I have been fascinated with heaven for at least half a century, ever since I talked to an old lady, my grandma's friend, who told me that she regularly sees and talks to her deceased family members who, as she bluntly put it, are in heaven. She made sure they were there, she added matter-of-factly — she offered fasts, prayers, Masses for their souls.
This lady, well into her 80s, was one of the most commonsensical persons I knew and, despite her advanced age, ran a very successful business. Not nuts at all, that was sure. Soon she passed away herself, serenely too.
Over time, which deprived me of a growing number of loved ones, it became my personal quest to find out what that heaven was. I sought information in the Bible as well as various testimonies of saints and mystics, those of old and the contemporary ones. For comparison, I have also studied the ancient pagan religions, as well as great religions of the world other than Christianity.
One thing became quite obvious to me: the experience of heaven surpasses our present understanding and thus always has to be "translated" for us into symbolic images of what in a current age amounts to "the best ever."
Feasting was the most common image of heaven in antiquity and early Christianity. In those lean ages when famines were frequent and obesity not a problem, a feast was a special occasion.
Your body delighted in the food, yet more importantly, your heart rejoiced in the warmth of such close gathering of all family and friends. Feasts were prepared well ahead, with full and generous participation of all concerned.
Then came imagery of the heavenly beings singing of God's glory and of their thanksgiving to him who is the source of all that is wonderful and great. "Who sings, prays twice," says an old proverb.
Music of the grateful, joyous cosmos and its beings extolling their Creator is a powerful symbol of heaven. Yet we are so overstimulated in our electronic, audio-visual age that this symbol often falls deaf on our ears, literally. A few months' fast from music, TV and other means of entertainment, however, can fix the problem.
I still remember For Elise, played by my sister on our family piano in the pre-radio times. It felt like heaven.
So what are we left with in our satiated, loud and restless world? How are we to develop the appetite for heaven?
There is one hunger that cannot be satisfied even in our age. This is the thirst for love everlasting - love accepting and forgiving, love that one can trust even at the bottom of the purgatory that earthly life, too, can become. Human beings can have enough food and entertainment, yet we are always starved for love.
That love becomes our heaven when we trust Jesus. True love is always a leap of faith. Dying, we make that leap. Yes, we go into the unknown — yet we pass from the world wounded by original sin into the domain which is fully God's. If we trust him, despite our sins, if we trust with all our might and will — like children do — what harm can we come to?
"If you trust God, you too shall live"
I found out that accounts of hell and purgatory (or their equivalents) far outnumber descriptions of heaven, especially in pagan religions. Somehow the vision of suffering, which also served as a deterrent, could be "translated" into symbols closer to experience of human life.