Learning to love Heaven – It’s not as automatic as you think

050713It 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.

39 Replies to “Learning to love Heaven – It’s not as automatic as you think”

  1. I perceive life in heaven as through the eyes of a child. As a child , mercy, justice truth, chastity, compassion, love and foregivness are the things children expect as the way life is and should be. Unless you are arrayed as one of these, you shall not see the kingdom of heaven. We are children of God the Father as His Son Jesus Christ exemplified and we share in through the Holy Spirit. That’s the glory of and that’s the story of love.

    1. Yes indeed, Robert! There is something of heaven in children that is lost as we grow up.

  2. Thank you for posting Msgr.! Beautiful to contemplate. Is it no wonder when Mass does appear then to be a little “taste” of heaven? A great priest here, Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P. gave a homily at a funeral about how we spend life learning to translate the language of heaven. (Forgive me Fr. Ezra if I transposed that improperly!) Beautiful consideration, translating the language of heaven! God bless all to see the eternal heavenly banquet. Amen

    1. Sandra, Fr. Ezra is was a member of my parish before entering the Dominican Order. We look forward to his home visits each year.

  3. Awesome post, very timely. I’ve been contemplating lately how fortunate I am in my worldly position with a loving healthy family and how undeserving/unworthy I am. I have received so much despite my poor use of my talents and my wayward sinful nature. Then it occurred to me how magnified that sense of unworthiness would be in heaven, and I wonder how I could endure the shame of being me at the foot of He who is perfect. I can only hope to grow and improve enough through His grace so that I could face He whom I have wronged by my sin and failures.

    1. David, I feel the same way. I will do anything to make up for my past sins and to become more worthy.


      1. Amen to that. And thank God for making Purgatory for just that reason…

  4. I am wondering if heaven is a place? I know it is total union with God, but is it a place as well? Our RCIA instructor said Heaven is not a place.
    What a wonderful article. Thank You!

    1. I think we need to avoid this sort of talk about heaven not being a place. It is true that pure spirits such as angels, the divine persons (as such) and the souls of the faithful departed as spirit, do not occupy space, understood as a physical dimension. However, Mary and Jesus in their risen bodies do in fact occupy space, which makes heave a place. Further, we shall all one day rise and this too will require space and place.

  5. Great post Msgr. Pope. I just finished “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis again. It is probably not theologically correct but the theme lines up with your post here. The Love of the beings in Heaven for those coming up from the city is so perfect that it can almost make you cry. Thank you for your thoughts.

  6. To you alone may my spirit yield……..My mind fastened onto this phrase when it came up in the song. On thinking it over, I thought that such a state of mind would indeed define Heaven. Thanks M. Pope for another thoughtful post.

  7. Interesting that we have to acquire a taste for it precisely _because_ we won’t have the option of being tempted out of it anymore. The Beatific Vision is not morphine, but a continuous perfection of the mind. Am I wrong?

  8. So… when i picture heaven as a long beautiful marble banquet table, with all the saints seated as far as the eye can see, from St. Thomas to my sister, and our Lord serving the most glorious meal. And when i kneel at the communion rail and my imagination sees that table as the same in heaven, I’m wrong?

    1. Keep in mind that it is an image you’re asking about. Theologically that isn’t how heaven will be experienced–and then again we know very little about the experience of heaven, apart from our perfected nature, our seeing God directly with the vision of our intellect and our primary and continual activity of adoring and praising Him. Dante in the Paradiso painted a beautiful picture of Heaven that was rich in theological meaning. But he never claimed to be a theologian, nor are we to take it as doctrine.

      So if the image helps you pray, do good and grow closer to God, then it is good. But it is only an image.

  9. Beautiful meditation and G. K. Chesterton qoutes, Monsignor.

  10. “In My Father’s house there are many mansions…”
    “I go to prepare a place for you….”
    “..seated at the right hand of the Father…’
    ‘Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven. heaven is not a place? perhaps not as we think of ‘place’ but a body requires ‘space’ but I grant that a glorified body does not…I think it was JP11 who said that heaven is not a place…but he did not define ‘place’

  11. Msgr. Pope, Bl. Newman’s first published sermon makes precisely the same point you are making here. It’s well worth a read: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume1/sermon1.html

    Here’s a small quotation from it: “if we wished to imagine a punishment for an unholy, reprobate soul, we perhaps could not fancy a greater than to summon it to heaven. Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”

    p.s. Sandra, the image I use in funeral homilies is also from Bl. Newman!

  12. What a wonderful post! To me, the closest sense I get of heaven is during the extraordinary Easter Vigil. It overwhelms me with joy and fulfillment, and makes me want to stay permanently in that place of blissful liturgical joy with my brothers and sisters, worshiping God forever. Once it is over I want it to begin all over again.

    1. I agree with you. The Easter Vigil is when I have the clearest idea of what Heaven must be like. In the words of the liturgy, I am “overcome with Paschal joy.” Those two hours seem as if only a few moments have passed by.

  13. Ps 84:1-2
    How I love your palace,
    YHWH Sabaoth!
    How my soul yearns and pines
    for YHWH’s courts!
    My heart and my flesh sing for joy
    to the living G_d.

    Ph 4:8
    Finally, brothers, fill your minds with everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.

    Col 3:1-4
    Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at G_d’s right hand. Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in G_d. But when Christ is revealed – and he is your life – you too will be revealed in your glory with him.

  14. Msgr. Pope:
    Your blog needs to be proofread before release:
    “…absence of struggles such as losing a job for saying farewell.”
    “…worship. Is a place of prayer…”
    “…observes an astonishing facts recorded…”
    “…being willing to 180° out of phase…”
    And other grammar glitches…
    At least you run spell check.
    The Old Editor

    1. Yeah, fair enough. Though it may surprise you to know that I actually have a life other than writing. Last night I was called to go to the hospital and dictated this post on my way to and fro into my iPhone. I didn’t get back till late and posted past midnight. Proof reading is poor past midnight. You might therefore make a little room for a few of us who write on the fly and don’t have as much time as you. Maybe when I am old I will have more time, but I pray that even if I write perfectly, I won’t write gruffly. For now, if something is worth doing well, it is worth doing poorly

      1. “If something is worth doing well, it is worth doing poorly.” You may not realize it, Msgr., but you have written something very, very profound here.
        Many of us feel our attempts to evangelize, pray well, witness our faith, influence our children, relatives or coworkers or achieve any significant impact in our world, fall far short of what we hope for. Especially in a culture that marginalizes us we simply think, “I guess I will leave these things to someone who has a more charismatic persona, younger, more attractive, more talented, more holy.”
        We grow discouraged.
        Your statement turns worldly wisdom upside down…always a good thing!
        I would love to see you write more on this.
        Every morning, I read what Pope Francis has said in his daily homily on my Pope App on my IPAD and then I read what Msgr. Pope has said.

    2. Please. You need to look at your priorities in life. Was this correction really necessary? Did it add to the message? Was it done out of love? Everyone should use correct grammar but was it appropriate for you to correct the author? How about even a thank you for taking the time to share his thoughts. I will say a Hail Mary for you now and hope that Her Love will help you decide how to comment in the future.

  15. Msgr., thank you so much for making time to impart your excellent meditations, teachings, and catechesis, on top of your many priestly duties. We are so blessed to have you! I loved this piece and plan to meditate on it and share it with others, especially my daughters. They are just beginning the journey of mothering, and I think this article speaks well to the importance of grounding our children in the “true, good, and beautiful”, especially when our culture glorifies all things that are not. I especially relate to your analogy of acquiring a taste for classical music. So true, and so worth it (just like heaven, and we sure don’t want to miss out on that!). God bless you!

  16. Enjoyed your article and it gave me a lot to think about. I have often wondered why people seem to pay lip service to the notion of heaven.

  17. What will heaven be like? I think we should consider what the Church teaches concerning this and how it is related to Ph 4:8 ” Finally, brothers, fill your minds with everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.”
    The Catholic Church teaches in the CCC 314 “We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face”,184 will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest185 for which he created heaven and earth.”
    “Partial knowledge ceases” WOW! We see God “face to face” WOW! Wow!! and we are like Him because we see Him as He is. How incredible. We will truly have to be given an infinite amount of grace for this to happen. “partial knowledge ceases” and therefore we will know every sin of every sinner, in thought, word, and deed, of commission and omission and the sorrow each sin causes our Lord and we will have that sorrow as sorrow for sins is a virtue and in heaven we will be filled with all the virtues to the full stature of Christ. We will all know perfectly how complacent we were and in effect we were saying to God, “I have done (am doing) enough, I can coast all the way to heaven and I really do not care if God thinks differently.” We will see all the consequences of every sin and how the world would have been better for each sin had we not committed them. Wow! We will know that the history of the world was the best that God could do without violating our free will. Wow.
    When I consider these things, I come to the conclusion that whether I have a physical body or not is not that important.

    1. That’s not to forget that the church does teach the universal resurrection of the body. It’s in the creed, so it is kind of important.

  18. Here is one way in which I have to reorient my thinking about Heaven–and for me it is a real puzzler. If Heaven is, indeed , a place (whatever that is–that is one gnat I do not strain at for some reason) of compassion, mercy, forgiveness (and it must be) how are those manifest? Here on Earth, we show those qualities in the face of sin…how does it work there? One explanation I have heard is that our sins are on full view to us (like the wounds of the risen Christ) and to all but that we, in the company of Heaven, see them as beautiful opportunities for God’s grace in our lives and rejoice in them (o happy fault?). Anyway, the concept is a hard one for me. I’d prefer a heaven where such knowledge is not a part of things, that glosses over all the evil I have done, where everything is perfect as I want perfect to be. I’ve got to learn to like whatever it is that God has arranged–and that means, I suppose, learning to trust HIm.

  19. Gee, I always tell my wife in heaven gas is 33 cents per gallon and rib eyes 18 cents per pound. She tells me I’m not a very deep thinker!

  20. Anselm’s insight almost sums it up in a sense- whatever we humanly conceive of heaven, it’s going to be greater than that.
    There is, of course, a little more nuance for theological discussion on the nature-grace topic about the types of ends that will be achieved in the beatific vision. Granted, it’s not some secular “designer heaven,” but I am of the mind (at least at this point in my theological life, basically I’m talking Grisez here, but anways…) that natural ends will be perfected, not destroyed, which could imply more (not less) than you suggest in a liturgical sense. This of course means justice, love, chastity, etc.. but perhaps there will be music (not necessarily Chant only?), maybe sports? … (animals? granted, who do not experience a beatific vision…) and everything authentically good- except better. Just a speculation- but of course, nothing that does not give God glory.

  21. I strove all day not to post this classic joke, but finally gave in because it fits the topic so well…

    A lawyer dies and stands at the gates of heaven where he meets St. Peter. St. Peter said to him, “You’ve led an average life, so we’re going to give you the choice of spending eternity in heaven or hell”. The lawyer says, “Great, I can go where I want!”
    The lawyer gets swept down to hell. There are beautiful people, gambling where everyone wins, stylish race cars, the most delicious foods in the universe, and of course – lots of money! The lawyer says to himself, “I sure could live like this!”
    The lawyer then gets lifted up to heaven. Well, there are cherubs, beautiful clouds, sounds of celestial trumpets, and of course angels. He asks an angel where the food is, and the angel replies that he doesn’t need food in heaven. The lawyer says to himself, “eh.”
    After a few hours, the lawyer then gets brought back to the gates of heaven to meet again with St. Peter. St. Peter says, “Well, which is it? Heaven or hell?” The lawyer says, “Hell has gambling, beautiful people, delicious food . . . everything I love! I want to go to hell!”
    The lawyer was instantly whisked down to hell. There were demons burning his feet, fire breathing dragons, black smoke, and black caverns. The lawyer finds the devil and says, “What happened? When I first visited, everything was beautiful and great. Now, its all a mess!” The devil responded, “Your a lawyer, so you should know the drill. When you first visited, you were a potential client. Now, you are a just a client! Ha, ha, ha!”

  22. Beautiful article, Msgr! So many times it seems to me that people leave the Church because the God and the heaven they believed in were as small as the human imagination. One small little quibble–Satan wasn’t in heaven when he fell, if by heaven you mean the beatific vision. If he could have seen God face to face he could not have fallen.

  23. I haven’t read all the posts here, so I hope I’m not being redundant, but there is a strong doctrinal current in Eastern Christianity which holds that the very same divine Presence and paradisal glory which would be heaven to the godly will be hell itself to the unregenerate. This would mean that, although God fills the cosmos, He doesn’t fill our hearts unless we invite Him to do so, so that whatever “separation from God” exists in time or eternity is as much self-chosen as imposed by God. As C.S. Lewis put it, to those who will not say to God “Thy will be done,” God at lasts says, “Then thy will be done.” That is hell.

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