Heaven’s Not Boring
Today is the Solemnity of All Saints, when the Church celebrates all of the faithful departed who are in heaven, whether their names are remembered in the official canon of the Church or not. The word saint comes from the Latin sanctus and simply means “holy.” A saint is a holy person, and when we use that title for someone it indicates that this person is in heaven with God. We are all called to be saints. But do we all want to go to heaven?
I remember my freshman year as an English major in college. Our class was reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, and our professor remarked that heaven, according to Dante’s description in Paradiso, sounded rather boring. Who wants to sit around just adoring God all the time? Instead, my professor said he’d much rather hang out in the limbo of the virtuous pagans described in Dante’s Inferno, discussing philosophy with Aristotle and tossing the discus around on nicely trimmed lawns.
He was the quintessential English professor, with tweed jacket, unkempt hair, bushy mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. He was a wonderful teacher in many regards, but he was wrong on this point. Heaven is many things, but boring is not one of them.
Our popular images of heaven do nothing to dispel this misconception, however. We imagine ourselves in white robes, perhaps wearing angel’s wings, sitting on the top of fluffy clouds strumming harps for all eternity. Who wants that? But this concept of heaven is nothing like what St. John describes in Revelation, and nothing at all like what God promises for those who love Him.
I thought of my old English professor this morning while reading today’s Mass readings from my daily missal. On Sundays and Solemnities, my missal gives a little blurb from the Catechism touching on the theme of the day. For today, it offers this reminder about heaven.
The perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed — is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness (CCC 1024).
Heaven, in other words, is not found on the top of the clouds or in some other-worldly ethereal state of being. Heaven is primarily the state of being in communion with God, and consequently with all those who are also in communion with Him (the saints and angels). Heaven is a relationship; one that will fulfill all of our deepest longings. If we think that will be boring, it’s due to a failure of our imagination, not any defect in God’s promises.
A college student shared recently that she thought heaven sounded boring. “I don’t want to go to hell,” she admitted, “but I don’t think I want to go to heaven, either.” The sort of afterlife she desired would be “like taking a long nap.”
I applaud her candor and honesty; no doubt many people feel this way. But why might she say this? First of all, as a sleep-deprived, over-stressed college student, she could probably use a long nap! But more than that, her comment expresses a deep human longing for rest.
Our desire for rest is not just due to the frantic pace of modern society. Even in the fourth century, before the advent of high-speed internet, cell phones, rapid transit, and 24-hour news service, St. Augustine recognized this universal longing for rest. He begins his great Confession with the following prayer: “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” St. Augustine realized that there is nothing in this world that can completely satisfy this human need for rest (I don’t care how many power naps you take). We have a longing in our hearts for peace that can only be satisfied by something — SomeONE — outside of this world. It is an infinite desire that can only be fulfilled by something eternal.
That something — that SomeONE — is God, and complete and total fulfillment of our desire is exactly what He promises us in heaven. We are reminded of this in the Alleluia verse for the All Saints Mass today: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest, says the Lord” (Mt 11:28).
The eternal rest of heaven is not a passive rest. We will not be idle or unconscious, as if asleep. It will be an active rest; a dynamic rest. We will be fully conscious, totally aware; more awake than we have ever been in this life. It will be an alertness fueled not by caffeine, adrenaline, or stress. It will be fueled by love, awe, and adoration. And yes, it will magnificently restful, because we will experience total and everlasting peace.
Tomorrow is the commemoration of All Souls, when the Church prays especially for all the dead. A traditional prayer for the dead is requiescat in pace, often abbreviated R. I. P. It means “rest in peace.” When we pray that the dead may rest in peace, we do not ask merely for an end of their earthly labors. By this prayer, we hope to usher them into heaven, where they will experience the rest Christ promises in Mt 11:28. In that blessed rest, they will know eternal peace.
May we live our lives so that we may one day join them.