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Word-Association Exercise: Afterlife

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This activity helps young people examine Church teachings on the afterlife.

(30 minutes)

Prior to this exercise, have the all participants (including the facilitator) bring to the session a personal symbol. This symbol should be an object from among the participant's personal belongings that acts as a reminder of a much loved person now separate from the participant--by death, illness, geographic distance, or the breakdown of a relationship.

Before beginning the exercise, ask participants to place their personal symbol around a crucifix you have placed in a prominent area of the gathering space.

  1. Begin this exercise by pointing out that the Catholic Church speaks of afterlife as involving three possible states of being: heaven, hell, and purgatory.
  2. Divide your group in two, explaining that for this word-association exercise, the participants will each need a pen or a pencil and a sheet of blank paper. Tell the participants that each group will hear a different word and be given one minute to individually write down whatever words or phrases come to mind upon hearing that particular word. Emphasize that they are to write quickly and are not to reflect on their responses until a minute has passed. Stress that they should remain silent during this exercise. When all understand the directions, whisper to one group the word heaven and whisper to the other group the word hell. Do not worry if participants take note of what their peers are writing; this might spark further associations. At the end of the one minute, call time.
    In order that all might benefit from everyone's written responses, ask the young people to call out--in quick succession--their responses to each word.
  3. With the whole group, do a word-association exercise for purgatory, inviting everyone to call out their responses rather than writing them down.
  4. Direct the young people to scatter themselves throughout the available space for a period of quiet reflection. Once all are comfortably seated and ready, invite them to reflect on the personal symbol they placed near the crucifix. Encourage them to allow memories to rise from their symbol. After a moment, help the young people to go deeper into their memories, by presenting each of the following questions for private pondering:
    • In the memories raised by your personal symbol, recall any times when you tasted what heaven might be like--happiness, excitement, a feeling of safety or warmth. [Pause.] Quietly ponder the memory of these tastes of heaven.

    • Staying with your memories, now recall, if possible, a time when you tasted what hell might be like--a time when someone hurt you, when you lost something or someone precious. [Pause.] Because these are painful experiences, approach them with trust that you are in God's loving presence. Recall these memories just long enough to try to name for yourself what hell could be like.

    • Finally, drawing from your memories, recall times when you experienced what purgatory might be like. Remember that purgatory has to do with personal transformation: as God helps us to become less and less sinful, we become more and more loving--and lovable. A taste of purgatory might be an experience of mending what was broken by sinfulness. In a relationship this might mean feeling sorrowful for having hurt someone, really wanting to make up for it, and then apologizing in a sincere and loving way. Or a taste of purgatory might be an experience of learning about how to love or of changing your old ways.

  5. Request that the young people regather in the large group. Elicit their insights about the nature of heaven, hell, and purgatory. As you do, reassure the young people that they are not being asked to reveal personal details of their own experiences. Rather, they are being asked to share general insights gleaned from reflecting on their own experiences. If necessary, you could offer examples such as these:
    • I think heaven must be all about love. 

    • I think hell must be about being completely cut off from others.

    • I think purgatory must have something to do with struggling and gradually improving our ways.

  6. Conclude this activity by briefly presenting an overview of Catholic teaching on afterlife: 
    • Explain the Catholic position as one that holds afterlife, like earthly life, to be a kind of process. All life--from conception to birth through life to death and beyond--is a continuum. On this continuum, God is intimately present with us, in a special way, through Jesus and the Spirit. At every stage God is actively helping us learn how to live and how to love. God helps us move toward the fulfillment of the deepest human desires.

    • Explain that afterlife is not to be understood in literal terms. It is not about certain chambers or places in various locations. Instead, afterlife is about continued relationship in new states of being.

    • Briefly point out that heaven is the ultimate in joy, happiness, fulfillment, and oneness--so much so that heaven itself is beyond our wildest imagination. Therefore, the Scriptures speak of heaven in metaphors: as banquet, as kingdom, as feast.

    • As the young people may have concerns about hell, reassure them that although the Church teaches that hell is a real possibility due to human free will, the Church does not teach that anyone is in hell or that anyone ever will be. Point out, as well, that hell would be the result of a person's freely choosing to be separate from God rather than in relationship with God and others. (Catechism, nos. 1033-1037)

      The young people might be interested to learn that the image of hell as a burning fire originated in Jewish tradition: A place on the boundary between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin was considered unholy because it was the site of a shrine where human sacrifices were offered. Gospel writers drew from visions of this terrible place to vividly illustrate the suffering and darkness a person would experience by turning away from love and away from God. The Evangelists' purpose was to emphasize the urgency of following Christ.

    • Finally, explain that purgatory is understood as that part of the continuum for those who have died but are not yet ready or able to enter into the complete joy of perfect, unlimited love. Purgatory is a process by which God helps people let go of their sinfulness and find their way into heaven.

  7. Close this session with the following prayer service "For Love Is Stronger than Death."


(This activity is taken from Death, Grief, and Christian Hope, a mini-course in the Horizons Program series, by Nancy Marrocco [Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press, 1997], pages 13, 41-42. Copyright © 1997 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this activity to be used for classroom or campus ministry purposes. This activity may not be republished in any form without written permission from Saint Mary's Press. To order this book, contact Saint Mary's Press at 800-533-8095, or order online.)

Published March 20, 2004.