This week, I am on vacation out west. I am currently in Zion National Park. It is beyond beautiful. I have been doing a fair bit of hiking, which leaves me the mental room to think and pray about things. All the rush rush rush of parish life is put into suspended animation for me (not for my poor secretary who I am sure is ripping her hair right about now), so my mind starts to fill with ponderables. Since I still carry my disdain for TV with me, I read when relaxing. In order to start preparing for the summer camps of 2014 (yes, those themes for the camp take months of prep work) and I know we are focusing on the theological virtue of hope, I downloaded Spe Salvi (Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical on hope) and Fr Larry Richards' new book "Surrender: The Life Changing Power of Doing God's Will. It was a fortuitous download. It has got me thinking about what it is we hope for.
I would assume most people who say they believe in God would say they want to go to heaven. Two questions come to mind: 1) Why? and 2) Do they appreciate what it takes to get there. Given that my pretty little noggin is not pre-occupied with new buildings, budgets, classes, vocation work, pastoral ministry and such at this moment in time, I have let this swirl around in my bonnet for awhile. So here we go:
Why do we want to go to heaven? I am sure it beats the alternative. But why do we want to go? I guess what we picture heaven as being comes into play. I like hiking. I have done quite a bit of it this week. Maybe heaven is full of incredible hiking trails with awesome vistas..I could have all eternity to hike unencumbered by other concerns. Maybe it is full of fishing, knitting, or whatever my favorite activity is. Maybe it will be being surrounded by my loved ones. Notice a trend? It is all about me. What I like. What I want. Entrance into such a realm is dependent upon whatever terms I set. If it is nothing more than being a 'good' person by whatever standard I set and truth be told, usually it is a low standard for myself and high standard for others. You'll notice that I have not once brought up God. God, in this definition of heaven is nothing more than a co-tenant of heaven...the guy in the penthouse you never see except in the elevator. He is nothing more than someone else that happens to be there as opposed to the King of Heaven and the Lord Creator of all things visible and invisible. Here is where the party ends.
Heaven isn't a reward for not being a total tool of a human being where I get to further indulge whatever earthly desires I have. It is what is was created to be...a place of complete union with God...a place where the relationship we wanted with God, a relationship set on His terms, comes to its ultimate existence. We become totally united with Him who created us for the specific purpose of such eternal union. Our time here is an answer to God: Do I wish that eternal union and am I willing to show that through my own actions, words. priorities, attitudes, and foci? The hinge lies in our ability to respond through grace to the call to love God and love one another. The only true response to God's love is God's love...an utter selflessness by which we serve, we surrender, we place others first in all things. We can either choose such love and become saints in heaven or reject such love for selfish desire and choose hell. As Fr. Richards says in his aforementioned book ever so bluntly, "We have one of two choices: we can become saints or go to hell." Heaven is not a virtual playground for self-indulgence. It is not a realm where I get to dictate whatever I want and call it heaven. What it is is so far beyond our comprehension, that our paltry flights of fancy and whimsical longings cannot come close to what it is. But one must love God and neighbor, as the Scriptures so often remind us is we can even think that heaven be a possibility.
So, do we appreciate what it takes to get there? Christ tells us that the path to heaven is a winding narrow path. It is not easy. To use an analogy: Today I hiked a trail that rose 1250 feet in altitude from the trailhead over the course of 2 and half miles. I am seriously overweight and have two not so good knees and a bad left ankle. It was quite the endeavor to make it to the top. Over and over again I said to myself (and sometimes out loud) that I will not be conquered. I would not let the weight of years of poor decisions about my health keep me from making it to the top. But to get there I had to use a body that I did not provide for myself. I had to walk a path I had not created. I didn't get to determine the steepness, widths, cutbacks, and altitude of the trail. I had to walk the one that laid before me. Fortunately I had a friend with me and a 2 liter water bladder and liter camelbak to give me the hydration I needed to stay on the trail. Now, the vista was worth every bit of the struggle.
By the same token, I must follow the path to heaven as the path has been laid out. Every step requires a death to self and an embracing of love. I cannot let the weight of sin so weigh me down as to prevent forward motion. As I walk the path, I have to trust that the builder of that path knew what He was doing when the path was created. He provides nourishment for me to keep making those steps through His grace and especially the grace given through the Sacraments. Why a 'good' Catholic can think for a second that heaven is within reach when they can't be bothered with the sacramental life of the Church makes about as much sense as me hiking the Angels' Landing Trail(yes, that was really the name of the trail) without hydration. We have the Communion of the Saints and the Grace of God to accompany us on this journey. We must act and believe that we will not be conquered by sin and by selfish desire. It is not an easy journey, but again what lays at the top is so far beyond out wildest dreams.
Heaven is not a place of perpetual self-indulgence...that would be hell...being stuck for eternity with that which even in this own life could only momentarily satisfy at the cost of being eternally separated from that which can eternally satisfy. To have that, and hence heaven, means taking the narrow difficult path and living a resounding yes to God's love by showing that love ourselves. That will reflect in how we treat others.That will show itself in the time and energy we give to God. I have often said that I find it odd that those who say they want an eternity with God in heaven cannot be bothered to spend a hour with Him of Sunday (usually with some lame excuse how they don't need Church to have God...usually a divine candy machine who dutifully dumps out goodies in response to whatever requests I have) or a half hour a day doing something to use His grace to build up the relationship we are called to have with Him. God is not a happenstance co-tenant of heaven; he won't just happen to be there to indulge your passions: heaven is result of a relationship desired with Him. Too often we agree with Billy Joel's loathsome lyric "I would much rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun." It is all about me having fun...not having fun and being other centered is hellish and fun and self-indulgence are heaven. Sorry, Mr Joel, like so many in this world it is time to drop the mirror, there, Narcissus, and get over yourself. Heaven is where there is eternal joy and hell eternal regret. Take the narrow winding path. It will be worth it.
And that is the kind of stuff that I think about and pray about whilst on vacation. :)