Archive for the ‘What Dreams May Come’ Category

I am alone.      

I walk along a shadowed path, a dark Lenten journey into self consideration.

Night has fallen early; I can barely see the way ahead. I stumble and fall, many times, for I am weak and unsure of my way. Where should I turn?

The black forest closes around me, tall trees of sins surround me: mighty redwoods of past transgressions on the left, massive oaks of inaction on the right.

Suddenly my feet step onto a metal sidewalk that carries me into the darkness. It slowly descends, a one-way escalator, a monstrous, mechanical movement machine, pulling me down into a deep chasm.

Like a giant indoor shopping mall, each level I pass has dozens of window displays. But instead of stores fronts, each display is a large video screen with film adaptations of my life, scenes in which I take no pride.      

I am George McFly in Back to the Future—cowardly, intimidated by aggressive people and insecure about my writing.

I am Peter Banning in Hook—so consumed by my job that I forget who I am and what’s most important in life. So focused on finances, I yell at my children when things are not going right.

Lower and lower I glide to the levels below.

I am Lester Burnham in American Beauty—restless and easily distracted by a lustful imagination. Faced with familiar temptations, I covet an irresponsible future.

I am Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind—prideful and boastful, I care more about what happens to me than others. I walk away instead of dealing with matters most important.

Deeper into the darkness I descend.

I am Peter in The Passion of the Christ—bragging that I will follow Our Lord wherever he goes. However, when faced with trouble and perhaps my own mortality, I deny His existence three times.      

I am Michael Corleone in The Godfather—first an innocent family member, then a good soldier. With moderate success, I am tempted by the power and feel the overwhelming need to control every situation, no matter the cost.

Lower and lower the steps descend to final level. A sign hangs overhead the entrance to Hades: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”   

I am Christy Nielsen in What Dreams May Come. I have died in a car accident, like my children before me. All three deaths were terrible accidents, yet my Annie blames herself for each of them. She takes her own life and ends up in Hell.

Yet Hell is not fire and brimstone. The real Hell is your life gone badly, in its worst possible state. You must spend eternity living that life, without knowing kindness, peace or love.

styx1I must find Annie in this blackest corner of Hell and convince her that she was wrong about her life. I cross a sea of faces—helpless souls crying for help. Thousands of bodies floating in the dark water claw at my boat. 

Upon reaching the shore, I walk past beached ocean liners, the steel ships broken and smoldering, their passengers trapped by flames and unbreakable chains.

Against all odds, I find Annie, my soul mate, and remind her of our love. I convince her that I will remain with her always, no matter the outcome. Her eyes open wide with recognition and her heart fills with gladness. She is lifted up and disappears to our peaceful corner of heaven.   

Yet I remain, for my sins weigh heavily upon my heart.

Softly, clearly, the sweet melody and powerful words of Rory Cooney’s song come to mind: Change our hearts, this time, your Word says it can be. Change our minds, this time, your life could make us free. We are the people your call set apart, Lord this time, change our hearts.

I acknowledge my past sins and open my sorrowful heart to God, begging for his forgiveness.

There in a dark corner, away from everything else, a light softly glows. I look and see it coming from a cave of freshly hewn rock. The stone that once covered the opening has been rolled away.

As I step inside, I see the end of a tree, a giant log rising upward toward the heavens. I step onto the timber and climb, my feet steadied by the nails pounded into the trunk.

The timber rises higher and higher, but it does not fall. It is supported by another timber that crosses underneath and holds it up. The light from above guides me home.

I feel alive again with hope, for all is forgiven. By the strength of this cross I am free.

I rise above the darkness to see the sun rise over the mountain of joy. It illuminates the world and out shines the midnight stars.

I am alone…no more.


First published in the March 20, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.

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Film, like other works of art, not only tells a story, but often reveals truths about the director and the audience for whom it was made.

As Baby Boomers struggle to reconcile their aging bodies and comfortable lifestyles, many films about heaven, the afterlife and the meaning of life have graced the silver screen during the past decades. On the whole, these films can tell us a great deal about the society in which we live.

For instance, in the last 30 years there have been two remakes of the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty in 1978 and Down to Earth with Chris Rock in 2001). In these films, a boxer/quarterback/stand-up comic is taken to heaven too early due to an angelic mistake and is put back on earth as a millionaire playboy. His mission is to live a full life and touch the lives of others until the time comes for his official trip to heaven.

These films reinforce the idea that we should not squander our talents and riches on a decadent lifestyle, but use these gifts to help others. The “brotherhood of man” will be better served if everyone works for the whole, not for each other.

Obviously, directors and screenplay writers can not research the afterlife, but they can draw upon ancient texts, oral traditions and Church teachings in their art. Unfortunately there are very few scriptural references to use. Heaven, or the beatific vision of God, is never mentioned in the Old Testament and is only rarely mentioned in the New Testament.

As Father Richard McBrien writes in Catholicism, the beatific vision of God is “the full union of the human person with God. It is that toward which every person strives. It is the goal of human existence.” When we see God face-to-face, McBrien writes, “we become fully like God, no trace of selfishness remains.”

HeavenThis quest for a greater understanding of our unique selves is illustrated in the TV movie The Five People You Meet in Heaven, based upon the best-selling book by Mitch Albom. In this story, Eddie (Jon Voight) is a maintenance man at the Ruby Pier Amusement Park. Although he wants to be an engineer, he spends his entire life repairing the carnival rides, struggling with a wounded leg from WWII and dealing with the loss of his wife after only a few years of marriage. He believes his life was a big waste of time.

After Eddie dies in an accident, he visits the individual heavens of five people who had the most influence on his life. At times he is confused as the details are revealed, but slowly he begins to understand that even strangers are connected to his life. “We are all connected,” says the Blue Man (Jeff Daniels). “Strangers are just family we don’t yet know.”

When Eddie gets to his personal heaven, he fully appreciates the life he led, as he is surrounded by all the people whose lives he saved through his work. His frustration and self-loathing are washed away like mud on a river stone. He becomes one with his people and God.

The Church teaches us that death is at once final and unique. There is no question of reincarnation, a belief held in many Eastern religions. “Those who might wish to cross from here to you cannot do so, nor can someone cross from your side to us.” (Lk 16:26). However, reincarnation is an underlying theme in the poignant comedy Defending Your Life, starring and directed by Albert Brooks.

After he dies in automobile accident, Daniel finds himself on a shuttle like the ones at Universal Studios. He is delivered to a modest hotel room in Judgment City, where he will stay for four days of examination.

Though not a trial, nine days of his life will be examined (by a prosecutor and two judges) to determine whether or not he has grown past the fears of life on earth. If he has, he can move forward to a new existence. If not, he has to go back and live another life on earth, even though he has already lived more than 20 lives.

We see scenes from Daniel’s life when he does not fight back on the playground, he freezes during an important business presentation to a large audience, and he immediately accepts a low salary offer at a new job, though he was prepared to fight through the negotiations.

While in Judgment City, Daniel falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), a courageous woman whose life easily impresses her judges and wins her first-class hotel accommodations. Yet Daniel is still afraid to fully commit to this new love and he is marked for return to Earth.

The anxieties shown by Daniel (family, work, marriage) all prevent him from fully living his life and rising to a new existence. This theme again resonates with the Boomers who find themselves balancing their ideals with the necessities of earning a living and maintaining a healthy, loving marriage.

When a spouse dies, does that love survive? According to Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze in Ghost), it does. “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside – you take it with you.”

But what if one spouse in a marriage falters along life’s road and ends up at the opposite end of heaven? Robin Williams explores this twist in the film What Dreams May Come.

When death takes Chris unexpectedly from his soul mate Annie, he lands in a heaven just like one of his wife’s paintings. “We all paint our own heavens,” says Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), “you’re just the first one to use real paints!”

These paintings keep the connection strong between Chris and his wife. But when she crumbles under the despair of first losing their only two children and then her husband to car crashes, she commits suicide.

Determined to save Annie from an everlasting hell, Chris journeys to the underworld to find and save his wife. In the end, the strength of their love overcomes the evils of self-doubt and despair. They are reunited with their children and once again share their unifying circle of love.

Should we look forward to heaven? Contemporary Punk band The Spill Canvas focuses attention on the here and now. “Heaven’s not a place you go when you die; it’s that moment in life when you actually feel alive, so live for that moment now.”

We don’t know what heaven will be like, standing face-to-face with Our Father, enveloped by His love forevermore. Bart Millard of MercyMe says it best in his song:

Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?
Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing Hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine! I can only imagine!

First published in the March 24, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio.

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