A Heaven for Heifers

Beside the gravewhen they were seated in the metal folding chairs under the awning, the preacher said a few words more and read from scripture once again, and he prayed for the safe translation of Harold’s immortal soul into everlasting heaven. Afterward he shook Raymond’s hand. And by that time the wind was blowing so hard that the caretakers had to lean far over to do their work, and they lowered the dark casket into the ground next to the plot in which the senior McPherons had been buried more than half a century before (110),

The scene is from Eventide(2005), one in a series of beautifully contemplative novels set on the high plains of eastern Colorado. The author is Kent Haruf, the son of a Methodist minister.

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In the novel, Harold must bury his brother Raymond. Losing their parents in a car crash when they were only boys, the two old men had lived together for many years as bachelor ranchers, but Raymond dies when his chest is crushed by an angry bull.

Here’s small passage in which Harold, resting after his return from the cemetery, ponders what heaven would be like for his brother.

He lay in the old soft bed with his eyes shut but soon he opened them again, sleep would not come to him, and he turned to lookout the window and then turned again to look overhead, and he realized that this room he lay in was directly below his brother’s empty bedroom, and he lay under the quilt staring at the ceiling, wondering how his brother might be faring in the faraway yet-to-be. There would have to be cattle present there somehow and some manner of work for his brother to do out in the bright unclouded air in the midst of these cattle. He knew his brother would never be satisfied otherwise, if there were not. He prayed there would be cattle, for his brother’s sake (111).

One might find Harold’s hopes for heaven rather simplistic, but Saint Thomas, touching the wounds of Christ, should prompt another run at the question. Ultimately all that we know of heaven we learn from Christ’s resurrection, and, in contrast, most of our ethereal, and really rather vapid, pictures of heaven have no root in resurrection.

Many Christians have the notion that heaven somehow cancels earth. They would find rather whimsical Harold’s hope that Raymond might still be working cattle, but notice in the Gospel scene that the Risen Christ still bears his wounds. Life beyond the grave hasn’t snatched him away from the life that he lived among us. That suggests that the lives, which we live on earth, don’t vanish upon death, as if they were nothing more than a game that ceases when the whistle blows. Christ’s wounds become a part of his glorified flesh. Far from disappearing, they are transfigured, transformed in glory. Something similar happens with the elements of our lives.

And note that the resurrected Christ still stands in relationship with those he’s loved. He gathers them, calls them by name, eats with them. This suggests that loving relationships are too foundational to be erased by resurrection.

By one’s self, it’s not possible to live a human life, to be a human being. Even in solitude, all that we all — and all that we strive to be — is essentially ordered towards others. Likewise, there’s nothing solitary about resurrection. On the contrary, the Catechism defines heaven as a type of communion, saying, "To live in heaven is to be with Christ" (§1025).

But surely cattle don’t go to heaven? How one answers that question depends in large measure in how one understands the lives, which we currently live. Are we ghosts temporarily exiled to earth? Or are we men and women of flesh and blood, who always exist immersed in this world’s cares and concerns, its joys and its hopes?

When it comes to separating the soul from the world, we really are closer to onions than angels. Peel away the layers of our worlds, and there would be nothing left of who we are. Raymond was a cattleman. The ranch was his life. So, could there be a heaven — for Raymond — without heifers? Perhaps some sort of celestial cattle, far beyond our ken?

And finally, though we speak of heaven as a place of rest, we don’t mean slumber. Heaven is not stasis. "There would have to be cattle present there somehow and some manner of work for his brother to do out in the bright unclouded air in the midst of these cattle. He knew his brother would never be satisfied otherwise, if there were not."

Harold is quite right in thinking that such an afterlife would be unworthy of the human. Heaven has to be a place of creativity, of infinite possibility, of endless growth without diminution. Remember, it’s the resurrection of Christ that schools us in the meaning of heaven. Jesus has passed beyond trial and torment, but he is neither still or stymied. "I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever" (Rev 1: 17-18). In resurrection Christ creates. We speak of the Church being birthed from his wounded side, but our fellowship is equally summoned by the voice of the resurrected Christ.

How we picture a thing determines our ability to understand it. Certainly, our ability to long for it. That being said, a cattle ranch on the high plains of eastern Colorado is closer to the Gospel than we might think.

Acts 5: 12-16 Revelation 1: 9-11a, 12-13, 17-19

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