When I was a boy growing up on the west coast of Florida, I used to stand on the beach looking west across the Gulf of Mexico, knowing that Mexico lay on the other side even though I had never seen it. All I could see was the line of the horizon on the water. Our expectation of heaven and being with God is much like that experience. We cannot see heaven and the horizon of our expectations is limited to the line of this world that we can see. But, just as I had it on good authority that Mexico did exist beyond the horizon, so we have it on the highest authority (God) that heaven exists. And, even more, heaven is the goal of our life. The Germans have two rhyming words which capture the essence of the Christian’s hope: diesseits and jenseits. Literally, these words mean “this side” and “that side” but the latter word is often understood to refer to eternity or the life beyond this life. Few words capture more succinctly the heart of the Christian’s hope and desire. If the horizon of our expectations is limited to this world, we will be sadly disappointed for it is only in the jenseits of eternity that the full flowering of our conversion is realized. Conversion is only about this world in preparation for the world to come. It is the movement from Here to Eternity.
In past installments, I have discussed four essential elements of conversion to Catholicism, all of which involve more than meets the eye. Becoming Catholic is not about changing churches or a system of theology, even though those are involved. Becoming Catholic is more about moving out of oneself into the wisdom of past Christian thinkers, drawing on their experience and knowledge in coming to know truth. It entails the acceptance of the Church as the teaching authority (Magisterium) to which every earnest Christian should gladly submit. It is about seeing the world through sacramental eyes, about divine realities under the guise of human realities. And most of all, it is about being a member of a worldwide society of people who, despite cultural and linguistic differences, are one in that Mystical Body of Christ. Yet even these four themes, as essential as they are, do not attain to the goal of conversion or metanoia. Without the hope of eternal life, these four essentials mean nothing. The ultimate reason to become Catholic far transcends anything in this world.
Eyes on the Prize
Eternity with God is the goal of the Christian life. But what does it mean to be with God for eternity? When people come to understand Catholicism, they begin to realize that heaven is more than simply a place for being in God’s presence. Paul describes eternity in the beautiful phrase, “knowing even as we are known” (1 Cor 13:12). Paul, in describing love in 1 Corinthians 13, arrives at the perfection of love. To be loved, in short, is to be known and to love is to know for one cannot love what one does not know. But here Paul is not using know in a purely cognitive sense as if one knows that 2+2=4. Rather, he is using it in the same sense that Genesis 4:1 has, “Adam knew Eve his wife.” This is the knowledge of intimate love. If someday we are to know and love God as He knows and loves us, then this is the perfection of our human nature.
Heaven then is not a place for being with God. It is God Himself. Being with God means being in God and therefore sharing in His life that is by its very nature eternal. This requires a purity of heart, as our Lord told us, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Mt 5:7). The language of seeing God was developed by the early and medieval theologians into the doctrine of the Beatific Vision. Based on the Latin word for happiness (beatus), the Beatific Vision (beata visio) consists of the Vision of God (visio Dei). And it is a blessed seeing or vision because it is the state of perfect happiness for which human beings were made. Since God is love, the Beatific Vision is to be absorbed in love.
Being absorbed in God’s Being, our human nature becomes completely divinized or deified, not to cease being human, but to find its human fulfillment in the Divine Nature. To some, no doubt, this will seem impossible or even irrational, but perhaps this is because we conceive of heaven as a place which is just a little higher version of our earthly life. We may rightly wonder how two beings, God and man, can both occupy the same space. In the physical world, it is certainly true that two beings cannot occupy the same space. But heaven is precisely that place where God’s presence not only surrounds us as the air does on earth. Rather, in the jenseits, the heaven of our highest horizon, God’s nature and presence penetrates as well as surrounds us. Heaven is a not specific place but a state of being in which every place is filled with God.
From There to Here: The Mystical John
If heaven is as we have said, then the practical question becomes how to get there. It is natural to think of the things we must do or the practices we must follow to arrive finally in heaven. But the real answer — and the most profound one — is not how to get from here to there but how to bring there to here for the message of the gospel is not man in search of God — that is natural religion — but God in search of man. How does the Eternity of Heaven, God Himself, come from there and then to the here and now? The answer lies closer than we may imagine.
Turning afresh to the Gospel of John, we begin to glimpse the pervasive message of what is probably the most mystical book of the New Testament. The Prologue to the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18) is an explanation of the origins of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, unlike Matthew and Luke who begin with Jesus’ earthly life, John reaches back into the eons of eternity, to the very beginning of time. Modeling his language on Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning”), John peers into the time before time, into the invisible, intangible world for it is in that world, the world of the Jenseits that the true rationale (λογος) lies in explaining the origins of this world and of Jesus.
When John speaks of the Logos, he implies much more than the common translation of “Word.” He is referring to the rationale or explanation of the universe and all created reality. He is pointing to the source of illumination and the life-giving reality of God as the principle and foundation of all. It is this fuller meaning that makes John 1:14 so astounding, “The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” In John’s world, the idea of the ultimate Reality of God actually becoming man, of taking on flesh, is unheard of and absurd. The Jews could not countenance the idea and the Greeks would have thought it stupidity. This is proved by how many times in the history of the Church either the humanity (e.g., Docetists) or the divinity (e.g., Arians) of Jesus was denied. But this Enfleshment, this Incarnation, is at the heart of the gospel. If it is not true, then all Christianity is a farce. The message of Christ is that the there and then of heaven has come to the here and now of earth.
John’s theme of the Logos becoming flesh makes sense of the unique contribution of John to understanding Jesus of Nazareth. The presence of the divine Son of God, the Logos, in our world implies the sanctification of all physical reality. The entire universe becomes a kind of sacrament because physical things now embody spiritual realities. All the specific parts of the world can become holy, conveyors of God’s grace. This is the background that makes sense of Baptism in John 3 and the Eucharist in John 6.
All the Church Fathers tell us that when Jesus said, “a man must be born of the water and of the Spirit,” He was speaking about Baptism. The perplexity of Nicodemus over this enigmatic saying prompts Jesus to bring in the perspective of eternity, “Unless a man is born of the water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Nicodemus was incredulous partly because he did not understand or believe that such a ritual as Baptism could actually open up the doors of heaven. Yet, in a worldview defined by the Incarnation, and from a perspective of spiritual embodiment in physical things, eternal life is not something far off and unattainable. The beginnings of eternal life commence now.
In John 3, Jesus speaks about entry into the kingdom of God but in John 6 he speaks about the daily nourishment needed to prepare souls for the final realization of the kingdom. In this passage Jesus does not use the term “kingdom” but “eternal life.” In John 3 Jesus speaks in the idiom of the fantastic. If water, being an agent of kingdom life sounds strange, the use of bread as a vehicle of eternal life seems ludicrous. But a careful study of the progression of thought in John 6 reveals that Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse moves from the unbelievable to the utterly impossible. And the story itself anticipates the problem when the Jews ask, “How can this man give his flesh to eat?” (6:52). This is the moment at which human reason fails and we must rely on the authority of the Son of God Himself. Still, faith in Christ’s human presence in the Eucharist is prepared for by the recognition that the impossible has already taken place, i.e., that the Logos became flesh.
There is much more in John’s Gospel. If space permitted, we could explore the Church in the Gospel focused and encapsulated in the apostolic disciples whom John says Jesus “loved as his own to the end” (Jn 13:1). Or we could plumb the depths of His words in the farewell discourse of John chapters 14-16 where Jesus promises His continuing presence among His disciples through the Person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit will now be the agent of Jesus’ teaching authority (Magisterium, see Jn 15:26; 16:8,13) and the comfort of Jesus to the disciples. Most poignantly of all, we could immerse ourselves in Jesus’ prayer in John 17, Jesus’ parting prayer for unity among His future disciples. In one important sense, this prayer is the other bookend of John 1:14. When John says that the Logos became flesh, he highlights the union of God with humanity. In John 17, Jesus is praying for the unity of all humanity with God through Himself. In other words, eternity enters the world through Jesus’ Incarnation but it spreads throughout the world by the agency of Jesus’ Church. Hidden under the visible structures of the Church is the eternal life and presence of Christ.
This retelling of the mysticism of John’s Gospel offers us an answer to our question about how to arrive at the Beatific Vision and the experience of eternity. The only way for us to move from Here to Eternity is for Eternity to move Here. Then by returning with all the blessed in its train, Eternity ushers us into a timeless existence of praise, adoration, and love. Once we are safely ensconced in Eternity, we then have the one thing that alone fulfills our human nature: love, the Love that is God Himself.
In the end what matters is that we experience a continual conversion of heart and mind that draws heaven down to earth so that earth may be drawn up to heaven. Then, and only then, will conversion be complete. The greatest saints have known and taught this conversion, this metanoia as a transformation of the whole person from the inside out. Being Catholic is about so much more than changing churches or theology. It is about so much more than something in this life, the diesseits. Becoming Catholic is about the path to heaven, about being renewed in the mind by a process of transformation “from glory to glory.”
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