Monday, May 07, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait III

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

It is precisely this sort of anthropomorphizing of heaven—but taken seriously and literally—that puts me off. It makes no sense to talk about heaven as just another place, no matter how wonderful. Furthermore, heaven-talk about a god who condemns, a god I associate with the atrocities committed by humans, is revolting. If that is who God is, I want no part of him.

It has always been disturbing to me to see people stake their lives on human projections they call "heaven." As time has passed and the so-called spirituality movement has developed, possessive talk about heaven has given way to a more narcissistic materialism. These days, people walk labyrinths the way their forebears clutched at magical devotions. They cling to the way of images (kataphatic), while protesting that the way without (apophatic) is too hard. They point to enneagrams and Myers-Briggs stereotyping to justify themselves, conveniently forgetting that whatever one's attrait, spiritual growth is a seamless dialogue spiraling ever deeper between the images of belief and the iconoclasm of faith.

Perhaps they have never realized that every one of us without exception must learn the apophatic way for the simple reason that every one of us without exception must die. It is far simpler to learn this dispossession now through imageless meditation and prayer, which helps us to "fear the grave as little as my bed," as Thomas Ken's hymn reminds us, than to wait, like Tolstoy's Ivan Illich, until the last few days and hours of our lives.

As my mother waited.

There was a time when I thought that whatever judgment was, its standards would be tailored to the individual. This notion probably arose from the Narnia story that suggests that after death you get what you believe—and for a time it made me very uneasy. But ultimately I rejected it, not only because of its implicit blackmail and because I was already aware of judgment in every moment, but more significantly on the grounds that there are people who have never known anything but abuse and violence, and these are surely included in "the poor" on whom God has infinite mercy.

I had been given a taste of this mercy when I was five years old. Like all true "heavenly" encounters, it left a trace, and from the moment I returned to myself until the present moment, it has been the lodestar of my life.

But I do not think of this encounter as heaven.

On November 5, 2001, seven weeks after the attack on New York, there was a display of aurora borealis so intense it was visible as far south as Alabama. Unlike most auroral displays, which are unstable and short-lived, this one went on for hours. Here in Southeast Alaska, we could see it even before the sun was below the horizon. The entire sky turned blood red.
An auroral corona began to form, shimmering rays of every shade of crimson from the palest pink through rich king salmon, to dark, dark magenta streaked with gold, all seeking a focal point.

Before the ability to verbalize deserted me, I was possessed by a longing for everyone in Washington, everyone in the Middle East, everyone planning violence and revenge to experience this overwhelming transcendence. If only they could see it, everything else would pale into insignificance. They couldn't fight, they couldn't . . .

Then the tears began: this is why psalms are written, this is how myths are born, holy salmon guard in their flesh the light of this blessing from heaven. . . .

I went into the house, put on my warmest parka and returned to the beach.

I lay down on stones.

Around me the horizon arced 200 degrees, a hundred miles north to south before the mountains blocked it at either end.
The aurora extended over the entire vault.

What is more, the zenith of the corona, the vanishing point at which all the rays gathered and from which they proceeded, formed above me. Cathedrals of light ascended and descended, pillars of eternity.

In some way my life ended that night. If I had turned into a block of ice while baptizing in the aurora, I would have died a happy woman.

But this was not heaven.


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