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Of God and death, the great mysteries
By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2000
Across the room, on a dresser, sits another icon -- a bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva, many-armed, with a cobra draped around his neck.
"I recognize all the faces of God," says Marilyn, "and I enjoy that."
Like most terminally ill people, Marilyn, 50, has been reflecting on God a lot lately. As the final journey approaches, it's natural to wonder what's ahead, what will happen after death.
As a curious teenager, she read about Eastern religions. As an adult, she belonged to the Episcopal Church for 15 years. Eventually she drifted away from organized worship.
"The religious structure around spirituality is often smaller than I am comfortable with," she says. "It's too limited for me."
Now, when filling out forms or applications that ask her to describe her religious orientation, she checks the box that says non-denominational.
"When I think about who I am spiritually, I would have to say I have a pretty eclectic orientation. I maintain a relationship with Jesus in my prayer. But my perspective of the afterlife definitely is not Christian."
Marilyn believes she will be reincarnated.
Several books helped her create her personal vision of what will happen after she dies. One was a classic Buddhist text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Another, its modern adaptation, was The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
She also read Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, a psychiatrist who stumbled onto research about past lives while treating a patient's anxiety through hypnotherapy. Another helpful book was Journey of Souls by psychologist Michael Newton, which describes his theory of where souls reside between incarnations.
Nearly 20 years ago Marilyn had her own past-life experience, a spontaneous memory that arose while she was doing deep movement exercises, called alignment to music, in California. It took her totally by surprise.
"I had these beliefs about reincarnation, based on reading I had done, but when I started experiencing a past life, it disturbed my whole being. I cried, I shook, I thought I was going crazy. I had a really hard time integrating it into my reality. It forced me to confront the difference between belief and experience."
Marilyn acknowledges that some people's faith is so strong, they are sure they know what happens after death. Others report "near-death experiences," in which they were clinically dead for a few minutes but returned to describe what they saw and heard.
Even so, death remains the great unsolved mystery. "So it's all conjecture," she says. "I don't know (what happens), and I have to admit that I don't know."
She can, however, describe what she thinks will happen.
"I will be drawn into light, and I'll be greeted by images and beings I feel comfortable with."
She expects her mother and father, who died years ago, to be there. Her Aunt Vanda, who succumbed to ovarian cancer when she was about Marilyn's age. Dear friends like John Eckert, an Eckerd College professor and potter, who died in the 1980s.
"They'll be there encouraging me on. And I'll do some traveling through tunnels, very much like some of that traveling Jodie Foster does in the movie Contact. But I don't think it will be speedy or violent or scary. More like gentle. A sense of being pulled and guided, that there's no effort in it."
"As I understand it, there's a sense that the soul is tired by its experience on the physical plane. So you're taken to a place that is soothing and healing, and you stay there a while so you can recover from this physical incarnation."
After that, "you have a review of your life, with a guide. You look at your life, but it's without judgment. Just compassion. You have a perspective of "What were my goals in this life, and did I achieve them? Where did I get off track? Where did I do well?' And that gives you information to begin assessing what you want to do in the next life."
Some souls, evidently, are given the choice whether to reincarnate or not.
"I'll probably come back," she says, laughing, "just because I'm that kind of person."
Because her vision of the afterlife is so benign, Marilyn is not afraid.
"I have very little trepidation about what's to come. I'm curious, and there's a little bit of fear but not a great fear. It's not a dread. It's mostly just, "Ooh, it's going to be so strange and new. Will I know what to do? What will the journey be like?' "
She knows her thoughts might seem foreign to those who hold fast to a more traditional view of heaven. She doesn't see different beliefs as mutually exclusive.
"It really is spirit we're seeking. All religions basically speak the same language. They're all saying the same thing: love, love, love. "And that is what I'm interested in."
COMING TUESDAY: How will Marilyn's family and friends cope after her passing? She talks about the grieving process, and letting go.
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