4:26pm

Fri October 11, 2013
What Comes Next? Conversations On The Afterlife

Heaven Is Waiting; Hell Is A Different Question, Nun Says

Originally published on Fri October 11, 2013 6:38 pm

Perhaps it's no surprise that Mary Catherine Hilkert, a Catholic theologian, a professor at Notre Dame and a Dominican Sister of Peace, believes that people can find love, mercy and union with God after death. In her eyes, however, the concept of hell is far less definitive.

As part of All Things Considered's series on the concept of life after death, Hilkert spoke with host Robert Siegel about her perspectives on heaven and hell, why she thinks of banquets when she imagines the afterlife and why people hold such strong beliefs about what happens when life ends.


Interview Highlights

On her views on the concept of hell

I think I would speak with more definitiveness about my hope in final love, mercy, union with God, that we've referred to as the kingdom of heaven, than I would about whether there's a hell, or what goes on in hell or whether there's anyone in hell.

I think that holding on to the concept of hell is a way of trying to protect the notion of freedom. That it is possible for people to definitively choose evil, and I don't think we can make easy judgments about who has done that, and what happens in the depths of one's heart when confronted with the utter mercy and love of God.

And I think it's interesting, even, for instance, the Catholic Church has made public claims about saints and those that we trust enough that they are in communion with God that we would officially name them as saints. And never has there been a statement about anyone definitively being in hell.

Neither is it part of my tradition to believe that God elects or predestines some people to be damned in the mercy of God. There are traditions that would hold that, but that's not part of my Catholic heritage. Or my own faith.

On what imagery she associates with the afterlife

Some of my favorite [images] are from the Scriptures, and they are of banquets and of wedding feasts. And I think I use that imagery in preaching and in consoling friends or family members ... language [like], "She's sharing at the banquet table" or "They're waiting to welcome us there to that final banquet." Or also, what will be no more; that there'll be no more suffering and tears, and violence will be undone. Wounds will be healed.

But I will say, this morning I was reflecting and a poem I hadn't thought of for a long time occurred to me. ... It was Wendell Berry, and it's a poem about a friend of his who has died. And he says that the friend came to him in a dream. And he asked him something like, "How ya been?" And the friend says, "I've been eating peaches off a mighty fine tree."

And I thought that was such a wonderful image. ... So I think it is our moments of greatest human intimacy and communion and inclusion — surprising events where the outsider or the outcast is somehow welcomed — and the feast is all the fuller because of that. So, I think that food imagery that's so central to human life, those are my best images.

On whether she believes that the living can have contact with loved ones who have died

I want to say, first of all, that we don't have the kind of contact that we've known and loved in this life. And I think that is the huge pain and fear and sadness that we all have about death and about the death of those we love, as well as our own deaths.

I think the closest I come to [some form of contact] is in our worship at the Eucharist. We talk about [that it] is a celebration of the living and the dead, of the communion of saints. And that's often where I am ... particularly mindful of those I love; those I love who have gone before me and those I love who are soon to go before me. ...

But the only other thing that occurred to me was ... [Saint Joan,] the play of George Bernard Shaw. ... She's being questioned and she's hearing voices, and the inquisitors say to her, "That's just your imagination." And she says, "Of course. That's how God speaks to us." ... So I also wouldn't want to definitively say that what does happen in our dreams or in our imagination or in our memories is not being prompted by God and by those who are with God.

On why people hold such strong beliefs about the afterlife

I think that's because so much is at stake. I think it's possible to have a very strong, firm faith. But it's always in spite of the darkness, and in spite of the pain and the void. So I think hope and faith are not feelings or ... just human optimism. I think it's a much more profound, actually, gift of God within us that allows us to hope in the face of the darkness and the absence.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Mary Catherine Hilkert is a Catholic theologian, a professor at Notre Dame and a Dominican Sister of Peace. She told me this about mentioning the interview she agreed to for this week's series.

SISTER MARY CATHERINE HILKERT: My brother wanted to know if I had to do original research on this.

SIEGEL: That's because it's a series of interviews on what we believe about what comes next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Everybody now alive will die someday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We will retain an awareness beyond this life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Whatever the soul wishes for and desires in paradise, that will be there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There'll be no more suffering and tears.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: We will finally learn to be reconciled with God and each other.

SIEGEL: Professor Hilkert says she believes in the hope of heaven. Hell is a different matter.

HILKERT: Well, I think I would speak with more definitiveness about my hope in final love, mercy, union with God that we've referred to as the kingdom of heaven; than I would about whether there's a hell, or what goes on in hell, or whether there's anyone in hell.

I think that holding on to the concept of hell is a way of trying to protect the notion of freedom; that it is possible for people to definitively choose evil. And I don't think we can make easy judgments about who has done that, and what happens in the depths of one's heart when confronted with the utter mercy and love of God.

And I think it's interesting, even, for instance, the Catholic Church has made public claims about saints, and those that we trust enough that they are in communion with God that we would officially name them as saints. And never has there been a statement about anyone definitively being in hell.

Neither is it part of my tradition to believe that God elects or predestines some people to be damned in the mercy of God. There are traditions that would hold that, but that's not part of my Catholic heritage - or my own faith.

SIEGEL: Do you have ornate images of what happens to us after life, and detailed images of what this heaven would be?

HILKERT: First of all, no; I don't have ornate images. But I think some of my favorite ones, actually, are from the Scriptures. And they are of banquets and of wedding feasts. And I think I use that imagery in preaching, and in consoling friends or family members. You know, we use language about - she's sharing at the banquet table, or they're waiting to welcome us there to that final banquet. Or also, what will be no more; that there'll be no more suffering and tears, and violence will be undone. Wounds will be healed.

But I will say, this morning I was reflecting, and a poem I haven't thought of for a long time occurred to me. And it was Wendell Berry, and it's a poem about a friend of his who has died. And he says that the friend came to him in a dream. And he asked him something like, how've you been? And the friend says, I've been eating peaches off a mighty fine tree. And I thought that was such a wonderful image, you know.

So I think it is our moments of greatest human intimacy and communion and inclusion - you know, the surprising events where the outsider or the outcast is somehow welcomed, and the feast is all the fuller because of that. So I think that food imagery that's so central to human life, those are my best images.

SIEGEL: Do you think we have any contact with those souls that have passed on?

HILKERT: Mm. I want to say, first of all, that we don't have the kind of contact that we've known and loved in this life. And I think that is the huge pain and fear and sadness that we all have about death and about the death of those we love as well as our own deaths. I think the closest I come to that is in our worship at the Eucharist. We talk about - this is a celebration of the living and the dead, of the communion of saints. And that's often where I am mindful of - particularly mindful of those I love; those I love who have gone before me, and those I love who are soon to go before me.

SIEGEL: This is not the Eucharist. This is the Wendell Barry example...

HILKERT: Yes...

SIEGEL: I personally feel that when I dream of my parents vividly, I am experiencing my very intense memory of them...

HILKERT: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...and perhaps my memory is improvising a little bit, but I don't think it's them. I don't think I'm hearing from them.

HILKERT: You know, I really wrestle with that, and I truly don't know. You know, two things came to me as you were speaking; and one of them is, I think, the boundary or the limit is on our side, that if they are transformed and with God and, you know, have capacities, including relational capacities that go beyond what we can imagine or what we have known, it is possible for them to be focused on us with love and cheering us on as one image of, you know, the great cloud of witnesses.

But on the other hand, I think we don't have that capacity. And so for us, as you say, there's our memory and our longing. There is a very real, profound absence. But the only other thing that occurred to me was that - the play of George Bernard Shaw, you know, with Saint Joan. You know, she's being questioned, and she's hearing voices. And the inquisitors say to her, that's just your imagination.

And she says, of course; that's how God speaks to us. So I also wouldn't want to definitively say that what does happen in our dreams, or in our imagination, or in our memories is not being prompted by God and by those who are with God. But that's sheer speculation, of course.

SIEGEL: As is most of what is said about the subject, yeah.

HILKERT: As is everything - absolutely.

SIEGEL: People hold very strong beliefs about what happens to us.

HILKERT: I think that's because so much is at stake. I think it's possible to have a very strong, firm faith. But it's always in spite of the darkness, and in spite of the pain and the void. So I think hope and faith are not feelings or, again, just human optimism. I think it's a much more profound - actually, gift of God within us that allows us to hope in the face of the darkness and the absence.

SIEGEL: Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert, thank you very much for talking with us today.

HILKERT: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Mary Catherine Hilkert of Notre Dame University, and that wraps up our series of interviews on the afterlife. The conversation continues, though, on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. The hashtag is #nprafterlife. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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