I was visiting my parents in the suburbs of Chicago on the weekend that Mars was closer to the Earth than any time in our lifetime. The three of us were standing in their front yard looking up at the sky.
There was a wonderful moment when we just looked. Didn’t talk. Just looked. Not from each other’s eyes, but from our own eyes.
My dad, who is the 900th-generation Roman Catholic Dunne in our family tree, with his head perched up to the night sky, said that he sometimes wonders if there’s enough room in heaven for all the people of all the past generations.
I spit out some wanna-be-carl-sagan metaphor about how if you started at one of Saturn’s 19 moons, held hands with every homo sapien for the past 500,000 years, threw in some border-line monkeys while you’re at — how you wouldn’t make it halfway to their next-door neighbor moon. How space is big.
But he and I know how full of crap I am, so we just kept staring out at the stars.
And the more we thought about, he raised the big question. It’s the question at the heart of Catholics, Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, Cao Dais, Hindus, Confucians, Jainists, Shintoists, the African and South American tribal faiths, Shamanists, Shintos, Wiccans, Sikhs… you name it. Almost every monotheistic or polytheistic religion for the past 10,000 years shares the belief that there is an element of us that is independent of our bodies — and survives our death.
If you believe that there’s an afterlife, then where exactly are we going? Assuming it’s just our souls that are going there — where are the souls actually going?
A “soul” is a thing, right? It has to go somewhere. So where do they all go? Do they stay on earth? Are they in space? Are they together?
What is the makeup of a soul? Is it like everything else in the universe? Does it contain elementary particles? Atoms? Quarks? In a hundred years, what more will we know?
Is a soul a form of energy? If it is a form of energy, it has weight. Does it have weight?
Or is it something that has no “worldly” qualities? Is a soul not of this world? Then what world is it of?
Our chat moved into their living room till the wee hours of the morning.
My dad said he was absolutely certain there was an afterlife, and that he’d be reunited with his mother, his father – and his friends when he’d die.
He asked my mom if she agreed. To my father’s shock, she wasn’t so sure.
A little side-note. She’s been the daily communicant out of the two. Every day of her life she’s driven to church at 7 in the morning and taken communion. She prays for her 7 kids, her 23 grandchildren, her friends – and her husband. My mother is a saint.
She said, “I’m not so sure…” My dad was absolutely stunned. She wasn’t sure?
We talked about other aspects of our literal expectations of what would happen north of 10 seconds after we’re dead.
As my mom and dad said, an acceptance of “unknowing” is a part of what having “faith” is. How faith is humbly accepting our limitations in what we’re capable of understanding, and in trusting that we are part of God’s plan – a plan that is beyond the realm of our intelligence or imagination.
I agreed that’s what “faith” is. It’s a bottom-line gut belief that there is a God, that when you pray someone/something is listening, and that there is an afterlife that gives human life even greater meaning and purpose.
Christians may believe Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God, Muslims may believe Mohammed physically rose to meet God in heaven, and Hindus may believe in that our “soul” lives in new generations of earthly life. But, at the end of the day, the commonality of having “faith” is trusting someone, something out there knows us, cares about us, and has a plan for us well beyond our life on earth.
You either believe that or you don’t.
It’s not about figuring out where our souls go, what an afterlife will look or feel like, or anything like that.
It’s a belief that life/existence is better where we’re going than where we are today.
You’re either on the bus with this, or you’re not.
We talked mostly in the abstract. The discussion wasn’t about my beliefs; it was about everyone in the world’s beliefs.
We had another cocktail.
My dad asked me if I think there’s an afterlife.
Try to imagine the hundreds and hundreds of hours my father and I spent together as altar boys at weekday masses at St. Francis Church in La Grange, Illinois.
The thousands of hours sitting next to each other praying together in church. A grammar school Catholic education. Young Life. Holy Name Society monthly pancake and sausage breakfasts.
Family vacations with our parish priests. The sanctity, purity, and hope in the sacrament of baptism.
Both of our great memories of my First Communion, and its extraordinary importance in my budding spiritual life. His deceased brother, Bill, who stood by my side at my Confirmation. My marriage in a Catholic church, where a number of priests in our family stood on the altar. Six other brothers and sisters in the same boat.
On top of all that, I can’t express the depth of my love and respect for two absolutely exceptional parents and human beings.
I told him I wouldn’t guess there is such a thing as an afterlife. I told him I didn’t know for sure any more than the caveman knew. But all things being considered, that’s where I’d put my money.
He said, “Do you believe Jesus is the son of God?”
“I highly doubt it,” I said.
I told my dad I hope he’s right and that I’m wrong. That I hope there is a heaven. That I hope that life in heaven is even better than life on earth.
But I said my gut tells me none of that’s going to happen.
My dad asked those questions like, “Then what’s the point of living? What’s it worth if there’s no heaven? If there’s no God?”
I honestly told him I feel life is an incredible gift; with or without an afterlife. That I’m really at peace with the idea that even without an afterlife; life is extraordinary.
It was a strange moment. Not because of how I felt, but because of how I knew my father felt. He felt his son, his oldest son, just stripped away a little of his mortality. His family name.
As Mars was closer to the Earth than ever before, so was I to my father that night.
Earth and mars; in so many ways, so ever-close and similar — yet pulled by the same force on separate journeys.