A true story: A six year old boy, with terminal cancer, awoke crying in the middle of the night in his room in the P.I.C.U. (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit). His nurse (who told me this story) ran to his room to comfort him. This exchange ensued:
Nurse: “Why are you crying?”
Boy: “Because today Mommy told me that soon I’m going to die and go to Heaven—but I don’t want to go to Heaven!”
Nurse: “Why don’t you want to go to Heaven?”
Boy: “I don’t want to go to Heaven because Mommy said that in Heaven I will be an angel and I don’t want to be an angel!”
Nurse: “Why don’t you want to be an angel?”
Boy: “Because when you’re an angel, you have to wear a white dress and play a harp all day and that’s just dumb!”
Nurse: “Okay. Well, in Heaven, you don’t have to be an angel. Heaven can be whatever you want it to be. What do you want Heaven to be like for you?”
Boy: “I want Heaven to be like Disney World!”
Nurse: “Okay. For you, Heaven will be like Disney World.”
Boy: “Oh good! Now I want to die!”
And the boy rolled over and went back to sleep. The nurse concluded the story: “That’s why I got out of the P.I.C.U. and into the N.I.C.U. (Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit) — because babies don’t ask awkward questions. If I had another conversation like I did with that boy, I knew it would have killed me.”
In our ongoing series of meditations on the Four Last Things (see my meditation on death HERE; my meditation on judgment HERE), it’s time to talk about Heaven. The conversation above presents us with some distortions about Heaven. There is the naively childish view of Heaven and angels (angels are more truly awesome than we give them credit for, as Peter Kreeft explains in this book and this interview). There is the well-intentioned wishful response of the nurse (“Heaven can be whatever you want it to be”). And of course, there is the cynical rejection of “otherworldliness-as-unworldliness-as-unreality” depicted in the lyrics of the song, Pie in the Sky When You Die:
From the day of your birth
It’s bread and water here on earth
To a child of light, to a child of light
But there’ll be pie in the sky
By and by when I die
And it’ll be alright, it’ll be alright
But what does the Church actually teach about Heaven? It seems that Scripture can be a bit coy about it:
But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9)
Do we become angels when we die?
Heaven is beyond what human senses and imagination, limited to this life, can conceive of. Saint Teresa of Avila, one of the Church’s greatest mystics, fumbled to express her vision of Heaven:
The Blessed Mother of God gave me a jewel, and hung around my neck a superb golden chain, to which a cross of priceless value was attached. Both the gold and the precious stones thus given to me are so unlike those which we have here in this world that no comparison can be instituted between them. They are beautiful beyond anything that can be conceived, and the matter whereof they are composed is beyond our knowledge. For what we call gold and precious stones beside them appear dark and lustreless as charcoal.
Heaven is the dwelling place of the all-good, all-holy and all-loving God. It is the only true home of we humans made in his image and likeness, a home for human body and human soul. Because of who God is, he can only want what is best for us, which is himself. Because of who we are—rational, free and social—like God, and because we are bodily—like his Incarnate Son—Heaven must be the perfection, fulfillment, satisfaction of whole human being, both body and soul.
As I write this, I see that my words fail. I know by experience that nothing in this world could rightly prompt me to cry out, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” And I know by faith that the beloved of God can only and forever cry out in Heaven, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” In Heaven, “Every tear shall be wiped away”; all wrongs shall be righted; every good deed shall be rewarded; every good hope and aspiration fulfilled; all righteous suffering shall be redeemed.
To spur our longing for Heaven, let’s search the Scriptures, let’s assist at the most solemnly beautiful Mass we can find, and let’s repeatedly echo the worlds of the psalm, “Seek his face!”
When I write next, I will conclude our reflections on the Four Last Things with a meditation on Hell. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.