The Gospels can't tell us what paradise looks like—only how to get there.

Sometimes the most important line of a conversation comes after it’s concluded, when you’ve already moved from substance to trivialities. Not long ago, I was walking with a woman toward the door of a funeral home, where her family had been making arrangements. As we got ready to part, she said, “I do believe in the resurrection, but it’s so hard to picture an afterlife.”  

I agreed. Her comment reminded me of a passage from Story of a Soul, the autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Here’s how, in her journal, the young Carmelite nun described the relationship of this world to the next.

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I imagine I was born in a country which is covered in thick fog. I never had the experience of contemplating the joyful appearance of nature flooded and transformed by the brilliance of the sun. It is true that from childhood, I have heard people speak of these marvels, and I know the country in which I am living is not really my true fatherland, and there is another I must long for without ceasing. This is not simply a story invented by someone living in a sad country where I am, but it is a reality, for the King of the Fatherland of the bright sun actually came and lived for thirty-three years in the land of darkness. Alas, the darkness did not understand that this Divine King was the Light of the world (212).

 

It’s a darn good description, though it didn’t dispel the darkness in which faith must mature. The saints themselves struggled with faith because faith isn’t something that grows a long distance from doubt. The two, faith and doubt, twine together throughout our lives. We’re asked to surrender ourselves to something we cannot truly picture, and that isn’t easy.

Thérèse had a beautiful image of the afterlife, yet, in the face of her own death, the young Carmelite fought, as we do, to sustain that picture in her imagination. She wrote:

[S]uddenly the fog which surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelopes it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart, fatigued by the darkness which surrounds it, by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you (213).

 

And then Thérèse records the very thought that mocked her faith, as she approached her own death from tuberculosis.

Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.

 

In Dives and Lazarus, the parable of the poor man who goes to heaven, Jesus asks us to envision the afterlife. Doesn’t he realize how hard that is for us to do? Our imaginations are too shallow, too inept for the task. How can anything as pathetic as the pictures of paradise, which we summon up on earth, inspire us to live and to die in the Lord?

Honestly? They do fall short, because the human mind is not equipped to deal with utter novelty. And, whatever else the afterlife is, it is surely that, absolutely novel.

Indeed, the very spirit of our age, a pseudo-scientism, no longer believes in novelty, in something truly beyond our ken, something deeper than our imaginations. We know that there are things not yet comprehended by science, but it is almost impossible for us to imagine realities lying forever beyond the reach of science, realities truly novel in our world, because they are not of this world. Yet utter, unimaginable novelty came into the world with Christ, and we will be called into that adumbral novelty at death.  

The parable of Dives and Lazarus does not draw us a picture of heaven. That is not something the human mind can receive on this side of the grave. But Christ does tell us what matters about the afterlife, what determines our destinies. Joy in the next life depends upon justice in this one.

As always, we would like to see for ourselves, make our own judgements and preparations. But we don’t—we can’t—judge the utterly unimaginable. To the contrary, Christ tells us that it is we who will be judged by it.

Amos 6: 1a, 4-7  1 Timothy 6: 11-16  Luke 16: 19-31

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Lisa Weber
1 year 2 months ago
We will learn about heaven when we get there. Our task is to do our best to make this earth heaven while we live, and justice is a big part of creating heaven on earth.
Bruce Snowden
1 year 2 months ago
It’s wrenching to see Therese of Lisieux in such darkness and at a time near death when one would hope consolations abound. Of course the proto model of this is Jesus who endured shattering darkness as His death approached, first in the Garden of Gethsemane. There the assault of darkness, the terrors of that night, the loneliness, were so physically, psychologically and spiritually stressful, that skin capillaries ruptured giving a “Bloody Sweat.” And much worse was yet to come! The Father was not finished with Him! Affixed to the Cross preceded by insults and unfathomable inhuman torture, he was unable to even swat off his face pesky flies swarming around Him, and forced to taste His sweaty blood streaming down His face into His Mouth. Then from the Cross near death, His wrenching cry to the Father, “Why have You abandoned Me?” Imagine the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity Who with the Father and the Spirit spin universes off Trinitarian Fingertips, now helpless and drenched in absolute darkness to the end. But Jesus never without hope and trust in the “Utter Unimaginable Novelty” to come, heaven, gave to Therese in her darkness, not despair, but the same invisible and inner strength that He possessed enabling her to say, as He did, “It is finished. Into Your Hands I commend my spirit." Then the best began, the best of which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard …!” In Revelation we have His Word for it, for God, "Darkness and light are the same." That's very good to know that even in darkness He's there. Blessed Therese of the Child Jesus, pray for us!

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