Finding 'the beyond' within human experience


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Our twins were born on Aug. 7, 1976. Kevin fought for hours to stay in the cozy confines of Fran's womb, but he finally succumbed to the constant push, push, push to enter our not-so-cozy world. Karla slipped out gently 10 minutes later. "The best 10 minutes of my life," Kevin still insists, although if you look clearly into his right eye you'll find a soul-deep image of a smiling Karla.

I watched their birth, holding Fran's hand and trying to comfort her while anxiously waiting for our only children to take their first breaths. A moment of wonder, gratitude, hope, and newly-minted, ineffable joy! A moment I share with millions of other fathers.

That moment was not contained by a clock reading 7:30 a.m. or in a small hospital room in Ottumwa, Iowa. Time and space exploded into all time and all space since I was now perpetually a father, indelibly branded by an inescapable relationship that rearranged the molecules of the rest of my life. That moment expanded beyond that time and place. Within that birth, there lived a pregnant beyond. It was and is a "beyond" within a human experience.

But these expandable experiences are not limited to birth or to fathers. At the other end of the spectrum is the suicide death of that same infant Karla 26 years later and the seven years of her bipolar illness that preceded her death. There is a beyond-within that suffering and grief also. I still have unanswered, haunting questions about why, and what could I have done to convince her she had other options. The perpetual loose ends of her suicide take me beyond and into the mystery of an illness that baffles reason and shatters reality.

The cruel-beyond of her death clashed with her birth-beyond to the point of smothering the joy of her entry into my life, and it took a few years, and a lot of grief work, to access her birth-beyond once again. Today, those two everlasting moments co-exist somewhat peacefully in my lived memory and my ongoing daily life.

These two experiences, and some others as well, lead me to believe that there is a beyond-within many experiences in all of our lives.

Theoretically, all experiences at all times and in all spaces can usher in the "beyond." Brilliant red maple trees in the fall; quiet mountain vistas; a budding romance; a seasoned, tempered love; a mutually satisfying personal and sexual encounter; a child running into your arms -- all these and more can open the door to the beyond in life.

I hesitate to label these beyond experiences as God. History is littered with people who claimed they were God, messengers of God, or even avengers for God but who killed, controlled, abused power, and subjugated others all in the name of God.

History is also blessed with saintly people who loved, sacrificed and courageously served others, again, in the name of God. Claiming God as the beyond-within is delicate and dangerous.

But my image of God (which is all any of us has) suggests that these beyond-within experiences are a trace of God in each of us. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, there must be something God-like within us that we image. Our beyond experiences are glimpses, hints, clues, traces of this God within.

That's hard to believe, isn't it? We know our faults, sins, limitations and pettiness, and yet there is this godliness co-existing within us. An awareness and acceptance of this both-and is essential for spiritual growth. We are marvelously made and our own worst enemy simultaneously.

Since I have a drop, spark, flicker of God within me, some of my thoughts are also God's thoughts. Some of my feelings are also God's feelings. This awareness is not arrogance but humble acknowledgement that my God wants to communicate with me. That communication doesn't need to be esoteric, exceptional or coded but can be direct, clear, accessible and frequent.

We obviously need criteria to distinguish between my God-thoughts and feelings and my own ungodly thoughts and feelings. But that's what Jesus is for. That's why he is our Savior.

Why else would God want to hang out in my neighborhood unless he/she/they want to visit with me regularly? I finally found the beyond-within in the exceptional experiences like birth and suicide, love and suffering.

But the point of that discovery is to show me that the beyond-within, that my God is also accessible within common things and experiences, like red maple leaves and multiple relationships.

So, I go within in order to go beyond.

[Tom Smith is the author of eight books, most recently Church Chat: Snapshots of a Changing Catholic Church. He and his wife, Fran, live in Shiloh, Ill.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb. 26-March 10, 2016 print issue under the headline: Finding 'the beyond' within human experience.

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