These are all questions that sooner or later, no matter what our religious orientation (unless we have none), occur to us. The fact that there are no certain answers that we can prove with scientific accuracy, no God we can see under our microscope or discern with our telescope, no blazing letters in the sky letting us know that these words were not just written down by men with an agenda, but sent by God, all of this leads us to question the truth and value of our beliefs in times of trouble. Sometimes the answers of our particular tradition don't seem sufficient in the face of our uncertainty and pain.
Knowing that we come from different religious orientations (she was raised a Catholic and I joined her church for a time and was re-baptized and confirmed, with her mother becoming my godmother), I chose my words carefully. She acknowledged that I probably wasn't a Christian when she asked, so I knew she didn't expect me to answer only with her religion in mind.
In your letter you asked a lot of weighty questions that I wanted to think about carefully before I answered.
First you mention faith in God and more or less ask" What is the good of it? Faith that He'll do what? What about suffering?"
These are of course timeless questions everyone asks when they are suffering or worried about the death of a loved one. If I had some sort of absolute proof of the right answer I could make a fortune!
These are some of the questions I was asking as a teenager trying to understand why all my praying, church-going, rosary-chanting and faith wasn't stopping my world from falling apart.
Over the years I have read many books, attended many classes, meditated for many hours, and followed more than a few who claimed to know the Truth with a capital T. :)
I have concluded that while mystics all over the world have received glimpses of the Divine, they then are left with their puny brain and mundane words to try to describe what is bigger than we are able to comprehend (at least until we are no longer bound by that puny brain).
Worse still, the rulemakers come along and read or hear the mystic's experience and start trying to quantify it.
Dramatization:...So you had fasted for 40 days from eating meat. OK, let's write that down. Where were you sitting when this happened? In an olive grove on Mount Vision. OK, olive groves must be sacred and if we can't pray ON Mt. Vision, we should face it and visualize it when we pray. Now, are you married? No? Well obviously one who wants to realize the Truth must avoid the company of women. [note: Mystic is too embarrassed to admit getting laid an hour before vision.]
On and on it goes, each time a mystic "sees" a bit more of the Divine, until there are volumes of rules for each religion that affect each part of our lives and yet doesn't seem to help us "see" or connect with the Divine. Indeed, we are so busy worrying about following these rules we are too anxious to achieve a state of mind conducive to such a connection.
Of course throughout the history of religion we heard from precious few women. While I'm sure women were having these ecstatic glimpses of and relationships with the Divine, most of them either couldn't write them down or if they did, the male-dominated religious hierarchy didn't consider them to be noteworthy. There are a few exceptions--St. Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and in India there was Mirabai.
From The Hunger for Ecstacy by Jalaja Bonheim:
When people wondered why the 16th century Indian poet Mirabai chose to make love with Spirit and rejected all human lovers, she laughingly responded, 'I have felt the swaying of the elephant's shoulders...and now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious!'
'The pain of his absence burns my bewildered heart and gives me no rest,' She cried in one of her songs. Many of her poems are like the screams of a birthing woman, full of a raw, wild-intensity--yet out of that pain is born the amazing rapture that illuminates her words.
People are still singing her songs in India today.
Once someone has experienced that ecstatic union with the Divine [to use a gender-neutral term] that person is filled with a powerful yearning to repeat the experience. There is a kind of fiery bliss that mystics describe as they speak of that yearning to be reunited with their Beloved. The work of Rumi is filled with it. It is this ecstatic love-in-separation that drives them to continuously seek out there Beloved and to naturally lose interest in everything else.
The rulemakers have it backwards. One does not take on these austerities to get to God...one connects with God and then the pleasures of the world dim by comparison.
The rulemakers use faith as a whip and castigate those who have doubts and fears.
This is completely contrary to the spirit and nature of the Divine One as experienced by the mystics. Mystics speak of a Presence filled with love, compassion, and forgiveness. This Presence sees us completely and loves us completely, in all our flaws and virtues.
It is this loving Divine Person who grants us free will and weeps when we misuse it to harm others. It is this loving Person who cries as much for those who do harm as for those who suffer harm. It is this Divine Person who hopes that we will learn from our mistakes and evolve spiritually to help others. This is not a Person who sets it up so that we are condemned eternally with no hope of parole. At any point, according to Eastern thought, the spirit soul [who we really are] can experience remorse and turn back towards the Light of the Divine.
Darkness/Evil/Illusion is seen in the East as Maya--an energy of God for those who choose to turn away from that Light. It is said that if you don't serve God directly, then you serve indirectly as you embrace Maya.
Each incarnation is another chance to learn the futility of embracing Maya and instead, to turn back and cultivate our relationship with God.
Where faith comes in is not that we have faith that God will make our lives extra smooth and free of suffering. We all will suffer. Faith insures that we cultivate our relationship with God and when we do suffer, we are never suffering alone. Faith enables us to access God's grace and see our suffering in a new context, a context of our ongoing journey of spiritual evolution as we come ever closer to a union with God, heart to heart. Each life experience teaches us something. Each time we suffer our heart opens in compassion for all others who suffer if we have enough faith not to contract in fear and anger. We are here to learn and pain is a good teacher.
I believe we are given guides and that when we take the time to pray or sit in quiet contemplation or meditation we can tune in to their guidance. Not as in hearing voices (LOL) but rather--answers come to us, fear subsides and our hope is renewed.
Sooner or later we will be leaving these bodies behind. On a spiritual level this is no different from discarding our old broken-down car and getting a newer model--after a period of self-assessment and study. We will see the people we love on "the other side."
Down here on planet Earth we of course grieve at the separation from our loved ones. For that matter, I grieved when my dear friend B. spent 2 years in Israel. It's only natural. Faith reminds us that we will be reunited, though, and grants us a ray of hope.
Our loved ones who have just crossed over are readjusting and re-orienting from identifying with this world and the body they just left and learning again that they are a spirit soul on a journey. They are in a place where their thoughts manifest in their environment. It can take awhile to get used to the realm in which they find themselves. Our prayers for them are felt and have a positive effect so it is important to pray for them to have clarity and peace and to be free from fear. It is the last loving thing we can do for them from this side.
It's also important to help loved ones release fear and guilt before the pass away. One phrase I like is "You go from love into love." I also like the biblical quote "Be still and know that I am."
Dying doesn't have to be a horrible experience if we prepare mentally before hand--though of course there will be some fear--just as we feared childbirth.
While I am not a Christian I do read the words of Jesus and see him as another of the great mystics who tried to teach us about the spiritual journey. It's about LOVE. The more we seek to embody love and spread love, the closer we are to God.
I hope this has helped to answer your questions though I know the perspective is different than you are used to.
When it comes to the many different religions, each claiming to have the only Truth, I see them as being culturally accessible ways to reach towards the same Person. I no longer imagine a God who is preoccupied with the minute aspects of our lifestyle--what we eat, when we have sex, and so on. The quality of love in our relationships is what matters, not using sex as a weapon, not causing undue suffering to animals if we eat meat, and so on.
I often whimsically picture God as being like the parent receiving an imperfectly cooked breakfast from a beloved child. What God cares about is the love behind the offering, not the burnt toast or runny eggs.
My relationship with God is often whimsical and very informal. I believe God has the best sense of humor ever. I believe She is always with us.