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:
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?
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:
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.
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