It is generally presumed, at least among those who believe in God and the afterlife, that everyone naturally wants to go to heaven.
But of course, “Heaven” is usually understood in a sort of self-defined way. In other words heaven is a paradise of my own design, the place is perfect as I think perfect should be. Yes, for most people, their conception of heaven is merely what they think it should be, and this usually includes things like: golf courses, seeing my relatives and friends, there are my own self-selected pleasures, and the absence of struggles such as losing a job or saying farewell.
Thus, the heaven that most people have in mind is a designer heaven it and is built on the rather egocentric notion that whatever makes me happy is what heaven will be.
The problem with this thinking is that heaven is not of our own design, or merely what we think it should be. Heaven is the kingdom of God and all of its fullness. In heaven are fulfilled and realized all the values of the kingdom of God, values such as mercy, justice, truth, love, compassion, chastity, forgiveness, and so forth.
Further, heaven is consistently described in the Scriptures in liturgical terms, as a place, and a reality rooted in praise and worship. It is a place of prayer and adoration. In all of this is our true happiness, the heart of heaven is to be with God forever, and to be caught up in the beauty of his presence and of his truth.
And heaven, is thus a place that is not merely happy in human terms, but is truly happy on God’s terms. Regarding the liturgical vision of heaven, and the values realized, experience and fulfilled there, it will be noted that many things on the list do not at all appeal to many people. Frankly, many people are dead set against things like the love of enemies, forgiveness, and chastity. Many to find the Mass, and all Church liturgy to be boring and irrelevant.
Imagine showing up at the gates of heaven only to discover that its heart is essentially the liturgy, and that is daily fair is not only hymns, candles, incense and praise, but also chastity, love, forgiveness, mercy and compassion, etc.
Many are averse to such things and even find them odious. God will not force such souls to inherit what they hate. Thus they are free to make other arrangements for eternity. Surely God must regret this deeply, but he has made us free and summoned us to love, and thus he respects, even reverences, our freedom.
But all this reflection, reminds us that heaven is something we must learn to love. It is like many of the finer things in life. Its appeal may not be immediate and obvious, but, having been trained in its ways we learn to love it very deeply.
It was this way for me and classical music. Its appeal was not immediately obvious to me, I was more enamored of driving rock beats and toe-tapping dance music. But gradually, through stages, classical music’s subtlety, beauty and intricacy began to speak to my soul, and I became more sensitive and aware of its majestic beauty. I learned to love symphonic music, and the magnificent patrimony of Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony. And OH how it speaks to my soul now.
And so it is also of my soul with God and the things of God. Early in my life, my rebellious flesh was only averse to God and the parameters of his Kingdom. But now I have grown deeply to love the Lord, and appreciate the beauty and the wisdom of his truth. Yes, I am learning to love heaven. I love God, and the things of God, and the people God loves.
So it must be for us all, that we learn to love heaven. And for this purpose, the Lord left us His Church, like a caring mother, to teach us and lead us to learn to love the things of God, and of heaven. He also left us a sacred liturgy as a great foretaste, and his Word as a kind of blueprint describing what he loves and the architecture of the kingdom of love and truth. The Saints too blaze a trail ahead of us show us the way. In all of this God gives us a kind of pedagogy of the heavenly Kingdom and a healing remedy for our darkened intellects and hardened hearts.
But make no mistake, we must learn to love heaven, to love God and the things of God. And here we speak of the true God and the real heaven not a fake God, not some idol we have constructed for ourselves, but the true God and the true heaven which is his Kingdom and all his fullness. We must avail ourselves of his many helps and learn to love him and his kingdom.
If we think it is only natural to love heaven, we must become more sober. The fact is we have very obtuse spirits. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We tend to love that which is destructive and harmful. And even knowing that it is harmful we still tend to be attracted to it. We tend to esteem that which is foolish and passing, and to glamorize evil. We tend to call good or no big deal what God calls sinful. Yes, we are obtuse and up to 180 degrees out of phase with the Kingdom
GK Chesterton observes astonishing facts recorded in Scripture and Tradition:
The point of the story of Satan is not that he revolted against being in hell, but that he revolted against being in heaven. The point about Adam is not that he was discontented with the conditions of this earth, but that he was discontented with the conditions of paradise. (New York American, 12-15-1932)
If Satan revolted against heaven even while still in heaven and Adam preferred something to paradise while still in paradise, how much more should we be sober over the fact that we who have not yet seen paradise or heaven can easily despise or hold of little value the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Add to this that we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world where we are not rich and what matters to God, a world which obsesses over passing and trivial things and pays little mind to eternal and heavenly things. Learning to love heaven can mean some pretty radical things. It means often being willing to be 180° out of phase with the world’s priorities and preoccupations.
To draw free of this and learn to love heaven requires an often painful journey on our part. And many are simply unwilling to make it, or to live out of phase with the world. Perhaps for this reason the Lord recorded with sadness, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Mat 7:13-14). Perhaps too we can understand why we need a savior: we are not only obtuse, but frankly not all that bright, and we like sheep tend to be wayward. Only with difficulty are we even willing to be shepherded.
Yes, we must make a journey and learn to love heaven,
Perhaps, to conclude, we might ponder a couple brief details from Simon Peter’s life. At the lakeside Jesus asked Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus was seeking an agape love (ἀγαπᾷς με). Peter, with uncharacteristic honesty, at that stage, answered the Lord indicating he had only brotherly love (κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε). The triple dialogue seeking agape love ended with the Lord’s respectful acceptance that Peter had but brotherly love.
But the Lord also promised one day Peter would find agape love, one day Peter would finally learn to love heaven and the Lord above all things, above all people, above his very self. How? He had to make the journey and learn to love heaven.
And indeed, the Lord prophesied: When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will lead you where you do not want to go. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God (Jn 21:18-19)
But in order for that to happen, the world would have to be turned upside down for Peter. Peter would have to learn to see the world 180° differently than he did that day at the Lakeside. Of this we need to turn our lives over 180° GK Chesterton again writes very beautifully as he meditates that Peter was crucified upside down:
I’ve often fancied that [Peter's] humility was rewarded was rewarded by seeing in death the beautiful vision of the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills and all men hanging on the mercy of God. (The Poet and the Lunatics Sheed and Ward p. 22)
Yes, learning to love heaven means learning to see the world as it really its, and to seem to the world to be upside down. But God’s ways are not our ways, his priorities are not our priorities. We have a lot of learning to do. At the end of the day heaven will not change to suit us (if it did it wouldn’t be heaven any more). So we must be changed for it, we must learn to love it even if that means being crucified upside down.
Help us Lord to desire heaven, to learn its ways, to learn of you and love you above all things.
N.B. The Chesterton insights came to me from a a fine book called The Complete Thinker by Dale Ahlquist.