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.

Henry Vaughan: ‘They Are All Gone Into The World Of Light’

Looking forward to tomorrow’s Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (also known as Candlemas) in which light plays a predominant theme, the following poem seemed fitting. Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695) was a physician who, after much time examining the ills of others and a protracted period during which he came close to death himself, converted to Christianity, and thereafter began to write poetry, becoming one of the most notable of the metaphysical school. Vaughan also credited his conversion to the writings of George Herbert, and the former certainly owes the latter a good deal in terms of style and outlook; however, Vaughan can be seen as providing a valid and original contribution to poetry himself, his reflections on the natural world setting him apart in particular, and laying much of the ground for romantic poets such as William Wordsworth.

In the poem ‘They Are All Gone Into The World Of Light’ Vaughan meditates on the loss of those who have been close to him, and the bitter transience of our earthly existence. He uses the image of light to represent the fading memories (‘faint beams’) of the life of dead loved ones, which retain their lustre and clarity only as seen in light of a greater and more permanent luminescence – that of Eternity. Though their memory ‘doth trample on’ the poet’s days, bringing to mind again the pain of loss, the intensity of that memory is also due to the identity of the deceased having been taken to the place of final transformation, where they walk ‘in an air of glory’ animated by the divine light of Love. The weight of loss is paradoxically both intensified and qualified by the knowledge that the dear departed are with God in this new and wondrous glory.

For Vaughan though, and for us, the knowledge of that bright new world remains something that, though we might desire it deeply, and that brings us comfort to know of our loved ones being in its midst, is a mystery – that, as Vaughan writes in The Night, another of his poems, ‘there is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness, as men say it is late and dusky, because they see not all clear.’ This mystery is perhaps, in part at least, what lies behind the strength of our desire for Heaven – not only do we see in it the fulfilment of all we have found good and true here and now, but the knowledge that what we hope for will exceed our every expectation also adds profoundly to that initial sense of longing. Such a spirit animates this poem, in which grief for the departed is married to a spirit of intense desire to be with them, bathed as they are in the eternal light of God, which feeds and warms the souls, and surpasses every earthly hope:

 

They are all gone into the world of light!

And I alone sit ling’ring here;

Their very memory is fair and bright,

And my sad thoughts doth clear.

 

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast

Like stars upon some gloomy grove,

Or those faint beams in which this hill is dressed,

After the sun’s remove.

 

I see them walking in an air of glory,

Whose light doth trample on my days:

My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,

Mere glimmering and decays.

 

O holy hope! and high humility,

High as the Heavens above!

These are your walks, and you have show’d them me

To kindle my cold love,

 

Dear, beauteous death! the jewel of the just,

Shining no where, but in the dark;

What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust;

Could man outlook that mark!

 

He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know

At first sight, if the bird be flown;

But what fair well or grove he sings in now,

That is to him unknown.

 

And yet, as Angels in some brighter dreams

Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:

So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,

And into glory peep.

 

If a star were confin’d into a tomb

Her captive flames must needs burn there;

But when the hand that lockt her up gives room,

She’ll shine through all the sphere.

 

O Father of eternal life, and all

Created glories under thee!

Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall

Into true liberty.

 

Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill

My perspective (still) as they pass,

Or else remove me hence unto that hill,

Where I shall need no glass.

All Hallow’s Eve: Dante and C. S. Lewis on Life in Heaven

Today is the day before All Saint’s Day, and so is also known as All Hallow’s Eve. There is a long-standing belief that at this time of year the fabric of the material world grows thinner and we mortals are closer to the heavenly realms than at other times. There is something in this intuition that rings very true. It is not so much that at All Hallow’s Eve the heavenly places actually ‘press in’ closer than they usually are, but that this is a time of year when we remember how fine the line between heaven and earth already is – we live in a world filled with things invisible as well as visible, and now is a time of year for remembering just how much of a reality the saints (and angels) are for us, how alive (indeed, how much more alive) they are, and in doing so, to facilitate a deeper communion with them.

But when we speak of the heavenly realms, the life enjoyed by the saints, what do we actually mean? It is of course true that we know very little of life in Heaven, and that most of what we say about it must therefore consist of negative language, affirming only how much we are at a loss to explain the extent to which life with God exceeds our earthly lives in depth of actuality and also in intensity of love (which are ultimately two ways of saying the same thing). But, grasping for this reality as we must, there have been some compelling attempts to communicate something of what the saints must enjoy; and one of the most exceptional examples is Dante’s Paradiso, the concluding lines of which strive to describe the ineffable:

So my mind, held in complete suspense,

Gazed fixedly, motionless and intent,

And always as if on fire with the gazing.

 

In that light a man becomes such

That it is impossible he should turn away

Ever to look upon any other thing.

 

Because the good, which is the object of the will,

Is there in its entirety; and outside of it

There is some defect in what there is perfect.

 

My language now will be more inadequate,

Even for what I remember, than would that

Of a child still bathing his tongue at the breast.

 

Not that there was more than a simple appearance

In the living light which I gazed upon

And which is always as it has always been;

 

It was my sight which was growing stronger

As I was looking; so what looked like one

Worked on me as I myself changed.

Paradiso XXXIII, 97-114 (trans. C. H. Sisson).

            Dante’s attempt to turn his eyes heavenwards and describe what his poetic vision can discern provides us with several insights common to what Christianity has been able to say with a reasonable degree of confidence about Heaven. Firstly, that the vision of God in His true nature, unmediated by the things of His creation, is irresistible – Dante describes the beatific vision as something from which ‘it is impossible he should turn away ever to look upon any other thing’. Standing before God, it will be impossible for us to want anything else, and we would wonder with bemusement as to why we ever chose any lesser thing, if we were only able to think of anything else but Him.

Similarly, confronted with the fullness of God, we see in Him absolute Goodness, to the extent that anything outside of His being and will (which are one) has ‘some defect’ in it – when we have known perfection face to face, anything else will seem incomplete. As Saint John wrote, ‘God is light and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5) – all Beauty, all Truth, all Goodness subsist in the life of God, who is an eternal triune community of perfect and irresistible Love. No wonder we also read in Scripture that all those in Heaven continually sing His praises (c.f.; Revelation 4-5), and they do so because all their desires have been fulfilled in Him.

Dante draws attention to one more very important point here. He writes that the light of God (i.e.; God Himself) ‘is always as it has always been’ and that ‘it was my sight which was growing stronger as I was looking; so what looked like one worked on me as I myself changed.’ Our salvation is our sanctification – we are saved by the grace of God which gradually conforms us to the image of Christ and thus to the very life of God Himself (c.f.; Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:4). This process remains incomplete for most of us by the end of our lives, which is what Purgatory is for, but this does not mean that the life of the saints in Heaven is static, that they stop growing in beatitude.

We are limited, finite beings, but just as (so we are told) we ordinarily only draw upon a relatively small amount of the potential of our brains, so it is not unreasonable to think that our souls are capable of experiencing a great deal more than they do here and now as well. What Dante points to – that his knowledge and experience of God was progressive, and that this was not because of any change in God but because his own capacity for knowing (and loving) was gradually being expanded and enhanced – is consonant with the intuitions of many throughout the ages who have sensed that the reason our desire for the things of God often exceeds our capacity to receive them is because our desires intuit a time when that capacity for reception will increase.

There is a passage in C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia book which describes this process in vivid terms. Lewis emphasises the subjective nature of the experience even more so than Dante, so the description is in terms of how things appear to the one arriving in the new world. But in the context of the book as a whole, and what has been discussed so far, it serves as a very helpful imaginative tool for supposing what the expansion of our capacities when presented with the ultimate reality of Heaven might be like:

About half an hour later – or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here – Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. But when you looked down you found that this hill was much higher than you had thought: it sank down with shining cliffs, thousands of feet below them and trees in that lower world looked no bigger than grains of sea salt. Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden, and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”

The Last Battle (1990), pp.168-169, Lions.

            That we might experience a continual deepening of our experience of and participation in the divine (which, we must remember, is not only a heightening of spiritual experience, but a heightening, however hard this may be for us to imagine now, of sensory experience) is not to say that we will in any way become infinite, that we may actually become absorbed into God’s way of being – our life in Heaven remains very much a participation, not an assimilation into God or involving any change in our fundamental nature. Nevertheless (and Saint Gregory of Nyssa has some interesting things to say about this) we can imagine some kind of expansion of our capacity for being that is far greater than what we know now.

Given that the life of the saints may be described, albeit incompletely and with great caution, as something akin to the above, how does this impact upon what we celebrate on All Saint’s Day? As today is a remembrance of the closeness of the saints to us, and of how full of life they are, a consideration of the exultant and rapturous mode of their being, with its ever-increasing possibilities for deepening our knowledge of and love for God, can provide us with a means for meditation upon at least two central aspects of the Faith.

Firstly, it reminds us of how real the saints are and also how ready they are to help us towards the kind of life they already enjoy. Remembrance of the closeness of the saints to us should be a motivation for us to recall that they are not only ever-present but ever-ready to assist, and that, as they are so intimately involved in the life and will of God, that their prayers are greatly efficacious in drawing us closer to Him (c.f.; James 5:16; Revelation 5:8). Secondly, it reminds us that drawing closer to God and readying ourselves for the hereafter should always be our priority. If life in Heaven is as vastly more joyous and incomparably more…well, life-like, than our mortal existence, then we should always be thinking of the heavenly life (c.f.; Colossians 3:1-4) and ordering our present lives to it. May the prayers of all the saints in glory help to guide us there.

Saint Gregory the Great: Heaven is Our True End

Following on from my post of yesterday, in which I discussed the Irenaean theodicy (a theory for which a consideration of the true end for which we are made is central), I would like to share a passage from Pope Saint Gregory the Great, whose feast day it is today, as in the passage in question he talks about our true end being eternal life in Heaven with God, and also discusses how this is an end that we should keep before us always, allowing it to form and guide our decisions and perspective in this life, and building its foundation, which is love, in the here and now.

Saint Gregory (540 – 604), one of the four great Doctors of the Western Church (along with Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome) was a native of Rome, and served there as chief civil magistrate for several years, during which time he gave away much of his wealth to a monastery, before becoming a monk himself at the age of thirty-five. From 579 to 585 he acted as a papal apocrisiarius – an ambassador to the Byzantine court at Constantinople, roughly equivalent to a papal nuncio today – before being elected pope in 590 (the first monk to be elected to the Chair of Saint Peter), where he continued in office until his death, and helped stabilise the Church during the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Gregory’s papacy was one filled with strife, with Italy suffering many attacks from the Lombards, and his administrative skill was very useful in that he was able to reform the Church’s estates in order to distribute funds to sufferers of the war and to ransom prisoners. His diplomatic experience also helped negotiate good relations with the Lombards, as well as the Franks and Visigoths, bringing stability to a time of great tumult, and he strengthened Rome’s authority in East and West. Furthermore, he authorised the famous mission to England, which re-evangelised that land, and was responsible for considerable work shaping the public worship of the Church, including its music – in particular, the fact that plainsong also bears the name of Gregorian chant shows the importance of his influence on it (although the exact extent of that influence is uncertain).

Another one of the many things Saint Gregory is most remembered for though, is his pastoral work. He wrote a highly influential piece called Regula Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’ which became a standard manual for bishops throughout Christendom (and which was deemed significant enough to be translated by Alfred the Great) and wrote over eight hundred letters counselling and guiding people in the Church. On top of this, many homilies of his have survived, and they display a deep concern for guiding the faithful into the safe waters of Church teaching and tradition. The following extract displays that same fatherly concern and solid presentation of the central truths of the Faith:

‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own – by which I mean, I love them – and my own know me. In plain words: those who love me are willing to follow me, for anyone who does not love the truth has not yet come to know it.

My dear brethren, you have heard the test we pastors have to undergo. Turn now to consider how these words of our Lord imply a test for yourselves also. Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.

Consequently, the Lord immediately adds: As the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep. Clearly he means that laying down his life for his sheep gives evidence of his knowledge of the Father and the Father’s knowledge of him. In other words, by the love with which he dies for his sheep he shows how greatly he loves his Father.

Again he says: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them; they follow me, and I give them eternal life. Shortly before this he had declared: If anyone enters the sheepfold through me he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life.

So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.

Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us. To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast. Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveller who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going.

from Homily 14, courtesy of The Crossroads Initiative.

C. S. Lewis on Transposition: The Meeting of Earthly and Heavenly Things

As a sort of addendum to my last post, in which I explored C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on the potency of scriptural imagery, and the role symbol and metaphor play in our knowing the world more generally, I would like today to focus on another essay of his, which deals with what he referred to as ‘transposition’. This term, usually used to refer to the writing of a piece of music in a different key to the original, is used by Lewis to describe any transference between different modes of experience, and ultimately, between earthly experiences or images, and heavenly ones, and it can shed a lot of light on what he has to say about scriptural imagery and the role of symbol, and why it is that Scripture uses such ‘earthy’ imagery to communicate divine truths.

In his essay (which is entitled Transposition), Lewis begins by examining the strange fact that the same physical sensations can accompany several qualitatively different types of experience – for example, that being in love can produce sensations that we also experience during rough sea travel, and that can also be induced by an intense aesthetic experience (Lewis uses as an example Samuel Pepys’ account of seeing Dekker and Massinger’s play The Virgin Martyr, which Pepys noted made him feel nauseous, in a way indistinguishable from how he felt when first in love with his wife, and yet that he also wanted to experience this nausea again, as he found it ‘ravishing’).

Some others will have experienced a flutter in the diaphragm, or perhaps mild vertigo, but the point is that the same physical sensation accompanies very different experiences – some welcome, others not. Lewis infers from this that this is because our emotional life is ‘higher’ than our physical life, in the sense that it is more varied and more subtle, and it is because our physical faculties are less rich and complex that the same sensations are employed by the body to attend and interpret different experiences. The correspondence between the emotional and the physical is not a one-to-one relationship, but instead like translating a language with a large number of vowel sounds into one with a smaller set of vowel characters.

Lewis’ contention is that this ‘transposition’ from richer to poorer modes is, like our interpretation of experience in metaphor and symbol, a common facet of our experience, and that this explains why religious experiences (e.g.; mysticism) and revelatory language (e.g.; scriptural imagery) are also so often described in familiar, even commonplace terms. The mystic or the inspired writer does so because they are transposing a richer, subtler, more varied life into a vocabulary that is constrained by the resources available to it. Lewis provides an analogy of this by examining our depiction of three-dimensional life in two-dimensional sketches, concluding that:

…we understand pictures only because we know and inhabit the three-dimensional world. If we can imagine a creature who perceived only two dimensions and yet could somehow be aware of the lines as he crawled over them on the paper, we shall easily see how impossible it would be for him to understand…

…And soon, I think, he would say, “You keep on telling me of this other world and its unimaginable shapes which you call solid. But isn’t it very suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always known it? Is it not obvious that your vaunted other world, so far from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements from this one?

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.271-272, Harper Collins.

            Thus, the complaint of the non-believing sceptic that all religious experience is to be discounted because it is described in earthly terms and so must surely be ‘just’ our projection of wishful thinking can be seen in a new light – the reason religious experiences and imagery (harps, gold, choirs, intensification of familiar experiences) are described in such terms is because this is the only means we have to describe anything, and we must make do with the tools at our disposal. It is not a surprise that humans do not know what angels know, and that we must describe even the most exalted of mystical experience in earthly terms:

Our problem was that in what claims to be our spiritual life all the elements of our natural life recur: and what is worse, it looks at first glance as if no other elements were present. We know see that if the spiritual is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence would deny) then this is exactly what we should expect. And the sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect; for, as we have seen, this is the mistake which an observer who knew only the lower medium would be bound to make in every case of Transposition.

ibid, p.273.

            What we do know, and what the non-believer cannot know however, is the nature of the experience itself – in this sense, it is a closed circle, and one must enter in before valid commentary can be provided. An atheist reading Saint Hildegard of Bingen or Saint Catherine of Siena, is bound to read the imagery they employ and the experiences they describe as a religious pathology, and therefore see their use of earthly images as ‘proof’ that their experiences are only projections, with no transcendent value. Similarly, the same person reading the Bible may well scoff at the plethora of mundane imagery as an indictment of how there can’t be anything more to it. But, as Lewis has pointed out in his essay, this could not be any other way, and the only way the atheist/agnostic will be able to see further, is to move past their unbelief.

So, if Lewis is correct in his assessment (and I think he makes a very good case for transposition being a core element in the human experience), then we have further good reason to trust the canonical imagery we receive in Scripture, and the writings of the saints, which also employ many such earthly depictions to describe their experiences. Moreover, we should not be worried if we, when trying to describe any experiences we may have had that transcend everyday life, can only do so in everyday terms. This does not discount or disprove the experience, but only confirm the limitations of our language and the imaginative resources available to us.

There will always be those who insist that religious experience is ‘just’ wishful thinking, and see descriptions of it as proof that this is so, and even those who see love as ‘just’ chemical processes, or thought as ‘just’ the firing of neurons, no matter how much this conflicts with their emotional or rational life. But for most of us, we realise that these higher experiences cannot be adequately described, and not because they are false, but because they burst the banks of our ability to describe. Lewis concludes his essay with some reflections on what all this might mean for life in the hereafter – that if our emotional life can sometimes be hard to accurately express, then how much more will the heavenly realms exceed our expectations of them:

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape; not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun…

…It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the etiolated, the (as it were) “vegetarian” substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too “illustrious with being”. They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal.

ibid, p.276.

            This idea – that our life here is, though perfectly good and real, but a shadow of the next life, and that when in Heaven we will see our life here on earth (which we see now as so solid and tangible) as the paper sketch to the heavenly three-dimensional reality – is a hallmark of much of Lewis’ work, and given its fullest outworking in The Great Divorce. It is an excellent lens through which to see much of his work, the natural conclusion to his thinking on transposition of experience, and a very appropriate place to summarise his thoughts here, as, if there exist differences in kind in our mundane life, such as Lewis has described, and this is reflected in our ability to describe spiritual experience, then the Source of those experiences must be far beyond our imagining.

And yet, though far beyond what we can imagine, Heaven must also be continuous with our earthly experiences. Our Lord used earthly images to communicate divine truths to his disciples, and the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers to use the imagery available to them to communicate something of the glory of Heaven. The things of the earth are hallowed, and their transcendence in the next life is also a confirmation of them, as all the mystical experiences given to us, and all the images abounding in Scripture, are geared towards preparing us for that life, where we will finally be bathed in the glorious light of the Risen Son, and all the hints and glimpses we have received will be both confirmed and fulfilled.

John Milton: On Time

In this poem John Milton examines the nature of time – its creeping dominance over our lives, the relentless way in which it recalls us to a sense of our mortality. Apparently Milton placed lines 11 to 22 of this poem on a clock-case in his house, to put time in its place, and remind himself that despite the fact that the ticking of the clock reminded him of the shortening of his days, that we also live in the light of Eternity – something which time needed to be reminded of! In a way, he sought to humiliate time, by recalling it to a sense of its own ultimate source, and therefore of its own provisionality.

The ticking of time is something that does indeed, for all of us, need to be put into context, as it is so often a depressing reminder to us of moments wasted and opportunities lost. In terms of our faith as well, reflection on time passed can bring us to the painful conclusion that the amount of our lives given to adoration of God, in prayer or worship, or to service in His name, is woefully small compared to the time spent indulging our own private interests, or worse still, time frittered away on meaningless tasks that give us no enjoyment nor serve no purpose. In On Time, Milton attempts to address this issue of universal human profligacy, as well as providing an antidote – that of seeing our earthly lives in the light of Eternity:

 

FLY envious Time, till thou run out thy race,

Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,         

Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;          

And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,        

Which is no more then what is false and vain,                   

And meerly mortal dross;      

So little is our loss,     

So little is thy gain.    

For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,      

And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,        

Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss         

With an individual kiss;         

And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,

When every thing that is sincerely good        

And perfectly divine,    

With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine    

About the supreme Throne    

Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,   

When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,      

Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,        

Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,         

  Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.

 

The question remains as to whether Milton here is seeing Heaven as simply a reward for an unhappy time in this life. There is a possibility that he thought this way, and that line of thinking is certainly a valid one, one which has helped most of us through some very difficult moments at some points in our lives. However, the poem’s comparison of mundane succession and the heavenly eternal ‘now’ may perhaps also help us to reflect on an antidote that goes deeper, and goes further in remedying the all too common disconnect between our daily round and the moments of prayer and worship that intersperse it.

Consideration of the fact that time is something derivative, and succession something less real than the eternal Present that God enjoys (and which we will – hopefully – in some mysterious way participate in), should also remind us that we do not only meet God in that distant indeterminate future, but here and now. Just as God lives in an eternal Present, seeing all as ‘now’, there is then for us something almost sacramental about the present moment, and being more attentive to how God is with us in the present may well provide the means for us to more effectively counter that tendency we all have to while away the hours on this or that, only later regretting how little time we have devoted to God.

By seeing that God is always with us, that we are constantly in His hands, and furthermore that by more fully living in the present moment we, in part, share in that eternal Present which characterises His very being, we can begin to build into our day a more prayerful disposition, so that time is no longer seen as the enemy, stealing away the hours we could have spent doing other things, but as something essentially alien to ultimate reality. In trying to see the present moment in this way, we may more readily experience Eternity greeting us ‘with an individual kiss’ in this life, and the joy of knowing God shall indeed ‘overtake us as a flood’.

Heaven is and will remain a mystery to us in this life, but in committing ourselves to the here and now, and more specifically to God’s presence with us in the here and now, we can have a small foretaste of what mode of being we may experience in the hereafter. Bare glimpses they may be, for we cannot bear to receive the fullness of that glorious light which fills the heavenly places as yet, but they are shards of that same radiance which we, God willing, will one day encounter. Our knowledge that God has already triumphed over ‘Death, and Chance, and thee O Time’ can help us to look at the passage of time differently, even to see it as the ‘meerly mortal dross’ it really is, and to live in God’s reality, however imperfectly, so that, as George Herbert wrote, we may have ‘such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise’.

Two Visions of Heaven: Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas

In a series of public addresses at Saint Peter’s between 2006 and 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI commented on the lives and teachings of various key Christian thinkers, from apostolic times up to the late 19th Century. In March 2010, Pope Benedict dedicated three of his addresses to Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, and in the last of these talks (March 17th), he compared the great Franciscan saint with a contemporary of his – the Dominican friar, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

After considering the many similarities between the two saints (and Doctors of the Church) – their participation in Church renewal via their respective mendicant orders, their careful and systematic examination of the mysteries of the Faith, and their commitment to the inseparable dialogue between faith and reason – Pope Benedict goes on to show the most significant ways in which they differed. One of these is their conception of theology, as to whether it was primarily a practical or theoretical discipline:

Thomas’ conclusion is: theology entails both aspects: it is theoretical, it seeks to know God ever better, and it is practical: it seeks to orient our life to the good. But there is a primacy of knowledge: above all we must know God and then continue to act in accordance with God (Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 1, art. 4). This primacy of knowledge in comparison with practice is significant to St Thomas‘ fundamental orientation…

…St Bonaventure makes a triple distinction. He extends the alternative between the theoretical (the primacy of knowledge) and the practical (the primacy of practice), adding a third attitude which he calls “sapiential” and affirming that wisdom embraces both aspects. And he continues: wisdom seeks contemplation (as the highest form of knowledge), and has as its intention “ut boni fiamus” that we become good, especially this: to become good (cf. Breviloquium, Prologus, 5). He then adds: “faith is in the intellect, in such a way that it provokes affection. For example: the knowledge that Christ died for us does not remain knowledge but necessarily becomes affection, love” (Proemium in I Sent., q. 3).

taken from Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages (2011), pp.265-266, Fortress Press.

Saint Bonaventure’s three-fold distinction here allows him to more fully integrate the two aspects of knowledge and practice within the third category of wisdom, and so resolve their tensions in this category, whose dominant note is love – we must have knowledge of God in order to love Him, but our increase in knowledge becomes ever more suffused with love, and spurs us on to work that love out in practice. Love, in Saint Bonaventure’s theological framework, is the factor that binds knowledge and practice together, a binding which when observed in occurrence, we call wisdom.

Thus his view does not contradict Saint Thomas’ (as it still presupposes we must first know who God is before we can do anything), but complements it and deepens the meaning of what knowledge is and becomes, as greater intimacy with God is found. This difference in outlook also led to the two saints developing two distinct, but ultimately complementary views of beatitude – what our experience and enjoyment of God in heaven will be like:

For St Thomas the supreme end, to which our desire is directed is: to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary. Instead, for St Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness.

Along these lines we could also say that the loftiest category for St Thomas is the true, whereas for St Bonaventure it is the good. It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith: one, in the diversity of its expressions.

ibid, pp.266-267.

            Again, just as knowledge of God here on earth is not prompted by a desire to know Him purely for the sake of accumulating data about Him, but is born out of love and is intimately related to loving, in heaven the interrelation between our knowledge of God and our love of Him will become so perfected that the distinction almost disappears. Saint Thomas’ insistence that the beatific vision will consist of seeing and knowing God is surely correct, but is again only further enriched by Saint Bonaventure’s claim that knowledge is perfected by love.

To summarise, one could say that although we can know a lot about a person by studying their character, behaviour, etc, we only really know them with our whole being when we love them – it is only when we love that we push out of our selves enough to truly engage with the other. In heaven, when all our attachments to self are finally reoriented to what is Good, True, Beautiful (c.f.; Philippians 4:8-9), we will finally be able to love with every fibre of our being, and it is in that mode of loving that we will know God as He is.

It is a wonderful testament to both the unity and diversity of the Catholic Church, that in two saints with quite different approaches to theology, who produced insights with distinct outlooks, that their conclusions can be reconciled and placed side by side within the greater context of the deposit of faith. This is the true glory and worth of the saints – to provide such a variety of expressions of holiness and thought, but that all are yet branches stemming from the One True Vine. Thereby there is a school of theology, a charism, a way of life, a devotion, to suit every inquirer and everyone who seeks to grow closer to the Lord, and in doing so they will all be drinking from the same Fountain, who pours forth love eternally, and whose waters, once we let Him in, will never cease to nourish our souls.