In the last of our Advent talks, Faith for Busy People, Sr Tamsin Geach OP explains the Catholic teaching on hope for heaven

The topic I have been given is ‘How should we hope for heaven?’, which fits into this Advent series because essentially all Christians should be looking forward with expectant joy, and that expectant joy is fixed on ‘the blessed hope-the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2.13).  This coming of Christ will be, perhaps for most of us, at our own deaths, though we should not rule out the possibility of these being after all the last days, and perhaps then seeing Christ come in glory before we die.  Advent reminds us that whichever way it is, for Christians this is a fact full of joy and not one which we should dread as those who have no hope in Christ. What then does it mean for us to hope for heaven?  I think this is a question that divides neatly into four parts:

  1. How, in this world full of darkness and sin should we do so strange a thing as hope?
  2. How can we, with our personal baggage of sorrow and sin hope for heaven?
  3. What is the character of our hope?
  4. Finally, what is this heaven that we hope for?

How can we hope in this wicked world? At a certain age or stage in one’s life, when the scales of youthful optimism drop irrevocably from our eyes, and we begin to get a picture of the full scope and horror of human sin, it may be tempting to see hope for heaven as a kind of ‘pie in the sky’ – the Prozac of the people.   We learn about tyrants and death camps, about corruption and abuse, and we see disaster striking the truly good, and corruption lying at the heart of what we have held most precious and trustworthy, even in the Church.  Surely in the face of this, hoping in a God Who is good, Who has made a world that is good, and founded a Church for the salvation of souls, and Who will bring in a kingdom of light, refreshment and peace is simply wishful thinking, and those who go in for it must be dreamers sustaining themselves with the crutch of religious belief which serious thinkers and those engaged with the real world should not need? The real profile of religious believers however should give us pause. Those emblems of hope, the saints and the martyrs were steady and fundamental realists –Our Lady who stood and watched her Son bleed and die, St Ignatius of Antioch who begged his disciples  ‘Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ’ (Letter to the Romans); Fr Damien who went to Molokai in the knowledge that he was likely to contract leprosy, saying ‘I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ’; Maximilian Kolbe, who offered his life in the death camp to save another man, knowing that what he was facing was slow starvation and who was once heard to say in the camp: ‘Do not worry about me or about my health: the good Lord is everywhere, and holds every one of us in His great love’; – Mother Teresa, who described her work at one stage as ‘doing the impossible for the ungrateful’: these are not people who shirked the real world – in fact they engaged with it with a courage which puts our mediocrity to shame – and they engaged with it at a deeper level of heroism than I have yet heard of being produced by secular humanism. There is nothing new in the horrors we have to face, except the level of information, by which we are exposed in the shielded and cushioned West to a reality which in all ages has been the familiar daily experience of the many. As Peter Geach said in The Virtues, ‘If the Jews could still worship their God in spite of Titus and Hadrian, they can still worship him in spite of Hitler; if Christians could believe in God after the Thirty Years War, they can still believe in God after Hitler’s war. One may pity an individual when faith is destroyed by such terrible events – there, but for the grace of God go I! But no respect is due for authors of belly-aching books about the need for an ‘agonising re-appraisal’ on account of the horrors near us in space and time; such talk is solemn, but it is not serious. The world has always had much grimness in it; but the lives of the Saints, and the sure prophetical word, have always shone like candles in the dark’ (Peter Geach, The Virtues, p.44). How can we personally hope for heaven? One may come so far, but then be struck with fear when one contemplates one’s own wickedness, apathy and general lack of lustre. The people I mentioned above are saints, but I am not. I am daily reminded of the inadequate response I make to the love of God, to the demands of charity, or even of common kindness. Faced with either keeping the Eucharistic fast or eating a croissant for a rather late breakfast, the croissant may win – and then when one gets to Mass, as a friend of mine put it ‘what a numpty’ one feels- ‘Bread of life/croissant – I can’t believe I chose the croissant!’ A life may be saved also if I give such money as bought the croissant to the poor, but often when one knows one is likely to be faced with an immediate demand by a poor or needy person, the soul shrinks with inward unwillingness. Again and again, gossip and grumpiness, lying, lust and greed come in the way of living an authentic Christian life, and the fact that one settles for so little is deeply discouraging – as if, being able to swim, one would prefer to play in a muddy polluted puddle filled with unseen microbes and broken things with sharp edges, when the whole great ocean is only feet away. What we need then is growth, and such growth comes through grace – individual acts are not enough if there is no change of heart – we need to have our inward disposition changed so that it will emerge in real action – change, that is to say what the scholastics called our ‘habitus.’ We need to become people who truly live the beatitudes. Here I think St Thomas Aquinas on the Beatitudes is helpful.  Seeking for happiness he sees as an inevitable human trait, though the direction of that search may lead us to different conclusions – we may seek it in material or physical pleasures, in active charity, or in the contemplation of God. The real happiness for which we are made is the sight of God, and each of these other modes of happiness bear some relation to it. Seeking sensual happiness as an end in itself is ultimately an obstacle to this type of happiness, and so Our Lord had given us the first three beatitudes to purify our desires and turn us away from the things that obstruct us and prevent us from attaining our last end, so that we shall no longer seek external goods, such as honour, wealth, and the bodily passions of fear and desire. The virtues and gifts which are instantiated in the beatitudes thus bring us through what is called in other places the purgative state of prayer. Active charity is about giving what is justly owed, or, for a Christian, for the love of God going beyond that to considering not so much what we owe, or whether we owe anything to this individual, but rather with ardent desire ‘through reverence for God, [to] consider only the needs of those on whom we bestow our gratuitous bounty’ Finally, in contemplation we are purified in our hearts and brought to the kind of peace that ‘arising from within causes peace in others’. This is a broad brush description of the spiritual life, but just as there is a general progress from the credal through the existential to the mystical, or, in another model, from the purgative to the active to the contemplative, yet, because we are not simple or reasonable, there is a tendency for this also to be cyclical – conversion and belief followed by action, followed finally by mystical contemplation may be the ‘proper’ order, but the reality of a life lived towards God is that there are many new beginnings of belief or conversion, many re-commitments to active charity, and (to help us on our way, bending to our weakness) God does not leave it to the end of a life lived perfectly to begin to reveal Himself, but is Himself the beginning middle and end of the ‘Why?’ underlying all our belief, conversion, and lived experience. In a word, we can hope despite sin because we are not Pelagians, and so we believe that the whole process is underpinned with the love of God which holds us not like a slippery rope in a stormy sea, but with a firm hold that can be relied upon. What is the character of our hope? This is where the virtue of hope comes in.  Hope in Catholic Christianity is summed up, in the remark attributed by Samuel Becket to Augustine about those crucified with Jesus. : “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.   Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” That is to say, it is predicated upon the assumption both that we can attain grace and glory, and that we may not.  In Catechism of the Catholic Church hope is defined as ‘The confident expectation of divine Blessing and the beatific vision of God:  it is also the fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment’ (CCC2090)  That type of evangelicalism in which an individual says they are certain they will go to heaven no matter what they do or in what state they die, that type of universalism which denies the possibility of hell over against the plain word of scripture, that blank materialism which denies the possibility of an after-life, and that type of Calvinism by which someone may decide on the basis of probabilities, and given that he is a sinner, that he is foredoomed to hell and that this was written down for him before he had even been conceived in such a way that there is nothing he can do about it – all of these are contrary to  the virtue of hope. St. Thomas defines the object of hope as ‘a future good, difficult but possible to obtain’  (Summa Theologica IIaIIae17a1). From our perspective we still have to ‘work out our salvation with fear and trembling.’(Philip. 2.12). This is not a popular part of Catholic doctrine at the moment, perhaps in reaction to a previous generation that heard too much of hell, but a presumption that in the end God loves me, so all I have to do is ‘believe’, without that ‘belief’ emerging in any progress to the activity of lived charity, let alone any kind of commitment to regular prayer will lead to loss, and maybe to eternal loss.  In the spiritual life there is no such thing as standing still. However by faith, which precedes hope, we know that ‘we are able to obtain eternal life, and that for this purpose the Divine assistance is ready for us’(ST IIa IIae 17a2,) .  It is by hope that we are able to apply this general premise of faith to ourselves.  Because there can be no failure in mercy or omnipotence on God’s part we may in a sort of way speak of certainty, as St Paul does in his letter to Timothy, “I know Whom I have believed, and I am certain that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him.” (2 Timothy 1.12). There is a kind of ‘letting go’ that we have to perform, a relinquishing of the grip of control we have upon our lives, or imagine that we have, and we must let God be God, and trust in His omnipotence and mercy. Elsewhere in the Summa St Thomas contrasts ‘servile fear’ in which we act justly out of the fear of punishment and ‘filial fear’ which shrinks from separation from God. Servile fear may, in St Thomas’ account merge into filial fear, but they are not the same because what is feared is different, and ‘servile fear as such is contrary to charity’ (ST IIa IIae 19. 4). In the end our whole relation to God must be rooted in love. What are we hoping for? Someone I know once gave tea to a Catholic who was being tempted to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The would-be Jehovah ’s Witness asked what this person saw as their ultimate goal, and when they said ‘going to Heaven’ asked what that meant to them.  She was put to silence by their reply which was ‘the sight and knowledge of Almighty God,’ because this is not the promise made in that sect: According to them the 144, 000 who will see God have already been listed and counted.  No-one else gets into that version of heaven. This account of heaven, as the vision and knowledge and life of Almighty God, being ‘like Him because we see Him as He is’ has somehow lost currency in the popular imagination at least, and a glorified Disney world in which people sit about playing mediaeval musical instruments, ‘cymbal, trump and timbrel and the gentle soothing flute,’ doubtless with the odd crum-horn, and sitting on clouds,  and meeting up with all their old chums has been substituted.  There is a hymn in a hymn-book widely used in Catholic  Churches which has had any Christian frame of  reference completely expunged, so that when it gets to the line ‘There’s no break, there’s no end, just a living on’ one begins to wonder if this is in fact a description of – another place! Another curiosity in this loss of a sense of heaven is that it is accompanied by the loss of a longing for heaven.  This pabulum, with its vague talk of a better place of ‘light refreshment’ has somehow failed to catch the imagination of anyone outside Hollywood – faced with the prospect of being eternally surrounded by harping angels and good people (generally equivalent to boring people in the popular imagination) has left people rather wistfully preferring the more energetic entertainment offered – elsewhere. No matter how good a party it looks like when one tots up the RIPs in one’s address book, somehow one has not that sense of urgency to depart that motivated Ignatius to long for the quietus the lions would give him, or that which motivated one of my father’s favourite martyrs, one Wrenno the Weaver, who when the rope broke in the midst of his execution, and being offered a second chance to renounce his Catholic faith, instead ran  to the scaffold ladder and eagerly scaled it, telling the sheriff  ‘If you had seen that which I have just now seen, you would be as much in haste to die as I am now.’  And so the executioner, putting a stronger rope about his neck, turned the ladder and quickly sent him to see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living of which before he had had a glimpse’ (Richard Challoner, Memoirs of missionary priests …and of other Catholics p.57).   Only people in severest pain either mental or physical seem to long to be out of this world these days, and as often as not that seems mostly a not wanting to be here, rather than an ‘O that we were there’ emotion. A third loss is the loss of a sense of the value of martyrdom.  The little boys who lately, when commanded to convert to Islam, said ‘No!’ because they ‘loved Yeshua,’ and who were then butchered, are, if that story is true, glorious and joyful in heaven now.  Yet most people who talk of it talk only of the tragedy, and not of the glory. Yes, when one loses a loved one there is the pain of separation, yes, there is something tragic in the death of a child, and yes, Jesus wept at the death of His friend Lazarus – but as St Paul says, we should not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thess.4.13)   So let us look at an earlier kind of Christian thinking, if by any chance we can adopt it as our own, beginning with the Old Testament. Christians take as their own and read out at this time of year the prophecies of Isaiah, some of which fit well with the Jehovah’s witness model of heaven – the new heavens and the new earth with all those lambs dwelling with wolves and lions eating inappropriate fodder – but the central theme is the Lord Himself Who will ‘rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in [His] people,’ Who will ‘create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy’ (Isa 6518-19). This present and comforting Lord is promised to us by Christ Himself, Who says ‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no-one will take your joy from you.   In that day you will ask nothing of me.’(Jn16.22). Of course, in part this promise was fulfilled in the Resurrection, but then the Lord goes on to say in His prayer to the Father ‘Father I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given me may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which Thou hast given Me in Thy love for Me before the foundation of the World.’ (1.Jn 17.24). This risen relationship of comfort and joy with God continued to be preached by the apostles: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ (1 Cor 13.12) This reality looked for in the future was generally preached, but was seen more as something already attained and attainable in this world, already accessible in a living relationship with Our Lord, and in the sacrifice of the Mass. The author of Hebrews writes, referring back to the formation of the earlier covenant with Moses with its dramatic sound effects and visual aids: ‘you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them.  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,  and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel….let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.’ (Hebrews 12.) This is the basis of human hope, and the whole of our eschatology is a commentary upon it.  It was in preaching this message that the faith of Christians was preached and spread from Asia to Britain before a hundred years had passed. The early Christians looked for an early return of the Saviour – so much so that St Paul had to quell the anxieties of those who had lost dear ones, that by dying they would not miss out on the coming Kingdom (cf I Thess. 4.14). Over time, as our understanding of the age of the world has increased, the time we have been waiting has also increased – or has it?  The longest time, in the present state of medicine, that any Christian has to wait before meeting his living Lord is about a hundred years.  Most of us will not live so long, and some of us will die very much younger than that. In this situation, not new, all of us should look daily for the coming of Christ, at least in our own lives, with hope and not with fear.  As St Cyprian put it in On Mortality: ‘The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, has begun to be at hand; the reward of life and the joy of eternal salvation and perpetual happiness and the possession of paradise once lost are now coming with the passing of the world; now the things of heaven are succeeding those of earth, and great things small, and eternal things, transitory. What place is there here for anxiety and worry? Who in the midst of these things is fearful and sad save he who lacks hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is unwilling to go to Christ.  It is for him to be unwilling to go to Christ who does not believe that he is beginning to reign with Christ.’ In his exposition of the Apostles Creed St Thomas lists the things that Christians hope for in the life to come: We shall be raised again, soul and body, to eternal life, which St Thomas describes as ‘The end of all our desires.’ Eternal life is characterised first of all by our being united with God, Who ‘Himself is the reward and the end of all our labours.’ According to St Thomas this vision of God consists ‘firstly, in perfect vision,… Secondly, in a most fervent love… Thirdly, in the highest praise’ This, St Thomas says, is ‘the full and perfect satisfying of every desire’ since ‘God only satisfies and infinitely exceeds man’s desires; and, therefore, perfect satiety is found in God alone.’   Turning to a more recently beatified saint, Blessed John Henry Newman, we find that he too is focussed on a heaven chiefly defined by the vision of God. He writes: ‘After the fever of life; after wearinesses and sicknesses; fightings and despondings; languor and fretfulness; struggling and failing, struggling and succeeding; after all the changes and chances of this troubled unhealthy state, at length comes death, at length the White Throne of God, at length the Beatific Vision. After restlessness comes rest, peace, joy;—our eternal portion, if we be worthy; —the sight of the Blessed Three, the Holy One; the Three that bear witness in heaven; in light unapproachable; in glory without spot or blemish; in power without “variableness, or shadow of turning.”   Does that mean that we cannot hope for those other things understood in a more conventional picture of heaven? Of course we may. Among the joys of heaven St Thomas places pleasure, honour, knowledge, possessions, life eternal, security, peace, and ‘the happy society of all the blessed,’ Peter Geach in The Virtues writes that if we have lived in charity then ‘we may hope by God’s mercy to come to that glory in which all men love and all are lovable, and where there is infinite leisure to get to know those who will be our friends for ever because they were God’s friends first.’ (op.cit p.87) Thus there is harmless pleasure to be got from various speculations about what heaven will be like – and what we will be like in heaven. One question which I have pondered on is why the risen Body of Our Lord had wounds, and what this implies for us in our hope of future glory. Augustine commenting on John 20.27 says ‘We are… afflicted with such love for the blessed martyrs, that we would wish in that kingdom to see on their bodies the marks of those wounds which they have borne for Christ’s sake. And perhaps we shall see them; for they will not have deformity, but dignity, and, though on the body, shine forth not with bodily, but with spiritual beauty.’ (Quoted in Catena Aurea). This throws an interesting light on those sufferings we have seen bravely – or even not so bravely – borne by those dear to us who have died. In some way perhaps we will carry with us, to be glorified and perfected all the various wounds of body and spirit through which God has brought us to love Him, making ‘all things work together for the good’ of those who love Him.   A distressful question for people that worry about the possibility of eternal loss, especially for those dear to them, is how could they possibly enjoy heaven if the ones they love are not there? I cannot give a full answer to that question, but there are various reflections which may help. The first is this: without going in for universalism, what is certainly true is that nothing good or true or beautiful can be definitively lost. The good, the true, and the beautiful that you have loved in anyone or anything in this world is a reflection of the mind of God, and will remain for ever, and you will find it in heaven. The second consideration is that the fact that a person has petitioners on earth is part of God’s providence, so the fact that you are here, and loving and praying for them is also part of His plan, and nothing, in God’s plan, and especially no prayer piously and perseveringly prayed, is ever wasted.   As a place, by contrast with the Garden of Eden, and in contra-distinction to our modern prjudices, heaven is described as decidedly urban. John in the Apocalypse writes: ‘I saw the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.’ However the important thing about the City remains the presence of God with us: ‘“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people,[a] and God himself will be with them;[b] he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”     So, in conclusion, we may hope despite the wickedness of the world and our own personal weakness, because God is merciful and true; it is through grace and by living the life of the beatitudes that we are conformed to the death of Christ and so saved.  The hope of Christians is not a ‘kind of wanting’ but the balance between our awareness of our sinful state and our confidence in the grace of God which can effect a real change in us, so that we can be saved, but this salvation does require our co-operation.  Heaven is primarily a matter of seeing God and rejoicing in Him, and it is only really this hope that gives people the courage to live and die for their faith; but the joys of heaven do also include the joy of reunion with the beloved dead who have occupied our prayers throughout our lives.