November is the month when we usually focus on remembering the dead. As a nation we have just been commemorating the deaths of the military in two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts. As usual this brings about sharp debate about wearing the poppy. Woe betide the T.V. personality who fails to display the poppy on screen. It was extended this year to condemn the puppet that did wear a poppy. It seems public display is the order of the day.
For Catholics this is a month of prayer for the dead. We compile our November lists and our deceased relatives and friends can be formally remembered in masses each day. The uninformed observer might ask why we bother as the deceased are, of course, dead. The answer is that we know they are dead but they are not gone. In God’s eyes we are all one. Death is merely a step out of this life into the next. As a wee boy I learned that we are praying for the dead that they might get into Heaven.
It’s comforting for us to know that those we love are still there. I’ve always hoped and imagined that they are really in Heaven already. That brings me to the thorny question of Heaven. What or where is Heaven and what is it like? This question came to the fore in our parish recently when our Parish Priest tried to clarify our ideas of Heaven. He pointed out that despite the fact that we often point upwards to Heaven; there is no evidence of any trace of Heaven up there. He told us not to think of Heaven as a place. It was quickly reported and repeated throughout the town that the priest had said there was no Heaven.
It’s a lesson I learned many years ago, be careful what you say because some people will hear something quite different. Thinking that there is no Heaven is a serious matter. If there is life after death there must be somewhere to live and that is Heaven. Jesus promised us Heaven when he told the Apostles that his Father’s house has many mansions. The idea of mansions colours our image of heaven. It is easy for us to imagine an eternal life of luxury. This would be our reward for living a good life.
This is where my doubts arise. My doubts are on two levels. Firstly I wonder just what we can expect in Heaven. The Church has taught that we will be resurrected in our bodies glorified and imperishable. This is the reason for the recent statements about cremation and how we should treat the remains. If we will have bodies in Heaven there must be a place for those bodies. So where is Heaven?
Now I must come clean and confess that I don’t know the answer. I suspect that nobody knows the answer. Nevertheless it is a question that seems to bother us. I satisfy my own curiosity with the thought that we have a two state existence. We are flesh and blood and we are also spirit. After death my spirit will leave my body. I will still exist in my spirit. My spirit doesn’t need a place to exist. At the last day, when time comes to an end, the world will be recreated and our bodies recreated in glorified form.
Now that might not be completely accurate. It lets me move on, though, to another question. That’s the question of why is the nature of Heaven so important to us. We have the idea of Heaven being the reward for our good behaviour. There are lots of stories about how our Heaven will be determined by our earthly behaviour. I remember the story of the priest who was ushered in through the pearly gates (now where did that idea come from?) and was led past a large mansion. “Is this my place?” he asked. “No, you are further along. That one belongs to a Glasgow taxi driver.” came Saint Peter’s reply.
They came to a small hut and the priest was given the key. He was not too pleased. “Why does a taxi driver get a mansion and I only get a hut? I’ve led hundreds of people to God.” He asked.
Saint Peter replied that by his wild driving the taxi driver had caused thousands to pray every time he went out on the road. Thus he was due a greater reward.
If we try to be good simply to gain a reward are we really living by Christ’s teaching? Think about your children. One child is obedient to the parent for love of the parent. The other child obeys in order to get a chocolate bar. Which is the good child? What’s so good about shaping our behaviour to gain a reward?
This reveals a great error in our understanding. In reality we are not able to earn a place in Heaven. We can get to Heaven by Christ’s sacrifice for us and by God’s infinite mercy. If we try to live a good life we are choosing to follow Christ. That reflects the desire to share our eternal life with Him. In rejecting Christ’s teaching we are choosing not to spend our eternity with Him. We can only condemn ourselves.
There is the story of the priest giving a mission who tells the congregation to put their hands up if they want to go to Heaven. They all do. He then tells them to keep their hand up if they want to go tonight. The hands go down. Apparently we all want Heaven but not yet. The reason is, of course, that we need to die before we get there. Dying is a step into the unknown. Nobody we know has been back to tell us it’s ok so we are understandably apprehensive.
The bishops of England and Wales have recognised this problem and I read in the Catholic Herald that they have done something about it. They have launched an Instagram page which offers advice on dying well. Pictures of those who have died can be uploaded and a network of five convents and abbeys in England will offer prayers for the dead and dying people. There is a website which complements this work. You can find it here.
As we get older (let’s face it nobody is getting younger) the prospect of death and its inevitability loom larger. The T.V. adverts encourage us to prepare for that time. We can take out a life assurance policy so that our family will have money to bury us with some ceremony. We are urged to take out a pre-paid burial plan so that we can rest in the assurance we have somewhere to go.
These are all very well. It is good to prepare for the future. There are no adverts reminding us to prepare for the real event in our death. After all we will not be around for the funeral. We will be too busy meeting our Maker. Can we prepare for this interview? Just like any job interview we need to revise our life experience. How have we demonstrated our suitability? We have the opportunity to fill in any gaps in our experience of Christian living and get on better speaking terms with God.
We know the questions He will ask. “When did you feed me when I was hungry, clothe me when I was naked, give me a drink when I was thirsty? We all know the questions and perhaps we will have time to prepare some suitable answers.