By Mac Stewart
We should think about heaven more. Yes, I know: it’s important to avoid being so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good; we mustn’t promise people pie in the sky when they die as an excuse for ignoring their pressing necessities here below; and trying to conjure up too many specific images or descriptions about the hereafter tends to give way to our own fantastical projections on the world to come — harps, Skittles, etc. This is all true.
But still. The New Testament is not shy about its celestial orientation. “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1); “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33); “Labor not for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27); the kingdom of heaven is the treasure and the pearl for which the man and the merchant sell all (Matt. 13:44-46); and the Lord himself says, “When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).
New Testament commentators frequently remind us that this celestial orientation is balanced (or sometimes even outweighed) by a sense that heaven’s own desire leads her back to earth: “thy kingdom come on earth…”; the angels chide the apostles for staring up at the sky (Acts 1); new heavens and new earth descend like a bride (Rev. 21); and the fervent prayers for Jesus to return to finish his new creation. This is a good and salutary reminder.
But we must not forget that precisely what we are asking God to bring to earth is heaven. Heaven and earth are not the same thing, and it is their marriage for which we long. How exactly heaven and earth relate to one another in the present age of the world is far from obvious or perfectly clear, even in spite of Christian revelation. There does at least seem to be some periodic overlap or interpenetration between the two. The heaven(s) are regularly “opened” in the New Testament, both to crowds and to particular visionaries: the Spirit of God descending from opened heavens upon Jesus at his baptism, while a voice marked him out for all to see as God’s Son (Matt. 3:16-17); Peter’s trance on the housetop (Acts 10:11); John’s vision of a door leading into the heavenly throne room (Rev. 4:1-2), or of a white horse with its rider bursting out of an opened heaven at the head of its armies (Rev. 19:11-14).
Nor does it always seem like the authors of the New Testament subscribed to a straightforward or simplistic “three-tiered universe” view of the cosmos, with heaven as its top layer. There is no suggestion that the angelic host who appeared to the shepherds singing the Gloria went either “down” or “up” in making themselves known; it sounds much more like a veil being momentarily pulled back for the homely men in the fields that night (Luke 2:8-15). And even the word Paul uses to describe his rapture into the “third heaven” can mean not “caught up” (as the RSV has it) but “snatched away,” “seized,” or even “ravished” (2 Cor. 12:2; the same word [harpazein] describes Philip’s departure from the Ethiopian eunuch by the Spirit’s intervention in Acts 8:39). Heaven is no naively localizable reality to the first Christians, but a beautiful and dreadful realm that unexpectedly breaks open in their midst, invariably an intense, ecstasy-inducing moment of sheer grace.
Christians outside of the apostolic age are not without our own moments of the inbreaking of heaven. The emissaries from the King of Rus who saw “heaven on earth” in the Hagia Sophia presumably didn’t mean to name quite the same phenomenon as the one Luke’s shepherds encountered, but their figurative language was nevertheless telling. In the liturgy, Christians “lift up their hearts,” and after agreeing to the meetness and rightness of the proposition that such “uplifting” necessarily involves the giving of thanks unto their Lord God, they are further enjoined to make this heaven-directed gratitude a habit to be fulfilled “at all times and in all places.” And who better to lead us in learning so to laud and magnify God’s glorious name in all our doings than the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven whose eternal hymn the liturgy then allows us to join: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. It’s no surprise, then, that heaven’s inhabitants turn up everywhere in Christian history: angels sharing honey cakes with Abba Moses of the desert; Jesus dialoging with Julian or Catherine; Mary asking for a house at Walsingham or giving roses at Guadalupe.
But all of these heavenly in-breakings — biblical, liturgical, ecclesiastical — can seem rather inaccessible to us when our terrestrial lives are groaning under dense and weighty burdens, and when our sins and negligences are more than the hairs on our heads. We need hardly be reminded in a year like the one we’ve all just had that heaven and earth are presently estranged, despite their promised marriage. They were created to be “two in one flesh” — the common “flesh” of creatureliness (since heaven, too, is a creature [Gen. 1:1]). Their blissful interpenetration, their luminous transparency to one another was, perhaps, to be a created repetition at an analogical remove of the mutual indwelling in the life of the Blessed Trinity. We get glimpses of this as our promised inheritance in Christ in this time between the resurrection and the End, but the estrangement persists. “The corruptible body weighs down the soul,” and inclines us to despair (Wis. 9:15).
And this is why heaven should regularly be the theme of our contemplation. This is not about escaping from the difficulties of the present moment, averting our eyes from the darkness around us and the darkness in our souls as just too much for us. It’s not about avoiding things that are hard. It’s about sturdying ourselves in this disorienting vale of tears with the nourishment of an unbreakable promise. It’s about allowing ourselves actually to hear the good news of the gospel. “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Prv. 25:25). Heaven is the goal of our lives. Heaven is what we are aiming for. This does not mean that there are no proximate goods to be had and pursued in this world. There are plenty: knowledge, family, health, just societies, symphonies, jokes, cookies, golden retrievers, and much more. But if we’re not aiming for heaven through and above all of these things, then their pleasure for us will ultimately wither like the grass. If, on the other hand, we see through them and in them tokens of the promised delights to come, and are willing at every moment to part with the former for the sake of the latter, then we will one day receive them all back with infinitely more pleasure than they could ever give us here below.
Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest, / beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed: / I know not, oh, I know not, what joys await us there; / what radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.
I wonder if you ever pray to Jerusalem. You would be in good company if you do. St. Augustine regularly made that “chaste city” the object of his direct address. He speaks of it as the first of all God’s creatures, the luminous angelic company that as “created wisdom” has cleaved from the beginning to the uncreated Wisdom that is its source. “That city on high is our mother, and she is free and eternal in heaven,” he says, echoing St. Paul (Confessions XII.15.20; see Gal. 4:26; 2 Cor. 5:1). This, he says elsewhere, is the heavenly Church, the fellowship of blessed spirits who never fell and who always behold the face of the Father in heaven. To this chaste city he says, “O lightsome house, so fair of form, I have fallen in love with your beauty, loved you as the place where dwells the glory of my Lord, who fashioned you and claims you as his own. My pilgrim-soul sighs for you, and I pray him who made you to claim me also as his own within you, for he made me too. Like a lost sheep I have gone astray, but on the shoulders of my shepherd, your builder, I hope to be carried back to you” (conf. XII.15.21).
Praying in this way, Augustine was, as ever, only following the grain of Scripture. The psalms regularly direct our prayers towards that chaste city. “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob: ‘Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of our God’” (Ps. 87). “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers’” (Ps. 122). And even when the psalmist is not addressing her directly, Zion remains a principal theme of his songs. “Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth, is the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of the great king” (Ps. 48). And the content of such encomia is sturdying indeed: “Make the circuit of Zion, walk round about her. Count the number of her towers. Consider well her bulwarks, examine her strongholds.” This great city will not fail. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. Her strongholds are secure, her bulwarks impenetrable.
Of course, to paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, God is the interesting thing about heaven. It is because “God is in the midst of her” that “she shall not be overthrown” (Ps. 46). And at the end of the day, wherever he is, she is. He brings her to us in sacrament and scripture, in penance and prayer, in our sorrows and in our songs. And when we catch the little glimpses of her that such graces bestow, we can address her as those who hope to be numbered among her citizens, among her children, all those who await the gracious favor of her Husband, “Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion; For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; he has blessed your children within you. He has established peace on your borders; he satisfies you with the finest wheat” (Ps. 147).
Fr. Mac Stewart is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.