By Judith Costello
A fellow told my 12-year-old daughter that “heaven is just a bribe you Catholics dangle in front of children. It’s a carrot on a stick.” So, of course, that led to a family discussion about the subject!
Is heaven really a never-to-be obtained carrot dangling before us? My daughter can envision candy clouds that you pull apart and every flavor is there for her pleasure! She can picture jeweled castles and angel servants who bring everything she desires. But it doesn’t quite seem real to her.
I suspect there is a developmental sequence to spiritual growth. As children begin to think about their lives, they want to behave, in hopes that they get to the “good” place – heaven — and avoid the horror of hell. Heaven is then imagined according to known “goodies,” such as the candy clouds. But that view is faulty.
St. Therese had it figured out early. At age 4 ½ she wrote down the word “Heaven.” She understood it to be something far better than worldly pleasures. And her vision was that the glorious experience of heaven would come according to each one’s preparation on earth — the thimble will be filled by God, but so will the huge trough! She wanted to have a bigger heart to receive more fully!!
This lovely saint guides us to a deeper vision — where there is the sweetness of love, the beauty of Jesus and Mary, and the warming fire of the Spirit. Now, as the days are cold and bleak, doesn’t that sound wondrous?!
Heaven is the only place where we will be truly home. The things of the world that please us are only a pale reflection of what God has in store!
So the second stage of holiness is to see beyond our worldly desires. When we crave sweets, we can control that bodily urge because it is a ruse, a distraction, from what is real sweetness. Therese says the joy we experience in the world is often followed by dark clouds. Eating too many sweets is followed by feeling sick. The joy of a romance is often followed by the heartache of tension between the two. Heaven is the place where joy is complete and there are no disappointments.
We can begin to feel heaven on earth when we focus on Jesus. Then the things of the world have less power over us. In the singing of the birds, in the chants of the Mass, in the awesomeness of a rainbow over the mountain and the grace that comes from the sacraments, we begin to feel a sense of heaven. It is not complete, but we have a sweet taste.
Those who have decided not to focus on heaven say that all we have is “the here and now. We should focus on living good lives and not worry about what comes after this life.”
But “what comes next” is absolutely essential to keep in mind because our understanding of what is “good” comes from staying focused on God. When we desire to be truly “good” we desire God and union with him in heaven. Depending on how we have stretched our hearts to offer his goodness on earth, that is how much we will be able to receive him in heaven. When we strive for heaven, we are striving to love the Lover. We are longing to be united with the source of all goodness. Like a deer that yearns for the running stream, our hearts yearn to reach home, where love is.
That is heaven and it is something to fuel our dreams!
(Judith Costello is a freelance writer who grew up in Davenport and now lives in rural New Mexico. Her Web site is www.thedailychristian.com.)