Thinking about heaven like a mystic.

Saint Monica and Saint Augustine by Ary Scheffer 1846

You cannot see what you do not picture. Meaning that, you need some idea of what you’re looking for if you’re going to find it. A great challenge of the Christian life is imagining the life to come. Our contemporaries, rightly, judge popular pictures of heaven to be silly. Why would anyone want to sit on clouds, play a harp, and eat Philadelphia Cream Cheese? The challenge of contemporary evangelization is providing a more adequate picture of eternal life, eternal damnation as well.

There is one to be found, in Book IX of Saint Augustine’sConfessions. It’s situated between the great saint’s conversion and the death of his mother Monica, a brief window in the lives of the two saints, which found them talking, heart to heart.


Here’s the scene Augustine sets:

[B]ecause the day when she was to quit this life was drawing near—a day known to you, though we were ignorant of it—she and I happened to be alone, through the mysterious workings of your will, as I believe. We stood against a window which looked out on a garden within the house where we were staying at Ostia on the Tiber, for there, far from the crowds, we were recruiting our strength after the long journey, in preparation for our voyage overseas (XI.10.23).


While they spoke of what mattered most in this life, and of how each had found God within it, Monica and Augustine seemed to have shared a mystical experience. We don’t know that the experience of the mystics is a foretaste of heaven, but the mystics themselves don’t describe it as anything less. Remember Saint Paul, writing of himself?

I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter (2 Cor 12: 2-4).


Recording what he and his mother experienced, Augustine slips into the poetry of one, very long sentence. And that’s our first insight in both mysticism and heaven: neither is piecemeal, partial, or prolonged. In what we would call an instant—in this case, an eternal one—all is given. Augustine writes:

Then we said:
If the tumult of the flesh fell silent for someone,
and silent too were the phantasms of earth, sea and air,
silent the heavens,
and the very soul silent to itself,
that it might pass beyond itself by not thinking of its own being;
if dreams and revelations known through its imaginations were silent,
if every tongue, and every sign, and whatever is subject to transience
were wholly stilled for him
—for if anyone listens, all these things will tell him,
“We did not make ourselves;
he made us who abides forever"—
and having said this they held their peace
for they had pricked the listening ear to him who made them;
and then he alone were to speak,
not through things that are made, but of himself,
that we might hear his Word,
not through fleshly tongue nor angel’s voice,
nor thundercloud,
nor any riddling parable,
hear him unmediated, whom we love in all these things,
hear him without them,
as now we stretch out and in a flash of thought
touch that eternal Wisdom who abides above all things;
if this could last
and all other visions, so far inferior, be taken away,
and this sight alone ravish him who saw it,
and engulf him and hide him away, kept for inward joys,
so that this moment of knowledge—
this passing moment that left us aching for more—
should there be life eternal,
would not Enter into the joy of your Lord
be this, and this alone? (IX.10.25)


Silence separates mysticism, and heaven, from our lives on earth. In this life we are always listening to something, talking about something, rehearsing something fretfully in our souls. In the life to come, all this falls silent.

Augustine speaks of hearing only God, seeing only God, although he insists that nothing is heard, nothing is seen. At least nothing that we’ve yet experienced in this life.

The attention of the mystic—of the soul in heaven?—is riveted upon the presence of God. God completely captivates. One cannot turn away. Indeed, there is no self who can turn away, as there always is in this life. On earth, we can shift our attentions, and we always do because our souls are restless.

In God’s presence the soul is so fully alive that it no longer senses itself. It is inundated by God. The self is like a shell that welcomes God. It comes alive, as though for the first time, because all that is, all that could possibly be, is before it, within it.

The mystics speak of time stopping, of everything being given in an instant, though, on this side of the grave, only for an instant. Whatever time is for astro-physics, for the human person time is yearning, partial possession and endless loss. For the mystic—and in heaven—time falls away. Frustration gives way to fulfillment.

In the sentence that follows all of the above, Augustine himself links heaven to what he and his mother Monica experienced.  

And when, when will this be?
When we rise again, but not all are changed?


But “not all are changed.” Given the description of heaven, that small line should say enough about hell.

Daniel 12: 1-3  Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18 Mark 13: 24-32

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
3 years 2 months ago
Of course St. Augustine and his Mom, St. Monica and other mystics are right, regarding heaven to be total absorption by and into God. But as fabulous as that is, is that all there is to it, or are the mystics simply talking about the “fragrance” so to speak, from the tables of the heavenly banquet permeating and enlivening the physicality of heaven as well? After all, heaven is a place of unfathomable measurement, isn’t it? Not just a state or condition, so there must be something physical about it, linking what was on earth to what now is, in heaven.Mystery! Yes. If we’re going to have a “new creation” a new physicality, eyes to see, ears to hear, mouths and tongues to speak and to taste, hands and legs etc. appropriately tasked, all newly forming a true human body functional as is Jesus’ and his Mother Mary, why have physicality at all without purpose? The only physical parts of the human non-functional, but I believe there, will be human sexual systems. We know that these parts of the new creation will not function because Jesus said in heaven there will be no marrying, or giving in marriage – all will be like the Angels. (I add as an after posting addendum, the human waste disposal systems too?) God knows! Far from quietly resting in peace, I think heaven will be “noisy,” linked to a Scriptural clue where we read, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” The Blessed will find heaven a fun place finding assurance that the Blessed Trinity “finds pleasure being with the children of men (and women,” ) and for that we have Their Word! A mirthful place, heaven, where “eye has not seen, nor ear heard” what wonders the Spirit’s Gift of Joy, of which righteous laughter is an intrinsic part, has in store for the Blessed in the Land of the Living! However, one thing puzzles me, Why are there now only two individuals bodily present in heaven, the Lord Jesus and Blessed Mother Mary? Something seems to be missing! Could it be that heaven is already populated with uncountable numbers bodies of the Blessed, with resurrection of the dead happening all the time, linking somehow to St. Paul’s teaching that, “what is and what is to come are one and the same.” We do know that for God there is no past, no present, no future, only an eternal “Now” meaning that resurrection of the “new creation” happens immediately at bodily death, with the “old man” remaining in the earth from which he came? One of the “eye has not seen” surprises that await us? I hope so! But hey, I’m not a theologian, my thoughts perhaps verifying the axiom, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!” P.S. Steve Job's sister says as her brother was dying his last words were, "Oh Wow! Oh Wow! Oh Wow!" Wonder what he meant?


The latest from america

I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019
This week on “Inside the Vatican,” we explore the topic of women deacons.
Colleen DulleJanuary 16, 2019