July 13, 2013 by lucieromarin
I mentioned that I’ve been reading John Saward’s “Sweet and Blessed Country: the Christian Hope for Heaven.” If your idea of a good spiritual reading is the sort that makes you sigh deeply, and then sit staring into space enjoying a twinge of melancholy, then this isn’t the book for you. What it has done for me, though, is make me frown from time to time, say, “Huh!” and then rearrange my thoughts… so, yes, sorry, this post is going to be a little bit holy, because the book has made me think about the concept of heaven in relation to burnout and exhaustion.
Well, the first thing to say is that the ten, twenty or thirty years you’ve invested in a prayer or a work which seems to have come to nothing, is time you’re never getting back, so nothing I say in this post is going to pass over your feelings at 3 a.m like a magic piety-wand. However, it’s also true that the frequency, duration and severity of these white nights can be reduced by your habits at other times, so I’ll share my thoughts, which were as follows:
It’s possible to think of Heaven as something like a postscript to our lives. ‘And they lived happily ever after,’ is a great conclusion to a story, but it’s not the real point of the story. Even if we grant it more significance than that – if we spend time meditating on how different things might feel in eternity, and we remind ourselves about the enduring bliss of the Beatific Vision compared with our non-enduring sufferings – it’s possible to see Life and Afterlife as something like two separate blocks of existence, loosely connected by the thread of reward and fidelity to the rules, rather than as a continuum.
But a continuum is exactly what it is. Existence is not life (a time for fulfilling activity) and afterlife (sitting around being happy and not caring about the fulfilling activity you never had). Rather, existence is one long relationship with God, which relationship is expressed in some ways here, in other ways in purgatory, and in still other ways in Heaven – and a whole lot of that relationship is service. (No, I’m not about to tell you to not mind being single because you can still serve others!!!!) I’m thinking of the service of the saints and their relative appearances of success and failure. St Francis de Sales converted approximately 72,000 people in four years. St Peter Chanel converted no one, and then was killed by the blow of an axe to his brain, and then his entire island converted. This latter case was not God trying to make up for the saint’s apparent failure. It was God choosing to place the saint’s instrumentality-in-the-making-of-converts in a different place on that continuum to the place where He set it for St Francis de Sales. Similarly, that the relics of St Therese of Lisieux have been in continual pilgrimage round the world since her death was not God saying, “Awwww,” and trying to make up for the fact that she never got to Vietnam in her lifetime. It was God choosing to place her missionary work at a different place on that continuum to the place where He usually sets it.
In fact, St Therese exemplifies pretty well the reality of Heaven being something other than the closing line of a fairy tale. On the very day of her death (September 30, 1897) she appeared to the future Mother Mary Elias of the Blessed Sacrament, to inform her of her Carmelite vocation – which vocation, by the way, was spent rescuing young women from soldier-rapists and chalices from desecration (an action punishable by death) during the persecutions in Mexico. Later, (in the 1930s), she appeared to Saint Faustina Kowalksa, in preparation for the Polish saint’s own mission as visionary and apostle of mercy. She appeared, too, to Blessed Elena Aiello, a foundress and visionary (I can’t find a link for her that isn’t weird), leading the beata to the home that would become an orphanage. Whatever Heaven is for St Therese, it’s pretty obviously not a postscript to her life.
I’ll grant you that we may not all end up with our relics in continual pilgrimage, our writings inspiring saints of the magnitude of Pio of Pietrelcina and Teresa of Calcutta, and we may not all spend our Heavens visiting future saints in apparitions here on earth. The point is not that we should try to be choleric about Heaven and decide that that is the place where we’ll be important, and the point is certainly not to suppress real feelings or real insights about aspects of our lives here that need to change. The point is that if we realise that Heaven terminates the journey without terminating the mission, it’s easier to understand why the stages of mission can be set so differently for different people. This period of life is certainly the only chance we have to achieve saintood, but it’s not the only place where we can be meaningful, useful or fulfilled. And this is why married people shouldn’t patronise you! They happen to be on a nice part of the continuum right now; you might be feeling a great emptiness, but you could, even in that emptiness, still be being flooded with graces about which others have no clue, and which are going to look very different in five or fifty or five hundred years.
This is also why mortal sin is so awful. See, think of an ever-lengthening line; it starts at the moment of your conception and goes on, in a straight and upward trajectory, into holiness and eternity. Mortal sin suddenly folds that continuum back in on itself; it grabs the end of the line and folds it backwards, so that the traveller on that line is now caught in a perpetual loop. The grave consequences of mortal sin aren’t there because God is mean and likes to punish people for infractions of arbitrary rules. Those consequences – that being trapped in an endless, God-less loop – are generated by the sin itself.
On which grim note, good night!