Chronically ill children, because of medical advances, are living longer. The January 20th edition of The New Yorker reported on their growing need for physicians whose work bridges the gap between family practitioners and “high tech specialists, who address specific ailments.” Jerome Groopman, M.D. writes, “Such pediatric palliative-care programs, as they are called, have three goals: to coordinate care, help families make difficult decisions about treatment options, and ease the child’s pain and suffering.”
His article, “Lives Less Ordinary” mentions a small boy, dying of neuroblastoma, a common cancer in children. In the vignette, the medical melts back into the spiritual. The boy was distressed by what would follow his death. “His mother made it very clear to him that she would see him again in Heaven someday…but he was worried about how he would find her. So they made a plan to meet in the front left corner of Heaven.”
The map of the boy and his mother might be a bit skewed, but it will lead them to each other. Why skewed? We can’t help but to picture heaven as a place, with coordinates such as we know in this life. Hamlet famously called the afterlife “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns”(3.1.81-82), but our imaginations don’t find much traction in picturing heaven as an unknown place, to which we will one day immigrate. The picture has no dimensions, no details to which we can cling.
The little boy may be wrong to worry about heaven’s geography, but he couldn’t have been more right about the meaning of heaven. Whatever else heaven might be, however the angels might better describe it, heaven is the place where love comes into its own, where love finds its own.
Forget about clouds and harps. Imagine beloved faces, tender caresses, ardent embraces. Heaven is both realm and relationship, but all we know of the place is people. Christ is there. Our loves are there. The Catechism simply says, “To live in heaven is to be with Christ.” It then quotes Saint Ambrose, “For life is to be with Christ; where Christ is, there is life, there is the kingdom” (§1025). And, because heaven is all about love, nothing but love can lead us there. One might say, love is God’s GPS, built right into the human heart.
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”(Mt 5:20). At first hearing, Jesus sounds as though his Gospel couldn’t be more exacting.
But the master’s ire isn’t aimed at those who frequently falter and fail. It’s pointed at those who think they can plot and plod their way into heaven, as if, over time, they could make God their debtor by obeying rules and covering every contingency with indulgence and excuse. But we cannot calculate our way to heaven, and how can we ingratiate ourselves into that which we cannot even imagine?
We don’t earn our way into the undiscovered country. We simply love down its doors. And, the little boy, dying of cancer, need not have worried about where to find his mother on the other side. Love knows the way.
Sirach 15: 15-20 1 Corinthians 2: 6-11 Matthew 5: 17-37