By Kathy Berken
My dear friend Lee Nagel (National Conference for Catechetical Leadership executive director) died on Memorial Day (see related story in the June 5 issue). I needed to return to Green Bay for the wake and funeral, no matter what it took, given the challenges of my ongoing chemo regimen and health.
My daughter Erica drove and we stayed with my son’s family. Perhaps you remember the column I wrote about Aaron and Sarah’s three children, Isaac, Anna, and Ava, and how we had church at home that one Sunday. Well, Isaac, who is now 7, and I had another of our deep conversations. When I told him I was going to Lee’s wake and funeral Mass, he asked if it would be scary, and I said, no, because this was just Lee’s body, and his soul had left his body and was in heaven.
This began the best theological conversation I’ve had in awhile about dualism and eternal life. Isaac enjoys talking about dreams, so I explained that heaven is a place where you can imagine anything, as in a dream, but your dreams are real. “So, can I rob a bank in heaven?” he asked. Well, no, because you will be with God all the time and you will only want to do good things that make you and others happy. If you rob a bank, you will get caught and punished and have to give the money back, and that’s not what heaven is like. He instead imagined eating tons of candy, going to bed whenever, and having fun with all his friends.
“Are you the same age in heaven as when you died?” he asked. Hmm, I thought, why would you have to be? As long as this heaven dream is real, you can be any age you want any time you want. He liked that.
We talked about Lee’s body and soul, and Isaac asked, “What’s a soul?” Fortunately, he already knew what the word “id” meant, thanks to Scrabble. Yourid is the truest inside part of you that only you know about. “The soul is like your id, then, right?” Isaac asked. Not exactly, I said, but close enough.
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr explains it like this: “Your True Self is who you are in God and who God is in you. You can never really lose your soul; you can only fail to realize it, which is indeed the greatest of losses — to have it, but not have it (Matt 16:26).”
The conversation with Isaac grew more theological. I said when you die your soul leaves your body, and lives forever in heaven, and your body is generally put in the ground. But when you are alive, your body and soul are one thing. I compared a person to a glass of water that had color added to it and comes together.
Isaac, who aspires to be a meteorologist, said, “But when the water evaporates, it goes up into the air and forms a cloud and then when the cloud gets full, it rains back on the earth.” Yes, exactly, and it leaves the color in the glass, which is like your body. The real you is your soul, the water, which changes to vapor when you die and makes a cloud and then, why not, it turns back into water to nourish the earth.
I thought of what Lee told me once about rain, that it’s God baptizing you, so you should feel blessed to be standing out there getting soaked. Lee taught sacramental connections like this to catechists, which made his presentations popular. He also had a booming voice.
The morning I wrote this, as I lay in bed, it was raining and thundering. Isaac’s image of the evaporation process separating the soul from the body, turning the soul water into clouds and the continual process of that, along with the thunder I heard, brought tears to my eyes. And I felt Lee’s presence even more, thanks to Isaac’s 7-year-old theological principles.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)