To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. (William Blake)
In C.S. Lewis’ wonderful Chronicles of Narnia, one of the characters, arriving in heaven, says, “This is the land I’ve been looking for all of my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason we loved the old Narnia is because it looked a little like this.”
On our best days, when we’re feeling closest to God, we imagine heaven; we allow ourselves to wonder what it will be like, we try to access it through things that we already know, through moments of beauty. For Blake, it could be contained in the perfection of a single wild flower. For Lewis, heaven was echoed in places we love. J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son Christopher, wrote that “…certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”
Perhaps that’s why being human is sometimes so tricky. We live in exile from what-once-was and in anticipation of what-is-to-come. And how do you imagine a place, a life, a way of being that you’ve never known?
My mother, who has been a resident of heaven for nearly thirty years now, believed that at the moment of death everything becomes simple, because in that moment people will understand that God is everything, that heaven is his presence—and hell his absence. I think she was on to something there, though we all stubbornly keep trying to imagine that presence, that place. It’s as though something doesn’t exist for us until we can wrap our brains around it.
We’re not alone. When Jesus spoke about heaven, people’s minds were still very earthbound. They asked questions that aren’t wrong, they’re just not relevant. If a widow remarries, who will be her husband in heaven? When is this going to happen?
The Middle Ages found it far easier to imagine hell than heaven. The 13th-century mystic Hadewijch had visions of heaven, but they reflected her understanding of God as restless, always in motion. When pictured in art and architecture, heaven was teeming with angels and light, but writers like Dante and artists like Bosch seemed to be more fascinated with steering people away from hell rather than toward heaven.
And while there are a lot of reasons for that, one of them has to be that it’s just so hard to imagine heaven… and, in a way, it feels presumptuous to do so. How dare we, with our narrow minds and limited imaginations, conceive of something that’s so far beyond our capacity to comprehend? Something that is, moreover, a freely given gift?
To complicate things further, heaven isn’t on any Google Maps. In fact, it’s not considered by the Catholic Church to be a place at all. Heaven is considered a state, a condition of existence, rather than a particular place somewhere in the cosmos. Pope John Paul II declared: “The 'heaven' or 'happiness' in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
No wonder Blake preferred to see it in a wild flower. How do you conceptualize something that… isn’t? And yet that is?
The only thing that makes this at all possible is that we’re already good at living with contradictions. Faith is, one could argue, only possible for people who can look beyond the physical, beyond the provable, beyond the logical. We believe in a God that is three Persons. We believe in someone who was killed and then came back to life. In a sense, we are one with the Queen in Through the Looking-Glass when she said, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” We’re already able to believe the impossible.
We just can’t visualize it, and that’s where the frustration sets in. When we travel, we look up photographs of the place we’re going to visit, we consult guides that tell us of its customs and history and daily life. There isn’t a guide to heaven. We’re left only with a sense of longing and wonder… which might be, after all, the point.
In a homily, Pope Benedict XVI said,
We all experience that when people die they continue to exist, in a certain way, in the memory and heart of those who knew and loved them. We might say that a part of the person lives on in them but it resembles a "shadow" because this survival in the heart of their loved ones is destined to end. God, on the contrary, never passes away and we all exist by virtue of his love. It is his Love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity and it is this love that we call "Heaven": God is so great that he also makes room for us. And Jesus the man, who at the same time is God, is the guarantee for us that the being-man and the being-God can exist and live, the one within the other, for eternity.
God is so great, writes Benedict, that he also makes room for us. To which I would add, God is so loving that he makes room for us. He wants us there—wherever “there" is—even more than we want it for ourselves or for those we love. As my mother said, it’s recognizing that God’s love is everything we need, everything we desire, everything we are—and then, with that recognition, living inside that love (however it manifests) for all of eternity.
As August, the month of heaven, draws to a close, let’s cut ourselves a little slack. It’s okay to imagine heaven, whether in the perfection of a wildflower or in a sense of coming home from exile or however it is we see it, as long as our faith reminds us that whatever we imagine is the old Narnia: a pale reflection of the joy to come.
In A Mind Awake, C.S. Lewis writes,
Think of yourself just as a seed patiently wintering in the earth, waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real awakening. I suppose that our whole present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams; but cock-crow is coming.
It is nearer now than when I began this letter.
And it is nearer now than when you started reading this article.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir