Our Insatiable Yearning For Heaven
Heaven. The word conjures up a plentitude of images, too many sugary sweet or woefully shallow. Too often, we think of it as somewhere “up there”, an amusement park riding on a cloud, or angels out of a Christmas pageant with cardboard harps. That having been said, the latter may contain some grain of truth at the center, for such pageants reflect an innocence found in children, which is necessary before we can ever hope to enter into the mystery. Is that not why Christ bid the little ones to come to him and praised words come forth from the mouths of babes?
But is this place, this state, this abode of God not ultimately a mystery of mysteries, a sacred oneness outside imagery, beyond what eye has seen and mortal tongue can tell? Is it a thing found above or below, around or within? Must we wait for death to taste it, or is it something of a treasure that we have hidden in an inner coat pocket and forgotten it is there until a rainy day causes us to reach for it on a long hike in the dark woods? Is it like the Evenstar that lights our path? The song of that same name from The Lord of the Rings captures the desire which connects to love and that which stretches beyond it:
From darkness I understand the night! Dreams flow, a star shines… Ah! I desire Evenstar! Look! A star rises out of the darkness. The song of the star enchants my heart. Ah! I desire…
Perhaps it is that the Kingdom of Heaven begins upon this earth, lit by that very desire, and yet can never be fully reached in our current fragmented physicality. Our deepest senses tell us that we are, in some sense, exiles of this world, grappling with drifting dreams or shards of song that lead us on the path to home. But no matter how much we yearn to belong, we know that ultimately, this is not home. It is a cracked mirror, and the reflections stimulate or soothe our souls. But we are not home. The Sufi mystics captured this yearning well. “My soul is from elsewhere, I am sure of that,” wrote Rumi, “and I intend to end up there.”
We are in the world, this pool of energy and matter, but not of it. We come forth from the light that shines without sun or flame. We are made of dirt and stardust and that primal spiritual stuff that overflowed from the divine love and expressed itself in millions of forms and faces, all striving upwards, rising upwards, towards a higher consciousness which takes us we know not where.
And still we want to go there. We are middle people, heavenly and earthly alike, and the jaggedness of our existence here bids us learn to wear down the edges and prepare to be split open like a stone. For death is the natural course of all creatures, set apart from the sole Singularity through the creative process. And yet the breath of God runs through us as a whisper, and that is the soul’s immortality.
And even as we express the yearning of the upward thrust, an almost sexual tension is created, a yearning for the wedding feast and marriage bed we have innately desired. The mystics of all cultures and traditions yearn for it. “I was longing full of desire more than life to be with God,” they have said. “I was sinking into fire more than death to live with God.”
We try to remember what the soul already knows, and sometimes, the eyes of heart catch glimpses of the timeless lighting. We are the dance of atoms, our form found in the atoms, but our essence found in the dance. It is the Trinity of the Shaper, Shape, and Shaping of Life. We are being pulled like a magnet, yes…we are being pulled apart, and yet strung together all the same. “Eternity is now, always we are together, ever now, alone all one, under the moments, crossing time, ever now, eternity is now…”
Death is not merely a consequence of physical decomposition, but a necessity of destiny, some seed planted in each of us that must spring forth, some nourishing milk that must be milked from the red-eared cow lest it become weighty and painful. This is our yearning. We have a heaven-shaped hole in our hearts, and never on this side of the veil will satisfy it, but only whet our thirst for the fullness of the living water turned into the sweet spiced wine of God.
We are each given some special glimpse of Heaven. Often enough, the great traditions may overlap in the crux of experience, and we find common features in Paradise, Elysium, the Summerlands, the Shadowlands, Nirvana. But if it is true that we have a Heaven shaped hole in our heart, and each of our hearts are shaped by our thoughts, memories, personalities, and decisions, such glimpses as we receive are unique to us as sacred secrets between God and the individual.
C.S. Lewis compellingly shows Heaven as a place where all that is good in both England and Narnia still resides, in some sacred mystery of love unfolding from the inside out where both the memory and imagination are incarnated in a realer way than they could ever be realized in physical dimensions. “I have come home at last!” he said of Heaven. “This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”
For me, personally, there is something in England, or the imaginal spirit of it, that does speak to my sense of transcendence. Perhaps it is the lay of the land, or the stories and songs, or the ways of the people, or even the paradoxes of triumphs and defeats, but I have always thought of it as a thin place, a place one goes to meet God, or even to die. Perhaps it is a place deep within myself, something that calls realities forth from me. The theme song of the animated Beatrix Potter series I loved as a child captures this feeling:
The rain has moved on and left a new day/Nothing seems to move, everything is still/The shadows and lights, they move with the wind/Hidden violets grow, splashed with summer spray. It’s just a perfect day.
Is this heaven? Is this earth? Perhaps neither; perhaps it is that special “wood between the worlds”, that grove where we can feel the divine dance moving the universe, even in all of its brokenness. For somehow, at the heart of all trial and woe, we crack open the egg and still find the gold. St. Francis prays before a fig tree and can see the blossoms not yet manifest, but coming, and living deep inside the wood. Someday, the fruit will make him his favorite cookies, to sweeten his departure from this world, when in dying he born into eternal life. For all who are hungry will be satisfied, and the meek will inherit the earth:
On the wild and misty hillside, fear is nature’s warning/Hunger here is never far away/Yet all of this world is for children who play/Day’s that never end always should remain/Another perfect day.
Perhaps this is why children receive the keenest glimpses of what lies beyond. What often eludes the wise ones of the world can be seen through an innocence almost unearthly.
“Mommy, look at all the angels!” a little girl said just before dying of cancer.
“I’ve tasted all there is to taste here, mom, and it is so much sweeter there,” ran a broken-hearted mother’s dream after her sensitive 13-year-old daughter was driven to suicide after relentless bullying from her classmates.
“Yes, he will die, and all shall be well,” came a voice in the mind of a young girl grieving over her friend’s father dying of cancer.
“I’ve felt Jesus, daddy…He was warm,” said a 5-year-old resuscitated from drowning in a pool, who could describe the exact procedure of her resuscitation.
I tell these stories not to make anyone believe, but to shed some soft light on the scattered glimpses of what this stretchy, expanding, veiled reality might be. For Heaven, like the individual soul, and the cosmic Soul of the universe, is both immanent and transcendent, “an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”, as Nicholas of Cusa described it.
You may say all this is the wishful thinking of a precocious imagination, yet I believe the imagination can be a window looking onto higher things, just as our memories are our judge of what has touched us most deeply, and our thoughts are our ways to seek out truth and commune through fleshly form.
Sometimes, visions of Heaven may be found in simple experiences abundantly received. Susan Howatch writes of being profoundly moved by organ music at church:
“In that touch I sensed the indestructible fidelity, the indescribable devotion and the inexhaustible energy of the creator as he shaped his creation, bringing life out of dead matter, wresting form continually from chaos. Nothing was ever lost… and nothing was ever wasted because always, when the work was finally completed, every article of the created process, seen or unseen, kept or discarded, broken or mended – EVERYTHING was justified, glorified and redeemed.”
The Abrahamic school of thought has almost always maintained belief in the resurrection of the body, even as we leave what we understand of our earthly physicality behind us. Perhaps the resurrection of the body is beyond simply exchanging rags for silks, but rather changing the concept of garmentry altogether.
Perhaps it is as if the blueprint of the body, which has left a mark upon the pattern of the soul, is regenerated, yet all the particles and atoms are transformed into energy and light, with the ability to both inhabit and penetrate the material, shape-shifting at will. Heaven need not be constructed or bound by any “rules of physics”, but only defined by a state of higher consciousness and fully awakened awareness.
There are some interesting similarities about the essence of physicality being pure energy that carries over to a wholly new spiritual realm. It is a fairly consistent tradition within religions, although articulated in different ways. In Catholicism, we speak of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, when her body was nowhere to be found, and replaced by roses. In Buddhism they have a similar tradition about “Rainbow Bodies”, when physical remains have dissolved into light. Via mystical experiences, the “heavenly veil” from this world is described as being very rainbow colored. Perhaps the new bodies will fit into this tapestry.
Rainbows are a very apt way of describing these phenomena that seem to foretell a universal transformation in the world to come, for they are manifestations of light through prisms, and how we ourselves may become a prism through which light shines, just as we are called upon to become “a reed of God” through which the divine music is played. We reflect all different colors, play all different tunes. This is a beautiful image of the “marriage” of heaven and earth, physical and spiritual at once in a truly resurrected state.
This world of our ordinary experience and immediate common sense is not all there is. This world, though good, is not the final horizon of what is real. We are wandering the seashore seeking out shells, and leaving our footprints in the sand as we run along the waves to a secret chamber where Lover and Beloved are made one. “Wishful thinking” is there because truth plants it in our hearts.
As Rumi wrote, “All intellect falls prey to love’s glory.” And Tolkien, the great believer in mythic transfusion of the good, true, and beautiful, drums up our courage: “There is a place called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued. We may laugh together yet.”
I will close with a quotation from the book of Revelation: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, or any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”