Letter to Frieda Begue continued ad nauseam)
There are four last things, things that are more important than the color of your hair, your tummy tuck or you face lift. No mater how much rice bran and organic moose drool you eat, no matter how many times a week you go to the gym, there are four things that matter: Death, Judgment, Hell and finally, Heaven.
Forget everything you ever learned in Sunday school about heaven. In the first place the word “heaven” in the text is simply the Greek word “ouranos” or “sky” in English. Think about it “The kingdom of the sky,” or “when I go to the sky.” “Jesus is in the sky.” “Grammy and Grampy aren’t dead, Junior. They are with Jesus in the sky.”
I love it when people argue about whether or not heaven is a place. “The sky is a place!” or “there is no such place as the sky!” The text uses the word sky in a metaphorical sense. The sky is simply the biggest and most mysterious place that the ancients could perceive. That fact remains true to this day. There is no way to describe it, just as there is no way to describe the dimension that it denotes, the dimension that we call heaven for want of a better word. Heaven is not just a continuation of life on earth. To compare our life now to Life Eternal is to compare the nine months in the womb to life in the sunlight. To compare this world to heaven is like comparing the light of a match to a thousand suns and more.
St. Paul says that, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and again “It is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”(1Corinthians 2:9) As I mentioned before, St John goes even further. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1John3:2)
What does all that mean? First it means that there is no way to describe heaven. That is certainly what people I know who have been there tell me. We always think of mansions on streets of gold. The streets of gold are just poetic description, but the word “mansion” is a downright mistranslation. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) The word “monai” in the Greek text of scripture used to be translated mansion, but it doesn’t really mean that, It means a place to stay permanently, a place to remain, a place for coming home. I’ve been in a lot of mansions and some of them are very lonely places.
I don’t want a mansion. I want a home. I remember my room when I was little. Ours was a house full of people, full of noise, full of love, not perfect by any means, but still a place of safety and belonging. The aromas that came up from the kitchen, the sound of my father’s voice my seven brothers and sisters, the arrival of guests. We had so many wonderful gatherings of family and friends. So many people had keys to the front door, which were seldom used because the front door was seldom locked. Home was where I was safe. Home was where you were welcome. Not everyone had that kind of home. I realize that I was very blessed. Though not everyone had that kind of home, everyone can have that kind of home. We call it heaven. The fond memories of my childhood home are only hints of the joy and safety of the heavenly home offered by Christ. You can keep your mansion on its street of gold that you heard about in Sunday school. I would rather return to my Fathers house. (Luke 15:18)
Am I saying that heaven is not a place? No. Heaven is more than a place. It is what places hint at. Now we live in space and time. Remember that St. John tells us we will be like God, and remember that for God all time is now and every place is here. God is not in the skies. The skies are in Him. He holds the skies in the palm of His hand, and we will be like Him. “But,” you may counter, “ didn’t Jesus say “Today you will be with me in paradise”? (Luke 23:24) There are other mentions of paradise in the Bible. "I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell." (2 Cor.12:4) Doesn’t the Book of Revelation talk about paradise? (Rev.2:7)
Surely paradise is a place. Not necessarily. Paradise is a relationship! Notice that St. Paul when he was taken up to paradise doesn’t talk about what he saw. He talks about what he heard. Paradise was a fairly common word beyond its religious use. There were lots of “paradises.” Paradise was originally an Iranian word that meant a walled enclosure. It came to mean the garden in which a king could walk with his friends without the formality of the court in which his every word was law. It was a place of friendship, of intimate conversation. In the Bible it came to mean the garden of Eden where God walked in friendship with Adam and Eve. Paradise is about the relationship, not the real estate. In effect, Jesus said to St. Dismas, the good thief, “Today you will walk with me in my royal enclosure as my friend.” So many people worry that they will not know their loved ones in heaven. Nonsense! We will know them perfectly for we will know as we are known. What passes for knowledge here is nothing compared to the perfect and personal intimacy of heaven. You will know your loved ones there far better than you know them here.
We Christians hope for more than heaven when we die, at least more than the heaven that most people are expecting. God promises to adopt us as His children. As Jesus is His only begotten, we will be His adopted, no less His children than Jesus. If you have ever adopted a child, you know that child is your real child, not your make believe child. I had a dear friend who had two begotten children and one adopted. He was a very peaceable man, but when some talked about his two real children he was always sore pressed not to strike them. He contented himself by reminding them that had three real children. So, too, we shall be the real children of God, but as St. John says above, we are called His children but “child” is only the dim shadow of the wonderful truth which cannot be adequately described in our limited languages. We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.
When I was a little boy, the nuns would tell us about the “beatific vision.” We would spend eternity looking at God. I could think of nothing more boring. It sounded like an eternity in church. I would rather have spent eternity watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. Then I grew up and realized that there is such a thing as falling in love. When a young man marries a young woman, and if perhaps he wakes up in the middle of the night, and if perhaps the moonlight streaming through the curtains allows him to see her soft breathing gently rising and falling as she sleeps, he wishes that the moment would last forever. It can and it will, if we have loved the Lord. To behold the Beloved! Heaven is to fall in love forever. What this sorry world calls falling in love is just the hint of that infinite well of love into which we will someday fall if we have truly, sacrificially loved in this brief life.
And yet heaven is more than to behold the beloved. The most amazing thing is that we are to become part of God who is Love. By being adopted into that family which is God. God is perfect relationship, perfect family, as the Blessed Pope John Paul II called Him. We are to be “divinized,” to be made part of the God who is love, sacrificial love, not simply selfish emotion, but real sacrificial love. If we are to become part of that relationship with God who is true love, we will not simply love and be loved, we will become Love. We will become Love. Think about it. We will become Love. Is there another religion that makes such a promise? Our mortal longings and affections are barely the slightest hint, not only of what we will experience, but of what we will actually be, when our sin and selfishness have been burned away. To become Love! Is there a more wonderful destiny?
So, why be a Catholic, a follower of Christ in the most ancient and, I believe, the most authentic form? In the face of death the Lord offers hope. In the face of judgment, the Lord offers mercy. In the face of hell, the Lord offers freedom and Heaven’s freedom offers true Love, Eternal Love, the Love for which you and I were created, the Love which is God.