We have reflected in the last meditation (Hell?, 02/06/22) on the reality, even the necessity, of hell and its intrinsic relationship with the justice of God. I would like to turn now to a happier topic, though no less difficult to explain: the reality of heaven. But just as I can write nothing to describe the horror of hell as a definitive separation from love, so I cannot hope to convey what joy and fulfillment is prefigured by the word ‘heaven’.
One of the problems regarding reflections on the next life is that we have a total lack of knowledge of it and consequently we do not have a language to express this reality. When I think of the utter bankruptcy of past attempts that writers better than myself have made to communicate what heaven is like, I toss up my hands in utter frustration. Think of the popular stereotype of heaven as our feeble efforts as human beings have come up with. I am referring to the image of heaven as human forms in flowing garments sitting on slabs of marble playing harps. When I think of doing that for just an hour, I realize how terribly boring it would be; but for eternity!! It does not come near to instilling even the slightest desire on my part to share in that!
All the attempts to describe what heaven would be like falls into this pit of mystery. The truth is that we have no idea what God has prepared for those who love Him. The only hint we have is what the scriptures assert: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard nor has it dawned on the imagination of man what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). This comes close to both giving us a sense of the magnitude of future beatitude as well as guarding this very mystery.
Perhaps we need to concentrate more on our own expectations to help us see, at least, an outline of what we mean by the word ‘heaven’.
If we are honest, the only thing that comes close to what heaven may be like are the pleasures of this world as well as the more spiritual joys that we experience. This is no surprise since this is the only reality we have to search out the building blocks of our future glory.
The Lord advises us that this is beyond the powers of the imagination. We are limited by our experiences in this world, so that when we consider the joys kept in store for those who are faithful to God, we are left with images that are familiar and less than inspiring.
I remember a movie that came out about 10 years ago that tried to put on the screen what happens after death. The author of the screenplay poked fun at the sheer enormity of ‘processing’ souls after death. He imagined and put on the screen a giant bureaucracy that was almost nightmarish in its complexity and in its ‘soullessness’! It gave you a kind of depressing hopelessness of the impossibility of future glory. It resembled a hell more than a heaven.
Then how do we imagine the unimaginable? What can motivate us to pursue a goal like ‘heaven’ when we don’t really know what we are talking about? For this we must search earthly reality for hints of future glory.
This is precisely what the ‘transcendentals’ try to do. Embedded in real life are these three sign posts of the way to heaven given to us as an aid: Beauty, Truth and Goodness. When we are in the presence of these three earthly realities, we are given the means by analogy to understand the greatness of what lies ahead that makes it all worthwhile. It comes in small doses but helps us ‘transcend the earthly to the heavenly’, hence the name ‘transcendentals’.
An act of goodness: like the self-less risking of the life of a firefighter to save a child in a burning inferno (Goodness), or the exquisite sound of the music of Mozart (Beauty) or the logic and the precision of the theology of Aquinas or the thought of Einstein (Truth). These intimations of immortality bring us beyond ourselves into the uncharted territory of promise that is fulfilled here on earth by love itself.
These are but hints of the heavenly. They sort of whet our appetites with the reality to be experienced in the next life. They have with them the power of suggestion which comes close to resembling the constant unveiling of newer and more glorious joys.
The great Father of the Church St. Gregory of Nyssa, in discussing what awaits the just in the coming period of reward (Heaven, the Kingdom, Paradise), says that we will never come to the end of the joys of experiencing God but that every moment will reveal more of God. This process of ever deepening fulfillment will never be exhausted since God is infinite.
Now that is worth waiting for!