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On being close to the dead

When the seventeenth century French philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal died in 1662, his servant found a small piece of parchment sewn into his coat. It had been written eight years earlier, on Monday 23 November. It was an exultant account of an experience of G-d he had that Monday night.

“G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob,” he wrote, “Not of philosophers nor of the scholars…. G-d of Jesus Christ, I have known thee. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.”

In this month of November, as we remember our departed loved ones in a special way, it’s hard rationally to think of them as close to us if we stay in the world of philosophers, scholars and scientists. And never escape it like Pascal. We’re like the little girl scared of the dark in the story recounted by theologian Ron Rolheiser. Her mother takes her back into her bedroom, assuring her that she’s not alone, that G-d is everywhere.

“G-d may be everywhere,” she says, “but I want someone with skin.”

Of course, we want skin too – to see or touch our loved ones again. But as renowned Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner says, that very desire blocks us from recognizing them as close to us. “Where are they?” he asks. “In the darkness? Oh, no! It is WE who are in darkness. We don’t see them, but they see us. Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes full of tears.”