The new movie Heaven is for Real has everyone talking! It is delightful, affirming, and well worth seeing. Yet, the primary source of “conflict” or tension in the movie is one that may puzzle some Catholics. The adults around the adorable boy who comes back from a visit to heaven aren’t sure it is real. His father, the minister, struggles for quite a while with whether or not to believe.
For me as a Catholic, believing in heaven is a given. I have always felt confident in the assurance of eternal life awaiting us after we die. For those who truly love our Lord and strive to follow Him in this life, that life will be in heaven. But there are no guarantees so we must always be vigilant.
The question for me is: What exactly will heaven be like? In the movie, the little boy sees animals, hears choirs of angels and visits with loved ones who have died. And that is well and good. But what is “eternity” with animals and angels really like?
In college I took a class on Utopian Literature and the conclusion of the professor was that we humans have no ability to imagine a place that is without struggle and darkness. The utopias, imagined by humans, always have a dark side. The “endless good” seems absolutely boring. Ice cream cones and flying horses are only entertaining for so long.
But I suspect literature is not the place to go for truly understanding heaven. The nature of a good story requires a conflict. And we need these stories to reassure us that the good can conquer evil. But in heaven evil is banished.
A much better place for learning about heaven, besides the reports of there by those who come back from the dead, would be to go to the saints.
The saints are those who have learned the language and culture of heaven. They learned, through their struggles and striving on earth, how to love fully and surrender enthusiastically to God. So here’s my glimpse of heaven from reading the lives of the saints (and letting my imagination go wild!):
I imagine heaven as a place with architecture like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia. The domes look like ice cream cones and the colors are vivid. The imagery is like the walls of the Louvre in Paris…full of ancient beauty and majesty. The sounds are both comforting and haunting. And the life is like a return to childhood…full of joy and wonder.
But as we come close to this place, the words we hear are different. This is not a place where the coarseness of human languages is ever spoken. And the roadways, paths and modes of transportation are nothing like zipping along highways in a Honda.
Heaven is not a place where sinners fit in easily; it would be absolutely uncomfortable for those who do not love God. Sinners look shabby and dirty before the walls of pure light that surround the heavenly Jerusalem. We would like to march our way forward like we do on earth, but we stumble. We don’t know the way. We get confused. We feel out of place.
Heaven absolutely confounds and troubles the sinful.
As I imagined this I was reminded about the time I visited Paris. It’s an exciting place. A world-renowned center of culture and art. But I didn’t know a word of French. I would hear talking but sometimes I couldn’t even tell if the person was addressing me with a question or a diatribe. It was frustrating for me and, obviously, irritating to them. Knowing nothing about this place I was visiting made me a “stranger in a strange land.”
That’s why we need the saints. How can we possible learn about a place that is beyond anything “eyes have not seen nor ears have imagined?” (1 Cor. 2:9) We need to be prepared. It’s an experience like no other….
Of course the ancient prophets told about Heaven…they say it as rising to great heights. Scholars have described it as “beatific.” That word means “sublime happiness.” And Jesus gave us a road map for the journey…to mourn for the world as it is, to be humble in spirit, to be hungry for justice and to be ready for persecution…and eventually to inherit the Kingdom..the beatific vision.
It is not an easy road ahead! But let us begin down that path. Because this life of virtuous concern for the souls of all, will strengthen us in love. And love prepares us for the language of heaven.
The saints who practiced the beatitudes, give us glimpses of what the beatific is like. St. Thomas Aquinas, the most reasonable intellectual fellow every to step through the pages of history, also felt his heart so full of love for Jesus that he literally lifted off the ground! And he was a big fellow!
St. Teresa of Avila was in poor health but she meditated deeply, every single day, on the experiences of Jesus as He lived on earth. She envisioned a crystal mansion with many rooms. (John 14:2) She offered herself up to be perfected in the fires of earthly trials. And as a result, she sometimes fell into ecstatic raptures.
St. Joseph of Cupertino was a simple fellow who loved God and because of his unreserved love, he flew. Although this must have been amazing, his flights were the source of jealousy and every attempt was made to hide him.
And of course, Padre Pio…they say he could be in Italy and in South America at the same time. He could read souls. Words were not necessary.
These experiences of levitation, flight and bi-location are NOT heaven. But they reveal something about it. Life in heaven defies all the rules we have for living. Life in heaven is about being so in love that nothing else matters.
But the love of heaven is not a touchy, feel good kind of love. It is a love of joining. Like when you are on a winning team and everyone works together and you feel connected, joined, united. It is a love like the husband and wife who are joyfully married for sixty years and die within hours of each other.
The saints are quick to remind us that Hell is equally “for real.” Some had visions of hell. The little children of Fatima were deeply troubled by a vision of many tormented souls in hell. It made the young ones pray and sacrifice out of love, so that fewer souls would have to go there.
The message for me in studying heaven, is that we must do our best to prepare for it by the way we live on earth. We have a roadmap. We must be diligent and follow. And when we arrive, Jesus Himself will be there to help us go through a final cleaning (purgatory) in order to prepare for that vision of ultimate glory!
Copyright 2014, Judith Costello