Author’s note: God is utterly simple and heaven is life lived in God, so heaven is far simpler than our many words can penetrate. This article includes my own reflections on heaven as discussed in the tradition. Anything I say on this topic will be necessarily insufficient, for “to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint—No occupation either, but something given and taken, in a lifetime’s death in love” (T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” v. 198f.).
Throughout the article, I use “we” to talk about the just in heaven, not out of presumption but out of hope that you and I will both be there together.
What is heaven? There’s the heaven of Bugs Bunny fame, where you get your requisite wings and harp as a celestial party favor at the pearly gates. Others might picture a peaceful, solitary cottage on the plains of heaven, but that seems to be a simple application of the American Dream to the question of eternity.
Given the banality of some popular views of heaven, it is easy to see why some people don’t find heaven interesting. Such a perspective would be impossible if we actually understood the promise of heaven. While we do not know the full story, here are 7 spoilers of what awaits us in heaven.
- We are still human in heaven. Our nature does not change at death. We do not become angels. Angels are beings without physical bodies, spirits who learn through the infusion of knowledge and who need no bodily powers. We, on the other hand, are embodied spirits, and our bodies are integral to our very selves. At the end of time, when our hope for the resurrection of the body is fulfilled and we receive our bodies back, we are complete again and thus able to experience heaven in a new and more complete manner.
- Heaven comes after purification. For some, this purification comes through suffering and sanctification in this life, but for the rest of us, God has given us Purgatory. Purgatory is the blossom of the wondrous mercy of God, a state in which God prepares the soul to enjoy the beauty of heaven, purifying it like silver in a furnace or like lab beakers in an autoclave. Think of stepping out of a dark room into a sunny day. The light is blinding, but this bright light purges the senses of drowsiness. Similarly, this time of purification leads to perfect peace, for “only in the loving bosom of God is the soul at peace with Him, with others, and with itself” (Luis Martinez, The Sanctifier, 319).
- Heaven is the fulfillment of all desire. In heaven, we lack nothing that is required for true happiness. Now, true happiness is only found when we are satisfied in every way with no risk of losing that happiness. What ultimately satisfies must therefore fill up every aspect of our soul, intellect, will, and passions.
- We will be enrapt in vision of God as He is. Only God fulfills and satisfies the yearnings of our hearts and minds. This vision of God is not earned, but given in proportion to the soul’s love. The key to happiness is not just knowledge of God in this life but love of Him. The more we love God, the more we desire what He desires. The more we are willing to give up just to be with Him, the more His glorification brings us joy. For the glory of God is the joy of heaven.
- All souls in heaven actively rest in God. Rest is not lethargy. The Eastern Fathers said that part of the joy of heaven is a constant deepening of our knowledge of the God whom we love. As He is infinite, we never cease learning about the Beloved of our souls. Part of this learning is coming to know how he worked in other blessed souls while they were in the world. God told St. Catherine of Siena that souls who drew each other closer to Him in time share a special unity in His love for all eternity. The blessed come to know each other deeply. Through their shared knowledge, each soul begins to see the great plan of God and learns how God uniquely manifested His great mercy in guiding each lowly sinner to heaven.
- We are not just enrapt in vision, but lifted up into the inner life of the Trinity through our union with Christ. Souls in Heaven, united in the Body of Christ, are divinized through Him, with Him, in Him, in union with the Holy Spirit, to experience the glory of God the Father, adopted into the inner life of the Holy Trinity. Here, words fail.
- Perhaps most astoundingly, in the baptized in a state of grace, this heaven has already begun in time. In baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit Himself, who comes to live in our souls. Since the Trinity is indivisible, with the Holy Spirit in my soul dwells the Holy Trinity. Archbishop Luis M. Martinez, in his classic The Sanctifier, talks about how “the saints begin that eternal song in this life in spite of the dissonances which abound.” Or as Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity says, “It seems to me that I have found my Heaven on earth, since Heaven is God and God is in my soul.”
Perfect happiness in union with God begun in time and consummated in eternity? Now that’s a heaven we can hope for.
Image: Gustave Doré, Rosa Celeste