The catechist was teaching the children about heaven and decided to test their understanding. “If I give all my money to charity and take care of my sick neighbour every day, would I go to heaven?” she asked. “No” the children chorused. Surprised, she tried again. “If I live a life of love and pray often would I go to heaven?” Again the answer was “No”. Getting worried, she continued, “Well then, how can I get to heaven?” It was six-year-old Angela who spoke up, “Miss, you gotta be dead first!”
In November thoughts of death and what lies beyond are prominent in our liturgy. We all want to go to heaven – but not just yet! There are so many people and things to leave behind and besides, despite the holy pictures and stories, we are not sure what heaven is like. Will those who die as children remain so forever? Will my bald head or wrinkled face be with me for all eternity? Will my darkest secrets become open knowledge? Will I be united with my loved ones again? What indeed will heaven be like?
When the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus by supposing a woman had seven husbands, each one dying in turn, and asked him whose wife would she be in heaven, he told them their question was irrelevant. Heaven will be different, people will be different – beyond time, beyond anything we can experience or imagine in this life.
Prophets, artists and poets have struggled, using various images, to give us some idea of what heaven is like. Isaiah refers to “a feast of rich food”, an image that might be specially attractive in Sarawak where people love to gather for a good ‘makan’! Artists have painted heavenly scenes of winged angels playing harps, because good music brings great joy. Jesus speaks of a house with many rooms while others refer to a place of eternal rest and peace. We use such human images to try to describe a reality that is beyond our understanding or experience .A crawling caterpillar cannot foresee that it will one day fly in the air as a beautifully coloured butterfly. A blind person cannot appreciate the beauty of a rose or orchid despite our efforts to describe them. Even the best of images are incomplete and imperfect, like seeing people as blurred shadows through an opaque or frosted glass window.
What we do know is that heaven is not a place. It is not like being in Singapore or London, but more like being in love; a continuation and perfection of the loving relationships we have built with God and each other in this life. Pope John Paul II said it is not “a place among the clouds” but “a state of being with God”. St Paul assures us, “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:3): something totally beyond our human imagining.
Heaven is the completion, the fulfilment of all the longings, dreams and hopes of the human heart; of that aching for something more, something beyond, which is never fully satisfied even when we do experience some foretaste of the joys of heaven here on earth. It is the completion of all that we are called to be as human beings and is best summed up by St. Augustine who, after his vain search for happiness in learning and pleasure, cried out “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you”.
Bro Columba Gleeson