Being a writer, I often get letters and emails from readers. One of my regular correspondents is a lovely gentleman nearly 90 years old who frequently tells me what the Church really needs are more hellfire sermons stressing sin and punishment, like the ones in the good old days.
Actually, I don’t recall hearing a whole lot of homilies like that. But maybe my correspondent is right — up to a point. Maybe frequent reminders of the evil of sin and the awful possibility of eternal separation from God would help.
Maybe, though, a comprehensive approach would help even more. Never mind hell — when was the last time you heard a homily about heaven? I don’t mean a eulogy suggesting the recently deceased is already there, even though the facts of the case would seem to make a long stay in purgatory more probable. I mean a well-reasoned explanation of what we’re hoping for in hoping for heaven.
The object of our hope
Heaven is, of course, the ultimate and appropriate object of hope. Yes, it’s possible also to hope for good things in this world. But in the end our hope as human beings is directed to our perfect, eternal fulfillment — to heaven, that is.
So, where can we turn for help in understanding heaven as the object of hope?
Not, certainly, to those cartoons that show people in heaven wearing shapeless robes that resemble bedsheets and standing on clouds cracking jokes. Some are funny enough, but they don’t make heaven look like a place where you’d be eager to spend eternity.
To some extent, that’s even true of religious sources that say heaven is where we’ll see God face to face. I don’t doubt the truth of that, nor do I doubt that seeing God face to face will be a marvelous experience. But this practice of reducing heaven to a purely intellectual activity may not stir much enthusiasm in people who aren’t Ph.D. candidates.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, mirroring Scripture, suggests something quite a bit richer and more exciting when it says heaven will be “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (No. 1024). Now, that’s something to hope for.
Jesus in the New Testament uses the image of a wedding feast, which naturally conjures up thoughts of good food, good wine and good company. Granted, that’s a metaphor, not a candid photo meant to be taken altogether literally. But it does tell us something important about heaven that can be considered a fact.
It’s that the experience of heaven will involve the broad range of human possibilities and human goods rather than intellectual knowledge alone. And that means heaven will be a place where people have fun — a place where, so to speak, we’ll enjoy hanging out.
A remarkable passage in one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council suggests as much. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) speaks of the promise of new heavens and a new earth after the second coming of Christ (Nos. 38-39). Then comes this:
“For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: ‘a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.’ On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower” (No. 39).
What this says is that, along with discontinuity, there will also be a profound continuity between God’s Kingdom as it’s truly but imperfectly present here and now and the kingdom in its fullness and perfection when Christ comes again. The continuity will be embodied primarily in the human goods that we labor to realize in our lives and that God will bring to perfection in eternity.
Improving our world
This is heady stuff. And it’s the substance of Christian hope. To a great extent, furthermore, it provides the answer to a perennial question that Christians have asked themselves for many centuries: What importance should we attach to life in this world?
Doesn’t our faith tell us this world is passing away? We’re only here for a little while anyway. So why put a lot of time and energy into making this fallen world a better place? Wasn’t the philosopher Theodor Adorno right when he remarked that human progress, “seen accurately,” can be summed up as “progress from the sling to the atom bomb”?
Vatican II also answers this one.
“Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth,” it says, the grand vision of God’s Kingdom already mysteriously present and taking take shape here and now, should spur us on to work even harder to make things better in this world (“such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God”).
There’s a measure of truth in Adorno’s bitter quip about human progress. But the truth in it should be an incentive to believers to spend themselves on behalf of progress of a different, better sort.
St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei — a group that labors to promote spirituality among laypeople who live and work in the world — took a balanced view of these matters in a homily titled “The Christian’s Hope.”
“God did not create us to build a lasting city here on earth,” he said, “because ‘this world is the way to that other, a dwelling place free from care.’ Nevertheless, we children of God ought not to remain aloof from earthly endeavors, for God has placed us here to sanctify them and make them fruitful.
“We urgently need to Christianize society. We must imbue all levels of mankind with a supernatural outlook, and each of us must strive to raise his daily duties, his job or profession, to the order of supernatural grace. In this way all human occupations will be lit up by a new hope that transcends time and the inherent transience of earthly realities.”
Confidence in suffering
But there’s another great obstacle to hope that must be overcome — suffering. Even the bravest nonbeliever is likely to see suffering as an experience without meaning, conclusive evidence that life is absurd.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI responded to that in a passage in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope”). “Suffering and torment is still terrible and well-nigh unbearable,” he acknowledged. “Yet the star of hope has risen — the anchor of the heart [a reference to the epistle to the Hebrews, which speaks of hope in these terms] reaches the very throne of God. … Suffering, without ceasing to be suffering, becomes despite everything a hymn of praise.”
This then brings us to the subject of death, the last and most difficult hurdle for faith to surmount. Here, too, hope is the answer, as can be seen from the equanimity and good humor with which martyrs often meet death.
Martyrs by definition are people who are prepared freely to give up their lives in testimony to faith, based on the faith-inspired hope that something a great deal better awaits them beyond this life. Hope like that can be heard in the words of St. Thomas More, the chancellor of England who was condemned to death for refusing to support King Henry VIII’s divorce and the king’s claim to have authority over the Church in England superior to the authority of the pope.
Just before his death by beheading on July 6, 1535, More told the executioner, “You will give me this day a greater benefit than any other mortal man can give me. … Pluck up your spirits, man, and don’t be afraid to do your job.”
Martyrdom is usually quick, however, and life is long. Many people who would be glad of quick martyrdoms must instead suffer drawn-out martyrdoms of frustration, rejection, disappointment and pain that go on for many months, even years. Hope of heaven sustains them then. Hope and the realization that, as somebody once said, nothing so honors God as confidence.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the 12th and final installment of a monthly Year of Faith series on virtues that originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.