live on. I want to go back :)
Elysia said…
You write so beautifully, Cat. I never know what to say in response to your posts, but I had to say that, at least.
Terri in Joburg
Yewtree said…
You have expressed eloquently how I feel about life and death, and how I respond to those sort of signs. Thank you, and Amen.
Iain said…
My young children were running around the Meeting House garden/cemetery the other week, giggling and looking beautiful. It was the first time (being 33) I'd thought "when I go, this is where I want to be."
Lo and behold next week a woman came with her daughter and grandson to leave some flowers for her parents whose ashes were there. Again the children were playing innocently amongst the gravestones. It was a great moment of place and belonging, so what you've said resonates well with me.
(Exeter MfW has used the site since 1690)
Hystery said…
I also have a strong sense of place here where so many generations of my ancestors are buried. I also share and appreciate (at the intellectual level) your musings regarding eternity. On the other hand, I do not share the emotional calm you demonstrate here. Increasingly,despite my philosophical/spiritual perspectives, since the births of my children, I've been terrified and angry about death. Gotta work on that one.
Anonymous said…
Hi Cat! Wonderful post. Loved this line: "What happens to my spirit then, when I am done living as who I am? Perhaps, like my body, I go back, flowing out again to become part of the landscape... part, perhaps, of God."

It describes how I feel in some ways.

For my carcass, I've decided to bequeath it first to the local medical school. When they're done, I'm considering having the ashes mixed into one of those concrete artificial reefs since the ocean has always been special. I like the idea of helping the sea life and all the little fishes swimming around what's left of me.
Anonymous said…
I'm with you on focusing on this life and not the next. I'm not ready to join the blessed elderly who are half here and half there yet. As for my soul, I know I have one who has been through a lot of lifetimes and will probably have many more to go. I hope she remembers me fondly :-)
kevin roberts said…
I've told my wife to hang my body up in a tree down the hill so the buzzards can work it over better, but she tells me that I won't have any say in the matter. (She's younger than I am and will likely outlive me.)

Personally, I don't give an afterlife one thought in a week. It's not my problem, so I leave it up to God.

Don't know about heaven resembling New England, though. They'll have to improve the truck parking first.
Sterghe said…
Friend speaks my mind.
{{hugs}} and thanks for a great reflection!
-Weavre Cooper
Bill said…
The most striking of your comments was the recurring term, "I think" or "sometimes I think." What is the basis for these thoughts? Are they dependent on how you slept, what you ate or the kind of day you had? I, personally, wouldn't want to chance my eternity on feelings that change with the wind.
Hi, Bill,

The short answer to your question, "What is the basis of these thoughts?" is, "My lived experience of God."

The long answer is a bit more complex.

When I write, I try to write from personal experience of Spirit, of what I (somewhat tentatively) term God.

I don't understand God. God is too big to fit inside my brain, and the so experiences I have had with that presence are rather confusing when I attempt to put them into words. Nor am I entirely content with any of the theological word-castles I construct. I'm aware, all the time I talk about them, that words are such concrete and definite things, and yet experience itself is too full to fit in them.

I love words, and I am suspicious of words, because I see every time I write what words can do to distort the meanings underneath them... the way a two-dimensional map of the world makes Greenland seem far larger than it is, not through any intention of the map-maker to deceive, but through the limits of the medium.

So I'm left attempting to capture an uncertainty that I feel around the few, rare glimpses I've had--some contradictory--in this life of what, if anything, might come after it.

You say that you would not want to chance your eternity on feelings that "change with the wind," and of course I see your point. However, I'm not sure there is anything better available.

I suspect you will say, "The Bible," or "our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." But I believe I have told you that I do not find words in and of themselves certain or reassuring. (And, candidly, the more I know about the Bible and the process of its creation, its editing, and its translations, the less willing I am to trust to what do not look much like certainties originating in that set of writings.)

Nor am I convinced that the words in that book are, taken as a whole, overly concerned with eternity.

At least, the words that I have heard resonating with that lived experience of Presence have not been, and I do not feel that I have heard any words that I have not been able to read "in the Spirit that sent them forth."

So what I take from that book is mainly concerned with this life, not any possible future one. And what I take from it mainly are words such as those in Micah 6:8: "Do justice; love kindness; and walk humbly with your God."

This I attempt to do, on a daily basis. Eternity will take care of itself.

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