The Meeting of Heaven and Earth: On Particularity and Familiar Things

It is one of the joys of earthly life to take comfort in familiarity – the particular feel of a favourite chair, well worn by years of use; certain scents or sounds that evoke happy memory; the re-reading of books that have nurtured our imaginations in the past and continue to feed them in the present – and the joy we take in such things reflects the more general delight we take in the concrete and particular. The experience of fully encountering this moment – this place and these things at this time – communicates to us not only a feeling of assurance but also a sense of the sacred (and perhaps the former because of the latter). What degree of continuity will there be though, if any, between these experiences and life in Heaven; and what are we to make of the tension between our love of the concrete and our being called to renounce attachment to things in general – can that tension find a resolution?

The first thing to note is that, due to the Incarnation, Christianity is necessarily committed to the material – it is a deeply sacramental religion, with the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures in Our Lord providing the foundation for a system of mediated grace that flows from the Church (itself a thoroughly material entity) via the sacraments which it has received the authority to provide. Whilst the deeply physical nature of the means by which we receive grace to aid us on our way to God is denied vociferously by a great many Protestant churches (as well as the need for there to be any mediation at all) this remains a basic fact of historic, orthodox Christianity – a fact that is of great importance for understanding how God intends to bring us into relationship with Him, and which bears continual witness to the nature of the Incarnation itself.

This being the case then, our love of material things cannot be wholly wrong, even if it may need some qualification – matter, already in some sense hallowed by virtue of it being created by God and said by Him to be good, has received further consecration due to God having united to Himself our human nature, entered into our material world, and further blessed it by setting apart certain elements of that world (bread, wine, water, oil) for the effective communication of His own divine life. Such qualification that may be required is where the question of attachment comes in – if matter is something good, and even blessed, it is not our enjoyment of it that may lead us astray, but our being attached to it to the extent that we need it to be happy. If we take pleasure in sitting in an old armchair, this is a fine thing in and of itself, but if we begin to seek out such a feeling, then we have become, in a small but significant way, addicted to it – it is not the chair, nor the feeling of comfort that it gives us that is the problem, but the placing of our happiness in the re-creation of that feeling.

The attachment we feel towards such experiences and things (whether they be good, like the reading of a favourite book in a beloved armchair, or sinful, like drinking ourselves into a stupor) is due to our concupiscence – the preferring of lower goods (or even the perversion of good things) in contrast to the things reason tells us make for our highest good. Basically, we give too much of our affection and desire towards the things God has made, instead of He who made them; and this is due to a prior flaw in human nature, which is born of Original Sin. So, the problem is not our delight in the things of this world (the concrete is, as we have seen, not only good but is further blessed by virtue of the Incarnation) but our forgetfulness of where these particular goods receive their goodness from. Enjoying creation is a good and holy thing; preferring it to the Creator is not.

With respect to familiarity then, and our taking comfort in it, there should not be a problem in our doing so as long as we enjoy such things with a spirit of gratitude – if each time we nestle down in that favourite armchair of ours (sorry for repeating this example, but I really do love a good, well-worn armchair; the enjoyment of a bacon sandwich would work equally well) we recognise that these things, indeed anything is a gift of God, and thus our enjoyment becomes properly expressed within the context of thanks that He has provided us with them. This then ties into the question of what continuity there might be between these concrete experiences, mediated by our senses, and the heavenly life; as if our enjoyment of earthly things is properly ordered only when it is rightly aligned to their Provider, then any continuity between them and life in Heaven must be on that basis too.

Saint Augustine, in the concluding chapters of his De Civitate Dei, considers what life in Heaven might be like, and thereby the related question of what our resurrected life might be like – for another corroboration of the goodness of materiality is that we, along with the rest of the creation, will be reinstated and transfigured; Heaven will not be a place of ghosts, but of substance. What that substance will be, and the way in which our substantial but spiritualised bodies will interact with that new world, is what Saint Augustine goes on to consider (in Chapter 29 of Book XII), and in doing so (particularly in the second part of the excerpt below) he provides some illumination on this question of continuity:

If the eyes of the spiritual body have no more power than the eyes which we now possess, manifestly God cannot be seen with them. They must be of a very different power if they can look upon that incorporeal nature which is not contained in any place, but is all in every place. For though we say that God is in heaven and on earth, as He Himself says by the prophet, “I fill heaven and earth,” we do not mean that there is one part of God in heaven and another part on earth; but He is all in heaven and all on earth, not at alternate intervals of time, but both at once, as no bodily nature can be. The eye, then, must have a vastly superior power – the power not of keen sight, such as is ascribed to serpents or eagles, for however keenly these animals see, they can discern nothing but bodily substances – but the power of seeing things incorporeal…

…Wherefore it may very well be, and it is thoroughly credible, that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual, and shall see Him, not as we now understand the invisible things of God, by the things which are made, and see Him darkly, as in a mirror, and in part, and rather by faith than by bodily vision of material appearances, but by means of the bodies we shall wear and which we shall see wherever we turn our eyes. As we do not believe, but see that the living men around us who are exercising vital functions are alive, though we cannot see their life without their bodies, but see it most distinctly by means of their bodies, so, wherever we shall look with those spiritual eyes of our future bodies, we shall then, too, by means of bodily substances behold God, though a spirit, ruling all things.

The City of God (2000), pp.861-863, Modern Library.

                Saint Augustine goes on to elaborate as to how this transparency of the material to the Spirit underpinning and vitalising it will lead to an increased intimacy between all created things – because God will be vividly apparent to us in and through the new heavens and new earth, each part of this realm will be for us something upon which our gaze may (as George Herbert writes in his poem The Elixir) ‘through it pass, and then the heav’n espy’; also communication between persons will be clear and immediate, unencumbered by the self-possession of sin, and enabled by the prior communion with God which all shall enjoy. Furthermore, in Chapter 30 of the same book, Augustine goes on to describe something of the freedom we will have in this communion, with its concomitant lack of attachment to things for their own sake:

What power of movement such bodies shall possess, I have not the audacity rashly to define, as I have not the ability to conceive. Nevertheless I will say that in any case, both in motion and at rest, they shall be, as in their appearance, seemly; for into that state nothing which is unseemly shall be admitted. One thing is certain, the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body. True honour shall be there, for it shall be denied to none who is worthy, nor yielded to any unworthy; neither shall any unworthy person so much as sue for it, for none but the worthy shall be there. True peace shall be there, where no one shall suffer opposition either from himself or from any other. God Himself, who is the Author of virtue, shall there be its reward; for, as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.

ibid, pp.864-865.

                Whereas in this life we experience God only partially, and do so through the things He has made, in Heaven we shall ‘see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual’ – everything will be a window onto Him, and thus we shall enjoy all the things of the new heaven and earth precisely because they show us the divine life, not because of the things themselves. Furthermore, concupiscence will no longer be an issue, for ‘the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body’ and so nothing will stand in the way of that perfect alignment with the life of God that is our true destiny.

Therefore, if what Saint Augustine writes is correct, our enjoyment of the concrete and particular will not only find continuity with the heavenly life, but will thereby find its perfection – if the goodness of such earthly experiences can be located in our recognition that they come from God and to some extent bring us closer to Him, then how much more will the goodness of those very same things be realised in a context where they show us their dependence upon Him completely. In Heaven then, just as our sensory experience will be taken to a level beyond what it is now, so that we will be able to thereby know spiritual truth as well, so will the mediatory role of the rest of creation find its perfection.

This then would provide a definite point of continuity for us, linking the partially revelatory joys of familiar things and experiences to the unmitigated glorification all creation will provide in Heaven. However, although the prominence that is accorded to Saint Augustine is well-deserved, and his arguments here cogent, his is still but an opinion (albeit a very learned one), and the true nature of Heaven must by the nature of the case remain mysterious to us – how much stock can we actually put in what he says? It seems to me that, although it is true that we know vastly less of Heaven than we ever can hope to know in this life, that the arguments put forward by Augustine are based on sound dogmatic principles (i.e.; the goodness of creation, the resurrection of the body) and also that the central point of his conclusion cannot really be disputed.

The key to all he says is this – that whatever we encounter in Heaven will be in some way, though in truth we know not how, continuous with this life, but that the root of this continuity is God. If anything of this life survives into the next, it will be because it spoke to us of God; if any experience or mode of being finds some analogy in Heaven, it will be because it showed us Him – what makes Heaven the blessed place that it will be is God alone, because ‘as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.’ All things in Heaven will be there to glorify Him who is our greatest, and, in the end, our only good. That many things in this life already do speak to us of Him in part should give us some confidence that they will therefore also play a part in the hereafter; but whatever the reality is, we will find that it fulfils and far exceeds all that has thus far given us joy.