"Pie in the sky when you die." That was the taunt often hurled at Christians by Marxists and other atheists. The Christians, it was implied, only cared about the good life that would ensue after death and turned a blind eye to all suffering, even quite preventable suffering, on this side of the grave.
In one sense, this gibe was quite unfair. It was religious orders, for example, who looked after the poor and the sick and who educated the young long before worldly rulers saw it as their responsibility to attend to such matters.
But, in another sense, the gibe hit close to the mark. Traditional Catholic teaching about heaven pictured a pristine existence disconnected from life in this world. It took the Second Vatican Council to address this shortcoming. The council elaborated on the church's teaching in a way which portrayed humanity as cooperating with God in defining the shape of heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes much of the 14th century definition of heaven by Pope Benedict XII. This pope's declaration Benedictus Deus makes up the bulk of traditional authoritative teaching on heaven. Basically, it states that, in heaven, the elect "see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature" (no. 1023).
In short, in heaven we get a vision of God. We know God directly, rather than via his creation. For those who have never shown any interest in God, such a definition is unlikely to inspire them to reorient their lives. It seems to suggest that, in heaven, we are passive. For all eternity, this might seem a trifle boring.
Contemplatives could feel right at home in a heaven where all we do is "see" God. The rest of us might be highly tempted to get out and stretch our legs while we wait for something to happen.
Pope Benedict's way of phrasing this owes more to the philosophy of Plato than to Scripture. Our goal might better be described as being with God than as passively "seeing" him. In heaven, we will find the fulfilment of St. Augustine's famous cry that "our heart is restless until it rests in you." All our lives we have yearned and striven for something more than one can find in this world. In heaven, we will finally discover that "something more."
The catechism refers to several Scriptural images of heaven. It is a wedding feast, the Father's house, the heavenly Jerusalem. Through these images we can understand that heaven involves a rich and intimate interpersonal sharing between God and us as well as between ourselves and other people. We sit at God's table and talk, share and celebrate with him. Heaven is a party, a home, a city. There is a buzz as well as mystical communion.
Vatican II, in a highly significant paragraph of The Church in the Modern World (no. 39, see Catechism, 1048-1050), took this further. "The expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age."
The current life is not just a testing ground to determine who wins admission to heaven. Our actions are not mere means to passing the test and getting our heavenly reward. Rather, in this life, we begin to form the next one. The steps we take now will show discernible effects in the new human family in heaven.
Each of us has hopes and dreams which are not merely self-serving. We all yearn for the eternal, that which is beyond our grasp now, that which is more than words can say. And yet that yearning is expressed in quite different ways. Some express it by working with the Third World poor, others by lives of prayer, others by knitting sweaters for their grandchildren.
What is essential is that each of us not allow that yearning to be dulled by addiction to TV, alcohol or other diversions. We need to be moved by that inner call and discipline ourselves so that it gives wing to our lives.
At the end of time, God will call together those who have been faithful to their unique personal vocations and form them into this new human family. Then we will see how the actions of each have contributed to the making of the whole.
Exactly how God will use our actions to give shape to heaven, we don't know. But Vatican II said in general what will occur: "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."
Heaven is a reward, but it is more than that. It is the fruit of our own labors in this world. It is something we have a responsibility to build. Now! The human search for heaven is not an escape from the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of this world. It is how we enter more fully into the human drama.
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