This is an essay I was asked to write for a Spanish language anthology, not yet released, asked of several men of letters their thoughts and opinions about the life to come. I reprint it here with the editor’s permission.
The garden of paradise lies beyond the fields we know, where we slumber and labor, and we father sons and see them fall in war, where we have toothache and heartache and mighty loves and tiny wasps to engage our attention, and to console us is the Church like a mother who takes a crying child in her arms. This is called the valley of tears not because life here is nothing but tears, but because life there is nothing like tears.
Little can be known of these gardens and less can be said, for words are curving yardsticks and crooked walking sticks indeed. But what little can be said must be said, for to that gate of pearl we all must go, whether we will or not, and all who fear eternal death yearn for eternal life, which is not found on this side of the gate. But how can we know what no man has seen, sight which mortal eyes, by their nature, might be too dim to see, and mortal minds too dark?
Perhaps we can know the unknown by what little clues the unknown has made known to us.
Once, two twins in the womb were discussing conditions outside, for they no doubt had heard a rumor or report that they were soon to be disembarked or, rather, decanted into that strange outward realm so much unlike their present condition. One twin thought the world outside the womb might be two or three times as large, but otherwise would be much the same as this, a dark and comfortably narrow space, filled with warmth and fluid, and nutriments sucked in through the belly button. The other, more daring, mentioned the voice he sometimes heard through the living walls of their world, the voice of the mother who comprised the whole world, and he dared to dream that one day, after birth, he would see the mother face to face. He wondered if he might hear her more clearly there, and perhaps find the owner of the beating heart beneath which they slept.
The first was doubtful, pointing out that if they departed from the world of the womb, the umbilicus which fed them might drop away, and belly button would become useless, and they would starve. The second one sucked on his thumb a while in thought, and answered that perhaps there was some other organ, some method of taking in nutrient, which the babes in the womb world had not yet imagined.
Now if the unborn were truly wise, they might examine their eyes, and wonder if the world outside held light, for otherwise these organs have no use. They might inspect their hands and feet, and grasp that in the world outside there would be things to grasp, and surfaces on which to walk. But they could not imagine, even in their most daring leaps of fantasy, that in the months after mother’s milk there would be fruit and food and even feasts, and that their hands would not only grasp things as various as the strings of the lyre or the trigger of a gun, and that their feet would wade through clear pools or flowery grasses, or carry them dancing with their beloved in their arms, arms which would one day in turn carry babies like themselves.
We are those babies. What we know of the world beyond this world is from two meager sources: first, we have heard a voice from beyond the walls of our world speaking to us, and this is whatever has been revealed in revelation, or vision, or inspired dreams. Second, we can see our own organs, and make a guess that they are not to be useless in the world to come, but to be fulfilled.
The first revealed truth comes from the voice of the Psalmist, who tells us that no eye hath seen nor ear heard the wonders that await us. And the second from the visions of St John in the Book of the Apocalypse, a dazzling image of a city of gold bright as a looking glass, built on twelve radiant foundations of stone upon shining stone, and yet needing neither lamp nor sun, being lit by the glory of God. And this image is filled with crowns as of kings and robes whiter than snow, and feasts, and living waters, and streets of gold, and trees whose leaves are ever in bloom and heal the nations. A third revelation comes from the lips of Our Lord who tells us that in heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage. What are we to make of these mysteries?
First, I think we should take quite seriously, as a check on the exuberance of the imagination, the warning that the glories and joys awaiting us are beyond what we have imagined, and indeed may be beyond what we can imagine. A little boy of that age when he thinks girls are silly and disgusting creatures will have nothing to do with them, for girls neither fight nor climb trees nor break windows nor eat bugs nor pretend to be pirates nor to do any of the things boys are wont to do.
No matter how patiently it were explained to him, the little boy cannot imagine the bold shyness of first love, the solemn madness of courtship, the gaiety of a waltz, the folly of a poem, the glory of the wedding day, the years upon golden years of true love and domestic happiness, with all its arguments and turmoil and solid devotion.
The little boy simply lacks the facility to understand what it means to a bridegroom to pick up the slender, curvaceous and yielding form of his smiling wife in her bridal gown, her white veil or crown of flowers descending from her scented hair, and step across the threshold of the honeymoon cottage, and in to a house, and into a life, which are entirely his own, and entirely never again his own. And who could explain the mysteries of the wedding night to a child without committing a blasphemy both against childish innocence and the divine lunacy of romance?
Second, let us not confuse images for those things too great to be imagined. When prophets and visionaries speak of streets of gold and harps on which angels sing, please do not think of the time you were bored at the church choir, or yawning at music lessons, and wishing you could play a happy dance tune rather than a slow hymn. Please do not think the streets of gold will be slippery to walk on, or the cold metal painful to the feet.
I remember hearing a television talk-show where a man of science once was told of that the afterlife would be when all life’s mysteries would be explained and all the answers known. He grinned an impudent grin, and smirked, “Well, wouldn’t that be boring?” and the audience laughed.
That man, who was very proud of his own intellect, in truth was an idiot. He had made himself stupid by arrogance. He was mistaking the pleasure gained from the adventure of seeking knowledge with the greater pleasure of knowing the truth. Who reads a detective story and wants to have Sherlock Holmes never solve the crime? This man of science wanted the detective story never to end, and Moriority never to be caught. Who flirts with a dark-eyed girl or sings with a guitar below her window, but never wants to marry her, never wants the love consummated?
Oh, perhaps you will hear of Peter Pan, the child who never grows old, for whom the joy of the adventure is never-ending. I tell you that Peter Pan, if he were real, would find Nevernever Land to be the very pit of Hell: because what little boys do when they play at fighting pirates or savages or cannibals is they are playing at being men, who fight less glamorous foes. Boys are men in training; merely because they enjoy their play does not mean it is not lessons. Peter Pan wants to be a man, and his longing is never satisfied.
Likewise here. The eternal scientist who never discovers the truth, or the eternal lover who never finds a bride, if they were real, would be in Hell. Curiosity and romantic longings, like the eyes and ears of a baby in the dark and silent womb, are organs meant for a purpose.
What happens when the lover wins the heart of his bride and loses his heart to her is that he is changed into a new man. The charm of chasing women and being rebuffed loses its luster. He becomes and husband and a father and his joys cannot be described to the ignorant young bachelor.
Boring? The word is a blasphemy.
For the happily married man, the adventure of life moves from joy to joy, even in the midst of sorrow or labor, because he no longer lives for himself. He sees his children grow, and all the burden of freedom is upon him, for the task of fathering them is his. To him, the adventure of wooing, the heartaches and heatbreaks and juvenile silliness of young love is merely the overture.
For the unhappily married man, each day is torment, because he must share his life and his house and all he has with a harpy who makes him miserable, and whom he make miserable. For the selfish man, the life lived no longer for himself is endless, inescapable pain.
I fear that something exactly like that awaits the soul that hates God and scorns goodness. Perhaps the heavens will literally roll up like a scroll at the end of time, just as Saint John says, and the mystery of God be revealed. However, I suspect this is a meager poetic imagine for something far more grand and far worse: when we see God face to face, it will be like being dropped into the sun, or into a supernova, and a pure love so powerful that no words can capture it will flood our very being, our every thought and memory, even to the least and lightest word we spoke so thoughtfully. All of our secrets will be revealed, and everything we hid from each other. Our sins will scream in their own voices and confess themselves. Any enemy we have not forgiven will stand in judgment over us.
It will be much more than a marriage. Christ will take His bride, the Church, and all of us are members of that body. For the saved, it will be joy beyond joy, a luminous ecstasy like a phoenix rising to new life on wings of fire. For those who hate Christ, it will be darkness and pain, and they will seek to flee from infinity, but find no rest. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The Church teaches that there are no animals in heaven, since the beasts lack immortal souls. Far be it from me to question the doctors of the Church, but I cannot help but wonder if their reasoning is sound. Would God deprive a man of the companionship of his favorite hound, a dog the man raised from a pup, an loved? I sometimes wonder if, in the same way Christ gives part of his divinity to us to elevate us beyond the state of mortal men, we men, when we love the lower animals, grant something of our soul to them, so that God can make a way to keep them with us in the next life. But this is merely speculation: there may be something better—I know not what—than even this.
Finally, let us not allow the silences of what we can not now understand silence us. There are some things we know about the life in the garden.
For example, we know that the saints and angels in heaven do not marry nor are they given in marriage. Does this mean that the joys of the marriage bed are to be denied us? Is there no erotic love in heaven?
I think we are like the babies worrying that in the life outside the womb, if there is no umbilicus, there will be no food. The faculty we dimly apprehend in the sexual ecstasy will be replaced with ecstasies involving the whole person, raptures of the whole soul. The poet Milton imagines that the airy and ethereal bodies of the blessed spirits will be able to merge with each other in erotic culmination not hindered by flesh or bone or joint, but to be all within all: and I myself think this is merely an image of something greater.
For another example, the man of science who scoffs that the afterlife would be boring if we knew all the answers does not know the nature of love and the nature of the answers.
If God is infinite, an ocean with no shore, and every drop is joy beyond what we here, who are half-dead and half-blind and unable to envision what real pleasure is like, the adventure of reaching deeper and ever deeper into that mystery, of exploring every oddity and ecstasy of those infinite waters, is an adventure to which the voyages of Captain Nemo are mere splashing in a pond.
Our eyes will be opened and our minds be expanded, made wiser, once sin no longer clouds our thoughts. Things we are too childish to find interesting now may fascinate us then, for we will see in all parts of creation the reflections of the glory of God.
One would think the man of science would be restless to accompany the angels on a guided tour of the dark side of the moon, or the crystal depths of the hidden oceans beneath the clouds of Jupiter, or to walk the snows of Pluto, or to soar with the speed only angels know beyond Proxima and Sirius, Betelgeuse and Arcturus, and see all the glamour and wonder, of this galaxy, or Andromeda, or the galaxies swarming the Virgo Cluster, or the unguessed stars and worlds of the Corona Borealis supercluster. And that is before he turns and is lead by smaller angels to see the mystery of the core the atom with his own eyes.
But even the countless eons that could be spent just examining the majestic artwork of this one cosmos would be merely the beginning. In eternity, did Shakespeare not pause to write more poems, nor Aquinas to pen more philosophy?
All the things undone here on earn, all dreams that the devils stole, or corrupted, or aborted, there will find a finer soil in which to grow, and bring forth an uncorrupted fruit.
And this is the least of the pleasures. The greatest is to meet one’s lost loved ones, and to see into what godlike beauties, shapes of purest love, divine figures reflecting heaven’s pure light, have grown into.
We know that there is no disease, no death, and no sorrow there. We know that we will be resurrected in the flesh (an idea that still shocks the Gnostics and the pagans, who regard the flesh as evil), and we can deduce that the flesh will be responsive to our commands just as here it is too often a hindrance and a tyrant.
The flesh will be a glory of light, our love for God and each other made evident in a brilliant clarity of visible soul, expressing our personality. Our glorified flesh will be immune to disease or impassible to any invasion by pain; our bodies will be quick as the glance of lightning, able to pass from one place to another at will; perhaps even to levitate or be in two places at once, as some saints did; nor will physical obstacles be a bar to us any more than they were to the risen Christ when He entered into locked room to bring good cheer to His astonished disciples.
All the miraculous works reported of the saints and of Christ himself will be ours, for these things are but sureties or fore-tastes of the feast awaiting us. We were not meant to be slaves or servants of nature, but to command her: to walk on water or bid the storm be still was something Adam could have done, had he remained obedient, and all his children. All that was lost in Eden. All that will be restore in the New Jerusalem, and more.
And, most dear to my heart, the one gift which I am convinced we will not lose in heaven in the gift of story telling, the gift of poetry. We must wonder why, of all the animals on Earth, only man invents fictions, creating characters and landscapes in his mind much as God created them in His? It is my firm belief that this creative instinct and poetic craving is like the foot or the hand of the baby in the womb which has nothing to grasp nor to walk upon.
Hence I believe that the creator means to have us participate in the creation, and to make new worlds to express our love.
For, once we leave the womb of this world and grow into what we were always meant to be, worlds will not be enough to hold our love.