The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of PROOF OF HEAVEN by Mary Curran Hackett
Proof of Heaven is as much a story a mother and child and their quest for healing and love, as it is a story that resembles all of our quests to understand life’s “Big Questions”—why are we here? Where do we go when we die? And how come all of this is so hard? Each main character, Dr. Basu, Sean, Cathleen, and Colm, and even minor characters like the Monsignor and Pierce, all participate in this quest, but each character begins at a different starting point and each come to their own realization of what indeed is Proof of Heaven.
Questions for discussions
1. Proof of Heaven opens with several quotes, one of them by Blaise Pascal is: “The Heart has reasons that Reason does not know.” Why do you think the author picked this quote? What do you think the quote means? How does this quote relate to the story, the theme of the book, and each character’s particular journey? Can you relate to these words? Has there ever been a time in your life that you felt your heart and mind wanted different things? Do you find yourself torn between the two? Are you more apt to follow your heart or your mind?
2. Each character has a different way they approach his or her faith in God as well as what they think about happens when they die. What does Cathleen believe? What does Colm? Dr. Basu? Sean? The Monsignor? Do you identify with any of these character’s approach to his/her belief? Does anyone’s belief system particularly bother your or upset you? Why? Do you see yourself or any of your loved ones in any of the characters? What are your beliefs? Do you feel it fits into any particular religion? Why or why not?
3. How do you think Cathleen and Sean’s religion informed their beliefs or didn’t? They are both Catholic, but have very different perspectives on the religion and their faith. Whether you are Catholic or not, can you identify with the characters’ struggles to make sense of the religion they have been raised to believe in, but come to feel differently about as they have grown up and experienced it?
4. Dr. Basu was raised a Hindu, but becomes an agnostic. What changed his belief? Does he transform again? How so? Why? Have you ever experienced a similar transformation?
5. Colm doesn’t believe in anything at first. What do you think he comes to believe in the end? And do you believe in “a high power” or God?
6. Do you think Sean’s call to become a priest was real? Do you believe people can be “called” by God to a vocation? Why or why not? What changed in him?
7. Do you think religion offers a reasonable framework to discover God? Do you feel that a religion is necessary to experience the divine? Why or why not?
8. Compare and contrast the relationships Cathleen has with her son, her brother, Monsignor, and Dr. Basu. How does she interact with them differently? Or the same? Why do you think so?
9. Each character has the opportunity to interact individually with another character at least one point in the story. For example, Colm has several one-on-one conversations with his mother, Dr. Basu, and Sean. Sean, gets to talk to his sister, Dr. Basu, and Colm one-on-one as well. And Dr. Basu forms unique bonds with Colm, Cathleen, and Sean through the course of several intimate conversations. While all the characters ultimately end up on the journey together as a group, which individual friendship struck you? Dr. Basu and Sean? Dr. Basu and Colm? Cathleen and Dr. Basu? Cathleen and Colm? Which relationship did you respond most positively to? Why?
10. When the story begins, Cathleen and Colm are very much alone. Colm’s father is gone, Cathleen’s parents are gone, and she is literally the “center” of Colm’s universe, and Colm is the center of hers. How does their “universe” expand over the course of the story? Who becomes part of it? Who do you think becomes the “center” of gravity by the end of the story? Or is any “one” the center? Why do you think that?
11. Throughout the story the universe—its expansion, form, and matter—are alluded to in connection with characters, the plot, and even the human heart. Did you ever think of the heart as an “electric” organ—or did you ever conceive of the electricity and energy of the stars compared to that of the human heart and brain? How does each character embody this connection? What scenes did you find that illustrated this relationship best?
12. In this story, the author intended to juxtapose the “Earth and Sky” or “Heavenly and Earthly” in both its characters and settings. She designed each character to represent the elements of the earth, wind, fire, and water. Cathleen embodies the concept of mutability and “water.” What about her is mutable or changing? Does she strike you as someone who transforms or changes often in situations? Does she ever appear with or by water? What do you think the significance is in each of these scenes? Dr. Basu is very much grounded to the earth. He’s a pragmatic man, who looks for his answers in the world at his fingertips—through science and empirical data. What scenes strike you and show you that he is rooted into the earth? Does he ever seem to change and take on other elements as he grows and opens his heart to the other characters? Sean embodies all that is explosive—his attitude, early calling (and later his addictions), anger, passion, and even his profession are linked to fire. What scenes stand out for you when Sean exhibits this element? Colm is embodies “the wind” or the “spirit.” His name even means “Dove” and “peace.” What part of the story strikes you as Colm embodying the “spirit” most? Do any of the characters transform at all or take on other elements throughout the story? Where? How?
13. The author also modeled the characters in another way—after familiar characters in Judeo-Christian religions. Cathleen, who’s Gaelic name means “pure one” represents Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Sean, represents, at various times, both Joseph, the foster father entrusted with the earthly care of Jesus, and later the trusted disciple, John, (Sean means “John” in Gaelic), who is handed over by Jesus to be in charge of the care of Jesus’ mother at Jesus’ death. Dr. Basu, or Gaspar, represents the wise man from the East (most probably from the country that is now India), and he embodies the gifts, wisdom, and protection offered to the child Jesus. Did you see the connections in the story? Does Colm strike you as Christ-like? What about him reminds you of the story of Jesus? What doesn’t? What parts of the story sound familiar—like you have heard it in the Gospels or seen it in familiar Christian stories?
14. Throughout the story, the author juxtaposes “heavenly” and “earthly” settings. Where does each character find they are closest to the divine? Which character finds solace in church? In nature? In the presence of other people? In their mind? Where do you feel closest to the divine? In a church? By the shore? Under a night sky? Amidst nature’s phenomena? In the arms of a loved one? In the eyes of a child?
15. Cathleen, Dr. Basu, and Colm travel to Italy to try a healing ritual at a place where many miracles have been alleged to have happened. Do you think it was responsible of Cathleen to put Colm through such an ordeal? Do you believe in miracles? Have you ever prayed for a miracle or experienced one? Do you think Colm’s “miracle” took? In Italy? Or on his road trip? What do you think makes a miracle a miracle?
16. Colm’s quest to find his father resembles the larger quest of all of humanity’s attempt to understand where we came from and where we are headed. Most of us have feelings about whether we believe or don’t believe in God. Colm doesn’t believe in “heaven” but he hasn’t given up hope to find his father. Do you think we are all a little like Colm, reluctant believers, who, deep down, want to know, want to believe, someone is out there—loving us from a far and keeping us within their benevolent arms? Does Colm “find” what he is looking for? What do you think? Have you found what you’re looking for?
17. Do you think the characters in this story find Proof of Heaven? Where and when did Cathleen? At what point did you see her character make a dramatic turn? When did Sean become transformed? Do you think he overcame his physical and spiritual proverbial “demons” with addiction to alcohol? Did Dr. Basu become transformed? Where and when? What was significant about this moment? Where was he and who was he with? How does this relate to Dr. Basu’s oscillation between the Earth and Sky, the Mind and Heart? What about Colm? Do you think he went to heaven? Or do you think it was just a dream or a chemical reaction in his dying brain? Do you think he believes in God? Do you think he found his father?
18. The final quote of the book is by Walt Whitman. He writes, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Why do you think the author chose this quote? Do you feel a kinship to those who you have lost in your life? Do you find your lost loved ones in unexpected places?
19. Do you think the characters found what they were looking for? Where did Dr. Basu find his lost son? Where does Cathleen find Pierce, her mother, and father? Where does Colm find his father? Where does Sean find his mother?
20. Where do look for, and have you found, proof of heaven?