LONDON, ONTARIO – During my career earlier this century in retail sales, I made friends with a regular customer who read a lot of my stuff in the press and on slow days in the shop when there was nobody else around, he would pepper me with questions about various aspects of my faith. Provided I was in the right mood and felt up to the challenge, I enjoyed our conversations a lot. They required me to bring some lucidity and objective formulation to matters which were so subjective and interior that I realized I might not have developed much capacity to express them in a way that would be comprehensible to anyone else. In the phraseology of St. Augustine in his Confessions, discussing how tricky it can sometimes be to express those truths so foundational that we rarely pause to consider how we know what we know: “If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.” So I was grateful for the opportunity to try to cultivate some intelligibility.
This friend was raised Catholic and had drifted away from the Church as a teenager. Although we weren’t exactly on the same wavelength, he was at least conversant with what I had to say regarding certain concepts of belief and was more encouraging to talk to than somebody who just didn’t ‘get’ the faith at all or held it in contempt. But the one day I really gobsmacked him with what I had to say – coming up with something at such wild variance to his own memories of his Catholic boyhood – was when he asked me about Heaven and what I thought it would be like. And I had to tell him, in all honesty, that I rarely think about Heaven at all and that when I do, it’s all kind of vague and mushy and puerile.
I know that my thoughts about Heaven are inadequate but to what authority should I turn to try to bulk them up into something more becoming to an adult? The hints and glimpses we receive in the Bible – “My Father’s house has many mansions,” “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those that love Him,” (and let's not even mention that whole section in the Book of Revelations which I cannot even begin to decipher) – these hardly flesh the picture out in a tangible way that my imagination can really take hold of.
While it’s naturally appealing to think of Heaven as a place where we will meet again with loved ones who have passed beyond all earthly contact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us that Heaven is not to be regarded as a place of physical reunion so much as a state of beatific vision and communion. The Catechism tells us that, “By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has ‘opened’ heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.”
Many interpreters – both priestly and lay – paint a picture of Heaven as a sort of endless banquet, or as a never-ending exultation of praise to God the Father. Neither of these utterly lacks appeal for me but, conditioned as I am by more than 60 years of life in this fallen world, I must admit my spirit wilts a little at the prospect of engaging in any single activity, however appealing it might be for a while, in a manner that is described as ‘endless’.
Feasts are great but it’s also nice to rise from the table, excuse yourself and say your thanks, and go away for some downtime by yourself to reflect, digest, recuperate, and think about other things. And the next day, as a kind of recompense, you might want to eat very little or nothing at all. Every Easter I love to attend our cathedral’s three hour vigil on Holy Saturday night but I always make a point of going for a brief walkabout outside the church before the great service commences; gearing myself up for the marathon of praise and celebration that lies ahead. And if you were to tell me just before heading into one of those Saturday night vigils, that once inside those great oaken doors, I’d never be coming out again – that this was all I was going to be doing from now on and for all of eternity – well, I think I’d be angling to head out on a significantly longer walkabout first; perhaps setting my perambulatory sights on Timbuktu or Neptune before settling in for the long haul.
I don’t mean to belittle or mock the idea of Heaven. My point is that as I am currently equipped to understand it or imagine it, I know that I come up woefully short. In my present untransformed state, Heaven is a concept (and I trust a reality) that I simply cannot wrap my mind around. It is one of those things that I simply have to take on faith.
And also, of course, there is the matter of presumption. We are repeatedly warned in scripture of the dangers of assuming that we’ve made the grade; that our ticket to Heaven has been punched and our right of residence there is a sure thing. We know that we must not count on this or ever assume that a reservation for any sort of celestial berth is assured to any of us. Indeed, expressing any sort of certitude that we are Heaven-bound is usually a flashing signal that in all probability, we are not.
My friend found my vagueness and lukewarmness regarding Heaven so astonishing because by his earlier understanding, Heaven was the reward; the payoff for good behaviour and right thinking; the great lure without which one might not see any reason to try to live a Christian life at all. Such a pragmatic, almost quid pro quo understanding, might suffice for someone who had fallen away from the practice of his faith as an adolescent. But it simply will not do for a man.
And as someone who has only been a practicing Christian as an adult and treasures the faith not for what it will win me later but for what it provides me today, it is also quite at odds with my own deepest convictons on the matter. And this is why I’ve never really understood what St. Paul is on about when he says in 1st Corinthians, “If in this life only we hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”
Against this I would set Blaise Pascal’s famous wager of which he writes in Pensees that when you throw in your lot with the believers, "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing." Indeed, even if you did ‘lose’ by Pascal’s terms, even if you did live a life devoted to Christ and it turned out at the end of the day that there was no eternal reward for doing so, I would argue that you had still gained something of inestimable value. In the right ordering of appetites and behaviour that comes with earnestly practiced faith, as well as the training of one’s senses and intellect and the cultivation of the virtues, I find that even just this earthly life is imbued with a Heavenly aspect that – in my experience, at least – cannot be derived in any other way.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
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