Fr. George W. Rutler’s Weekly Column
Nicodemus, a prominent Jew, went to Jesus furtively at night to ask the secret to eternal life. It is a question that animates virtually every sane person, though most tend to be a little awkward about it, like Nicodemus, who eventually defended Jesus publicly and helped anoint his body.
Of the “Four Last Things,” Heaven is at once the most agreeable subject and the most perplexing, for hardened cynicism first asks if it is too good to be true, and then asks if it is all that desirable. A bliss beyond time and space confounds our existential idiom: Mortal man asks if eternity will be boring. But that is like a drowning man asking his rescuer if there will be anything to do on the beach. Heaven is not beyond reality just because it is beyond imagining: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
In times ancient and modern, from the Incas of the high Andes to the nomads of the East, there has been a nearly universal intuition of benevolent existence after death. Human instinct crowns the dead with flowers. There are those who say Heaven is an unreal longing precisely because it has always been longed for. You might as well say that love does not exist because everyone wants to be loved. Paul Claudel, a Catholic “revert,” said that everything must be allusion or illusion: In other words, all our perceptions must be indications of unseen facts or mental dreaming. When you say something is heavenly, it is only fair to ask, “How do you know?”
Heaven would be an illusion if it were the creature of our limited reason. Unaided reason cobbles together a false Heaven based on human logic: So we have the illusions of Heaven as something purely intellectual like a vanishing point or a vapor, as in the Nirvana of Buddhism, or something arrested in material categories like the cool gardens of the Muslims or the multiple planets of the Mormons.
The risen Christ was not a ghost, nor was he a superman. He said little of Heaven, except that it is entered by doing his will with love. What matters is that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” and so he speaks to us with a voice from Heaven. It is the language that everyone understands without interpretation if one is willing to listen. St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Taste, touch and vision to discern Thee fail; faith, which comes by hearing, pierces through the veil.” In the pregnant solemnities of Advent, that Voice says: “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
Fr. George W. Rutler, Pastor
Church of Our Savior, NYC