Peter Panagore was a college student ice climbing on his spring break when mistakes on the mountain caused him to die from hypothermia. His first-person account of his journey to heaven—and back—was featured in Mysterious Ways. We asked Peter some questions about the aftermath of his near-death experience, or NDE…
How does your journey to heaven and back continue to affect your life?
Every moment of every day God is present to me. I feel less isolated, but there are times that I know that my thinking and eccentric behavior makes me the strange one. I like to be out in nature, because out in nature, the purity of God’s spirit pervades all things, plants, water, sky, stone, and animals. Out there, I feel most at home.
One day when I was in Manhattan for a few days of work, I went out for a long walk and I prayed. I began to feel the spirit of peace, of contentment and presence that I feel when I walk in the woods and I realized that it was coming from the people around me on the sidewalks. They were nature and radiating the presence of as a tree would, as stone might, as a songbird’s song does.
I walked for hours though the mass of humanity as if immersed in the wilderness where the spirit of God is strongest.
How has your experience in heaven influenced your prayer life?
After I came back from my NDE, the Catholic charismatic prayer group that I had been a part of was not enough any more. I practiced meditative prayer everyday for decades until my prayer became burned into my mind so deeply that it now it plays as an endless loop inside my subconscious. Sometimes it rises up on its own and I find my mind in prayer without my intention making it so.
In this way, as Paul said, I have learned to pray ceaselessly. Prayer is my only way back to God while I am here on earth. Prayer is my refuge and my strength. My NDE drove me in desperation to find a way or ways to let more light in, to create more space for God inside me, to sit as close to God as I could.
Can you share a story from your work as “midwife to the dying”?
There was a man, the father of one of my daughter’s friends, who contracted Hepatitis C. He was a rough man, but loving to his family, and not a churchgoer at all. One afternoon the hospital called me, because I knew the whole family, and because he was dying. I met with the family in the hospital’s waiting room to speak with them about their grief.
A nurse popped into the waiting room and asked me to please come with her. I went and she closed the waiting room door behind us. She asked me to put a gown on, a mask and gloves, because the man was convulsing with fear and pain. He asked for me. He was afraid of death, of God.
He leaned up against me, and he was saying how he had been a bad a man, how he’d done awful things, and that he knew that he was dying, and feared judgment. I quieted myself in prayer, and whispered into his ear, that God loved him, and already knew all and everything about him, nothing was hidden, and if he was remorseful, which he was, and carried that remorse with him when he died, that surely God would welcome him home and forgive him.
I calmed his fears, he relaxed and quieted down, and believed me. He died with a look of peace upon his face.
Have you experienced a dream or event that you believe was a message or messenger from heaven?
One Friday, night I was an on-air auctioneer on Maine Public TV’s annual fundraiser broadcast until close to midnight. I drank a lot of coffee off camera all night long, which means that when I finally go to bed around 2 a.m., I could not sleep a wink. The next morning, when the whole family got up around 7 a.m., I got up, too, and in order to be civil, I drank more coffee, even though I was exhausted.
The kids were doing homework at the kitchen table with my wife and I went to lie down on our sofa in our sunroom and closed my eyes to meditate and many rest a little. As soon as I began my prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” my soul was plucked by God and taken from body. I was taken into a level of heaven.
I don’t know what else to call it, but I was just like I had been when I was dead, only this time I was moving rapidly toward the light of God above. This heaven was full of music, of cosmic sound, of the choir of angels; it was the most beautiful sound that I had ever heard—an incredible beauty.
The whole thing took about three hours, and when it was over, I was lost in this world again, just like that night on the mountainside when I had first come back and was dangling on my harness. I saw my wife standing in the door, but I did not know who she was. My wife saw my disorientation on my face and in my jangled body movements and she said, “Your name is Peter Panagore. I am your wife. You are in your home.”
Later on in the day, when I was more myself in this world, she said that she knew something was going on and that she was concerned because there were times during those three hours I was unresponsive in a way that indicated that I was not asleep.
How have your relationships with other people, family members, spouse, been impacted by your journey to heaven and back?
I asked my wife to help answer this question, and she said that on the positive side I see more deeply into the complexities of emotions and psychologies that make up individuals, and am from her point of view much less judgmental of the motivations and sins of others. From my point of view all sins are equal when compared to the majesty of God, so who am I to judge another? And who knows what private pain had driven them to make the choices that they made?
She also said that my years of work with the homeless and the poor arise from my seeing humanity very simply. We are all souls equally encased in bodies and all are beloved of God, and those who suffer the most need the most care. I see the rich and the poor with the egalitarian eye of my heart. No one is greater or lesser, and I am no better and no worse then the best or worst of humanity.
On the negative side, I live life with what are generally considered eccentricities because I see what isn’t seen by others. For instance I insist on keeping part of our yard as a micro-habitat in which birds, bees, insects, wild flowers and mammals can thrive. My neighbors only see an un-mown lawn.
The biggest negative is my non-attachment to time. I see all things, even relationships, as temporary, because, in the end we all die and go home.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Throughout my life, I kept reflecting on what happened to me that night and in those reflections God keeps unfolding more truth and understanding to me, about what I experienced. And yet it made me rebellious against God after my NDE. God gave me the choice to come back or stay but in choosing to come back here, I lost myself, I lost my own life, or the life that I would have had had I not died.
With the gift of the NDE came the curse of being separate, estranged from, and outside of all humanity (except, I later learned, from those like me who have had an NDE.) I could never explain to anyone what I was feeling, or how I thought, or what I experienced. And then I wrote this book, and it was a healing process to finally get it out of me.
I expect that there will be more learning for me, more truth to come, and more understanding. All in all, I am gratified that I came back. I have beautiful and loving children, and a tolerant and loving wife who has long endured my strangeness, my eccentricities, my distance, and my otherworldliness.
But mostly, I see now that my calling, my “not living my own life,” is to do my best to point at God and in my own small way try to point the way home for those with ears to hear, and a heart to seek. Speaking about God’s eternal love and reality is all that I want to do here in this life.
I live life seeking fun and adventure as distractions, as thrills, with the blessing of knowing that in the end I get to go back to where I came from, thanks be to God who was, who is, and who shall be evermore and eternally, love.
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