This is the eighth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
After some sobering reflection on death and judgment over the past several days, it’s finally time to talk about Heaven. Now that is a topic everyone wants to hear about! Yet there is a strange disconnect today. As it becomes easier and easier to satisfy our desire for instant gratification, we find it harder and harder to take the time to ponder a future paradise.
Almost no one talks about Heaven today—except perhaps at funerals—and then it is often to inappropriately presume the instant promotion of the deceased through Heaven’s gate.
The way most of our prayers sound today, it seems that we would be content to have God make this world a better place. People will ask God to improve their health and solve their financial problems, but rarely will they express any desire to go to Heaven and be with Him. It is almost as if we were saying to God, “If you’ll make this world a little more comfortable I’ll just stay here forever!”
Many older prayers speak of longing for Heaven. The “Hail, Holy Queen” laments that we live in exile, in a valley of tears, and are poor, banished children of Eve, who long to see the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus. Many old hymns refer to being free at last, to flying away to Heaven some bright morning when this life is over, to looking forward to that day. Yes, soon and very soon we are going to see the King! Older churches were designed to remind Catholics of Heaven; their structures were often centered around the vision of Heaven.
Do you long for Heaven or are you just trying to make it through the day? When was the last time you heard a sermon about Heaven? Does the thought of it excite you? It is after all our reward, which eye has not seen and ear has not heard!
A big factor for the lack of longing for Heaven is that our lives are so comfortable these days. It is a kind of comfort that both distracts us from spiritual things and focuses us on worldly things. Our comforts also make the cross seem strange, even immoral. If Heaven is obtained through the cross, many say “It’s too much trouble.” They would rather focus on getting that new channel added to their cable television service or planning a cruise.
Add to this that we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world in which most are not rich in what matters to God, a world that 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 often means being willing to be 180 degrees out of phase with the world’s priorities and preoccupations.
St. Cyprian pondered this problem, which seems to have been evident to some degree in the wealthy city of Carthage:
[Regarding death] we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.
Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? … If we should rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ?
The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you? So banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.
Who of us, if he had long been a sojourner in a foreign land would not desire to return to his native country? Who of us, when he had begun to sail there would not wish for a prosperous wind to carry him to his desired home with speed, that he might sooner embrace his friends and relatives? We must account paradise our country (De Mortalitate, 26).
Heaven is something we must learn to love. In this it is like many of the finer things in life. Its appeal may not be immediately obvious, but having been trained in its ways, we learn to love it very deeply.
If we think that it is only natural to love Heaven, we must become more sober. The fact is, we have 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, we are still attracted to it. We tend to esteem that which is foolish and passing, while glamorizing evil. We tend to call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sinful.
G.K. Chesterton observed,
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 about the fact that it is very easy for us, who have not yet seen paradise or Heaven, to despise or minimize the value of the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Help us, Lord, to desire Heaven, to learn its ways, to learn of you, and to love you above all things.