The Theological and Pastoral Opportunities and Challenges of the Near Death Experience, Part IV.

 

Deacon Robert M. Pallotti, D.Min.

 

 

              The previous articles were primarily concerned with the NDE of adults, but what about children? Yes, children have these experiences too. The NDE researcher, P.M.H. Atwater, studied over 270 child NDEs. She found that:

 

  • 76% reported a comforting initial experience. Such experiences consisted of a loving nothingness, a friendly voice, a visitation by a loving being, an out-of-body experience, and/or the peacefulness of either a safe light or safe dark place
  • 19% reported a pleasurable or heaven-like experience
  • 3% reported a distressing or hell-like experience
  • 2% had a transcendent experience in which they felt they acquired special knowledge
  • Child NDEs tend to be simpler. However, some children can have very complex NDEs
  • more often include visitation by a deceased pet or other animal, relatives unknown to the child until the experience, and occasionally people who are alive.1

 

            Those children who have had a NDE also experience some psychological and physical changes.  Many children who have had a NDE undergo a change in sleep patterns and attentiveness. There is a marked increase in interest in universal love rather than directed at any one person, increased sensitivity to another person’s feelings, increased interest in service to others, increased interest in spirituality, a hunger for knowledge, difficulty in relating to children of their own age, communication with angels, increased sensitivity to medications and loud noises, increase in intelligence and intuition, and learning abstract concepts at a much faster rate than their peers. All these are some of the major changes a child who has had a NDE may have to adjust to in their lives.

 

   Children who have had a NDE require that caregivers be sensitive to the changes they are going through after their NDE. Caregivers can play a crucial role in helping a child to cope with the after-effects of a NDE. The International Association for Near Death Studies recommends the following steps be taken to help a child that has had a NDE to cope with the after-effects of the experience.

 

  • If a child has experienced a cardiac arrest, be alert to the likelihood that the child had a NDE.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Be prepared to hear and show receptivity if/when a child describes near death-like features.
  • Expresses understandings of topics that may be difficult to discuss. These can include the child’s ambivalence about returning to his or her body and/or the child’s communication with spirits. Trust the child’s reality, and respect the child’s confidentiality.
  • Gently ask open-ended questions.

 

  • Help the child discern when and with whom it is safe to talk about their NDE-related experiences. Anticipate changes in the child. Be prepared to guide the child through the changes and phases of adjustment.

 

  • Children will often want to go to religious services held in a Church, Synagogue, Mosque etc… because they wan to be in God’s House.  Some will build altars in their bedrooms as well.

 

             It is obvious that some of the elements of NDEs that children have had raise certain doctrinal concerns. Orthodox Catholic doctrine does not allow for animals to be in the afterlife. However, is it possible that the loving and merciful God gives a person the experience of having a favorite pet to meet the person in death as a way of comforting the person? Again, we are reminded that none of the people reporting NDEs have really died; they came near death (finality) and have not crossed the final barrier into the new life. While they may have had extraordinary spiritual experiences, they still do not know for certain what lies beyond the threshold. In this situation it is more important and more pastorally correct to be supportive of the child NDEr rather than judge and comment on the child’s story about his or her NDE.

 

            These are helpful suggestions for dealing with the child who has had a NDE, but let us return to adults who have had a NDE. First and foremost, the adult, like the child, who has had a NDE needs a thoughtful and non-judgmental person to listen to his or her story about the NDE. The person ministering to an individual who has had a NDE can be a reassuring and comforting presence to the experiencer by making known to them that they are one of almost 15 million Americans who have had a NDE, that you do not believe they are crazy, and that you are willing to be with them on their journey of integrating the experience. The deacon as “caregiver” can also put the person who had the NDE in touch with a local support group by contacting the International Association of near Death Studies or IANDS at www.iands.org.

 

The Change in Lifestyle

 

              The family life of many NDErs can suffer great strain. Just think of it, a person who was driven to succeed in business and to make a considerable amount of income decided to sell his business and to go into counseling. Such a change in one’s life is going to have significant ramifications for the family. Many NDErs live with a sense of living in the now and a sense of timelessness—not always conducive to living in a world of tight and necessary schedules. There are challenges that arise from the NDE for the individual and his or her family. However, there are opportunities for both as well. For the NDEr life takes on a new meaning directed toward a spiritual quest and recognition of the goodness of all creation—as a result of believing he or she has met God in the NDE. For the family, the NDE can mean a deeper grounding in the spiritual life, and a  chance to see organized religion not simply as a set of beliefs, but as a vehicle and invitation to go deeper into the spiritual mystery of life that shows itself in concrete acts of loving and justice. As stated previously, for Christians, this takes the form of a concrete following of the Lord Jesus Christ in the mode of discipleship in a kenotic lifestyle (Phil.2:6-11).

 

            The deacon can be of great service to the NDEr and the family of a NDEr by helping each to know what lies ahead. Also, the deacon can listen with compassion to the NDEr without having to argue theology. Such a discussion will come at a later time when the emotional stress of the experience has waned. The deacon can encourage and walk with the NDEr on his or her journey to integrating the experience into his or her life by a prayerful and reassuring presence trusting that the Lord will always do what is best for the NDEr.

 

 

Theological and Pastoral Challenges and Opportunities

 

             Upon reviewing the content of these articles it is clear that there are significant theological and pastoral challenges that face deacons ministering to those who have had a NDE. While many of the NDErs tend to be more open to belief in God and eternal life, they have not really died and thus have not crossed the final frontier of real death. Yet, they have had life-changing experiences, and many NDErs are convinced that they have experienced union with the Lord. That may be, and there are precedents for such a belief reflected in the great mystical traditions of the various religious traditions. One of the great Roman Catholic mystics, St. Theresa of Avila, recounted one of her experiences in the following manner:

 

              I thought I was being carried up to Heaven: The first persons I saw there were my mother and father, and such great things happened in so short a time…I wish I could give a description of at least the smallest part of what I learned, but when I try to discover a way of doing so, I find it impossible, for while the light we see here and that other light are both light, there is no comparison between the two and the brightness of the sun seems quite dull if compared with the other. [Afterwards] I was…left with very little fear of death…2

 

             Some of those who have had a NDE will lead some of them to believe in reincarnation. Such a belief is in opposition to orthodox Catholic teaching that holds that we only have one earthly life. This poses a significant challenge to the deacons in a theological and pastoral sense. While we cannot hold that reincarnation is a Catholic belief we can listen in a compassionate pastoral manner to the person who has had a NDE with the understanding that God’s ways are seldom understood by human beings. The NDE can help us to remember that God is the Ultimate Mystery and we wait upon this mystery to give us insight into God, ourselves and the world. While we maintain that Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of being fully God and fully human, we can also maintain that there is still much we do not know. How God chooses to work through Jesus Christ in each historical epoch is not under our control. Yet, in a fundamental act of faith we follow the way of Jesus Christ and await the fullness of revelation at the great eschatological event of the Parousia. Our faith in God and what happens to us after mortal life cannot be based on the NDE. The Christian faith in based on the revelation of God transmitted through the Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Yet, the NDE raises a significant challenge to the materialism of our age, perhaps, opening many to the quest of deepening the spiritual life.

 

            There are people who offer rational explanations of the NDE as lack of oxygen to the brain, release of endorphins and brain dysfunction. But none of these explanations hold up to criticism. So at this point we are left with the fact that the NDE has no known scientific explanation.

 

             It is clear then that there are theological and pastoral challenges confronting deacons as a result of the NDE. However, there are also opportunities for deepening the spiritual lives of people because of the NDE phenomenon. For one thing, the Catholic Church has not taken an official stand on the reports of the NDE. There is wisdom in not taking an official position on the NDE that recognizes that God is free to act as God sees fit; it bespeaks a proper humility toward the Ultimate mystery that is essential for spiritual wisdom; and that NDEs, as compelling as they are, are not an end in themselves. The NDE seems to serve as an invitation to the person to deepen their spiritual quest in this life; and many NDErs do just that! Dr. Peter Fenwick states, “The common ground between cultures and between individuals is that the NDE seems to be an awakening experience, often arousing a sense of spirituality and a stimulus for personal development.”3

 

             The near-death experience raises some interesting and significant theological issues for the Catholic community. A review of the vast literature on NDEs suggests that some NDErs leave organized religion for what they perceive as a more spiritually oriented life. It is obvious why that may happen for some. For too many people organized religion seems to be caught up in rules rather than in promoting spiritual growth. As the Roman Catholic theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles, S. J., reminds us in his landmark book, Models of the Church, an overemphasis on the institutional church tends to stifle spiritual life. However, that need not be the case. A deacon can accept the critique of organized religion by the NDEr, but also point out the great spiritual/mystical tradition in Catholicism that points us beyond the institutional Church to the Church that is sacrament.

 

   Some NDErs see organized religion as a source of dividing the human family. Certainly, there are episodes in our Christian history that give credence to such a position. So often the religious differences among people have led to separation, wars, persecution and genocide of those of differing religious traditions. Again, the deacon can respond to this by noting that the essence of the Christian experience of Jesus Christ is one of loving all people for who and what they are. Religion is not meant to divide but to bring the human family together under the rule of the Lord. While religious traditions will be in some disagreement with one another, such a situation does not have to lead to conflict and separation, but rather, it can lead to dialogue and cooperation and a deepening of the spiritual life. It is essential that the deacon point out that it is only through a conversion of heart that we can move to such a universal, Christ-based life that manifests God’s unconditional love for all and creation.

 

   Many of the NDE accounts describe those on the other side who greeted the NDEr in Christian imagery. Some describe meeting Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, or an angel. Other NDErs use non-Christian imagery to speak of their experience. I noted before that it seems that we are given an experience we can understand in highly symbolic manifestations. It seems we get what we need to propel us on our spiritual journey in this world. Why should we not accept the possibility that angels appear to people, even if they are a symbolic representation of the Divine presence. After all, the same can be said for the Christian scripture. Scholars tell us that the references to angels in scripture are considered to be circumlocutions to the Divine presence. But maybe real angels appear to people! Even the manifestations of dead pets to children, who have had a NDE, may be the way the child is put at ease in the situation of being in the Divine presence. Perhaps, this is the best we can surmise on this side of death.

 

   The experience of being greeted by deceased relatives during the NDE or just prior to physical death seems to be a widespread phenomenon. This should pose no special challenge to deacons because it is an essential aspect of Catholic belief that we hold we are still in the communion with the deceased. The formal doctrine is known as the communion of saints. We pray for the dead because we believe they are alive in a new way in the Lord and benefit from our prayers as we benefit from our prayers for them.

 

   Lastly, what does the NDE have to say concerning the future of all creation and human history? That is hard to say. Many of those who have had a NDE tell us that they were given glimpses of future possibilities given certain choices that individuals and groups make about the issues of the times. The NDE certainly raises the question of life after death and the reality of God but it does not prove eternal life or God. Such proof is not forthcoming. The reason for this is that anyone who has not had a NDE can argue against its verifiability—with the exception of veridical OBEs. At best, the NDE points us to a spiritual depth to reality that transcends our ability to quantify and measure, i.e., that is, beyond human manipulation. Only the knowledge borne of faith, surrender in trust in the Father of Jesus Christ, can lead us to any kind of certainty as regards eternal life and God. Christians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. This belief was communicated to us through the witness of the apostles and those whose lives were transformed by the appearance of the risen Christ.

 

   Christian belief in eternal life is not only concerned with personal existence but with the complete transformation of the created order in the power of the resurrection. However, the NDE can serve as a powerful invitation to explore and commit oneself to the spiritual quest that leads to a conversion of heart. This conversion of heart will be directed toward manifesting the unconditional love of God in acts of charity and in a deliberate choice to work for peace and justice in this world. Such a life points beyond the materialism of our age to the resurrection life of personal and cosmic transformation in Christ.

 

   These introductory articles are only capable of scraping the surface of this profound spiritual experience that many people who have come to the brink of death report to us. More study and discussion will be necessary to continue to learn about and understand this phenomenon. It may be that science will never be able to give an answer based solely on scientific methods currently employed. However, we know, as people of faith, that there are other modes of knowing; and the greatest of these modes is the mode of trusting faith in the God who reveals in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that “love conquers all.” Certainly, the NDE tells us that we are more than our physical bodies and that our lives will be judged based on how we have loved others, God, the self and creation. Christianity has no quarrel with the assertion of having had a NDE, but it points beyond the NDE to the final act of universal consummation when “God will be all in all.” I. Cor. 15: 28.

 

 

                                                                  Notes

 

1 Pamela Kircher, M.D., Jan Holden, Ed.D, P.M. H. Atwater, Lh.D, Melvin Morse, M.D. and the IANDS Board of Directors, Children’s Near-Death Experiences, International Association for Near-Death Studies, Inc., Brochure, (East Windsor Hill, Ct., 2003).

 

2 Mark Fox, Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience (New York: Routledge, 2003), p.84.

 

3 Dr. Peter Fenwick, The Truth in the Light (New York: Berkley Books, 1995), p.33