Several years ago, I was at a delightful dinner party where the food was excellent, and the “table talk” was thought provoking. Most of those attending this gathering were very open to life after death issues, so naturally, this was what conversation rotated around. Professional health care workers, school administrators, clergy and even a couple of retail folk spent most of the evening sharing very personal, spiritually transformative experiences. I talked about my own mother-in-law’s recent deathbed vision, while a politician friend spell bound the dinner crowd with his near death experience. With regard to these intimate shares, we were all in agreement that our individual encounters were treasured, life altering gifts.
As we made our way through chocolate desserts, the “feel good” experience of sharing suddenly evaporated. The mood turned and there was a tension in the air which put everyone on edge. Why did this happen? One word did it and that word was RELIGION. As rich scented coffee was poured, a provocative statement was made about organized religion. The initiator of this new leg of conversation said, “It’s too bad that religion stunts afterlife exploration.” Because of this one statement, the table talk was suddenly divided into two camps. With this, the discussion became heavy and at times, very “heated.”
A couple of the diners were convinced that religion in any form was at the root of all societal evil. They wanted nothing to do with it and added that they firmly believed theology in general, regularly discounted spiritual encounters, near death experience, after death communications, death bed visions and other “ah! ha!” moments of enlightenment. For this anti-religion camp, religion in any form was viewed as true canned pabulum for the masses, lacking in depth and creative thinking. With arms folded across their chests, they righteously proclaimed that religion was for the intellectually dead, a dogma that humankind could very well do without.
Oddly, most of those at the table who practiced one form of religion or another were keeping very tight lipped. I understood their fear of taking a stand. As a practicing Jew, this was not the first time I had been knocked over with a tidal wave of anger toward religion. At one time, I too swam the tide of indignation toward religious institutions. For years, I had tremendous rage toward clergy, synagogues, churches, prayer, and any concept of a higher spiritual creator or power. The very word “religion” could bring my blood to an instant boil within a matter of seconds. Eventually, after much soul searching, I discovered my generalized rage toward religion wasn’t about religion at all. In actuality, my anger needed to be directed toward those individuals who had miss-used religion for their own gain.
Because I took the time to separate those who had hurt me with their abuse of religion, from the concept of religion itself, today I’m in a very different place.
After listening patiently to the anti-religion camp for almost an hour, I put on my emotional “boxing gloves” and I stepped into the ring of debate. I’d finally had enough and had decided it was time for me to open my mouth.
“I’m a practicing Jew”, I boldly announced. “And, I’ve had some pretty interesting spiritual encounters. These experiences have been life altering. I’m not saying I’m some sort of self proclaimed psychic, or medium. I’m just a regular person who like many of you here and so many others, has had some incredible spiritually transformative experiences. And yes, as you all know I have a passion for researching the departing visions of the dying. Yes, the inaccuracies and behavior of some well-known Hollywood mediums are making the job of educating the public and medical community about deathbed visions and related experience more difficult. These ‘Hollywood’ mediums do not act with humble graciousness. They instead rip grieving people open before millions of television viewers. While acting as experts in the ‘unknown’ they appear intoxicated with their own perception of self importance. And yes, these self proclaimed experts in the unknown often look ridiculous and religious people typically keep their experiences to themselves because they don’t want to be associated with them.
“But as I said, as a religious person, I’m not alone. Several Rabbis I know, along with a few Catholics, Baptists, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists, have shared with me incredible spiritually transformative encounters. So, when you say, ‘Give all clergy and religious believers a good kick in the rump and wave good-bye’ you are asking me to abandon friends, relatives and fellow seekers, who use religion as a means to discovering true spirituality. Along with this, you are insisting that I cut ties with clergy who work diligently at encouraging their congregants to have an open mind about such matters. You guys are sounding a bit intolerant.”
After my soap box speech, most in the anti-religion camp nodded in agreement and said, “You know, you’ve got a point there.”
Insisting on extremism, total rejection of religion and the clergy is not fair to those of us who use religion as it was intended, as a guide to a greater reality. Yes, there are many individuals who use religion inappropriately, just as there are those who swing extremely in the other direction, rejecting all forms of religion. News flash – neither side is right! Sometime ago, I wrote a book on religious extremism and the behaviors behind the intense rejection of religion. The manuscript focused on examining the damage extreme thinking in any form can create, be it religion or religion bashing. Interestingly, though I have authored numerous books, I couldn’t get a publisher to look at this piece. I found this fact in and of itself most interesting. In spite of this, I did go ahead and include a chapter on religious extremism within the text of one of my later published works. Along with this, I addressed how religion is supposed to offer humankind several things and this is what I presented to my dinner companions that night.
Why is religion important? The answers are very simple.
1. Religion provides a path for beginning exploration into spirituality – something to “start” with.
2. Religion provides a place for us to return to when our initial visits to the unseen become too overwhelming for us – the security of a starting foundation.
In other words, religion is man-made, a means to an end, that end being the doorway to the exploration of a greater reality. Many individuals have found this doorway through religion. I’m one of those people. I first read about deathbed visions in a book written by a rabbi. This began my own personal spiritual journey. By explaining to me what science could not, my religion gave me a “starting” point or foundation for future experiences and exploration. In presenting deathbed vision accounts, which were centuries old, this particular rabbi unknowingly clarified for me my own encounters with the afterlife. No one, till that moment, had ever adequately provided me with accounts or experiences of a similar nature.
For the last several decades, I’ve investigated such visions and have sifted through over 2,000 firsthand accounts. Regularly, I discuss and educate clergy with regard to deathbed visions and they are happy to receive the information. Most clergy find themselves at the bedsides of dying congregants and have encountered the departing vision. Unfortunately most haven’t been schooled in how to approach such an experience.
If anti-religion folk would take the time to open their minds and talk to religious people who have communed with deceased loved ones, or who have experienced premonitions of things to come, or seen an afterlife reality by way of a near death encounter, death bed vision, after death communication or out of body experience, maybe they would not find it necessary to totally dismiss the benefits religion can provide.
I’m grateful I can recognize what my religion provides for me. Because I was able to disentangle my own difficult history with religion, from the true purpose of religion, I know today that religion is not spirituality – religion is not the end. Religion in any form is the beginning and a religious path can eventually lead one to a true spiritual path.
A Texas State Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Carla Wills-Brandon has published 12 books, one of which was a “Publishers Weekly Best Seller.” Her most recent book, “Beyond the Chase: Breaking Your Obsessions That Sabotage True Intimacy” is proving to be a great success. She has also lectured across the U.S. and U.K., and has appeared on numerous national radio and television programs, such as Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jesse Raphael, Montel Williams, Art Bell’s Coast To Coast Radio Show, Uri Geller’s Coast To Coast Radio Show and Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.
Carla has also been investigating spirituality and other related phenomenon for over a decade and two of her books, “One Last Hug Before I Go” and “A Glimpse of Heaven” discuss this in depth. She is considered to be one of the leading researchers into deathbed visions. In her private practice, grief work, lectures and workshops she teaches people how to integrate these unusual encounters into everyday living. For more information visit www.carlawillsbrandon.com