Thursday, 28 May 2015

Faith, Hope and the Unknown

Whenever I am asked to identify my faith for official purposes I always hesitate over the box labelled 'Agnostic' before eventually ticking the one marked 'Christian'. Of course to describe myself as Christian is anything but a simple and unambiguous statement because its interpretation will vary enormously depending upon your own faith, or lack thereof. I should therefore be clear that I do not come from the same Christian tradition as Louise, one where belief and worship and the word of scripture are not just central to life but the very meaning for life. I respect it but I am not part of it.

Insofar as I ever have ever thought about it, and until I met Louise I rarely did, my Christianity has been based on hope rather than certainty.  It might best be described as a form of secularised Christianity which reflects the values of the contemporary western liberal society in which I have been brought up. I have never read the Bible and, again until I met Louise, had never attended any form of church worship. I have been ignorant of church traditions and thought beyond the broadest of themes which manage to seep into the secular consciousness. I am instinctively uncomfortable with spiritual certainty, unable to reconcile this with the diversity of thought and belief which I know to exist and the sheer improbability of one group, one society, one culture, having a monopoly on truth and wisdom. Brought up to challenge and look for evidential standards of proof of some form of guiding hand, I have found nothing.

Nevertheless, I have always held on to a vague spirituality. My hope has been largely based both on a selfish need to comfort myself with the prospect of something more beyond this life and a rather more altruistic desire for a settled order of things in which goodness, love and justice prevail in a way in which they so clearly do not in this domain. So I have believed - or very much tried to believe - in a  greater force for goodness. Call Him, Her or It, God if you will. My God, to whom I have always prayed every day, very much reflects my own values, or at least those to which I aspire - inclusive, tolerant, forgiving, capable of infinite love and understanding.  As I happen to have been brought up in a society of Christian tradition I have naturally framed this within a broadly Christian context, appropriating those parts of the Biblical message which seem to me to be right and proper and discarding those aspects which are inconsistent with my construct. Its a convenient and probably lazy consumerist pick and mix approach.

In recent years, as Louise challenged her faith and evolved her thinking,  we promised ourselves that we would explore the Quaker movement. We read a little about the specifically British tradition of Quaker thought and practice and attended a couple of Meetings for Worship when visiting a friend who is a 'Friend'. We were attracted by the gentleness, the stillness, the inclusivity, the social activism, the acceptance of uncertainty and the absence of a single creed. This, it seemed, was spirituality and community for people who didn't readily conform, who were prepared to question and challenge, had a social conscience and a genuine and forward thinking desire to improve society. There was no pushiness or proselytising, no grand and certain vision of God which excludes others. It seemed to fit our values and outlook. But life got in the way and we never took it further. In any case, Quaker thought is centered on the individual's experience of God and spirituality. My impression is that 'Friends' coalesce around common values and ways of being rather than beliefs. Ask three Quakers their opinion on a spiritual matter and you will probably get nine different answers. That is in part its attraction but in my particular circumstances at this time it doesn't necessarily meet my need for a single coherant framework in which I can understand and accept loss and bereavement. 

I set this out not to promote my own position - which is just as likely to be wrong as anybody else's -  but to explain the context for my spiritual response to Louise's death. For the purposes of this blog it would be more convenient to ignore this spiritual aspect because I am painfully aware that this not an easy subject to address and I have absolutely no desire or intent to offend, especially those members of Louise's family and friends who are dearly precious to me but who have a different perspective. However, it would not be honest to sidestep the issue because what has happened to Louise, and what is continuing to happen to me, has prompted me to carefully examine all my  rather vague and lazy assumptions and to engage at a much more personal and immediate level with the concept of an afterlife.

I attach no blame to God for what has happened. I am not angry with Him. I sometimes ask why this should have happened to us, what Louise and I have done to deserve this fate, but rhetorically so. My God does not have an interventionist approach to this domain. Our lives are what we make of them. But I do ascribe to God responsibility for what happens next, the afterlife. And inevitably I spend a lot of time thinking about what is happening to Louise now, wondering whether she continues to exist in some form or other, hoping against hope that her suffering is over and she is happy, that she can continue to hear me, that she can continue to be with me, to support me in some vague and ill defined manner which is beyond my comprehension.

But the more I think the more I wonder again. I have to take as my starting point the assumption that some form of afterlife exists. Not necessarily because I am convinced of it but because the concept of nothingness not only offers no comfort but is also utterly incomprehensible. But then what form does this afterlife take? The traditional visions of Angels, clouds and harps seem slightly absurd, perhaps a  form of social control for an uneducated, downtrodden and feudal Medieval society. So what does it look, feel and smell like? What is Louise now experiencing?  Since suffering is permitted in this life why do we automatically seem to hold to the  view that heaven has none, that it is a place of perfection? How can I know that Louise is happy, that her suffering is at an end, that she is fulfilled and loved, that she is reunited with her father, her grandparents and everybody else she would choose to be with? Its convenient and comforting to believe these assumptions certainly, but why should they be so? 

Questions, inconsistencies and contradictions tumble out. I want to think that Louise is able to continue to enjoy in heaven everything that she took pleasure in on earth. Trees, flowers, birds, music, singing, painting, country lanes to cycle in, hills and mountains to walk in, seas and rivers to swim in, and beaches and fields to walk in, run in and jump in. I can create idyllic visions of what Louise has. But when I think about it logically none of it makes sense. Louise lived in a particular place at a particular time. Why should heaven specifically replicate the nicer aspects of the British Isles and middle class British culture in the early 21st century? It might just as easily be primeval swamp or Han dynasty China. Can it be all of these at the same time, offering people an idealised version of the culture and geography they happened to be born into? Is it defined by the limits of our imaginations and experiences? Or is it like nothing we can imagine? If it is the latter it may be a wonderful place but Louise will still no longer be able to enjoy all that she loved so much.

And then there are the practical aspects of the afterlife. Since a part of me, in Louise, is now there, I am desperate to understand how it works. I try so hard to maintain a conversation with Louise but it constantly founders on not knowing her reality. When I wish her good night and sweet dreams as I go to bed am I wasting my breath? Does heaven have a concept of day and night?Do people need to sleep? Even if it does and they do, why should the time zones match ours? It seems to be stretching things somewhat to assume that the afterlife works on Greenwich Mean Time. Similarly, when I ask Louise whether she has had a good day it seems rather superfluous. She is in heaven. How can she not have a good day? But then without the experience of bad days how can one truly measure and enjoy good?  By the same token work must exist for leisure time to have any meaning or value. It was one of Louise's greatest pleasures in her life. But surely by definition there cannot be sickness to heal in heaven so this must now be denied her.  

And if Louise is as genuinely happy and healthy as I hope and assume, how can I persist in selfishly wishing for her return, to bring her back to her earthly existence? I should be grateful and happy for her that she is able to enjoy such a wondrous realm - but I'm not. I persist in wishing that she was back in this imperfect world with, by implication, the same anxieties, challenges and difficulties that she sought to escape from. What kind of love is that? 

Then there is the question of how Louise relates to this world, if at all. Does she hear my prayers and those constant one sided conversations with her? Does she see and feel my distress? If so, how could she possibly be happy knowing what I am going through? I want her to be with me as I go through my day, to be able to feel her presence as a means of comfort and support. Some people claim that they feel their loved ones with them. In truth I don't. I feel guilty in admitting that, as though it is some form of confession that our love was not strong enough to transcend the inconvenient divide of death. But in any case, if she is with me how can she also be with her Mother, her brother and sister, our nephews and nieces? They all want and deserve to feel something of Louise around them too. And how then can Louise actually spend time in heaven itself if we are constantly pulling her towards us? Shouldn't we leave her alone, in peace, to enjoy what we hope she has, instead of making selfish demands on her? The more that I need to believe in the concept of heaven, the more I think about it and the less likely it seems.

In my distress after Louise's death I turned, for the first time in my life, to classical Christian scripture for comfort and the answer to questions like these. Unfortunately I didn't find the responses helpful. It was gently and lovingly explained to me that traditional thought holds that those who have died exist on a different plain, that there are not the connections I hope for. This may or may not be so. It carries a certain logic but it doesn't comfort in the way that I had anticipated. 

It was a similar story in respect of my other great hope that I looked for confirmation of. That Louise and I would one day be reunited in heaven as man and wife. I had always taken my marriage vows extremely seriously. Regardless of them being within sight of God, they were vows to Louise and that was what really mattered to me. 'In sickness and in health', 'for richer for poorer'. I would honour and uphold them all. The one that I forgot about was 'till death do us part'. It therefore came as something of a shock to learn that according to conventional Christian thought I was no longer married to Louise, that man made relationships were not recognised in heaven. I was initially genuinely upset by this. It seemed bizarre and contradictory that in an environment of love there is no place for the special and enduring love and commitment of two people. If true it meant that our marriage, our relationship really was at an end, not just comfortingly deferred to be resumed at another time and in another place. I have managed this by simply choosing to discount it. Nobody can really know if its true. Why shouldn't I reasonably hope to be reunited again with Louise as her husband? If nothing else it helps gets me through.

But then this comfort in turn leaves me with a further question that is impossible to resolve. If I am ever lucky enough to meet another woman, and feel ready to enter into another relationship, I can come to the terms with the concept that the human heart has an infinite capacity to love and its perfectly possible to have two wives whom you love dearly, one in this life, one not. But what happens when we are all dead, all (hopefully) in heaven? How can I both be with Louise and my second wife simultaneously? I manage to complicate this even further by thinking about Louise's immediate needs. She did not want me to live the rest of my life alone. But she too is alone, without me, in the afterlife. If there is scope in the afterlife for love and relationships does she herself need the love of somebody else in my absence from her? However much the thought pains me, her happiness is ultimately all that matters so if she was to find  that love then she would have my blessing.

I don't understand and I am angry at the fates which mean that I have to try and think through and deal with these agonising problems. For these are no longer abstract theoretical questions for me but real and urgent. I want to resolve them in the same neat way that I can obtain definitive responses to queries on Louise's tax return or my occupational pension entitlement. But of course I can't. 

My only option therefore, for the sake of my sanity and recovery, is to try and set my scepticism aside and allow myself to trust and believe that there are acceptable answers to all these seemingly impossible questions, but that they come in the shape of something infinitely more complex and sophisticated than either I or the accumulated wisdom of mankind is able to comprehend. I must  try to trust in a universal God who will provide for Louise in her need as I would want her to be provided for  and who will allow us to one day be reunited in our presence and our love. I must hold on to the thought that it will all work out in the end.

Perhaps it is not for nothing that Louise's favourite psalm, and thus the only one that I know, was Psalm 46 verse 10; Be still and know that I am God. I still have no certainty but my hope is more important to me than ever before.


  1. Gary, that's the passage she used to quote even at university. It's from Psalm 46 and verse 10.

    Hope you don't mind me correcting you on that as you wrote it slightly incorrectly !

    Do you mind if I ask you if she was still in touch with many friends from Sheffield Uni ?

    As I mentioned earlier I also lost contact with her when I also left Sheffield and I moved abroad. The amazing thing is out of all the folk I got to know at Uni, I always remembered her and only a few others ! As I wrote earlier she was such an amazing girl at Uni. She used to host international students around for meals and was always looking into our welfare and even encouraged other British students to take students like myself who didn't have anywhere to go for Xmas to their homes for Xmas. I thought that was amazing hospitality and I have never forgotten the love she and the other christian students showed and gave me at Sheffield.

    I spent one of my Xmas's with one of Louise's batch mates and he was called Dr Kevin Bolster. I wonder if Louise kept in touch with him ?. He was also an amazing christian gent.

    I will be praying for you Gary and I know it's tough but you'll get through this "season" as I believe we all go through seasons and it doesn't last forever.

    God bless,

  2. Hello again. Thanks, I have corrected the reference. I was obviously displaying my ignorance! Yes, Louise kept in touch with many of her university friends very diligently and as a consequence some of them are now my friends too. We therefore probably have some mutual acquaintances, though sadly Kevin's is not a name that I recognise. I would be very happy to talk to you more about Louise's life and to see if I can update you on some of your friends if you are able to message me on Facebook?

    Thanks again for your thoughts and prayers, and your information about Louise's past life. I can't create new memories with Louise going forward but I can in some way extend the period in which I have 'known' her by learning more of her in the years before we met.


  3. Hi Gary, I just would like to comment on the subject of marriage. This is quite an old question, in fact some of the Sadducees asked the same question to Jesus in Luke 21 and I quote: "

    27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

    34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[b] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

    39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions."
    Hope this answers one of many questions you have

  4. I would find that message more useful if the Sadducees had taken a critical and enquiring mind to their conversation with Jesus.

    Gary thank you for writing logically and coherently about something which does not suffer logical examination or offer coherence.

    I am almost 2 years as a widower. I regard myself as atheist though I questioned even that in the aftermath of my wife's death. Like you, I have been unable to find any evidence to satisfy the standards of proof I apply to the rest of my life.

    I explored, through thought rather than genuine research, the concept of the body having a spirit. I read that energy can neither be created or destroyed. Rather, it transforms from one form to another. That being the case, what happened to the energy in my wife's body when she died? If it exists outside of a body, what are the rules of its existence? What can it know or not know? Does it travel and if so how? Does it have a consciousness? Does it grieve me and our two children as we grieve her? And, if not, why?

    I also have not felt the presence of my wife. I have wished for it but to no avail. Friends have visited me in our house and reported seeing and feeling her "presence". One visitor (a virtual, and not as in internet, stranger) even took it upon herself to communicate to me on behalf of my dead wife. Other friends have reported that she has visited them in dreams. If, in whatever state she's in, she can show her presence to others and visit others in their dreams, why not me?

    Again, like you, I found no answers which satisfied me. Unlike you, I have assumed there is nothing beyond this life or, if there is something, it is unknowable and therefore pointless to speculate upon. That doesn't stop me speaking to her or writing to her, but I don't genuinely believe she hears or reads or knows what I say or write.

    Barney (fellow WAYer)

  5. Barney, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I too have been intrigued by the energy theory, though it seems so far removed from anything which I can properly conceive, and so far removed from my bodily conception of Louise, that I can draw little comfort from it.

    I haven't had the same experience in terms of others feeling the presence of Louise. However, everybody who visits the house, without exception, tell me that it evokes a sense of peace. This is somewhat ironic since I know that many are afraid to visit due to what they imagine they might encounter. Perhaps the stillness that they eventually find is simply a reaction of relief when they discover it is no house of horror. But Louise was such a gentle person that I like to think it is her influence which continues to calm and soothe.

    And ironically, today, almost for the first time, I wondered whether Louise might have reached out to me. After writing recently about the absence of signs from her I left the house this morning to discover a white feather on top of her walking boots, which still sit in the outer porch. Rationally I know that it is likely to be a simple coincidence, an occurrence so unremarkable that I wouldn't have noticed it in other circumstances. But I think that I deserve - as we all do - something to cling on to so I will choose to interpret it in the way that best comforts me.

    Wishing you peace, strength and hope.