Beth Patterson at Virtual Tea House offered to write this guest post for the Abbey in support of a new book being published (see below). I am delighted to host her words here. Last Christmas I had what felt very much like my own near death experience (or NDE as Beth writes) and I am very intrigued by the qualities common to folks who touch their own mortality in such an intimate way. I am also drawn to her story because of the wisdom she expresses from her grandmother and my own deep appreciation for what our ancestors offer to us.
People like us, who believe in physics, know that distinctions between past, present and future are only stubbornly persistent illusions. –Albert Einstein
This post is a synopsis of the outgrowth of my Grandmother Verna’s near death experience at the age of 94. She lived to be 103, and died with her boots on, as the saying goes. This story has recently been published by Gray Wings Press, edited by Maureen Hovenkotter, in a compilation of 17 stories of strength, hope and grace called Real Women, Real Wisdom: A Journey into the Feminine Soul.
My grandmother, born in 1898, had always been a woman of faith, having been raised by two Methodist ministers at the turn of the last century. She had worried and fretted trying to keep the generations of children, grandchildren, etc, on the straight and narrow. During her 94th year, after a difficult life in which she had outlived two husbands and two of her four children, she fell and after not having been found for a few hours, ‘died’ on the gurney at the hospital. A few months she later recounted her near death experience (NDE) to me as I was visiting on a break while I was in seminary. In it, she was sitting on a long bench that felt like a train or bus station. She became aware that there was a presence sitting close to her left side. She never called the presence Jesus, but with my questions, she did barely admit it. In the NDE they had a long, very intimate conversation in which she found forgiveness for supposed sins she’d worried over, gained huge perspective on her life as spiritual matriarch for her very large extended family (she had had five generations, and before she died there was one more added). Jesus also told her that she had the choice to come back to this reality or go ahead. As she hesitantly told me her story, there were large silences and sighs that told me much about her inner state. When I hesitantly asked her about her relationship with Jesus during and after this encounter, ‘He is closer than a brother, Gram?’ She quickly replied, ‘No, Beth, he’s closer than your own skin.’
My life turned on a dime as I felt the impact of her words. At that stage in my life (I was 36) I didn’t think much about ancestral wisdom and how it is passed down. Now in my mid-fifties, this question is ever more present.
Spiritual DNA can be defined, if far from being understood, as the blueprint for the morphogenesis, the creation of form, of our spiritual nature, our longings, depth, intent and the ultimate flowering of our spiritual selves.
Gram through her life, death and this NDE has gifted me with profound questions and answers regarding how all this works. My belief is that during her NDE my grandmother tuned in to the pooled memory of her spiritual ancestry, which included Jesus. Made of the same star stuff and part of her memory pool, once joined, never separated. In this experience, on a cellular level, she recognized her kinship with Jesus. In this experience, I believe that there was a non-duality to her vision. She saw herself clearly, possibly for the first time in her life. She saw herself in relationship to her divinity, and her humanity, and she was forgiven, transformed and ‘spiffed up’ all at the same time.
It was as if she got a jolt of energy for the rest of her journey. She had a love affair at 95. She continued to write, garden, laugh, be involved in her large extended family until her death at 103. And she learned that all she had to do was love us…from this side of the veil or beyond it.
My grandmother’s transformation, at an age that would seem to preclude such a radical shift, came through a connection with Jesus that left her knowing that she was not and had never been alone in the universe. She opened, blossomed, became less fearful, more curious about other thought systems. She no longer feared death. It was as if a light had gone on inside her.
It seems to take a minimum of seven years for most of us who experience NDEs to integrate the aftereffects. Gram lived 9 years after her NDE and I saw each of these elements unfold in her life. Seven major elements comprise the universal pattern of after-effects from NDEs, from PMH Atwater’s list of attributes:
Unconditional love – Many of those who have NDEs perceive themselves as equally and fully loving of all, openly generous, excited about the potential and wonder of each person they see.
Lack of boundaries – Familiar codes of conduct can lose relevance or disappear altogether as unlimited avenues of interest and inquiry take priority. This new frame of reference can infuse NDE with such an accepting nature that they can and do display childlike naivete. With the fading of previous norms and standards, basic cautions and discernments can also fade.
Timelessness – Many begin to "flow" with natural shift of time, rejecting locks and schedules as they exhibit a heightened awareness of the present moment and the importance of "now." They are easily distracted and can appear "spacey" until they readjust to the demands of daily routines.
The psychic – Extrasensory perception and various types of psychic phenomena become normal and ordinary in their lives. A person's religious beliefs do not prevent this expansion of faculties or enlargements of perceptual range.
Reality switches – Hard-driving achievers and materialists can transform into easy-going philosophers; but, by the same token, those once more relaxed or uncommitted can become energetic movers and shakers, determined to make a difference in the world. Switches seem to depend more on what is needed to round out the individual's growth than on any uniform result.
The soul as self – Most come to recognize themselves as an immortal soul currently resident within material form so lessons can be learned while sojourning in the Earth realm. They know they are not their body; it is a "jacket" they wear.
Modes of communications – What was once foreign becomes familiar, what was once familiar becomes foreign. Rationale of any kind tends to lose its logic as they begin to think more abstractly and in bigger terms. New ways of using language, even whole new vocabularies, emerge.
What little I have come to understand about they mystery of spiritual DNA is that I am experiencing more and more of these small transformations each day myself, just from having been and continue to be in such intimate contact with Gram.
She still speaks to me, her energetic hand intimately on my head, comforting and challenging me, saying, “Not this, not that, Beth. Keep on going deeper into the mystery. You will never understand and yet you cannot cease from often being struck dumb and blind by it. Do not stop your quest for experience.”
What she, as my most potent spiritual ancestor, who has been the prototype and placeholder for ancestral wisdom, cautions me about, every day:
“We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.” –W.H. Auden
I am assured that we are not alone in the universe. We are surrounded by and embodied in the soup of spiritual ancestry. The ability to embody our ancestors as we become them is a gift. As I feel Gram’s hand on my head, so do I begin to place my own hand on those I love and caress their sweetness and light, their darkness and pain. And I feel more compassion for my own contraction and fear, less surprise at those times when my compassion is bigger than I can yet embody—it is out in front of me, leading the way.
We are in the process of becoming the avatars of our spiritual DNA. From the last paragraph of my story: “There is no lack of anything in the universe. It’s all closer than our own skin. It just takes being willing to tune our receivers to a different frequency—to open constantly to what is not yet known.”
—Beth Patterson at Virtual Tea House