Coming in Glory

Chapter 10

The Four Last Things
(3) Heaven

If hell is a state of isolation from all existence save oneself, heaven is the environment of complete intimacy with all creatures, so that nothing is hidden and all is shared. At the apex, or centre, of this divine community is the Spirit of God who infuses all things with his radiance, a radiance of light contained in a glow of warmth. And yet the Spirit cannot be localized to any one focus or area in this great concourse, which in any case is depicted only metaphorically in terms of space and time. Heaven is the realm of the Spirit, but so also is hell. As Psalm 139 puts it so clearly, "Where can I escape from thy spirit? Where can I flee from thy presence? If I climb up to heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, again I find thee" (verses 7-8). The presence of God not only marks all dimensions of existence, it also determines their existence. "No single thing was created without him" (John 1:3). The descent of Christ into hell, a descent effected from the moment of his baptism up to the time of his resurrection, signifies not only the divine dominion of that region but also the divine participation in its workings prior to its own redemption.

Nevertheless, the presence of God in heaven is manifest whereas in hell it is obscure, available only to those who seek with a diligence that follows profound suffering. Since God is the centre as well as the periphery of heaven, all are open and available to him. Inasmuch as the deepest secrets are in the divine custody, nothing can be withheld from him. Since his nature is always one of love with its corollary of forgiveness, there is no longer any inclination on our part to hide anything from him, and therefore, secure in his love, we can give of our inner life without reserve to those around us, at the same time accepting their confidence with equal openness. In the story of Adam and Eve, when they had excluded themselves from a direct relationship with God, which is the full measure of heaven in our life, they realized their nakedness and started to hide themselves. In time each person became an enclosed unit intent on guarding his own interests from the intrusion of all others except those close in regard to himself; the family unit became in effect an extension of individualism, and each family fought with its neighbour for supremacy. With the advent of Christ in the soul, the seed of God germinating to become a precious, tender shoot, love began to supplant militant egoism and co-operation replaced individualistic strife. Then at last mutual confidences could be exchanged, and the mounting disorder in any soul divulged and relieved. What we can start to discharge into the general psychic atmosphere, provided love is in command of the situation, will be redeemed, no matter how diseased it is. At the same time we, relieved of the incubus of our mounting internal disorder, know a peace of mind previously beyond our imagination. The sudden void that appears is at once filled with love, and we start to lead a new life of openness to all creatures on the one hand and to God on the other.

One does not know heaven until one is well acquainted with hell: the resurrection was the final sequence in a long journey through hell in which Jesus showed himself the friend of all who walk that path. This, of course, means everyman. Only when the illusion of separation drops from us in the course of our life on earth, do we move definitively from the hell of self-inflicted isolation to the heaven of a self-giving intimacy in which an increasing number of people find their place. This does not mean that we will never know darkness and isolation again, for our path is intimately related to that of our brother with us on the way. But we will now share that darkness with God, who will be a conscious presence with us, so that we will not experience the dereliction of purposelessness - meaningless confusion in the absence of all companionship.

It may be argued that complete intimacy is incompatible with the integrity of the individual; each person should have his own place of retreat, his own sanctum of privacy. This is undoubtedly true of our world, where to let in strangers without reserve would in effect be to destroy our own lives. Indeed, the more one advances along the spiritual path, the more essential does one find periods of stillness and times of withdrawal amid the psychic, no less than the physical, tumult of everyday life. Jesus himself escaped from the crowds whenever he could so that he might commune in silence (this is a fine definition of contemplation in all its nuances) with his Father in heaven. He strove to bring the disciples with him on many such occasions, so that they too could learn the art and practice of prayer. In those surroundings the disciples experienced an even deeper impression of heaven than they did when in Jesus' company in the marketplace. In one respect merely being in his company was heaven, because where he was, there was the Father also. But the disturbed, and therefore disturbing, emotional currents that played around them detracted from that heavenly peace, easily diverting the distractable minds of the disciples along other less profitable paths - the paths of self interest at the expense of the greater community.

On the other hand, the purpose of shared silence and communal withdrawal, as on a conducted retreat, is to bring us back into the disturbed world more able to cope with its conflicts, more able to apply the balm of considered reflection to a situation of raw malice. We can do none of this through our own good intentions; only God's grace working through us can achieve the rationally impossible. It is thus also that the complete intimacy of heaven in no way threatens the individual integrity of the soul. Because God is manifestly at the centre, all is transformed in his presence to the perfect replica of Christ as manifested in its own identity: "The life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me", is the way St Paul expresses this insight (Galatians 2:20). Christ does not take over our life so that we cease to be ourselves. What he does is to transform it so that at last we function as we were intended to do, as a child of God in our particular framework, which is obviously unique and therefore different from the framework of Jesus of Nazareth. And each framework is equally precious in the sight of God, as it is in the world also, when it fulfils God's purpose of healing and service and not its own purpose of mastery and domination over others.

Heaven is not an environment in which we lose ourselves as we merge into the great oneness of God. Such would be a subtle death of all identity in the body of a continuum resembling stagnation rather than life. We are, on the contrary, to realize God in our own being, and then to contribute that being to the full body of creation. This is not to be interpreted as a frantic clinging on to our private self at all costs, but rather a finding of our true self for the first time. The self that we have to lose is the ego consciousness that seeks obsessively for itself at all costs, even, if need be, to the destruction of all that is alien to it. In this world the ego is a vital part of our personality, for without its strength and resilience we would not be able to exist psychically in the coarse mundane atmosphere at all; in this respect it can be compared with the physical body that we inhabit and use while we are in this world. But as we ascend the heavenly flights, so we leave the consciousness of the ego behind, and enter into the company of those who, too, are completely themselves without strain or assertiveness, which is the character of the ego in mundane work. This ego is neither discarded nor destroyed in heaven; it is taken up into the soul, of which it is, in the first place, as outgrowth specifically fashioned for earthly conditions. And so it in fact returns to its place, or organ, of origin when it is no longer required for special service.

Heaven, like hell, is to be experienced in our present life. It is here when we are at peace within ourselves and in the company of those we love. Needless to say, such a condition is not a frequent one in any particular life, nor is its duration usually prolonged. It can, paradoxically enough, as easily show itself in situations of extreme suffering and danger as in times of prosperity and comfort. The reason is that when suffering is communally borne and the hazards encompassing everyone make the duration of any individual life an open question, the personal barriers tend to drop and people at last become open with each other. They have little more to lose except their lives, and these are best preserved in an atmosphere of mutual trust. In the silence of dark foreboding punctuated by flashes of terror a remarkable opening of the personality is apt to occur; the soul is laid bare, and God is enabled to speak through the spirit as he did to the Prodigal Son at the depth of his misery. At this point we make the amazing, though obvious, discovery that the only quality we possess is our own being, and we learn that to let it shine with integrity is the great work of our life. "And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

This is indeed the nature of the heaven inhabited by the saints in the life beyond death, remembering in this respect that the saints are not only the great ones in the history of a religious faith but also the little ones whom we once knew in the flesh, and are now working with the others for the coming Kingdom. The traditional pictures of heaven err too much in their static representation: the chosen have finally arrived and are in a state of peaceful inanimation. People often wonder what the deceased do in the world beyond death. The question is reasonable enough because our concept of intelligence and independence shows itself in action that has an end in view. All action starts in the mind, and in the afterlife, which is a mind world, the action of the blessed departed is to pray for the souls of their less fortunate brethren in the lower purgatorial realms and in hell, and also for the distracted mortals on this side of the grave. Prayer is a two-way communication: we help our living fellows and those who are in a bad state after death, whereas the saints work in the opposite direction. The earthbound souls are thus helped from two directions; while we may not actually interfere with the free will of another person, we can at least stand beside him in his travail, no matter how responsible he may personally be for its severity, and infuse him with our love, which, of course, is a divine quality. Love is the benign influence that takes the edge off fear, resentment, prejudice and anger, whether in this world or the next. So much evil action results from these four qualities when they are accorded recognition and given unlimited scope. Soon they dominate the entire consciousness of the person they afflict, and he proceeds on a course of mounting violence and disorder until the cascading intensity of the malicious attitude is interrupted. This is the work of prayer, whether for those still alive in the flesh or in an afterlife state in an earthbound situation.

In our earthly condition we are very properly limited by time and space; without this limitation we would not grow in experience and nothing would ever be done. Love acts, and action of this magnitude demands sacrifice. It is essentially on this point of sacrifice that earthly life attains its great importance: there are situations here, necessary for soul growth, that cannot be reproduced in any other milieu. It is on this account that the act of suicide is so wrong, though, of course, all tragedies may have extenuating circumstances, and the judgement is divine rather than human. When we attain the vista of the afterlife, time and space do not disappear so much as become the subject of our own altered awareness. In hell everything seems to grind to a halt as it does if we are lost in unlit caves or caught between floors in a lift before, in either instance, anyone has come to our rescue. In heaven, even on this side of life, time appears to pass by with amazing rapidity. Likewise, the space of hell is much more concentrated and dark than that of heaven, which is open, capacious and radiant. In both environments there is some aspect of time and space, though of a different order to our world-conditioned variety. The situation in dreams may shed as much light on the situation as we can comprehend at present. My own intuition has shown me that aspects of dreams may cast a light on the life ahead of us after the severance of the physical body.

The important fact seems to be that the situations of hell, heaven and the intermediate state are not totally dissimilar from the world plane. There is a psychic osmosis between the living and the dead (remembering that all are alive in God), and the blessed ones, whether in this life or the next, are active servants of the whole under the direction of God. The angelic hosts are a special group who work in collaboration with the saints in all their works. It is our spiritual obtuseness that separates us from the knowledge of the intermediate psychic world and its more spiritual horizons. The created world is one, and the more spiritually developed the person, the more in contact he is with all levels of reality. We find ourselves in the company of those with whom we feel most of home, but there can be no final segregation of any group of creatures, for we are all parts of the one body. Pascal saw truly that Christ will remain in agony until the end of the world, even though he is rightly described as presiding in eternal glory with the Father in heaven. But heaven is not an exclusive realm set-aside for the saintly ones. It is, on the contrary, a boundless realm whose limits are the ability of the countless creatures to enter it.

Jesus' observation that a camel can get through a needle's eye more easily than a rich person can enter heaven explains the situation perfectly: the prerequisite for entry into heavenly life is the resolve to leave self behind. This does not include our own identity, which is precious in the sight of God, but the various accessories we have accumulated in our life on earth. None of these is necessarily bad on its own, but when it is used to complement our identity, it subtly takes over our life and becomes an idol. We become associated with the particular gift or quality we esteem, and our precious identity is obscured by it. The bulk of the gift and ourselves cannot traverse the narrow road that brings us to the heavenly gate; it cannot get through the space that is made to accommodate ourselves alone. The accessories we have acquired in life's toil are not of themselves deleterious to our spiritual progress; it is our tendency to appropriate them for ourselves that causes us to stumble. If we can guard them as stewards, and give them freely but wisely to those around us, they become a blessing for many. Then we may enter the heavenly state disembarrassed of all possessions, at the same time making that entry more available to others in our company.

In heaven we can be ourselves and enjoy the company of others who are themselves also. The concern is not primarily of moral values but of authenticity. When we are fully ourselves, the dark, acquisitive side of our nature seems to drop away, and the soul in its pristine freshness can unfold. At the same time we can allow others to be themselves also and take delight in their uniqueness. Comparisons and competition give way to co-operation and collaboration in a scheme of healing that involves every living creature. It is the power of God working through vibrant souls that initiates this social movement, whose end is the complete liberation of all living forms from the hell of isolation to the heaven of harmonious intimacy, in which each develops to his zenith for the service of the whole.

The statement, repeated on several occasions, in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, that what God created was intrinsically good, is profoundly true. Furthermore, as the great mystics have known, God has left a witness of himself in the height of the human soul, a witness that cannot be perverted or defiled. That witness of God in the spirit of man will never consent to any action that offends the law of love, that works evil on any creature. When we reach a knowledge of the heavenly spheres this witness governs our lives, and at last we cease absolutely to do what is evil and work tirelessly for the good. This is indeed the work of those who inhabit the heavenly realm. It must not be imagined that they have finally arrived, that they are no longer involved in the sufferings of those in other dimensions of existence. They are simply in a state of continual grace in which they can serve God faithfully, the end of which service is the raising to new life of all that is downtrodden, diseased and disconsolate. As we have already noted, the human tragedy is not so much one of native evil as of mortal weakness: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. In heaven there is a psychosomatic unity of accord; in this world the chosen work unanimously for the good of all under the direction of God, while in the unseen realms beyond mortal death the saints are continually about God's business. The great work is to change the hearts and minds of those who wield power, so that they may think peace to one another and act accordingly. This change of heart is not so much a manipulation of other people's lives as a bringing to their inner awareness of a dimension of reality to which they had previously been insensitive, if not completely closed.

When Christ came on earth it was to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was close to everyone on the way. To be in his presence was to taste that Kingdom, for one was accepted for what one was as the first step in becoming what one was meant to be, a child of God in the nature of Christ. Heaven can never be exclusive of anyone; it is we who exclude ourselves by our faulty list of priorities. The statement of Christ that no one can serve both God and money is especially relevant in this respect. While we pay first allegiance to the things of this world, we are imprisoned in the world together with all the possessions we have amassed. Indeed, the possessions easily assume the silent authority of warders in our self-imposed prison. Possessions separate us from our fellows: we distrust them lest they rob us, while they envy us, even attributing their own unsatisfactory lifestyles to our cupidity. And, of course, there is substance to all these attitudes of mind. The treasures of heaven, as Jesus taught, are incorruptible and cannot be appropriated selfishly by others. When our treasure is in God and our fellow man, our heart is already in heaven.

The person who knows heaven as a constant state of the soul, whether in this life or, much more probably, in the life beyond mortal death, has declared his allegiance for God. He has opted for the way of good, and his presence is a beacon of light to all those treading wearily on the long, often dispiriting path of life. To declare one's allegiance for God does not simply entitle one to dwell in the habitations of the blessed; it places on one the responsibility to get out on God's business into the world of sordid disfigurement, to spread the gospel of peace in places where war alone is known, to be prepared to give up one's life for even the least of our fellow creatures. This life is the soul identity, which is to grow in love and wisdom until time itself ends in the coming in glory of Christ in the universe. The grain of wheat remains a solitary lifeless thing unless it falls into the ground and dies, but if it dies it bears a rich harvest. This teaching of John 12:24 has to be repeated constantly even in the course of our life on earth, and in the realm of heaven death and rebirth are a constant way towards universal restitution. Though our soul identity is our most precious individual attribute, as it is sacrificed for the sake of others, so it grows in stature, taking in itself the knowledge of all whom it has encountered, thus expanding itself to include multitudes of creatures. It is in this way that the second commandment attains its quintessence: we can love our neighbour as ourself because we establish our neighbour's identity within ourself. This transaction is impossible on a strictly logical level, for we cannot be one and the other at the same time. But on a mystical level the criteria of logic are extended (rather than suspended), for now we attain a knowledge of God in whom all things coincide. In this state of extended consciousness we are more fully ourselves than ever before, and a knowledge beyond human understanding becomes available to us. St Paul writes thus of this knowledge, "With deep roots and firm foundations may you be strong to grasp, with all God's people, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge. So may you attain to fullness of being, the fullness of God himself (Ephesians 3:18-19).

In the end the state of heaven has to include everyone, because the absence of even one creature diminishes it, and it is therefore not completely heavenly. No one in heaven can be in a state of joyous abandon with the knowledge that there are creatures in distress anywhere in the universe. The openness of the soul in heaven brings with it a sensitivity to all the world's pain, and with that awareness comes an ineradicable desire to relieve it. It is indeed true that the souls of the virtuous are at peace with God, but their work is to bring the knowledge of that spiritual peace down to the turmoil of the outside world. To leave heavenly peace is a great sacrifice, but its motive is pure love: to bring that peace to whomsoever will receive it at the present moment in time. There is no greater work than this, for it prepares the way for Christ's second coming.

Chapter 11
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