“Let your thoughts be ever in the kingdom of heaven and soon you will possess it as an heritage.”
-Abba Hyperechius, Desert Father, fourth-century
With his usual erudition, C.S. Lewis provides a helpful, guided tour of the landscape of the human soul:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
We cannot adequately understand the world within us and without us without consulting a biblical anthropology. We were created in Eden; we were created for heaven (Phil. 3:20); the Preacher (Qoheleth) in Ecclesiastes says that God has “set eternity in their hearts” (emphasis mine; Eccles. 3:11b). Our deepest yearnings draw us heavenward.
But now we live east of Eden in a fallen world, and, in our quiet, honest moments, we have a “something’s missing” feeling and a longing for heaven or something like the perfection of Eden. The cherubim stand guard at the entrance of Eden and won’t let us back in.
Life can feel like living in a motel room, and, despite the cable TV, free Continental breakfast, and comfortable queen-sized bed, it’s not home. How we respond to this yearning will greatly influence the health of our interpersonal relationships.
We can try to find heaven on earth through other people. Think of the engaged couple who really does believe that their betrothed will make all their dreams come true.
The corrective letter that C.S. Lewis wrote to Sheldon Vanauken in A Severe Mercy also comes to mind in the aftermath of his wife Jean “Davy” Vanauken’s illness and death. Lewis rightly pointed out that Vanauken hoped to keep his marriage in a perpetual state of nuptial bliss, an eternal springtime of poetry and verdant pastures, insulated from the disappointment and “soul-making” nature of a fallen world.
Think of the wife who demands that her husband be able to read her mind in buying her the perfect gift for her birthday. She won’t even drop subtle hints for him, because, if he really loved her and was sensitive to her needs, he wouldn’t need them.
It could be a husband who demands that his wife have a similar sexual nature to his own despite the fact that, as Louann Brizendine points out, the area of the hypothalamus in the human brain related to sexual pursuit is 2.5 times bigger in men than women. Also, the fuel that runs sexual desire is testosterone and men, in general, have ten times more of this than women.
Many divorces are rooted in the soil of a toxic romantic idealism. People make lousy gods and the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.
If misplaced yearnings for heaven wreak havoc in human relationships, then the salutary response to this problem would be to place those yearnings where they really belong: heaven. This will help us defer gratification in this life in our dealings with other people and fulfill this Pauline directive:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1,2).
By doing this we trod the path of Jesus (Matthew 6:33), the Old and New Testament saints (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 11:14-16) and all the spiritual luminaries throughout over two thousand years of church history. They were walking on a Bridge called the Hope of Heaven that stands between this present Vale of Tears and the future Beatific Vision
In cultivating a heavenly perspective, it is good for the practicing Catholic to know at least three things. This is by no means an exhaustive list but a good conversation-starter.
Believers would understand and put into practice the truth that they have a dual citizenship. We are in Christ; he is in us. He is seated at the right hand of the Father; therefore we are also “seated in heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6) and “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).
This means that we may be a citizen of the U.S. celebrating the Mass on a Sunday morning at Our Lady of Sorrows in Akron, Ohio, but we are also in heaven celebrating the Holy Sacrifice with the saints and countless angels. These realities are true whether we feel them or not. This needs to be emphasized in a feeling-based American culture that puts a new spin on Descartes: “I feel; therefore I am.”
Believers would know that seeing life through a heavenly lens will help them with immediate needs in their daily lives. Imagine a man in his early 30s sitting in his backyard alone on a Saturday morning. Many things in his life feel a little out of control: marriage and family life, work, finances, and his health.
In his time of prayer and meditation he knows he is seated in heavenly places and, because of this, has a renewed understanding of the sovereignty of God. God is in control: his anxiety begins to give way to peace.
He also has a big decision to make by Monday morning. He has been offered a promotion at work that would mean a substantial raise with more authority and prestige in the company. It would also mean more traveling, longer hours, and a lot less time with his wife and three small children.
Because he is seated in heavenly places, he can look at the decision with an eternal perspective and see things through the lens of sacrificial love and what it means to truly gather up treasure in heaven. It’s a no-brainer: he decides he doesn’t want to sacrifice important relationships on the altar of money and achievement and declines the offer.
Believers would learn to live in the tension of the Already/Not Yet of heaven. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of heaven and the transcendence of the future invaded the present moment with the Incarnation. In one sense heaven is already here, breaking into our lives in many diverse and wonderful ways. A practicing Catholic who prays the Rosary receives graces from heaven from the Queen of Heaven and enjoys a foretaste of the Beatific Vision in the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
In another sense the fullness of heaven is not here yet until we see the Beatific Vision. On this side of eternity we are betrothed to Christ and wear his engagement ring; on the other side we will enter into the fullness of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Put in culinary terms, we get the salad and the appetizer in the Already and then the main course and dessert in the Not Yet. Because, as Lewis says, we were created for the next life, there will always be a “something’s missing” feeling in this life. This dissatisfaction, by the grace of God, can be transformed into Hope that becomes a bridge between the Already and the Not Yet.