“I love that Church which plunges into the thickets of human history and is not afraid of compromising itself by getting mixed up with men’s affairs … because it loves men and therefore goes out to look for them wherever they are. And I love best of all that Church which is mud-splashed from history because it has played its part in history, that Church of the poor which is denounced by pharisees whose hands are clean but who can point to no single person they have saved.” —Jean Daniélou, Prayer as a Political Problem
While it is not possible to inventory the joys of Heaven, nor even to precise exactly how many there are, nevertheless we have it on faith that for all that we cannot yet know of what lies on the other side, it will surely exceed all the happiness we look for here and now.
“The whole man,” notes C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “is to drink joy from the fountain of joy.”
And quoting no less an authority than the renowned Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, he adds: “The rapture of the saved soul, will ‘flow over’ into the glorified body. In the light of our present specialized and depraved appetites we cannot imagine this torrens voluptatis, and I warn everyone most seriously not to try.”
So, let’s not even try, shall we, and just leave it at this — that while we cannot reckon the quality of the rapture that awaits those who enter the precincts of eternal felicity, it will not be anything remotely like the happiness we long for on planet earth.
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “what God has prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Of one thing, however, we may be sure: If you find yourself among those who finally make it, there will be no end of surprises to astonish your soul.
Three in particular, if we are to credit the claim once made by the Venerable Fulton Sheen, will present themselves. Of which the first and most obvious will be the sudden and blazing realization that you yourself are in Heaven. What a stupefaction that will be!
Followed by, in instantaneous succession, two further surprises: that many whom you’d never imagined as qualifying for admission will be there, and that those whom you’d always expected to be there — having, you naively supposed, so easily passed through the gate — will not be there at all.
How does the poet Emily Dickinson put it? “Life is so startling,” she insists, “that it allows but little time for any other occupation.”
Indeed. And concerning the things that will startle most of all — on the far side of death, that is — those are the main contenders. But of the three, let’s give the first momentary center stage. That to find oneself, all at once, enraptured by the sight of God, the love of God, not for a moment only, but forever, has got to be a source of supreme, rapturous, unending surprise.
On this side of the grave, however, there are a great many surprises as well — in fact, some are so obvious that we scarcely notice them at all. They are like Chesterton’s leaf hanging in a tree, so plain a place to hide the thing that, paradoxically, no one actually sees it. But Jesus does, and in the Gospel of St. Matthew he gives us a striking, not to say surprising, example of what he means. It is the story of the wheat and the weeds, which he presents in parabolic form so that we don’t miss the message. But, of course, we do, often and disastrously.
“The kingdom of heaven,” he tells us, “may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well” (Matthew 13:24-30).
This greatly annoys the servants, you see, who are eager to go out and uproot all the weeds lest they contaminate the crop. But the owner of the field appears not the least bit troubled about allowing the weeds and the wheat to grow up together. And not because he is oblivious to the damage the weeds may inflict, nor indifferent to the harvest he hopes to have. It is rather the fear he has that by pulling up the weeds they are likely to uproot the wheat as well. “Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Yet this is what so sorely vexes the servants, who, offended by the juxtaposition of wheat and weeds, are perhaps wondering if the master has lost his mind. And isn’t this very often the temptation of the upright and the virtuous, who, in the presence of obvious evil betray an unholy impatience to be doing something about it? It betrays also a serious want of hope, which is the expectation we are given by the grace of Jesus Christ that, in the end, just as mercy confounds might, so the capacity of wheat to eclipse the weeds is written into the very economy of salvation. The war between the two — good vs. evil, virtue vs. vice — is already over, victory having been achieved by the Blood of the Lamb.
But there is another reason we mustn’t become unduly exercised to find weeds and wheat in the same soil. It is not just because the struggle against wickedness has already been won by Christ — nor the fact that our God is interested in saving everyone, yes, even the weeds, if they’ll let him — but because we are not always the children of light ourselves. Before going after the speck in our neighbor’s eye, in other words, it might be well to remove the beam from our own.
Besides, we don’t want to co-opt the work of the holy angels completely, do we? “Let the Son of Man send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers:
They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.