“Lord, it is good for us to be here …” Matt 17:4
Have you ever experienced what it feels like to be in love? For those who have, it can be difficult to put into words. For those who haven’t, it can only be explained in metaphor and simile. There is nothing in the world that is like it, or can even come near to comparing to it. For those who have experienced God’s love, it is an even deeper experience than falling in love with someone. For the most part, those who have experienced God’s love will attest that the feeling that accompanies it usually does not last very long but it is intense. It is like a little taste of heaven that God grants certain souls. The experience of God’s presence is a powerful thing, however just like when the Apostles on Mount Tabor experienced the pre-glorified Savior in the Transfiguration, at the end of that moment, the four of them still had to go down the mountain. No tents were built, but what they received was much more than what they would have gotten had they stayed there.
This experience is similar to those who have experienced God’s presence in their own life. Although the experience can be short, it does leave a lasting impression, and can change your entire life. The lives of the Saints are filled with these types of encounters. I have heard some people call it a “spiritual high” though I think that term cheapens an authentic experience of the Lord’s presence. God comes in particular and different ways to souls and allows them to have an authentic experience of His love, His joy, His peace. All of that can be experienced in a real and tangible way here and now, and it cannot be “conjured” or experienced through any sort of psychosomaticism. It is something completely not of this world.
Why am I sharing this? I am sharing this because there are some that require this feeling to believe. Some even go from event to event looking for this type of “high”. Without this feeling, they tend to give up on their faith. The truth is, anything that God allows us to experience of Him on this earth pales in comparison to what we can experience if we are allowed entrance (by God’s mercy) into Heaven after our death and particular judgment. The moral of the story is: if you have yet to experience God’s love in a tangible way, that’s alright, because Heaven is going to be infinitely better.
What is Heaven?
One thing is for certain – Heaven is ridiculously misunderstood. The media has not helped this idea; Fluffy clouds, weird-looking baby head angels, everyone floating around in this awkwardly serene atmosphere. Heaven becomes this ethereal and unrealistic world where everyone is dressed in white, jumping from cloud to cloud, carrying harps. This idea sickens my stomach. If people believe Heaven would be like that, no wonder they live their lives like Heaven doesn’t matter.
There is the another version people erroneously build of Heaven. For them, Heaven is where one gets to experience our favorite earthly desires for eternity. Some people like Golf, therefore you get to Golf for the rest of eternity; an eternal putting green, with perpetually cool breezes and non-stop mojitoes. In this example, we devoid Heaven of its “otherness”, and make it accessible and easy. Instead of being something breathtaking and new, it is now something familiar; A Heaven of my own making and it’s ALL FOR ME! But is that really what Heaven is about?
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Discalced Carmelite, declared boldly about the Divine Beloved that “He is my Heaven”. God Himself is Heaven for us. St. Ambrose tells us that “For life is to be with Christ; where Christ is, there is life, there is the kingdom”. The actual place of Heaven, where God dwells, is the icing on the cake. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness”(CCC 1024). What is the deepest longing of our hearts? God! He is what makes Heaven so amazing.
St. Paul tells us that, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood”( 1 Cor 12:13). In Heaven, we will see God “in the face”. The veil of the Eucharist will be gone and we will see our Blessed Lord as He is. We will see the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, dwelling on their thrones. This is known as the Beatification Vision. Faith will cease. Love will be all. In the moment that we enter into the Heavenly homeland after our particular judgment, we will be united with God forever in a perfect unity. Our hearts will be made one with the spouse of our souls. We will enter into an eternal and infinitely deep intimacy with Love Himself. When we see God in the Beatific Vision, our hearts will have but one desire, to love Him back; to adore Him.
In being united to the Head, who is Jesus Christ, we are then united to His entire mystical body; our brothers and sisters in Christ. All of us will be known to one another. In Heaven, privacy and secrecy does not exist, and no one cares. Truth be told, we were made for communion – communion with God, and communion with each other. Heaven is all about communion because God who is love, who created us in His image, wired us to reflect the Trinity, which is a community of persons. We are all meant for communion.
This understanding of Heaven is diametrically opposed to the eternal putting green in the earlier example. In the real Heaven, we live to love God and each other, in the putting green, we still live for ourselves. It’s all about us.
Heaven is not merely a state of being. It is an actual place. Fr. Martin Van Cochem wrote in his book on the Four Last Things about this:
“We must not, as some do, picture to ourselves Heaven as a purely spiritual realm. For Heaven is a definite place, where not only God is, and the Angels now are, but where Christ is also in His sacred humanity, and Our Lady with her human body. There, too, all the blessed will dwell with their glorified bodies after the Last Judgment. If Heaven is a definite locality, it must accordingly be a visible, not a spiritual kingdom ; for a place must in its nature be to some extent conformable to those who abide in it”.
“In my Father’s house there are many mansions” John 14:2
Jesus tells us in the Gospels that He had to leave us (through His Passion and Death), and go to prepare a place for us. He not only allows us to see Him face to face in Heaven, but He gives us everything. Have you ever seen the 90’s movie, Richie Rich with Macaulay Culkin? One of my favorite scenes in that movie was when he invites his friends who came from lower-class families, to come and hang out at his mansion. As they are brought in, the look of sheer awe and excitement cross their faces. He then allows them to come in and have free reign. God will be like this with us if we are granted Heaven, however, He will say, “This is the place I have prepared for you- it’s yours!” Van Cochem explains that: “For as a just and prudent father divides his real and personal property amongst his children, assigning to each one his particular share, so our heavenly Father apportions to each of His elect a part of His celestial treasures, both visible and invisible, giving to each one more or less, according to the amount he deserves to receive”.
The Kingdom of Heaven
If God is King of Heaven, and He is Love, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness itself, it only stands to reason that His eternal dwelling place would in some marvelously infinite way, mirror the Him who created it. If God, as Blessed Elizabeth said, is our Heaven, then Heaven must be intensely beautiful and awesome. St. Thomas Aquinas says that in Heaven we will be constantly and pleasantly surprised. The Kingdom will reflect the King, a King who is truly good and everlasting.
According to some visions and experiences of the Saints (keep in mind this is not dogma, but only personal revelation), they tell us that in Heaven there are even things like real plants and fruit. According to St. Didacus, in a trance he entered shortly before he died, he cried out “O what flowers there are in Paradise! What flowers there are in paradise!” Maybe this is where St. Therese of Lisieux found the roses to send down her shower of roses from, as she promised before her death.
The Throne Room
One of my favorite passages to meditate upon in Scripture is the account of St. John’s vision of the Throne Room in the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation 4):
After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads. From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.
THIS is what Heaven looks like. This is terrifying… in a good way. The Power of God is in full display and all who enter the Throne Room are in awe and can only cry out, HOLY! This vision obliterates any golf course man could ever devise! Take that Tiger Woods!
The Resurrection of the Body
We are promised through our Baptism which we as Catholics profess weekly in the Credo, that if we die with Christ, that we will also be raised with Him. At the end of time, God will reunite the souls of the just and the wicked with their mortal bodies, thus making their bodies immortal. To the wicked, he will cast them, body and soul, into perdition, but the faithful will be reunited with their bodies, and process back into Heaven to live and reign with God forever.
We know that when blessed’s bodies are raised, they will enter into a glorified state. According to St. Brigid, during one of her visions of the Blessed Mother, she was told that our bodies will shine with sanctity: “The Saints stand around my Son like countless stars, whose glory is not to be compared with any temporal light. Believe me, if the Saints could be seen shining with the glory they now possess, no human eye could endure their light all would turn away, dazzled and blinded.”
We know that our glorified bodies will be incapable of suffering and death. Our bodies, being made perfect, will also be perfectly agile. They will be able, like our Blessed Lord, who appeared with the Apostle’s physically when the door was locked after His Resurrection, to pass through any created thing.
All of our human faculties will be brought to Heavenly perfection. The limits of our voices will disappear. Our ears will hear perfectly. The choirs of angels singing their songs of joyful adoration will be heard with celestial clarity. We will taste things perfectly. Our communication with each other will be perfect, as we will be in communion with one another and with God. Our eyes will be able to gaze on the beautiful perfection of God and the Blessed Mother. All will be brought to perfection. But that perfection comes with a cost.
The Refiner’s Fire
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the LORD. (Malachi 3:2-4)
A woman once read this and was perplexed. She wanted to know more about this refiner’s fire and what it meant. So, she went and visited a blacksmith. She sat carefully and watched him as he put the metal into the fire. She saw how careful he was to ensure the temperature did not rise too high or fall too low, as it would ruin the metal. She exclaimed, “I have it! God is a refining fire because He will not give us more or less than we can handle”. The Blacksmith came over and said to her, “You only have it partially right. Yes, we ensure that the fire is the right temperature, but in order to tell if it is perfect, I have to pull it out of the fire and look at it. If I can see my reflection in it, I know that the metal is perfect”.
God will not allow one stain of sin to enter the Kingdom. Therefore Purgatory exists to ensure that those who are destined for Heaven are purified. Mortal Sin of any kind will prevent us from entering into Heaven as it completely severs our relationship with God. Anyone who is in a state of mortal sin at the time of death will not be able to enter the Kingdom. Purgatory is not for them. Purgatory is for those who have stains of venial sin or temporal effects of past and forgiven mortal sin that must be purged in order to come before the Lord. Think about it. You’ve been invited to the biggest event in history. The King has invited you personally to come. You however are covered in rags and you have not bathed months. You stink. You are covered in dirt. The Good News is that the King still wants you to come to the party, but He needs to get you cleaned up first. He has ensured a way for you to get cleaned up and ready for the party. Once you’re all cleaned up, he has the finest clothes tailored for you and you are welcomed into the His celebration. It’s party time!
This is a little like what Purgatory is about. If you are declared worthy to enter Heaven, you may still have some sin left on your soul. God wants to ensure you are clean of all of it. It is called Purgatory because one has to suffer in order to have it cleaned. Many theologians view Purgatory as the “purifying love of God” which burns away sin. In the end, it will be something we will want. We will beg for it, because we will understand how greatly our sin wounds the heart of God, and we will wish that we never offended Him.
Purgatory is not limbo. It’s not a place where the “status quo” go. Purgatory is not meant to be the in between, and it most certainly not worth aiming for. The old saying, “Shoot for the Moon because if you miss, at least you’ll land among the stars” somewhat applies here. Aim for Heaven, for Sainthood. This is the standard we must reach. If you don’t make it, you may land temporarily in Purgatory to get cleaned up. DO NOT AIM FOR PURGATORY, because you don’t know where you’ll end up if you do. It is not good enough to be a nominal catholic. God doesn’t call us to do the bare bones minimum for Him. We must love Him with all that we are and live for Him and Him in others.
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:24)
The term “eye of the needle” was common for the people of Israel in Jesus’ day. Though there is much discussion as to what this actually meant, and whether it was an actual place or not, we do know that camels were used to transport a lot of things. They carried a lot of stuff. So do we. A lot of us have really big heads. We carry a lot of self-love, and we carry a lot of pride. Many of us carry grudges and resentment. One thing is for certain. Only small thread can be fed through the eye of a needle. As the author of Humility of Heart said, we know that there is not one Saint in Heaven who was not humble. Hell is incredibly easy to achieve. By being like a Camel, we can allow the baggage of pride and sin to carry us into damnation. Heaven demands that we “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely” and like the children we are called to be, run to Jesus in humility. We must be empty of ourselves in order to fly to Jesus.
Jesus ardently longs for us to be with Him for eternity but He is not going to force us into loving Him. That would make Heaven, Hell. This is not what He wants. Let us seek to fall in deeper love with Him, so that when we are called from this life, we will look upon the Lover of our souls, and hear the Lord say, “Come, enter into the joy of your master.”