“Even some colors I’d never seen before”

“Even some colors I’d never seen before” May 29, 2024


Classe basilica
The apse of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

We walked this morning over to Ravenna’s octagonal “Arian Baptistry,” which was erected by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great around the end of the fifth century AD or the beginning of the sixth century, roughly contemporary with the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo (which we visited yesterday).  The mosaic illustrations on the interior of its dome are exquisite.  Then we caught a bus out to the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, near what’s left of the ancient Roman port and naval base.  We had never visited Classe before, so this was a treat

On the left-hand wall of the apse of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Emperor Constantine IV formally bestows “privileges” upon the church of Ravenna
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

On 11 May 1819, Thomas Jefferson wrote about making peace with his slow descent toward death.

“A decline of health, at the age of 76, was naturally to be expected,” he wrote, “and is a warning of an event which cannot be distant, and whose approach I contemplate with little concern. For indeed in no circumstance has nature been kinder to us than in the soft gradations by which she prepares us to part willingly with what we are not destined always to retain.

“First one faculty is withdrawn and then another, sight, hearing, memory, eucrasy [well-being], affections, and friends, filched one by one till we are left among strangers, the mere monuments of times past, and specimens of antiquity for the observation of the curious.”

Fortunately, I still have my faculties — my sight, hearing, memory, “eucrasy,” and affections — pretty much intact and, although, painfully, I’ve lost some friends, I’m doing reasonably well on that score, as well.  Of course, I’m not yet 76, either.  However, if inevitable losses were all I had to which to look forward, life could soon become quite dreary.

The ancient apostles surround an image of the baptism of Christ, inside the dome of Ravenna’s “Arian baptistry.”  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

Mary Neal, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who is also married to a physician, is a graduate of the school of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.  She completed her residency at the University of Southern California and, thereafter, pursued further specialized training in spinal surgery in Sweden and Switzerland.  She then took up the role of director of spine surgery at USC before leaving for private practice. For years now, she and her husband — who are both very outdoorsy and athletic — have lived with their children and maintained a clinic in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  (Martin Tanner tells me that she has recently stepped away from her medical practice to pursue a program of New Testament studies through Claremont Graduate University.)

Dr. Neal’s resumé is certainly a respectable one, and, having heard her speak a couple of yearsago, I can now say that she comes across as calm and quite credible.  Over the next while, I want to share a few passages from her best-selling book To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2011). I’ve also read the sequel to To Heaven and Back.  It’s entitled 7 Lessons from Heaven: How Dying Taught Me to Live a Joy-Filled Life and it’s a more devotional and more explicitly Christian book than its predecessor.  However, along the way it retells the basic story told in the first book for those who are reading it who are unacquainted with that earlier book.  In what follows, I’ll be quoting from it, as well.

Experienced kayakers, she and her husband went with friends and professional guides to the upper Rio Fuy, in a remote area of rural Chile, back in January 1999.  One day, after plunging over a twenty-five foot waterfall, the nose of Dr. Neal’s kayak became solidly wedged between two boulders at the base of the cataract.  The pounding water kept her pinned face down onto the front deck of her kayak.  She knew that, if she did not escape soon, she would drown — a form of death that had always particularly horrified her.  But she could not get out.

Curiously, she felt calm and relaxed, even hopeful.  As the water filled her lungs, she entered into an indescribably beautiful area, experienced a comprehensive review of her own life story to that point, learned about events in her future that later came to pass, and much, much more.  Altogether and astoundingly, she was underwater for approximately thirty minutes.  The fact that she was revived, and without brain damage,  is a remarkable miracle in itself.  From time to time, from a vantage point that was quite distinct from the location of her body, she watched as her friends searched for her.  She felt her bones break and her ligaments tear — as an orthopedic surgeon, she knew exactly what was happening — but she felt no pain.

At the very moment I turned to Him, I was overcome with an absolute feeling of calm, peace, and of the very physical sensation of being held in someone’s arms while being stroked and comforted.  I felt like I imagine a baby must feel when being lovingly caressed and rocked in his mother’s bosom.  I also experienced an absolute certainty that everything would be okay, regardless of the outcome.  (To Heaven and Back, 56)

I never experienced being conscious one moment and unconscious the next.  Instead, I felt conscious and then more conscious.  I had a heightened clarity and intensity of consciousness, and I felt more alive than I had ever felt.  (7 Lessons from Heaven, 13, emphasis in the original)

As I hovered above the river, I was welcomed by a group of “somethings.”  Perhaps I should call them people, spirits, angels, or soul friends.  But these words mean different things to different people, so I am never quite sure what to call the beings who welcomed me.  All I can say is that I had absolute knowledge that these beings had known me and loved me as long as I had existed, and that I had known and loved them also.  I believe if I had looked closely at those in my welcoming committee, I would have recognized each of them as someone who had been important in my life experience, regardless of whether I had known them on Earth or not.  For example, one might have been a great-grandparent who died long before I was born.

But here’s the important thing.  They were radiant, brilliant, and overflowing with God’s love.  (7 Lessons from Heaven, 13)

I began to move with my guides up a path to the entrance of a great domed structure that I knew was the point of no return.  As we gently traveled, my companion and I communicated without words and moved without walking.  We didn’t speak using our mouths to form words, but the communication was pure and clear.  I heard the communication in English, my native language, but it was as if the words were being sent from one person to another in their most elemental form, just transference of energy and meaning.  (7 Lessons from Heaven, 15)

The colors of nature and the magnificent aromas of flowers and trees have always touched me deeply and, not surprisingly, this is what I began to encounter.  As I looked more closely, the path we were on seemed to be stitched together with every color of the rainbow and even some colors I’d never seen before.  A seemingly infinite variety of flowers sprouted along the edges of the path, and my very being was infused with their sumptuous aroma.  The array and vividness of the colors, the intricacies of the flowers, and the allure of the aromas were all far more intense than anything I have seen or experienced on Earth.  I not only saw and smelled these things, but also heard, tasted, and felt them.  My senses expanded, and I could both experience them and understand them.  (7 Lessons from Heaven, 16)

Posted from Ravenna, Italy



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