Perhaps it’s no surprise that Mary Catherine Hilkert, a Catholic theologian, a professor at Notre Dame and a Dominican Sister of Peace, believes that people can find love, mercy and union with God after death. In her eyes, however, the concept of hell is far less definitive.
As part of All Things Considered‘s series on the concept of life after death, Hilkert spoke with host Robert Siegel about her perspectives on heaven and hell, why she thinks of banquets when she imagines the afterlife and why people hold such strong beliefs about what happens when life ends.
On her views on the concept of hell
I think I would speak with more definitiveness about my hope in final love, mercy, union with God, that we’ve referred to as the kingdom of heaven, than I would about whether there’s a hell, or what goes on in hell or whether there’s anyone in hell.
I think that holding on to the concept of hell is a way of trying to protect the notion of freedom. That it is possible for people to definitively choose evil, and I don’t think we can make easy judgments about who has done that, and what happens in the depths of one’s heart when confronted with the utter mercy and love of God.
And I think it’s interesting, even, for instance, the Catholic Church has made public claims about saints and those that we trust enough that they are in communion with God that we would officially name them as saints. And never has there been a statement about anyone definitively being in hell.
Neither is it part of my tradition to believe that God elects or predestines some people to be damned in the mercy of God. There are traditions that would hold that, but that’s not part of my Catholic heritage. Or my own faith.
On what imagery she associates with the afterlife
Some of my favorite [images] are from the Scriptures, and they are of banquets and of wedding feasts. And I think I use that imagery in preaching and in consoling friends or family members … language [like], “She’s sharing at the banquet table” or “They’re waiting to welcome us there to that final banquet.” Or also, what will be no more; that there’ll be no more suffering and tears, and violence will be undone. Wounds will be healed.
But I will say, this morning I was reflecting and a poem I hadn’t thought of for a long time occurred to me. … It was Wendell Berry, and it’s a poem about a friend of his who has died. And he says that the friend came to him in a dream. And he asked him something like, “How ya been?” And the friend says, “I’ve been eating peaches off a mighty fine tree.”
And I thought that was such a wonderful image. … So I think it is our moments of greatest human intimacy and communion and inclusion — surprising events where the outsider or the outcast is somehow welcomed — and the feast is all the fuller because of that. So, I think that food imagery that’s so central to human life, those are my best images.
On whether she believes that the living can have contact with loved ones who have died
I want to say, first of all, that we don’t have the kind of contact that we’ve known and loved in this life. And I think that is the huge pain and fear and sadness that we all have about death and about the death of those we love, as well as our own deaths.
I think the closest I come to [some form of contact] is in our worship at the Eucharist. We talk about [that it] is a celebration of the living and the dead, of the communion of saints. And that’s often where I am … particularly mindful of those I love; those I love who have gone before me and those I love who are soon to go before me. …
But the only other thing that occurred to me was … [Saint Joan,] the play of George Bernard Shaw. … She’s being questioned and she’s hearing voices, and the inquisitors say to her, “That’s just your imagination.” And she says, “Of course. That’s how God speaks to us.” … So I also wouldn’t want to definitively say that what does happen in our dreams or in our imagination or in our memories is not being prompted by God and by those who are with God.
On why people hold such strong beliefs about the afterlife
I think that’s because so much is at stake. I think it’s possible to have a very strong, firm faith. But it’s always in spite of the darkness, and in spite of the pain and the void. So I think hope and faith are not feelings or … just human optimism. I think it’s a much more profound, actually, gift of God within us that allows us to hope in the face of the darkness and the absence.