Death is the greatest of our fears. Most of us believe it to be a cruel, catastrophic finality-the end of all we know, of all we are. Yet, Albert Einstein said, “When gazing into the profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, life and death flow into one another. There is neither evolution nor eternity, only Being. ”
Many years ago, one of my patients offered me a glimpse into the unknowable. By entering a realm between life and death, he discovered that the point of passing can be a moment of transcendence. His story has allowed me to see that death may not be the end, but could perhaps be a path to other realities. Through him, I came to know life and death as mysteries beyond human understanding. Through him, I was given a glimmer of insight into the beyond to perceive the miracle of existence as an exquisite mosaic about which we can only wonder. I have written his story in my recent book, Courageous Confrontations.
My patient was an overbearing Catholic priest, who after a lifetime of invoking the wrath of the Almighty upon his parishioners, had a massive heart attack and a cardiac arrest. Despite being on a heart-assist device, his heart slowly began to fail.
Father More’s heart attack left him in despair. He had spent a lifetime begging God for salvation from the inner demons caused by his childhood role in the death of a sadistic father. Despite a lifetime of devotion, his prayers had been in vain.
But as he began to intermittently lose consciousness in the Coronary Care Unit, the pain that had oppressed him throughout his life began to fall away. Father More had begun an astonishing series of healing experiences that led to his religious and spiritual awakening.
Father More was simultaneously dying, and moving into another realm, an inner journey that opened him to a oneness with the divine, and an absolute peace he had never before imagined. His prayers had been answered. At the moment of his passing, Father More’s last words were, “I’m coming home to God. ”
Father More’s confrontation with death opened me to possibilities that were nonexistent in the scientific and intellectual traditions in which I had been raised. Over time, I began to explore realities that transcend those we know through science and technology. As the physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote, “Scientific concepts cover only a very limited part of reality, and the part that has not yet been understood is infinite. ”
Medical science teaches that we are biological beings, functioning according to physiological principles that are governed by genetic codes and their biochemical elaborations. Father More showed me that such reductionist notions are simplistic, and don’t begin to recognize or value the vast complexity of human beings. William James said, “Rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all around it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different…No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these disregarded…They cannot furnish formulas. They open a region, though they fail to give a map. ”
All of us have experienced moments when we are lost in a sunset, the rapture of love, or a religious experience. At such times, the ordinary sense of our separateness evaporates, and we often feel at one with the universe. Perhaps in those moments, we have briefly entered another reality not dissimilar to what Father More described during his out-of-body experiences.
Were Father More’s experiences hallucinations—abnormalities of brain chemistry and nerve function caused by oxygen deprivation? Or were they visions—vivid, life-altering occurrences during which something appears within one’s consciousness that profoundly effects the heart and soul, perhaps even under the influence of a divine or spiritual dimension?
What I do know is that Father More’s experiences altered my consciousness. When I sat holding his hand as he died, I sensed an unmistakable presence. Normally, watching one of my patients die devastates me. But at the moment of Father More’s death, I was filled with wonder. I too felt released from ordinary reality, and was witness to a profoundly spiritual process. Losing a patient for whom I cared deeply no longer tormented me. Everything about Father More’s passing seemed right, even holy. In that moment, my own state was so blissful that it frightened me. The foundation of my everyday being had fallen away, and I too was perfectly at peace. As inexplicable as it was, nothing has ever seemed more real.
Father More’s teaching about death allowed me to see that it may not be an end, but a possible path to other realities. Human consciousness has been called spirit or soul—the part of us that religions throughout history have referred to as eternal. The animating energy that is consciousness—something medical science cannot locate in the anatomy of our physical bodies—might at the moment of death, simply change to another form within the miracle of existence.
Einstein wrote: “I feel myself so much a part of all life that I am not in the least concerned with the beginning or the end of the concrete existence of any particular person in this unending stream. ” I have continued to employ the technology of modern medicine in the treatment of my patients, but there has been a change. Before my experience with Father More, I regarded the death of a patient as a defeat. I no longer believe that. Instead, I have come to put more trust in the ultimate outcome. I fight for
Paradoxically, accepting death with more equanimity has enriched my reverence for life. Both are mysteries beyond human reason. I have been with many patients at the moment of their death. Father More graced my life by allowing me to glimpse beyond, and to appreciate the miracle of existence as an exquisite mosaic about which we can only wonder. A realm we can only name—perhaps, like Father More, by calling it God.
Richard Helfant, MD, is a Harvard-trained cardiologist. Courageous Confrontations, Dr. Helfant's latest work, is about how life-threatening illnesses have become opportunities to transform patients’ outlook on life, death and dying .