Do you ever dream that you can fly? One theory is that such dreams come to us when we feel extraordinary connected and effective in our conscious worlds. When I have them, I technically don’t fly. I effortlessly leap, very large distances.
Flying is prominent in a new novel by one of my favorite American authors, Louise Erdrich. Her stories give literary voice to her ancestors, the Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians.LaRose (2016) recalls that flight was once a gift that many Native American peoples enjoyed. Indeed, the young hero of her story is descended from a long line of flyers, all named LaRose.
In all of these LaRoses there was a tendency to fly above the earth. They could fly for hours when the right songs were drummed and sung to support them. Those songs are now waiting in the leaves, half lost, but the drumming of the water drum will never be lost. This ability to fly went back to the first LaRose, whose mother taught her to do it when her name was still Mirage, and who had learned this from her father, a jiisikid conjurer, who’d flung his spirit all the way around the world in 1798 and come back to tell his astonished drummers that it was no use, white people covered the earth like lice.
Do you remember the first bird you ever saw? There is no memory of humanity’s first sight of them, but there can be no doubt that two responses welled up inside our primeval parents: wonder and envy.
Flying is an image of eternal life. Perhaps because it is something we have always wanted to do but have never accomplished, save in our dreams. To fly is to receive the world in a measure impossible for those on the ground. Everything in the world is suddenly before us, below us, around us. It is why we depict the angels with wings, though as pure spirits, pure intelligences, they have no physical attributes. The idea is that an angel, like a bird, can suddenly see, suddenly be, where you and I cannot.
Eternal life is the most interesting of concepts. Like our idea of God, most of what we can say about it involves saying what it is not. What is it not? It is not the frustration of suffering time: never gaining the future, always losing the past and never holding on to the present. It is not the limitation of being locked in space, in this spot, here, but not in that one, there. It is not the letdown that comes every calendar year, as we arrive at the longed-for holidays. It is not the frustration of knowing that to choose any one thing is to forfeit every other possible reality.
So what can we say that eternal life is? St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “It is fitting that the end of all our desires, namely eternal life, coincides with the words at the end of the creed, ‘Life everlasting. Amen.’” He continues,
The first point about eternal life is that man is united with God. For God himself is the reward and end of all our labors. This union consists in seeing perfectly: At the present we are looking at a confused reflection in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face.
Next, it consists in perfect praise, according to the words of the prophets: “Joy and happiness will be found in it, thanksgiving and words of praise.”
It also consists in complete satisfaction of desire, for there the blessed will be given more than they wanted or hoped for. The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man’s desire. Only God satisfies, he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God. As Augustine says: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you.”
Seeing fully, praising perfectly and finding satisfaction in a wholeness never obtained in this life: small wonder that eternal life sounds a bit like the birds, flying overhead.
The Gospel is not an agenda, though it does demand much of us while we are in the world. The Gospel is a portal. By way of faith it opens the way to eternal life. It is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:
So many distortions of the Gospel in the history of the church begins with a dissatisfaction, a discomforting lack of faith in eternal life, which leads to a reduced understanding of the church and its mission.
It is understandable enough. Can there be anything more frustrating than hoping for what you have never seen? Apart from the resurrection, the only hint that eternal life exists is the restlessness that never leaves us. Put another way, never having flown, why are we so convinced that we were born to do so? Yet the heart has its reasons.
Last Sunday, I looked out at Mass and saw Lawrence Liebl in the back pew, his face purple from a nasty fall, which this 98-year-old had taken the week before, on his way to church. At another Eucharist, this one at the hospital, I could hear Dorothy Moeder, 83, murmuring her after-Communion prayers. What were they doing? Can’t you recognize it? They were trying to fly.
Isaiah 2: 1-5 Romans 13: 11-14 Matthew 24: 24: 7-44