Monday, January 06, 2003

“Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters, and all
who have left this world in your friendship. There we hope to share in
your glory when every tear will be wiped away. On that day we shall see
you, our God, as you are.”

--from the third form of the Eucharistic Prayer, in masses for the dead

I never feel quite so far from Heaven as when I contemplate on what “Heaven” means. I know I want to get there, but so many descriptions of it leave me cold enough that the mere thought of Paradise can leave me in true, deep doubt.

The Catechism more or less punts on “what will heaven be like.” Starting in Sec. 1023, there are a few paragraphs about it, but it essentially says “we don’t really know, but expect a beatific vision of some kind, to some extent.” Some Catholics, in one of those unappealingly Catholic mannerisms, seem to take the absence of proof as proof of absence, and describe Heaven as pretty much only a beatific vision, anticipating a permanent situation where we spend all eternity just staring at God’s face. No offense, fellows, but this sounds like the sort of vision the kid who used to remind the teacher to assign homework over the vacation would dream up. (I’m sure some one or more of these folks will now take me to task.)

Others have debated the question of “sex” in Heaven. Now, some people seem to be discussing what is more properly called gender, others, sexuality and still others, sexual intercourse. (Peter Kreeft had an essay on this topic on his website not that long ago. It was good, but I wasn’t always clear which of these meanings he was referring to.) I don’t much care whether or not there is actual sexual congress in Heaven, but I have a hard time with the idea that the spiritual bond between man and wife that is the essential underpinning of Christian marriage just kind of evaporates after death. I hear “there is no marriage in Heaven” and shudder: then what’s it all for? Why all the hard work now?

At the same time, everything I can come up with for what I’d like Heaven to be is (how shall I put this delicately?) exceedingly lame. I’m trying to envision the moments that give me the greatest authentic pleasure now as foreshadowings, but am much too literal to get beyond them. So I think of the time I soloed an airplane, and then imagine that in Heaven I can fly an airplane any time I want. And then I wonder why I would want to fly an airplane in Heaven at all? I drink a mouthwateringly good glass of wine, and imagine the wine in Heaven will be infinitely better, and impossible to get a hangover from. Then I wonder who would need wine in Heaven? And so forth.

But I will tell you what really gets me, what really sends the doubt screeching in. (Read no further if you are not in the mood for doubts today.)

Humanity has always thought of the Devil (in whom I believe) as a fallen angel. Well, the angels—so very much greater a creation than Man—have been blessed since creation with the beatific vision. They, like we, have free will, and abused theirs in the presence of God, or at least some of them. As I understand death and resurrection for what the catechism calls “the elect,” when we die in Christ, we become most fully ourselves, which has to mean we retain our free will. Why, if a creature as great as an angel can abuse his will in the Presence of God, does dying in Christ mean we are really, fully, finally saved? If Heaven is a place where even an angel can abuse his freedom, well, what hope in the end is there for someone as mundane and venal as I?

The image I like best is in the Eucharistic prayer above. The line “when every tear will be wiped away” is from Revelation 7:17. (I looked it up.) That seems to me the essence of our struggle, the wiping away of tears. What we are called to do in this life is wipe away the tears of those we find around us who are sad: feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; consoling prisoners. All this amounts to very much the same thing. That is the image I can live with, the only thing that stops the terrible doubting from overwhelming me.

But, still I wonder.


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