In his autobiography Nikos Kazantzakis tells the story behind his famous book, Zorba the Greek. Zorba is partially fiction, partly history. After trying unsuccessfully to write a book on Nietzsche, Kazantzakis experienced a certain emotional breakdown and returned to his native Crete for some convalescence. While there he met a man of incredible energy and vitality. The Zorba-character in the book is based on this man's life; never before in his life had Kazantzakis been so taken by the life and energy of another human being. But mortality doesn't make allowances for that. Zorba eventually died and his death very much disillusioned Kazantzakis: How can such exceptional vitality simply die? And what happens to it, does it simply disappear as if it had never been? What happens at death to all the color, energy, life, love, and humor that a human being has embodied?
Kazantzakis wrote Zorba the Greek as an attempt to give some immortality to the wonderful energy that an exceptional man had embodied. Zorba cannot be dead. It made for a great book and a great movie, but is that really what makes for immortality? Does simply remembering somebody or publicly celebrating his life make him alive? And when someone dies, what does happen to that very unique and wonderful energy, vitality, love, color, and humor that a person embodied during his or her life?
Several days ago, I was at a wake service for a woman whom I had never met. The formal prayer service was followed by a half-dozen eulogies delivered by her family. They were wonderful, warm, witty, colorful, and full of humor. As these stories were told she became alive again to everyone in the church. We all smiled and laughed and the sadness of her leaving was eclipsed for the moment (and partly forever) as the color and vitality of her life were again made alive for us. And we weren't just remembering her. We were reminding each other that she was still with us.
It's the same for everyone who dies. They remain with us in more than memory. And it's not just some purified spirit of theirs, washed clean in death, that remains. Their unique color stays too.
It's the same for everyone who dies. They remain with us in more than memory. And it's not just some purified spirit of theirs, washed clean in death, that remains. Their unique color stays too: I think, for instance, of my own family. We've had to mourn the loss of a number of our members, but we're not only nurtured by the gift that each person's life and virtue was for us, we're still fed by the unique color each of them embodied. They are still with us, as is their color.
Our family legends abound about those whom we have lost: stories about my dad's unique way of combining the Serenity Prayer with Murphy's Law in an exasperated expression: "Just now!"; about my mother's incapacity to find a place to begin a story without having to first go back to Genesis: "In the beginning"; about my deceased sister's love of chocolate and her concomitant love for deflating what was pompous; about my deceased brother's proclivity to lecture the entire planet on social justice; about my deceased brother-in-law's love for cooking sausages and laughingly inquiring about the aesthetic condition of your suspenders; and about a deceased uncle's habit of lighting up a cigarette and getting a mischievous gleam in his eye as a prelude to telling a thoroughly wicked story. The list could go on and on because the stories of the color in the lives of our deceased loved ones do go on and on.
So what does happen at death to that very unique energy, vitality, color, and humor that a person has embodied? Alfred North Whitehead suggests that it's immortalized in the "consequent nature" of God. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin assures us that nothing will be lost and everything will be in some way preserved, right down to the lives of our pets. Our Christian doctrine on the Communion of Saints tells that our loved ones are still alive and that someday we will be face to face with them again.
I don't doubt the truth of these assertions, but they can seem pretty abstract when our hearts are saddened and aching at the memory of a loved one who has died. Being alive in our memories is not a sufficient form of immortality and being alive in God's memory can seem too abstract to bring much consolation. I don't doubt that our loved ones are alive in God's "consequent nature" or that they are alive inside the Communion of Saints, but I believe something more, based on how our memories of their unique color affects and nurtures us here on this side.
I believe that what they so wonderfully and uniquely embodied here on earth is still going on, happening on the other side. I suspect there are more than white clouds, harps, and floating angels in heaven, but that heaven is rife with wit, color, humor, and thoroughly wicked stories because whenever we recall these about our deceased loved ones their memory turns warm and nurturing.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.