Last week, as I thought about this column, I began reflecting on the veil that separates heaven and earth, which is felt in our human experience. On earth, we feel connected to those we love through their physical, emotional and even spiritual presence in our lives. When they die, we feel separated from them, and, many times, from God.
We especially feel separated from God when we suffer difficulties. That old nagging question, which antagonistic atheists throw at every believer, “if there’s really a loving God, how could he let his people suffer, especially children,” comes bitterly to mind when we are suffering. And yet God promises us that he is “close to the broken-hearted and those crushed in spirit he saves.” (Psalm 34:18)
I have experienced so much of life and death and suffering, I could write a book about it. Oh, wait. I already have! Except since I wrote the book, my mother, my sister and sister-in-law have died, and one of my best friends is fighting terminal cancer. I guess it’s time to write another book!
The funny thing is no one reads a book that chronicles suffering. They only want to read it if you can give them hope! And I do. I hear from people all over the world who are encouraged by the stories of suffering I share precisely because I give them hope.
I promise you that no matter how far away you may feel God is, or how far away you feel from the loved ones you have lost, the truth is that you are never alone. God and our loved ones who have gone on before us are always with us. In fact, this veil between heaven and earth that we feel separates us, really doesn’t exist. Jesus took care of all that for us on the cross.
The scriptures tell us that when Jesus died, the temple curtain, the one that separated God’s people from the Holy of Holies and from the presence of God was literally torn in two. Upon his death
“at that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Mt. 27:51)
As a Christian, I am challenged to believe the gates of heaven remain open. Not only do the New Testament and my faith promise me this, but also this truth resonates in my human experience, especially during times of suffering and death.
Years ago, I read two wonderful books written by a pediatric oncologist, Diane Komp, MD. The were titled “A Window to Heaven” and “A Child Shall Lead Them.”
In the books, Dr. Komp shares her personal encounters with the Lord and her experiences of heaven through her pediatric patients, many of whom were diagnosed with terminal cancer. She shares that while medical school stripped her of her faith, these young patients gave her a new look towards eternity. The books are great reads – sharing encounters with God and heaven the children had had – some of them at end stages of life and others while they were suffering. Some of the children had come from faith backgrounds and others had not. But still, Jesus met them and showed them heaven.
Throughout the years, Johanna has expressed experiences she has had with God speaking to her in dreams, especially through difficult times. I remember once when she was about three, Johanna started packing a backpack as if she were going away. When we asked her what she was doing, she said that Jesus and Mary told her they were going to take her home someday soon. She then went on to describe an elaborate dream where she was running on a mountain with Mary to go see Jesus. We were excited for her, but after the conversation, I told the Lord I would have none of that right now.
Having been with each of my parents when they died, I had two more experiences which seemed to open that window to heaven. There was a profound sense of peace and it seemed as if heaven had touched earth.
Most recently, I had an amazing experience that reminded me that heaven and those who have gone on before us are not far away. Johanna and I went to visit the butterfly exhibit at the Long Island Aquarium near our house. The last time I was there was two years ago with my older sister, who was cognitively and physically disabled and was using a wheelchair. My sister was taken by the butterflies and especially loved the big blue ones.
My sister died a year ago, after three years of illness. When I went to the exhibit this time with Johanna, I was feeling sad about my sister’s death. But I was quickly reminded of her when I saw the blue butterflies and I said a little prayer. I prayed, “Marita, I know you’re with Jesus. Could you send the blue butterflies over to light near Johanna?” It was a silly request of God and my deceased sister. But it helped my feelings of grief.
Moments later two blue butterflies began lighting on Johanna. I rushed to take some photos and in one of those photos, Johanna was pointing to me and telling me to look down at my dress. Tucked in just below my heart, was a big blue butterfly. It attached itself to me for at least five minutes, giving me time to take pictures as the tears filled my eyes and the laughter filled my heart. It was an amazing reminder that the veil between heaven and earth is very close to us.
One of Johanna’s dreams included a visit to heaven. She describes her triumphant entrance on an elephant to meet Jesus for a majestic dinner. The one phrase she kept repeating runs like a familiar chorus in my mind: “Heaven is really close. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump away.”
I do believe.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.