People seem to love to talk of heaven, or at least once did, and believed in it fervently—or in some fantastic phantasm of it. I don’t do enjoy doing that, truth be told, as my finite human imagination inevitably leads me to the unpleasant conclusion that I might just be bored if I ever were admitted to a place usually described as beautiful, pristine, perfect, peaceful. Angels, harps, and clouds. Now, if that perfect place were filled with all the books I haven’t gotten around to reading, all the pictures I haven’t seen, all the knowledge I haven’t attained, all the love I’ve missed—then, maybe, for something approaching an eternity, it would keep me busy and even enthralled; but still, ultimately bored, because all I am doing in building up a picture like that is multiplying, ad infinitum, the finite world I already know.
It is impossible to know quite what we’re talking about anyway when we use the word heaven, except, I think, that it is a stand-in for an experience of mystery of God that we cannot fully have this side of the infinite divide. Heaven is not a place, of that I am utterly convinced, except insofar as the whole of reality, created and uncreated, is a “place” permeated and held by God. And we are already in that place, or some place within that place. The real “experience” of heaven, I like to imagine, is moving from this state of being into another: the wonder is in the movement, the constant unfolding, like changing color in a kaleidoscope, what one commentator on Aquinas called the “unending nativity” of God—except that here I am speaking of the “unending nativity” of our journey into the mystery of God.
But there is more. For I also imagine heaven to be startling—a change in perspective, in seeing—sensing—so radical that it upends us and takes us by surprise. I was given a sense of this as a child. We had two peach trees alongside our patio. In the springtime they would explode into glorious, fragrant fronds of pink and white flowers. My father, who had a gift for creating magic, would cut some of the longest ones, put them in the largest vases he could find, and place them in the living room by the white brick fireplace. I will never forget the shock of it—the miracle of Spring overtaking the most ordinary and everyday of places, inside our house. These improbably tall stalks of flowers! There was no escaping the power of it. Life didn’t look, smell, or feel the same—it was elevated, filled with light, transformed. I can only imagine that the surprise of heaven must be something like that, and the thought of it gives me sheer delight and great peace.