About a year ago, I was standing in a Kansas cemetery, one attached to a farm parish long since closed. As at other cemeteries on the prairie, people are still being buried there, though there is little chance of room running out. Set off from the other tombstones, at the northeastern tip of the cemetery, was a small cluster of graves. My older companion explained that this is where miscarriages and stillborn infants were once buried.
Two sensibilities seemed to have struggled with one another: the church’s insistence that only the baptized be laid to rest in consecrated ground and the people’s sense that these children should not be cut off from their own folk. Hence, an unblessed corner of a cemetery in the midst of a vast, semi-arid, high plain, one which many today might judge accursed or, at the least, ignored by God.
There is no segregated portion of paradise, unblessed by God’s presence.
We no longer think that infants who die without the benefit of baptism are deprived of heaven. It is one thing to know who Christ is and what his baptism means, only to reject both. It is quite another to have lived in a place or at a time or in a circumstance that made such knowledge and its acceptance an impossibility. If God grants eternal life only to the baptized, then we have a God who has predetermined that the vast majority of the souls ever created are to be deprived of what Christ himself identified as our true destiny: resurrected life with him.
Limbo was a theory responding to the wrong question: Where do all the righteous unbaptized go when they die? There is no segregated portion of paradise, unblessed by God’s presence. Yet we can still ask how eternal life might differ for those infants and how it diverges for all of us, depending upon when and how we enter it. Is paradise a vast, undifferentiated prairie? Or is it more like a sea, swarming with a myriad of finely sculpted souls?
If you ask: “What age will I be in heaven?” The answer is: You will be all your ages.
Return to the only sound source of speculation about eternal life that we possess: the resurrection of the Christ, for it is the Savior’s resurrection that inaugurates and reveals eternal life. In the Gospel of Luke we read:
“Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet (24:38-39).
In professing the resurrection of the body—and not simply the immortality of the soul—the church understands eternal life to be not something that we escape into, leaving behind the flesh and its existence in time, but something that lifts both the body and our time on earth into an eternal ripeness. Note that what happened to Jesus in the body in his time on earth he brings with him into eternal life. What had happened here was not swept away. It was transfigured. His lesions and his loves remained his own.
The more that we live lives of love, the more we whittle out a deeper vessel for God to fill.
The same is true for us. So if you ask: “What age will I be in heaven? The age that I died or the age that I prefer?” The answer is: You will be all your ages, for none of them was granted to you without purpose. While you lived, you carried all of them with you. Why would they be cut off from you in heaven?
And if you press the question, asking, “But will I look old or young?” The answer is, again, that you will look all your ages. We have some glimpse of this even in this life. Have you ever heard a child say something so precocious that you suspected you heard the old woman, yet to come, already speaking? Have you ever caught a glimmer in an old man’s eyes that betrays the boy who still looks through them out at the world?
Heaven will not be a palace of illusions—more a kaleidoscope of all the moments of our lives finally brought into perfect focus. Remember, we are speaking of a transfigured glorified body, as different from today’s as a caterpillar from a butterfly. Christ was initially unrecognizable to his disciples.
In paradise, the rosebuds will not envy the sunflowers nor the majestic oaks.
But what of those who die so very young? What can be said of them? First, that their salvation is assured. Second, that it will lack for nothing. God never acts incompletely. God gives himself entirely to everyone in heaven. Then should we, perhaps, consider those who die, often without ever leaving the womb, to be the most blessed of all, for they gain God without danger of loss?
No. They are not more blessed than we. They will be filled with God, but the human capacity to receive heaven depends upon how deeply we have drunk of earth. Remember that earth is brought to blossom in heaven. It is not cut off. The more that we live lives of love, the more that we reach beyond our fears and limitations, the more that we expand our very humanity while we live, the more we whittle out a deeper vessel for God to fill.
The holy ones of heaven are not homogenous. No, they are as varied as the creatures of the deep. The youngest doctor of the church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, noted that two vessels, one large and one small, can both be filled to the brim, but that does not mean that they hold the same amount of water.
The rosebuds will not envy the sunflowers nor the majestic oaks. All will bask in the light of God. And isn’t it the very nature of a beautiful garden to be variated? So, too, the garden we call paradise.