John B Keane was an Irish playwright who lived in Listowel, Co. Kerry. He wrote some very hard-hitting plays.
However, he was a man of deep faith. Towards the end of life, he was diagnosed with cancer, and the cancer was terminal.
Around that time, he was asked on a TV show if he believed in life after death. By way of an answer, he told the following story.
He had a friend, Jack, who lived in Co. Donegal.
The trouble was they hadn’t seen one another in years.
One day, John B phoned Jack.
They arranged to meet in Galway at a certain place they knew.
They arranged a particular day and time. Galway is about halfway between Kerry and Donegal.
As John B was about to leave home, his wife said, ‘But how can you be sure that he’ll show up?’ to which John B responded, ‘Jack is a reliable man. If he says he’ll be there, he’ll be there.’
Then, turning to the interviewer, John B said, ‘As for your question. I firmly believe that Jesus is a reliable person. He has told us that he has gone to prepare a place for us. He will be there. And so will our loved ones..
“Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (Jn. 14: 1 3 )
Where in John’s Gospel this passage sits is worth noting. This saying was not uttered on some sunny morning when all is going well, but on the night Jesus was betrayed; Judas has left the group, and in that poignant scene he shared their pain, and shares with all us the sheer tragedy of our mortality. But even as he prepared them for the sorrow of parting, he also instilled in them the hope of resurrection, the hope of Heaven and homecoming which they could not yet see.
This passage in John is very often chosen, and rightly so, as a reading at funerals, because it expresses both empathy and hope.
The priest/poet Malcolm Guite reflects on these words of Jesus, in sonnet form:
Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled
Always there comes this parting of the ways
The best is wrested from us, borne away,
No one is with us always, nothing stays,
Night swallows even the most perfect day.
Time makes a tragedy of human love,
We cleave forever to the one we choose
Only to find ‘forever’ in the grave.
We have just time enough to love and lose.
You know too well this trouble in our hearts,
Your heart is troubled for us, feels it too,
You share with us in time that shears and parts
To draw us out of time and into you.
I go that you might come to where I am
Your word comes home to us and brings us home.
(from ‘Parable and Paradox’, Canterbury Press, 2016)