Joy of Heaven

When I was going through my cancer scare, a friend of mine asked me to pray for her friend who had just been told that his leukemia was terminal.  And I didn’t know what to pray.  The thought of my own dying was, I think, still to close to the matter.  If I were, indeed, terminal, I thought, for what would I pray?  For what would I want others to pray?

After heading out of church one Sunday with a sudden, bright knowledge that I was healed, I began to understand what was important about last rites and what was needed in all of our prayers for the dying.  It isn’t enough to tidy things up before one dies and then leave everything to God’s mercy.  The part about leaving everything in God’s merciful hands is certainly sufficient, but the beautiful healing in that is not only the rightness of it and the sense of peace that it can bring – but also the joy.

Sky, clouds, Revelation

Joyful Hope

What will it be like to be dead?  Does this question seem dark and morbid to you, raising up fear?  It does a little to me, but, perhaps that is instinctive, since it goes against nature to want to experience being dead.  However, as people of faith, it is not a scary question to ask.  For, we do not believe that death is the end of our lives.  Our bodies will no longer be able to hold onto life, will die and decay back into the earth – but the life that is let go continues.  Our souls, which had animated our bodies, are of spirit and therefore they are immortal and cannot die.  So… what happens after our lungs stop breathing, our hearts stop beating, and our brains stop firing signals?  What will life be like then?

After I received confirmation that my tumors were not cancerous, it begin to hit me as so obvious what was needed.  If we are people of faith, then dying not only means saying goodbye to our loved ones, but also preparing to say hello to heavenly bliss.  There should, I’m realizing, be a kind of excitement in this.  It’s horribly sad to have to leave this lovely life… But, what about the loveliness that awaits us on the other side in the continued life of the World to Come?

I have written that I am too often wary of hope – even of hope that is a theological virtue, the desire and expectation of Heaven.  It’s as if I don’t want to believe in anything that might be too good to be true, as if I don’t want to be seen as a fool.  But, isn’t it an ultimately noble and glorious thing to be a fool for Christ?  If I am a faithful believer, then I must put aside my self-centered pride and believe what I hold as true.  Whether I am viewed as a fool or not.  I must become a person of faith and hope.  And, if Heaven is as we are told – the pure and eternal embrace of God, endless glory and bliss – then, what fool would not desire it?

It is good and right to desire living our best here and now, while we can.  When we no longer can live here, however, let all prayers be that we may not be so overcome with sorrow at the leaving that we forget the joyful excitement of the arriving.  The Rockies and Alps that we never got to see with our physical eyes are but ridges compared to the endless, glorious vistas of Paradise.  The delights of chocolate and kittens and wildflowers are as trifles compared to the wonders, enchantments, and beauties of God’s unfiltered, unfettered realm.  Even the love that we share with our families and friends… This magnificent love has always been a glimpse, a seed, a taste of the infinite and intimate love of our Divine Creator, in which we will be gloriously submerged and shining all through in Heaven.

Yes, I have always thought that these sound like the kind of things that you tell children.  Fairytales.  But… Where do fairytales come from?  The human imagination is vibrantly amazing – and where does it come from?  Reduction to synapse flashes is not worthy explanation of the fullness of reality, the fullness of being alive.  Eternal life is real, we know this in faith, and the experience of eternal life is far beyond all possible imagining.

But, it doesn’t hurt to try.  We are creative creatures – our delightful creativity is one of the gifts of being created in the image of the Divine, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen.

My Prayer

As I was writing this, my uncle was in hospice, his beleaguered body dying bit by bit.  His soul passed into eternity the day of this posting.  My prayer for him has been that, in whatever state of consciousness he still had, he would experience the joyful anticipation of Heaven, and that his loved ones, through their sorrow, with faith and hope, may be happy for him in the wonders and bliss that he is about to experience.  My prayer for the friend of a friend is that, while he is still fully conscious, he may also experience the joyful anticipation of Heaven, desiring it so much that he seeks reconciliation with God and with others.  Thus reconciled, he may fully enter into the endless joy that he excitedly awaits.

Before posting this, I learned (on the same day that I was supposed to find out whether or not I have cancer – I discovered earlier and do not) that my cousin’s 17-year-old son has acute leukemia.  There are no sufficient words for this sadness.  My prayer for him is for an instant miracle, or if that not be His Holy Will, that God will see him through the arduous treatment and cure him completely, and soon.  May he come through this closer to God and his loved ones, living his best here and now, able to serve Love with courage and grace for decades and decades to come.

And I pray, when my time comes to leave this lovely earth, whenever that will be, that God will give me excitement about what is to come.  May I be given the grace to anticipate the joy of Heaven, almost giddy with the imagining of all of its splendors and delights.  Yes, like a child.

Like a child of God who’s finally coming home.

© 2017 Christina Chase


Photo credit:  Aaron Burden used freely through Unsplash.com

7 thoughts on “Joy of Heaven

  1. Once again, a magnificent post. You have me excited with anticipation – even more than I was before!

    It is harder, for me anyway, to be so excited for those who go ahead of us. Our desire for them makes us want to hold them back. But our love for them must always leave us ready to let them go. Go! Go, fly to God and later I will meet you there!

    (I will join my prayers to yours for the good of all whom you have mentioned here.)

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    • Thank you, Mary for your prayers! I do hope that Heaven is a long way off for my little cousin, that he will have a long life here. I can’t imagine having to let a child go! And I know that this time will be difficult for my aunt, with her husband’s passing. Hoping God’s grace will see her through her lonely and difficult times.

      Thank you again for reflecting with me!
      Pax Christi

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  2. Well, Christina, this is a hard one for me. My faith is not strong enough to keep the door closed tight against doubt and fear. And I certainly do not want to put a damper on anyone else’s faith. I trust that you will read the rest in that spirit.

    A long time ago I stopped attending church when it occurred to me that in participating I was probably either hedging my bets that heaven is real or I was not being truly religious in thinking that the chief purpose of prayer and ritual was to get me some unimaginable reward when it’s time to die. Only a few years ago I discovered (No, it was given to me to see) what I should have known way back then, that the Divine Liturgy–as it is called, and is”served” by Eastern Christian priests–along with baptism, confirmation, confession, marriage, and holy unction, that these rituals are meant to unite us to Christ through forgiveness and healing right now, not just for the future.

    Specific to holy unction, one priest writer summarizes its purpose and effect this way: “The measure of healing bestowed, of course, is left in the hands of God, but life and health will be given—whether it be physical healing or spiritual healing, or both.” (http://myocn.net/holy-unction) That “will be given” applies to the immediate future–the moment after the annointing. It also applies to a continuation of life here. I don’t even know if the word “heaven” is part of the ritual (except of course in the Our Father and in the creed) though no doubt life after death is, both in Christian teachings in general and in this memorial acclimation heard in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist churches–and quite possibly in others: “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life.”
    .
    Just this evening I was driving home from vespers when I started thinking why was I really there since most of the time my mind was somewhere else. As I argued with myself in the car, a funny thought made its way into conversation: “Being not there mentally, yet staying until the end and trying to join in– that’s what faith is.”

    So maybe my not being able to reflect peacefully and joyfully about death could also be a sign of faith. And my decision to write to you about shortages of faith and hope– i am hoping that that is a sign of “hope in the resurrection,” as the ritual book puts it, without ever talking about heaven, yet keeping in mind Paul’s statement, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.”

    Does all this mean we should not think about heaven? No, it just means that it is hard for me to do so, though praying for the dead, as well as for those suffering or dying, is important, and I do that often. If any of these activities brings peace, joy, or both, so much the better!

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    • Oh, Albert, I think I do know what you mean… Thinking about Heaven is hard for me, too.
      Although I am not proud of this act any longer, when I was about 19, I intentionally left the Church, Christianity, and even belief in God. One of the main reasons was that I thought religion placed too much emphasis on life after death. Christianity, it seemed to me, was all about rules and restrictions (and suffering, as I was raised Catholic) in this life so that one could be “rewarded” with unrestricted happiness in the next. But… I needed to know… What about the beauty and joy now? Is the goodness of life only about what happens when you’re dead? I knew that wasn’t right, wasn’t true, so I became, for a short time, an atheist. (God is merciful.)

      Later, as I grew, after I came to the awareness of the reality of God, though not yet a Christian, I became amazingly surprised by two main teachings, two main tenets of the Catholic Church (applying, also, to Orthodox Christianity). (1.) Through natural reason (a gift from God) and the observation of the natural world (created by God) human beings can come to awareness of “the ultimate reality that everyone calls God”, the Uncreated Creator, the Uncaused Cause. (2.) The created world is good, human life on earth is good, and the joy of communion with the love and grace of God is possible, as well as decreed by God, here and now. Christ came so that we may have life and have it abundantly.

      When I took the leap of faith and became a believing Christian, I admit that I put the profession of faith about “the life of the world to come” on a back burner. I had had it too often portrayed to me as something overly sweet and sappy, a fairytale, wishful thinking, a comfort for the frightened. I had willfully become an atheist in order to discover whether or not I was afraid to face life without a benevolent God and comfort after death. I was not afraid. I still loved life, found it good and beautiful, though also, of course, difficult and terribly sad. But, I thought, I didn’t need God, I didn’t need Heaven, in order to be happy. Even as a believer, I still thought that I didn’t need Heaven in order to be happy.

      Often, in Christianity, life in Heaven after death is what is emphasized, sometimes overly so. But, God gives us the grace to live in Heaven now. Maybe the questions we should ask are, What is Heaven? Where is Heaven?

      I think it’s like what you, Albert, wrote here about the Divine Liturgy being served by priests. I think that you are a reader of Fr. Stephen Freeman, yes? Recently, he was writing about the full reality of our lives here and now. Through Christ, there is no separation between Heaven and Earth. In a sense, there is no separation between the living and the dead – for, as Christians, we are already dead. We have died with Christ… And we have been raised with Christ, here and now, to new life, to fullness of life in the fullness of reality. Our eternal lives have already begun, we are living them here and now, by the grace of God. This is the reality of the Liturgy and the Sacraments – they make present to our physical senses, to our natural reason, what is present. Through the Mysteries of Christ, we are healed of the error of division, we are restored to the Divine Image, we are set free from the finite chains that would have us live only on Earth now and only later on in Heaven.

      Heaven is not some distant place of sugar candy mountains. Heaven is the unmasked, unfiltered, unadulterated presence of the Divine. Yes, just as you quoted from St. Paul, “for, now, we see as through a glass darkly; but, then, face to face.”

      Imagine that.

      I don’t believe that we can in any way accurately imagine that – the pure presence of God is far beyond all human imagining. But, Mystery of Mysteries, we are in that presence here and now. This reflection that I have written on the Joy of Heaven is, I see more clearly while I’m writing this response to you, an invitation to myself and to others who feel the same qualms about emphasizing the afterlife as I do. The invitation is to not be afraid. I don’t mean to not be afraid of life after bodily death (although that is important, an essential, unavoidable part of Christianity) I mean to not be afraid to fully embrace and live our faith – even the parts about Heaven. It is joy – let’s live the joy! Christ rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. How can we be Christians without professing that?

      Faith is never stagnant. As you described it, faith is an effort, an attempt, perhaps a reaching- not-yet-grasping – it is lived not done. I used to think of God in merely symbolic terms, with no acquiescence to, and, so, no acceptance of, the Mystery of reality. I don’t want to make the same mistake in thinking of Heaven as a figurative symbol of the life of grace on earth. Do you know what I mean?

      There is no doubt that the Orthodox and Catholic Church teach the resurrection of the body, based on the teachings of Christ, who himself rose and ascended. Christ told us that he was going forward to prepare a place for us. Sacred Scripture is full of his promises of eternal life (“I will raise them up on the last day”) which we call the afterlife. The Day of Judgment, burning in fire, etc.. These are things that I usually don’t like to reflect upon, not understanding their meaning – or maybe not wanting to understand…? But, we can’t pick and choose which words of Christ we like. Just as we can’t pick and choose which parts of Scripture are Sacred.

      Wow, this is a very long response! I could have made another post out of it! 🙂 The bottom line is this: Heaven is real. Embracing the reality of Heaven, which is now and forever, with our limited human capacity is the work our faith brings us through – often in fits and spurts, but always led and made possible by the merciful grace of God.

      PS. On mind wandering during Liturgical prayers. As Fr. Freeman has often written, the point of attending the Mass, the Sacred Liturgy, is not to feel the presence of God or to leave with pleasant feelings. The point is the Presence – always there, always here, whether we feel it or not. The least that we can do is present ourselves bodily, flawed as we are, once a week. God is merciful.
      Thank you for joining with me in reflecting! Pax Christi

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  3. For heaven’s sake, what was I thinking last night, Christina?! There was no good reason to downplay the beauty of your reflection just because I felt like telling you about my views..

    But strangely–or should I say, “unsurprisingly”–I did experience some of that peace and joy in church this morning. I waited out the distractions and the inner gloom, and sure enough the words of the liturgy eventually transformed most of my self-awareness into a sense of belonging at the table. And all the angels and saints and persons of faith and (especially) my lost loved ones were there too. Eventually I had to leave,, but while I was there it was heavenly.

    Probably I should not write about these things late at night. A new day often replaces night thoughts with fresh air and light.

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    • But, I’m glad you wrote! It’s good to bring the thoughts of the night out into the day so that we can more deeply converse together. Keep writing!

      What a beautiful experience you had… God bless you and all your loved ones at the table. Pax Christi

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