OPEN­ING HEAVEN’S DOOR

I had no idea there was this kept-hid­den world all around me

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - PA­TRI­CIA PEAR­SON

A jour­nal­ist in­ves­ti­gates spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ences.

MY FA­THER DIED UN­EX­PECT­EDLY of car­diac ar­rest in his bed in the spring of 2008. He was 80. The next day, we all got the phone call. But my sis­ter Katharine, 160 km away, re­ceived her mes­sage dif­fer­ently.

“It was about 4.30am,” she said at his funeral, “and I couldn’t sleep, as usual, when all of a sud­den I be­gan hav­ing this amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. For the next two hours I felt noth­ing but joy and heal­ing.”

She sensed a pres­ence in her bed­room. “I felt hands on my head, and ex­pe­ri­enced vi­sion af­ter vi­sion of a happy fu­ture.” Un­aware that our fa­ther had died the night be­fore, she de­scribed her ex­pe­ri­ence to her el­der son the next morn­ing, and wrote about it in her diary.

We were in shock. Katharine had had a vi­sion? My sis­ter wasn’t prone to spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ences. Stress she was fami l iar wi th, as the mother of two teenagers. Laugh­ter she loved. Fit­ness of any kind. Fan­tas­tic in­tel­lect, flu­ent in three lan­guages. But she hadn’t been pay­ing much at­ten­tion, in essence, to God.

Later, I would learn that this sort of ex­pe­ri­ence when some­one has died is star­tlingly com­mon. Fam­i­lies shel­ter their knowl­edge like a del­i­cate heir­loom. At the time, I only un­der­stood what a gift this was for Katharine, who was about to face her own death, from breast can­cer.

Just two months af­ter Dad died, Katharine was moved to a hos­pice. In her fi­nal ten days, she spoke lit­tle, yet seemed pro­foundly con­tent. “Wow, that was strange,” she re­marked once upon wak­ing up, her ex­pres­sion one of smil­ing de­light. “I dreamed I was be­ing smooshed in f low­ers.” She looked gor­geous, as if lit from within. Some­times she would have happy, whis­pered con­ver­sa­tions with a per­son I couldn’t see. At other times, she would stare at the ceil­ing as a full panoply of ex­pres­sions played across her face – puz­zled, amused, scep­ti­cal, sur­prised, calmed – like a spec­ta­tor in a plan­e­tar­ium.

The sis­ter with whom I’d shared ev­ery se­cret couldn’t trans­late this for me. “It’s so in­ter­est­ing,” she be­gan one morn­ing, and then couldn’t find the lan­guage. Forty- eight hours be­fore she died, she told us, “I am leav­ing.” She left in si­lence and can­dle­light, while I lay with my cheek on her ch­est and my hand on her heart.

That au­tumn and sum­mer, peo­ple came out of the wood­work to tell me their tales

WHY HAD MY SIS­TER had a pow­er­ful spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence in the hour of my fa­ther’s un­ex­pected death? Why did she be­come in­creas­ingly joy­ful in her dy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence? What would she have told me if she could?

That sum­mer and au­tumn, peo­ple came out of the wood­work to tell me their tales. Some were friends and col­leagues, oth­ers were strangers sit­ting be­side me on an aero­plane. If I told them about my fa­ther and sis­ter, they re­cip­ro­cated. Al­most in­vari­ably, they pref­aced their re­marks by say­ing, “I’ve never told any­one this, but …” Or, “We’ve only ever dis­cussed

this in our fam­ily …” Then they of­fered ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries – deathbed vi­sions, sensed pres­ences, near-death ex­pe­ri­ences, sud­den in­ti­ma­tions of a loved one in dan­ger.

A friend once told me that, as a boy, he had come down to break­fast and seen his fa­ther, as al­ways, at the kitchen ta­ble. Then his mother broke the news that his fa­ther had died in the night. He brief ly won­dered if she’d gone in­sane. “He’s sit­ting right there,” he told her. It was the most baff ling and un­set­tling mo­ment of his life.

I had no idea there was this kept-hid­den world all around me. I wanted to un­der­stand what we knew about these mys­te­ri­ous modes of aware­ness. For four years, as a jour­nal­ist, I pur­sued the ques­tions.

A 2014 STUDY by The Pal liat ive Care In­sti­tute and Hos­pice Buf­falo in New York state found that 60 per cent of their dy­ing pa­tients, over an 18-month pe­riod, had com­fort­ing vi­sions and dreams of liv­ing or de­ceased fam­ily mem­bers in the lead-up to their own deaths.

There is pain in loss, and then there is fur­ther pain in the si­lence borne by fear of be­ing dis­missed. Tell some­one about it and the ex­pla­na­tions come. Hal­lu­ci­na­tion. Wish­ful think­ing. Co­in­ci­dence.

I went to a Christ­mas party with old friends, and caught up with a man who works for a bank. I told him some of what had tran­spired with Katharine. He said gen­tly: “I don’t mean to be un­kind, but it is very likely that she was imag­in­ing these things.” Why did he feel he could speak with author­ity about what the dy­ing see?

Spir­i­tu­al­ity used to be con­sid­ered an or­di­nary part of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, but now it qual­i­fies as an ex­tra­or­di­nary state re­quir­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary ev­i­dence. Why should this be? It has to do with the rise of sci­en­tism, a prej­u­dice that be­lieves

any­thing that eludes sci­en­tific mea­sure­ment can­not ex­ist.

For my Irish and Scot­tish High­land an­ces­tors, an ex­tra­or­di­nary way of know­ing things was al­ways em­bed­ded com­fort­ably within their cul­ture. One sum­mer af­ter­noon, my el­der aunts and cousins, women in their 80s and 90s, all gath­ered around the din­ing ta­ble.

Here, my g rand­mother had painted a say­ing on the wall: “Fra ghosties and ghoulies and l ong- l e g gedy beast­ies, and things that go bump in the night: the guid lord de­liver us.” A play­ful nod to our witchy Celt ic an­ces­tresses. But now we had come to talk of such things se­ri­ously for the first time over lunch.

We spoke of how great- grand­mother Maude had ab­so­lute conf idence in her way of know­ing things; how, when my grand­fa­ther tele­phoned his mother to re­port her hus­band’s fatal heart at tack on his sail­ing boat, Maude replied dis­con­so­lately: “I know”. My Aunt Bea re­called, “Granny would be in the liv­ing room read­ing a book, and she’d sud­denly slam it down and mut­ter, ‘Damn! So-and-so is com­ing and I don’t want to see them.’ Sure enough,” Aunt Bea said, “soand-so would show up ten min­utes later.” The Nor­we­gians have a word for this un­canny an­tic­i­pa­tion of vis­i­tors: var­doger.

Our High­land an­ces­tors called the per­cep­tion of a per­son’s dou­ble ‘sec­ond sight’. Cousin Mar­ion of­fered that she had been work­ing at a re­sort as a teenager when the ho­tel caught fire, prompt­ing her mother – more than 3000 km away – to wake in dist ress and cal l her. And my mother, the uber- rat ion­al­ist, con­ceded she awoke sud­denly one morn­ing in her univer­sity dorm and phoned my grand­mother, whom she some­how knew to be in cri­sis. Granny was; her dear­est friend had died that night.

Each ex­pe­ri­ence was dif­fer­ent, but all were ways of know­ing, and they tilted the world on its axis for a mo­ment. Why hadn’t we talked of them be­fore?

Of­ten we are held back from em­brac­ing the com­fort and re­as­sur­ance of spir­its

CAM­BRIDGE PHYSI­CIST and No­bel Prize win­ner Brian D. Joseph­son told The New York Times in 2003: “There’s re­ally strong pres­sure not to al­low these things to be talked about in a pos­i­tive way.”

Harold Puthoff, a physi­cist at the Stan­ford Re­search Inst itute ap­pointed to over­see the CIA’s re­mote view­ing (or clair­voy­ant) ex­per­i­ments in the 1970s and 1980s, de­scribed

this pres­sure in con­ver­sa­tions with psy­cho­an­a­lyst El­iz­a­beth Lloyd Mayer, as re­ported in her book Ex­tra­or­di­nary Know­ing, pub­lished in 2007. “The ev­i­dence we had (on clair­voy­ance) was rock hard,” he wrote. “I saw that. But I was hav­ing ter­ri­ble trou­ble giv­ing up my be­liefs about how the world worked, even in the face of ev­i­dence that said my be­liefs were wrong.”

The prej­u­dice in the Western world is be­gin­ning to change, par­tic­u­larly in the area of grief ther­apy, as coun­sel­lors take note of other cul­tural ap­proaches. One in­flu­en­tial study of Ja­panese wid­ows found that their con­tin­u­ing bond with the pres­ence of their de­ceased spouses – set­ting up al­tars in the home, leav­ing food, in­cense – made them much more psy­cho­log­i­cally re­silient than their Bri­tish coun­ter­parts.

Neu­ropsy­chi­a­trist Dr Pe­ter Fen­wick of King’s Col­lege, Lon­don, has com­mented on the ‘sensed pres­ence’ ex­pe­ri­ence. “Of­ten its emot ional im­pact is so great that it re­mains a last­ing source of com­fort to the re­cip­i­ent and of­ten has the power to al­ter their own per­cep­tion of what death means. For them, whether it’s dis­missed by oth­ers as ‘sim­ply co­in­ci­dence’ is ir­rel­e­vant. The fact that it ’s hap­pened is enough.”

But of­ten we are held back from em­brac­ing the com­fort and re­as­sur­ance of spir­its by a so­ci­ety that be­lit­tles the ex­pe­ri­ence.

ONE AU­TUMN, with my sis­ter Anne and her hus­band, Mark, we spend the af­ter­noon shut­ting the cot­tage up for win­ter, which means con­found­ing the squir­rels, who ap­pear to have spent most of the au­tumn hid­ing acorns. Each time we strip a bed, acorns tum­ble out. Anne and I laugh.

As I shut­ter the win­dows, I won­der what will have hap­pened when they are next thrown open to soft spring light. What will have tran­spired in my life, in ours, in the his­tory of the world? Who else will have died?

But the grace I see now comes from the com­fort I draw from this tribe, with my cousins and aunts and un­cles and friends. The ex­tended fam­ily has drawn ever closer. It’s like a foot­print in the sand that needs to be filled in. Where the wa­ter rushes in, where love rushes in.

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