THE INSPIRATIONAL NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE OF GEORGE RODONAIA
Extracted from The Journey Home by Phillip Berman
My mother was born in London. My father was born in Soviet Georgia. It would be a great understatement to say that my parents were not looked upon very kindly by the Communist government, because they believed strongly in human freedom and vigorously fought for it. They were courageous people, perhaps too courageous, because the KGB banished them to the gulag in the late 1940s for openly expressing their opposition to totalitarian government. So they spent many years in that horrid detention system made so famous by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his masterful book, The Gulag Archipelago.
Sometime around 1948 my parents were ordered by the Soviet government to work on the Tran-Siberian Railroad. Many other dissidents were also forced to assist in this massive construction project. My parents worked on the railroad for about six years before I was born, in 1956, in Shanghai, China. Unfortunately, Khrushchev came to power shortly after that and operatives from his government charged my parents with spying. They were then murdered by the KGB. I was just seven months old.
I was then adopted by a family from Soviet Georgia. I was fortunate, because my adoptive parents showered me with love and wonderful care and took pains to educate me properly. They were not especially religious, not in an organized or outward way, but they were fantastic caring people. Unfortunately, my adopted father died of lung cancer when I was nine. Then my adopted mother died of pancreatic cancer when I was twelve.
At twelve I was living alone in the home left to me by my adoptive parents in Soviet Georgia. A few neighbors stepped in to feed me, to give me a hand, but I had to grow up quickly. I realized that the only way I would ever survive was to become strong and bright and able, so I applied myself to my studies very hard. I did a great deal of writing, too. I even wrote an essay which was published in the University of Moscow newspaper. The president of the university liked my essay very much; he liked it so much, in fact, that he invited me to attend the university at the age of fourteen. So I moved to Moscow.
At the University of Moscow I developed a great love for the physical sciences and medicine. My research specialty was concerned with adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is sort of an energizer for the brain. I was very much a typical young research scientist and a pretty skeptical one, too. I was not religious at all. I was an atheist. I had basically accepted the materialistic perspective of the hard sciences that everything can and should be reduced to a material cause. There was no room for spirituality for me at all; out of the question, totally out of the question.
Life became complicated for me at the age of eighteen, when I was invited to pursue advanced research at Yale University in 1974. The thought of studying at Yale and living in the United States thrilled me, but since I didn't have a wife or family members in the Soviet Union to discourage me from seeking asylum in the US, the KGB wouldn't let me go. By 1976, however, I was married and had a little son, so the Soviet government reluctantly agreed to allow me to go to the United States. Many people got involved to see that this occurred, among them Millicent Canter, a friend from Longview, Texas, who for many years sought to bring me to the United States. She even got Henry Kissinger involved in my case, because he sent a letter on my behalf from the US government to support my invitation. Unfortunately, as I would soon find out, the KGB had no intention of letting me go.
On the day of my scheduled departure for the United States, the KGB tried to kill me. I was waiting for a cab on a sidewalk in Tbilisi when I saw a car jump up on the sidewalk, avoid a few trees, and then head directly for me. It all happened in an instant. First I saw the car coming toward me, then I felt it hit me head-on. I estimate I flew about ten meters, landed facedown, and then the car ran over me again. From that time on, I must have been unconscious, because I can't remember anything else about the crash or the crash scene.
The first thing I remember about my NDE is that I discovered myself in a realm of total darkness. I had no physical pain, I was still somehow aware of my existence as George, and all about me there was darkness, utter and complete darkness - the greatest darkness ever, darker than any dark, blacker than any black. This was what surrounded me and pressed upon me. I was horrified. I wasn't prepared for this at all. I was shocked to find that I still existed, but I didn't know where I was. The one thought that kept rolling through my mind was, "How can I be when I'm not?" That is what troubled me.
Slowly I got a grip on myself and began to think about what had happened, what was going on. But nothing refreshing or relaxing came to me. Why am I in this darkness? What am I to do? Then I remembered Descartes' famous line: "I think, therefore I am." And that took a huge burden off me, for it was then I knew for certain I was still alive, although obviously in a very different dimension. Then I thought, If I am, why shouldn't I be positive? That is what came to me. I am George and I'm in darkness, but I know I am. I am what I am. I must not be negative.
Then I thought, How can I define what is positive in darkness? Well, positive is light. Then, suddenly, I was in light; bright white, shiny and strong; a very bright light. I was like the flash of a camera, but not flickering – that bright. Constant brightness. At first I found the brilliance of the light painful, I couldn't look directly at it. But little by little I began to relax. I began to feel warm, comforted, and everything suddenly seemed fine.
The next thing that happened was that I saw all these molecules flying around, atoms, protons, neutrons, just flying everywhere. On the one hand, it was totally chaotic, yet what brought me such great joy was that this chaos also had its own symmetry. This symmetry was beautiful and unified and whole, and it flooded me with tremendous joy. I saw the universal form of life and nature laid out before my eyes. It was at this point that any concern I had for my body just slipped away, because it was clear to me that I didn't need it anymore, that it was actually a limitation.
Everything in this experience merged together, so it is difficult for me to put an exact sequence to events. Time as I had known it came to a halt; past, present, and future were somehow fused together for me in the timeless unity of life.
At some point I underwent what has been called the life-review process, for I saw my life from beginning to end all at once. I participated in the real life dramas of my life, almost like a holographic image of my life going on before me – no sense of past, present, or future, just now and the reality of my life. It wasn't as though it started with birth and ran along to my life at the University of Moscow. It all appeared at once. There I was. This was my life. I didn't experience any sense of guilt or remorse for things I'd done. I didn't feel one way or another about my failures, faults, or achievements. All I felt was my life for what it is. And I was content with that. I accepted my life for what it is.
During this time the light just radiated a sense of peace and joy to me. It was very positive. I was so happy to be in the light. And I understood what the light meant. I learned that all the physical rules for human life were nothing when compared to this unitive reality. I also came to see that a black hole is only another part of that infinity which is light. I came to see that reality is everywhere. That it is not simply the earthly life but the infinite life. Everything is not only connected together, everything is also one. So I felt a wholeness with the light, a sense that all is right with me and the universe.
I could be anywhere instantly, really there. I tried to communicate with the people I saw. Some sensed my presence, but no one did anything about it. I felt it necessary to learn about the Bible and philosophy. You want, you receive. Think and it comes to you. So I participated, I went back and lived in the minds of Jesus and his disciples. I heard their conversations, experienced eating, passing wine, smells, tastes - yet I had no body. I was pure consciousness. If I didn't understand what was happening, an explanation would come. But no teacher spoke. I explored the Roman Empire, Babylon, the times of Noah and Abraham. Any era you can name, I went there.
So there I was, flooded with all these good things and this wonderful experience, when someone begins to cut into my stomach. Can you imagine? What had happened was that I was taken to the morgue. I was pronounced dead and left there for three days. An investigation into the cause of my death was set up, so they sent someone out to do an autopsy on me. As they began to cut into my stomach, I felt as though some great power took hold of my neck and pushed me down. And it was so powerful that I opened my eyes and had this huge sense of pain. My body was cold and I began to shiver. They immediately stopped the autopsy and took me to the hospital, where I remained for the following nine months, most of which I spent under a respirator.
Slowly I regained my health. But I would never be the same again, because all I wanted to do for the rest of my life was study wisdom. This new interest led me to attend the University of Georgia, where I took my second PhD, in the psychology of religion. Then I became a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Eventually, in 1989, we came to America, and I am now working as an associate pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Nederland, Texas.
Many people have asked me what I believe in, how my NDE changed my life. All I can say is that I now believe in the God of the universe. Unlike many other people, however, I have never called God the light, because God is beyond our comprehension. God, I believe, is even more than the light, because God is also darkness. God is everything that exists, everything – and that is beyond our ability to comprehend at all. So I don't believe in the God of the Jews, or the Christians, or the Hindus, or in any one religion's idea of what God is or is not. It is all the same God, and that God showed me that the universe in which we live is a beautiful and marvelous mystery that is connected together forever and for always.
Anyone who has had such an experience of God, who has felt such a profound sense of connection with reality, knows that there is only one truly significant work to do in life, and that is love; to love nature, to love people, to love animals, to love creation itself, just because it is. To serve God's creation with a warm and loving hand of generosity and compassion – that is the only meaningful existence.
Many people turn to those who have had NDEs because they sense we have the answers. But I know this is not true, at least not entirely. None of us will fully fathom the great truths of life until we finally unite with eternity at death. But occasionally we get glimpses of the answer here on earth, and that alone is enough for me. I love to ask questions and to seek answers, but I know in the end I must live the questions and the answers. But that is okay, isn't it? So long as we love, love with all our heart and passion, it doesn't matter, does it? Perhaps the best way for me to convey what I am trying to say is to share with you something the poet Rilke once wrote in a letter to a friend. I saw this letter, the original handwritten letter, in the library at Dresden University in Germany. (He quotes from memory, as follows:)
Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek for the answers that cannot be given. For you wouldn't be able to live with them. And the point is to live everything, live the questions now, and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along some day into the answers.
I place my faith in that. Live the questions, and the universe will open up its eyes to you.