Monday, April 28, 2014

Heaven IS for Real (and so are miracles)

Like many of you, I read Todd Burpo's book, "Heaven is for Real" a few years back and then had the pleasure of seeing the movie this weekend. If you aren't familiar with the story (spoiler alert), it's the true story of a boy who nearly died during an operation. During his operation he had an experience (we'll discuss what sort of experience later) where he visited heaven. Over the course of several months, he shares the story with his father about what he saw, learned, and experienced.

The story is very moving, but several things really struck me today (more so than when I read the book a few years back). These things relate to children, their spiritual lives, and how we respond to their spiritual experiences. I'll be revealing bits and pieces of the book and movie as I go, so please don't continue reading if it's important to you to be surprised. I won't be posting "spoiler alert" each and every time I mention the book/film.

Colton Burpo is a typical, 4 year-old boy living in Nebraska with his parents and older sister. His father is pastor of the Wesleyan church the family attends. The father's profession figures greatly into this story. Colton suffers a ruptured appendix and undergoes lifesaving surgery. Naturally, his parents are distraught and call many parishioners to pray during the surgery. There are agonizing hours where they are unsure if their little boy will survive or not.

Colton Burpo survives, but that is not the true miracle of this story. In the weeks following, Colton and his dad take a vacation to celebrate his recovery. On the trip, they visit a park. Colton tells his dad he has been there before. His dad assures him they have not. Colton says he was there "when the angels sang to him". At his dad's prompting, Colton reveals more. During the operation, Colton says he left his body. He witnessed his dad praying and shouting with God in the chapel while his mom called parishioners in another part of the hospital. These things happened, but Todd knows Colton would have no way of knowing that.

In the days to come, Colton reveals many things to his father: what Jesus looks like, stories about his deceased great-grandfather, and many more. Todd Burpo struggles. He wants to believe his son, but this doesn't make sense. He didn't die. It wasn't a near-death experience.

Here's where I struggle. Colton's mom does not believe her son. She and many others dismiss him. It's as though they do not believe it's possible for a young child to have a profound, religious experience. It wouldn't bother me so  much if we weren't discussing a pastor's wife and devout parishioners. It made me sad for Colton. Neither the movie or book seemed to show that the unbelievers told Colton directly they didn't believe him.

Children are capable of deep, real, and profound religious experiences.  That's one of the reasons I love Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.We allow children to grow deeply in their relationship with Christ, the Good Shepherd. We never dismiss the child's profound interactions with the mysterious. Rather, we acknowledge and validate it. The video below shows a catechist's plea to bring CGS to her parish and describes the program perfectly.

This weekend, Catholics worldwide celebrated the joyous canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. We know that part of the canonization process involves the validation of miracles. This made me reflect further on the film. I'm inclined to believe that if Colton Burpo was Catholic, he would have had a more positive experience and more believers, initially. As Catholics, we look for miracles and know they are everywhere. We witness a miracle each and every time we attend Mass. I think one of the (many) beauties of our faith is our willingness to honor and acknowledge that the bridge between heaven and earth is short and knows no bounds.

Saint John Paul II visiting Sofia Cavalletti in her Rome atria.

Did Colton Burpo visit heaven? I don't know. I do know that something miraculous took place. This miraculous event allowed him to see and experience things that do not seem to be of this world. In my opinion, Colton probably didn't visit heaven. Why do I think that? I think that Colton and those who have near-death experiences do not fully experience heaven. I think heaven is truly beyond description. I think that Colton and those with near-death experiences have miraculous encounters with God, Jesus, angels, and/or deceased loved ones. I do, however, believe these experiences are true and real. And maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they did visit heaven. Either way, it doesn't really matter.  What matters is that someone experienced a miracle and chose to share that miracle with us.

Eventually, Colton Burpo's mother comes to believe him. She learns that Colton met a sister in heaven, the unborn child she had lost in the womb a few years before. It was beautiful to see her come to accept her child's experience as real. I just felt sad that it took her so long to get there.

I hope you leave this post wanting to honor the religious experiences of those children most near and dear to you. You might be humbled, surprised, and inspired by doing so. Do you have stories of your child's miraculous or profound encounter with God? I hope you'll share it in the comments!


  1. I have not seen the movie or read the book. Your evaluation of it is intriguing. I might have to take a read.

  2. Definitely worth it! My atheist friend gave me the book as a gift some years ago and I devoured it. (One should only befriend those atheists or agnostics who support you on your spiritual journey.)