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Open Wide the Doors

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How Heaven Transforms Our Lives
by Peter Kreeft

A 13th-century traveler came upon two men dragging heavy stones down a muddy road. One was singing, the other was cursing. The traveler asked the cursing man, "What are you doing?" He answered, I"m trying to get this ___ rock to move through this ___ mud!" He then asked the singing man the same question. He answered, "Iím building a cathedral!" Destination makes all the difference. Or, as the philosopher Aristotle put it, a thingís end, or purpose, is what determines everything else about it.

Basic questions

The three most fundamental questions we need to answer if we are truly to know ourselves are: Where did I come from? What am I? Where am I going? Medieval Christian civilization gave men and women the answers to these questions: I came from the hand of my all-wise, all-powerful and all-loving Creator. I am his child, made in his image, and I am destined for a spiritual marriage-union with God, "the beatific vision." Even as late as the first six decades of this century, all American Catholics knew these answers as instinctively as they knew how to breathe. The old Baltimore Catechism began with them. "Q: Who made you? A. God made me. Q: Why did God make you? A: God made me to know him, to love him and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next."

What does our present culture teach us? What are its answers to our origin, our nature and our destiny? That we are made in the image of King Kong, not God; that we are bodies that compute, not souls that sin; that our destiny is earth, not heaven. The road map of life is to be dropped from a womb to a tomb, not to rise from a sinner to a saint. The modern human is a dog in a cage at a railroad station who has chewed off his tag. He does not know his owner, his name or his home.

Restoring a practical and operative faith in heaven would go very far toward restoring vigor, joy and spiritual health to our society. But we canít give what we donít have. We must be sure we are living this central article of our faith first. If the salt has lost its saltiness, it is good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot on icy sidewalks.

The fundamental reason heaven is so life-transforming is not what is there but Who is there. Heaven does not contain God. God contains heaven. Heaven is relative to God, God is not relative to heaven. Heaven is heaven only because it is the full presence of God. Without God, whatever else heaven may have becomes completely worthless. So does earth. (St. Paulís word for it, in Philippians 3, was skubala, which the old Douay and King James Bibles translated "dung.") And with God, nothing else is needed.

Empty 'deal'

St. Augustine says, "Those who have you alone have everything; those who have everything but you have nothing; and those who have you plus everything do not have any more than those who have you alone." In one of his sermons, he asks us to imagine God asking us whether we would like to accept the following "deal." Suppose God said, "I will give you whatever you want. You can have anything in the world, anything you can imagine. Nothing will be forbidden, nothing will be impossible, nothing will be a sin, nothing will be punished. Thereís only one catch: Never, never in all eternity will you ever see my face." Would you accept that "deal"? If not, you have obeyed the first and greatest commandment, to love God with all your heart and not put other gods before him, not even the whole world.

A firm belief in and hope for Godís promise of heaven thus transforms lives. It puts hymns on the lips of martyrs, enables them even to make jokes of their death. (St. Lawrence, roasted alive on a barbecue spit, said, "Please turn me over. Iím not quite done on the other side yet." St. Thomas More, on the block, said, "Axeman, please spare my beard; it is surely not guilty of treason against the king.") For even as we fall out of this world into the abyss of the unknown, we are "safe in the arms of Jesus."

One would expect that we would love to study, contemplate and talk about this stellar gem in the necklace of our faith; that we would often revel in imbibing this bloom on the rose of being a Christian. But not so. We hardly ever talk about it, except at funerals. We hardly ever hear homilies about it, though the gospel promises are bursting with it. It is the point of each of Jesusí famous beatitudes that begin his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. St. Paul says that "if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Why are there so many pitiable Christians today? What holds us back from the bold, strong, confident, joyful attitude of the faith of our fathers?

One obstacle today is the wholly unfounded fear that heaven is "escapist." If we take heaven seriously enough so that it transforms our lives, not just our thoughts, we worry that this transformation might exact too high a price, that heaven will distract us from earth, that in light of heavenís infinite light all earthly lights will be simply out-dazzled and blotted out. If our lifeís work is a pilgrimage to heaven, how can we possibly take seriously the little mortal toys by the wayside? Once you taste wine, how can you love water again?

Loving earth, too

The best answer to this question is not an abstract argument but a concrete observation: The fact is that belief in heaven has exactly the opposite effect. It makes us take this world much more seriously. We love it more, not less. Why? Because it is now seen as the colony of the beloved homeland. Love of the heavenly homeland makes us love its earthly colony more, not less. For heaven is the model for earth: "Thy kingdom come...on earth as in heaven."

Heavenís light does not blot out earthly lights because Godís grace perfects created nature rather than suppressing it. White light transcends all colors, as heaven transcends the things of earth; but white light brings out the unique colors of each thing rather than rivaling or suppressing them.

Thus those who have had a strong love of heaven have always worked the hardest for a better world. It was Christians, not atheists, who built cathedrals, wrote Summas and Divine Comedies, abolished slavery and built hospitals.

Emily Dickinson says, "All the way to heaven is heaven." The atheist Samuel Beckett says, "They give birth astride a grave." If heaven is our destination, it works retroactively to make our whole journey heavenly. If death is our destination, it too works retroactively to make our whole journey deathly. Both life and death work backwards.

'Spiritual rebirth'

"All the way to heaven is heaven" does not mean that this earth is heaven, that "it doesnít get any better than this." (What a gloomy, hopeless saying that is!) We donít get to heaven just by living a full life on earth, though this is a popular opinion today. If we are to listen to Jesus Christ, his Church and its Bible as our authorities on how to get to heaven instead of popular fashionable opinion, the way to heaven is not natural birth but spiritual rebirth. It is not being born but being "born again of water (Baptism) and the Spirit" (John 3).

Our entrance ticket to heaven is not the natural immortality of our soul but the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not our natural connection with Adam, who gives us our earthly ancestry, but our faith-connection with Christ, who gives us our heavenly ancestry by making us children of God. Shocking as this sounds to modern nonbelievers, without Christ there is no hope of heaven. This does not mean that non-Christians do not go to heaven, but that Christ is in fact the only way there. Read John 14:6.

According to Christ, St. Paul, the New Testament and the dogmas of Christís Church, the way to heaven is not just being nice enough or good enough. (How good do you have to be? Whatís the cutoff point?) The way is Christ ("I am the way"). The way is the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ came to earth not just to take away our ignorance by preaching, but to take away our sin by dying and to take away our death by rising.

Reasons to believe

We are commanded by the authority of Christís apostle and first pope to be ready to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). What kind of reason? There is one and only one honest reason to believe thisóand for that matter, anything else at all: because it is true. If it is a fiction, then even if it makes us happy and good and hopeful and productive, no honest person will want to believe it. (Do you still believe in Santa Claus? Remember how happy and how good that myth made you every December?)

But in addition to being true, it is also good, and it makes us good. In fact, if we do not believe in heaven, if we do not believe we will ever meet God face-to-face, then it is hard for most of us to see why it is so absolutely necessary to be good, especially when it doesnít "pay" here on earth. Whatís the point of being a saint or a martyr if weíre just firewood anyway? Dostoyevsky put it very simply: "There is no virtue if there is no immortality."

Besides being true and good, it is also beautiful, wonderful, joyful, hopeful, inspiring and energizing. It is the thing all our longings are ultimately about, what they all point to. It is why our hearts are restless, what they are restless for. Heaven is the joy we secretly sense and seek behind all the greatest earthly joys that ever move our souls, the echoes of Eden we hear in our greatest music, the total intimacy that the fullest earthly loves always promise and never quite deliver, the beauty only remotely suggested by starlight at sea, by cathedrals, by stories that break your heart and let the inner sea of tears leak out. We are made for nothing less than an eternal sharing in the infinite and incomprehensible ecstasy that is the very inner life of God himself. And we will never be really happy or whole until we have it.

Or rather, until we do it. For "it"óthe life of God himself, the life of heavenóis charity (1 John 4:7). And that is something we can do right now. More urgently, it is something we must do right now. For if we do not do it now, we will not do it ever. Every choice we make is a step towards heaven or towards hell, for ourselves and for all those whose lives we touch.

Peter J. Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of many books, including Heaven, the Heartís Deepest Longing (Ignatius Press).



Pope John Paul II  

In seeking to describe heaven, the Scriptures often draw on images of light and peace or speak of a paradise or a heavenly Jerusalem. But, in fact, heaven remains a mystery that defies description and human understanding: "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

But who of us has not longed to comprehend one of the deepest mysteries of our faith?

In response to that age-old yearning and in his role as the most recognized spiritual leader in the world, Pope John Paul II has sketched out his own picture of heaven over the past two decades. In the 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he shared his thoughts about major theological questions, including eternal life and the meaning of salvation. This past summer, only months before the world crosses the threshold of a new millennium, the Holy Father offered his reflections on the afterlife in a series of summer audiences on heaven, hell and purgatory.

The terrain he describes has been surprising and new to some, reassuring to others. And, the pope acknowledges, heaven is perhaps of only passing interest to many persons today who focus "on enjoyment of earthly goods" rather than "the Last Things."

Heaven, as Pope John Paul has described it, is "neither an abstraction nor a place in the clouds." Rather, it is "a living, personal relationship with the Trinity." Similarly, hell is "more than a place." It is "the situation in which one finds himself after freely and definitively withdrawing from God, the source of life and joy," the Holy Father has said.

Pope John Paul II is saying more than meets the eye: Heaven and hell are not physical locations; rather, they are states of being. It is Godís desire that everyone be saved and that all his creatures experience the untold happiness that comes from union with him in heaven, but it is our choice to embrace or reject the reward of heaven. Finally, the blessings that God showers upon us each day are a foretaste of the joy that can be ours when our earthly life has come to an end.*

— by Judy Ball




Open Wide the Doors

"I am the door of life. I entreat all, ĎEnter!í"

With those words Pope John Paul II will unlock the gigantic bronze Holy Door at St. Peterís Basilica on December 24 and usher in Jubilee 2000. A few hours later on Christmas Day local churches in Rome, Bethlehem and Jerusalem as well as the rest of the world will mark the year 2000 with the unsealing of specially designated church doors at blessing services. With joy and hope the Church universal will celebrate the crossing of the threshold of the third millennium.

The doors of our own homesóthose doors which bless our comings and goings, which offer hospitality to all who live and who visit thereócan likewise play a role in the Holy Year. Families are invited to designate their own Holy Year Door to mark their home as a holy place where the spirit of Christ prevails. Simple decorations can be made by hand. As a service, St. Anthony Messenger Press, in cooperation with the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has developed a simple Jubilee door hanger.


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