Monday, May 24, 2010

The Gates of Heaven: Reflections on the Sunday of Ascensiontide

The reading of Sunday before last, from the Book of Revelation (Revelation 22:14-21).

“ ‘And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. I, Jesus, have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.’
“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”

What a magnificent and beautiful close to the Christian scriptures, coming at the end of the last book of the New Testament. There were many other ‘revelations’ written by various people in the first few centuries of the Christian era, some of them as ancient as this one, and they are certainly worth reading and probably describe genuine visions of heaven, hell, and the Last Things. This, however, was the one Apocalypse that the church decided to include in the official canon, and they did so probably because of the tradition that it came from the pen of John the Apostle, and because it has the greatest power and scope of them all. It ranges from the angelic fall to the final redemption of the world, and that final redemption is what we see described here, in this excerpt which is read in Catholic and Anglican churches on the last Sunday of Easter this year.
As with the other excerpts from St. John’s Revelation, there is a lot that could be said about this passage. Every sentence is resonant and beautiful, and you can almost here the triumphal trumpet call between each verse, announcing the advent of the heavenly kingdom. Every sentence could provide us with spiritual food for meditation, for exegesis, for prayer, and for inspiration, and lots could be written about each verse. But I’m struck, first and foremost, by this sentence: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” It uses images that we’ve seen used often through the Book of Revelation: of the tree of life bearing twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year, and of Heaven as a city with gates. John describes the gates of heaven earlier in the vision: “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl,” giving us the phrase ‘pearly gates.’
The pearl, in Christian scripture and tradition, is symbolic of two things, knowledge and love, and inasmuch as these are two of the most basic attributes of God, and two of the most valuable things we are capable of, it’s a symbol of all things that are precious. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like ‘one pearl of great price’ that a wise buyer would be willing to sell everything else he owns, in order to attain, and by comparing the gates to heaven to pearls, St. John is telling us how precious is the privilege- for it is a privilege, not a right- to enter through the gates of heaven.

But the pearl has another meaning too, and this meaning is clear to us when we consider what pearls are. Pearls are crystals largely of calcium carbonate- the same material that is the basic component of chalk, lime, and many mollusk shells- that form within the body of oysters when their soft flesh is irritated by a speck of dust or some other irritant. Obviously, oysters are sessile, stationary animals, filter feeders which can’t physically reach within their shells and pick out the dust speck, and can’t easily flush it out. They respond to irritants not by removing them but by isolating them: they deposit calcium carbonate layers, linked together by chitin and proteins, around the dust speck to make a smooth, sterile crystal surface that is no longer an irritant or a threat to their soft, vulnerable tissues. Out of the same common material that makes up chalk or clam shells, something of surpassing beauty and preciousness is born. Out of the pain and irritation caused to the oyster by a little grain of sand, is created something of dazzling beauty.

What a compelling symbol this is of the kingdom of heaven. For we are often asked, and we often ask ourselves, why evil must exist in this world, and why God allows it to exist. The answer is that for God to be perfect, there must be something outside him in order for him to relate to; evil must exist, specifically, so that God can bring good out of it. One example of this is that heaven could not truly be heaven if it had not been won through trial, through pain, and through suffering. Human virtues are largely defined in opposition to natural and physical evils: there could be no courage in this world if there were no dangers from war, disease, earthquake, or fire, there could be no virtue of charity if there were no one suffering in order to show charity to, and there could be no true sacrifice in a world without death, for as our Lord said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give his life for his friends.” St. John talks in his Revelation of the crowned martyrs in the courts of God, who had demonstrated their faith by standing firm in the face of persecution, and of the Holy Innocents who enjoy a specially close relationship with Christ: “they followed the Lamb wherever he goeth.” These early Christian martyrs were crowned with glory through what they suffered, and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us this was true of Christ as well: “And learned he obedience through the things which he suffered, and was made perfect.”

The irritation of the oyster’s tissues gives rise to the beauty of the pearl: similarly, the sufferings and afflictions that we experience in this life give us the occasion to triumph over evil and to show forth Christian virtues in our lives. Some of the best people I know, who most clearly exemplified the Christian virtues in their lives, were also some of the people who suffered some of the most painful personal tragedies. Yet in spite of all that they suffered they weren’t embittered or corrupted by it, but instead just grew deeper in the love that they showed to others. Their afflictions were the raw material from which God made saints, and made pearls of their lives and characters as bright as the pearls of heaven.

This life is the necessary preparation for heaven. This life is where we are tried, and found worthy or found wanting. There may be redemption in the next life, if we choose it- I believe there certainly is, and many saints and mystics through the history of the church have hinted that no one who truly desires salvation, in this life or the next, will truly be denied it. But whether we choose it, whether we desire it, is affected by what we make of our lives and souls here on earth. An existence lived entirely in heaven- without the experience to grow, to experience life in the material and physical world, to be tempted and overcome temptation, to suffer and overcome suffering- would be something less, and less perfect, than the prize of heaven won by struggle through the pains and afflictions of this life. We can’t go to heaven without living and dying first: as Christ tells us, “Unless a grain of wheat fall in the earth and dieth, it abideth alone; but if it dieth, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

Christ tells us, “Blessed are they that….may enter through the gates into the city.” Earlier, during his earthly ministry, he differentiated what it means to ‘enter through the gates’ from what it means to jump the fence or climb the walls: “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but by some other way, is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” I’m always reminded, when thinking of the gates of heaven, of the image that the writer C. S. Lewis gives us in his children’s book, “The Magician’s Nephew.” Here he envisions the tree of life, in the paradisiacal garden of a new world, as a tree bearing golden apples giving life. An inscription on the gate of a garden states that whoever takes the fruit for himself, rather than for others, and who steals fruit rather than entering as bidden through the gate, will ‘find his heart’s desire, and find despair.”

This is what happens when we try to seize heaven for ourselves, or to create a simulated heaven here on earth, instead of trusting in God to bring us to the true heaven. Aldous Huxley, in his book ‘After Many a Summer’, satirizes one form of this desire to create an earthly heaven, the quest for eternal life: in the book, one character discovers the secret of long life, and manages to buy himself hundreds of years of life, but at the cost of losing his humanity and ‘maturing’ into a gibbering ape. Within history, we’ve seen the outcome of the capitalist attempt to build an earthly heaven of unlimited wealth and comfort, and the Bolshevik attempt to build an earthly heaven in which ‘innocence and virtue were compulsory’, and we have seen how such attempts are doomed to fail. The capitalist world succeeded in creating wealth and comfort on a scale never seen before in history, the Bolsheviks succeeded in creating a society beyond the profit motive, but sadly, both did so at a tremendous cost in human suffering and in the deformation of the human soul. We can and must strive to make this world as perfect as we can make it, but when we see perfection as something achievable in this life, we are tempted to break all kinds of moral laws as the price of getting there. The book of Revelation tells us that heaven is achievable only one way: after death, by the invitation of Christ to enter through the gates into the city. Whoever strives to jump over the wall, like Dante’s Ulysses who tried to take Purgatory by storm and ended up in hell, will ‘find his heart’s desire, and find despair.’

But let’s remember again, how trustworthy the promises of heaven are, and how sweet and gentle the invitation to us to enter through the gates. For this description of heaven is given to us by Christ Himself, “the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End”, and the invitation to enter heaven is given us by “the Spirit and the Bride”, who tell us, “Come!” The Bride, here, is often taken to be the Church, but that’s unlikely: St. John has written a good portion of this book to address the church, and here he speaks of the Bride as separate from himself and from his audience. The Church is the bride of Christ, but she who is called ‘spouse of the Holy Spirit’ in a spiritual, not a carnal sense, is someone quite different: Mary, the Most Glorious Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven. Mary, and the Holy Spirit, ask us in the most intimate and gentle way, to come into the kingdom of heaven, and Christ promises us that whoever thirsts- no matter what their sins, no matter what their corruption, no matter what their lack of belief- are welcome to quench their thirst in the fountain of the water of life. We are told of the gates of heaven, that “they shall never be closed by day, and there shall be no night there”: i.e., once the victory of life over death and good over evil has be won, when ‘there shall be no [more] night”, the gates of heaven are open forever, to all. The call of the Spirit and the Bride is addressed not merely to those inside the city, but also to those outside the city, of whom Christ tells us are included, ‘sorcerers, and whoremongers….’. No one who truly craves repentance, and the mystical communion with God, will be denied it. Not now, not in the world beyond.

A long poem from early in the Christian era, attributed to St. Thomas, is called the Hymn of the Pearl, and it symbolizes the mystical quest for heaven and salvation as the quest of a young man who goes into Egypt in search of a precious pearl, is distracted and seduced from his quest, and falls into enjoying the earthly pleasures of Egypt. A letter is sent to him from “your father, the King of Kings, and your mother, the governor of the East” inviting him to turn from sin and pleasure and to seek out the pearl. The young man is awakened from the deep sleep into which he had fallen, he seizes the pearl and returns with it, casts off his old garments and is clad in new, clean robes, with which he ascends into heaven. The pearl here is symbolic of the kingdom of heaven, and the call that Christ gives us- here through the book of Revelation, through the other scriptures, through the various other religions and mystical experiences through which we apprehend and dimly perceive God, through the love of other people, through our reverence for nature- is to awaken from our ‘deep sleep’, to sharpen within us the thirst for eternal life, and to remind us that within the kingdom of heaven, there and only there, that thirst can finally be quenched by drinking of the waters of life, that water from which after we shall drink, we shall never thirst again.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ascension of the Lord: 2010

Today marks Ascension Thursday, the day on which Christian tradition tells us that Jesus Christ left this earth and ascended into heaven. Forty days after Easter, ten days after Pentecost, Jesus Christ took leave of the Apostles for the second and last time in his earthly existence. He had said good-bye to them once before, on Maundy Thursday, as he sat with them at the Last Supper; this was his second good bye, and this time it was for good.

He would return to earth to interact with believers on an individual basis, of course, and to appear to his followers in dreams and visions, as he did to St. Peter and to John the Beloved Disciple. And he would return in the form of the Eucharist, which every day He transforms into his body and blood. But no more, until the Last Day, would he return to this earth in public, large-scale appearances, and to walk and live among us. From now on, the church would be led by mere human beings, and we ourselves would have to figure out how to conduct ourselves in the world, with only the memory and example of the Lord to guide us.

We often don’t think about the importance of the Ascension- it’s hard for us to relate to the idea of Jesus Christ ascending into heaven, and we tend to forget this feast, coming as it does at a busy time of the year- when farmers are busy planting and weeding crops, and students are busy finishing up the spring semester. But the Church Fathers certainly thought it was important enough to be included in the Creeds. When you think about it, it’s amazing how little the Creeds tell us about Jesus. They don’t mention his teachings, his fasting and temptation, his healing miracles. They tell us only the bare minimum: and among those bare minima, one of the few things the early Church could agree was necessary that all Christians believe, was that ‘he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father’.

The Ascension marks the day that Jesus, the eternally existing Word, consubstantial with the Father, who had taken on a human body for the duration of his 33 years on earth, left our physical, natural and material world behind. He ascended into a realm which was supra-physical, supernatural, and supra-material. It’s important to note that that realm, the kingdom of heaven, is spiritual not in the sense of being unnatural, or extranatural, but being supernatural. It doesn’t exist outside the laws of nature, and of physics, so much as it transcends them. Jesus, as he is in heaven, as we will be someday, is not bound by the limits of his physical body, but nor is he separated from it. The kingdom of heaven is a place where the material is obedient and in perfect harmony with the spiritual, and where the spirit can take on different material and physical appearances as it pleases. Jesus appeared in a disguised form to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he then appeared in his real human body, and then vanished from their sight: “And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.” His risen, incorruptible body was ethereal enough to pass through walls and appear in the midst of a locked room: “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut..…came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.” Yet it was also real enough, material enough, and physical enough to desire food, and to bear the marks of the crucifixion. It would be fair to call such a risen, glorified body, not insubstantial so much as supersubstantial. At every moment, it existed and displayed exactly those physical properties that Jesus called on it to display. It was matter, not in opposition to spirit, but in perfect obedience to it.

How could such a risen body, spiritual and yet physical, answering to the laws of physics and of nature at some times but not at others, leave us behind? That’s an almost impossible question to answer, because it is equivalent to asking: how can something that exists as part of the material world, become something supernatural and immaterial? How can something be material and spiritual at the same time? What sort of transition could take place between those two worlds, the worlds of the perceptible, the tangible, the world of solid stones, wet water, burning fire, and the world of the ethereal, the misty, the intangible? To have remained on earth forever would be to be unfaithful to Christ’s divine nature, for surely it was fitting that he who had existed for ever in heaven, begotten of the Father before all worlds were made, should return to the heaven that was his rightful place. Yet to simply disappear from heaven, to blot his material body out of existence and return to a purely spiritual form, would be to be unfaithful to His human nature, for as we expect the resurrection of our bodies some day, so should Christ, the prototype of our resurrections.

The glorified and incorruptible body into which he was resurrected solved part of this problem; for it left Christ spiritual first and foremost, but with a material body when he chose to have one. The Ascension solves the other part of this problem: it allowed Christ to gradually withdraw himself from this material world of ours, fading away smaller and smaller, until he was imperceptible to the eyes of his followers: yet never, at any distinct moment, failing to have a physical body. Who knows the exact moment at which He ceased any longer to be materially present in this world, and returned to heaven? It can’t be pinpointed, any more then we can pinpoint the exact moment in the Mass when the wine ceases to be wine and becomes the blood of God. All that matters is that when Christ vanished from the skies, he did so beyond the sight of the Apostles; no man would ever be able to say that they saw Christ disappear for good. And like all other things he did, it was for a reason. He didn’t want anyone to say that they had seen Christ leave this material world behind. For in truth, he hasn’t left it behind: he is present invisibly in the Eucharist, he is present as he speaks to us in our hours of prayer, our hours of pain, our hours of despair, and he is present watching over us, weeping with us in our suffering and sharing in our joys. Christ wanted the last image of him to be burned indelibly on the minds of those who had seen him leave: the image of him watching over them in the skies, lifted up on clouds, carried by the wings of angels, just like the angel’s wings with which Satan had tempted him when he stood on the pinnacle of Herod’s Temple.

The Ascension is the answer to how Christ can be absent from us and yet present with us. As he rose into the clouds, the apostles could see his presence, and could see that he still existed as part of this material world, incarnate as he had been made incarnate at Bethlehem: yet every second he was drawing further and further away from them. When does a curve reach its asymptote? The answer, of course, is never. This wasn’t true of Christ, for at some point he must have left this material world behind: if earth and the physical universe are distinct from heaven, and we have the assurance Christ is in heaven, then he can’t anymore be present on earth in the same sense he was present then. Yet at the same time he is present in a deeper sense; he retains the power to work through us, to appear to us, to make present his body and blood in the eucharist, when we ask for it, just as he retains the power to appear in physical form as he appeared to John as a slain lamb. He isn’t outside of nature, he is over and above it, and can enter it again when He chooses: and indeed, we have the assurance that he will enter it again at the end of all things, just before, through him, a new and better nature is given to us.

This is part of the meaning of the Ascension: that Our Lord withdrew himself gradually instead of vanishing, because he had such love for us that he wanted to make sure we remembered him slowly rising away from us, not simply leaving us behind: he wanted our last sight of him to be of a glorified body rising higher and higher, becoming smaller to our eyes even as he became greater and more glorious in reality. He savored every moment that he spent with his disciples, and rose up slowly into the clouds, rather then suddenly disappearing, because he longed to spend his last few moments in material form looking upon us, and because he couldn’t bear to quickly and suddenly leave his friends and disciples. As he was lifted upwards into the clouds, preparing to leave behind material form and enter heaven, his last sight was of the apostles looking up at him in praise and awe, and his first act, from heaven, was to send two angels to reassure the apostles, and to remind them that He would one day come again in glory. This was the last image that our Lord gave us to remember him by, and this Ascensiontide, let’s remember the way that our Lord chose to leave us: rising into the skies, wrapped in clouds, hovering over the Mount of Olives from which he had foretold the end of all things, looking down on the Garden of Gethsemane, with his eyes fixed upon those whom he had called friends, whom he would continue guiding and watching over, from his seat in heaven, for the rest of their lives.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lady Julian of Norwich: May all men be saved?

Yesterday, Saturday, was the feast day of Lady Juliana of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a well-known piece of literature in the English language, her 'Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love', which were a big hit in the fourteenth century, and are still read today.

She had a number of rather heterodox ideas, and in retrospect it's interesting that she wasn't called to account by the church hierarchy. Perhaps they couldn't; she was a nun of unquestionable virtue and saintliness, and her 'Revelations', which she claimed were accounts of direct experiences with Jesus Christ, had the ring of something compelling.

One of the ideas she was known for, is her hope that at the end of time, all men- perhaps all beings- would be saved. She claimed that Christ Himself had said to her, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," implying that at the end of time sin, hell, and death would cease to exist. She made it clear, though, that she couldn't be _sure_ that all would be saved, and her universalism was strictly a 'hopeful' universalism.

Many people would like to agree with Lady Julian on this. The problem comes, of course, when we set her testimony against the testimony of so many other mystics, who said that they had seen visions of a literal and fiery Hell. Now I happen to be a person who sets great store by the experiences of mystics and visionaries. Indeed, this is (in my mind) one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and for the existence of the supernatural. But if we are to credit the argument from mystical experience, that means that we are bound to credit that the people who wrote the 'Apocalypse of Paul', or the three children of Fatima, had as much claim to have genuinely experienced the supernatural as Lady Julian. Is there some way, then, that they could both be right? Can Lady Julian's hopeful universalism be reconciled with the vivid visions of hell that so many other mystics through the ages- Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and those of other faiths- claimed to see?

I'm not sure how to reconcile these two points of view- the torments of hell, and the belief that all may be saved- but I think reconciliation is possible. The key lies in a verse from today's scripture reading, in which St. John tells us of heaven, that "its gates shall never be shut by day, and there shall be no night there" (Revelation 21:25). The gates of the city of God are never closed, once the judgment has happened, and 'there shall be no more night.' Heaven is always open to those, even in the depths of hell, who truly repent. We are told that on Holy Saturday, Christ descended into hell to preach to the damned, and broke open the gates of hell that they might be saved. If he did it once, he could do it again.

The early Christian literature is replete with visions of Hell, attributed to Peter, Paul, the Mother of God, and others. These visions are terrifyingly graphic, and depict sinners being tormented in all kinds of creative ways for a multitude of sins. People who dressed immodestly, who took interest on loans, who carried out abortions, who committed sins like murder and robbery, each being punished in a way befitting their sin. The style and conviction of these visionary writings is compelling, and they appear to be genuine accounts of mystical visions; whether or not these people really saw hell, they clearly saw something. And if you give credence to the argument from mystical experience, as I do, then you're more or less bound to believe that these people really saw, in some sense and in some degree, visions of hell. Hell is an unfortunate but inescapable reality.

But just as graphic, horrific and terrifying the pictures of the torments of hell that these writers give us, equally powerful and compelling is their insistence that in some measure, the mercy of God penetrates even to Hell, and that even death and damnation do not mark a final and irrevocable break with God. One of the most common themes in the visionary literature of the early Christian and the medieval periods is that God's mercy is not absent even in hell. The writer of the 'Apocalypse of Paul' has the narrator praying to Jesus for intercession for the damned, and Jesus responding to his prayers by granting all sinners in hell a respite from suffering on every Easter Day forever. As the writer puts it:

"Yet now because of Michael the archangel of my covenant and the angels that are with him, and because of Paul my dearly beloved whom I would not grieve. and because of your brethren that are in the world and do offer oblations, and because of your sons, for in them are my commandments, and yet more because of mine own goodness: on that day whereon I rose from the dead I grant unto all you that are in torment refreshment for a day and a night for ever."

The writers of the other two apocalypses say something similar; one of the common themes of the medieval visionary literature was that the mercy of God was such that He would allow the damned little 'vacations' from hell, respites from their suffering, and one even claimed to have seen Judas, on such a vacation, out in the Atlantic Ocean.

If we accept the visions of Hell we also have to acccept the visions of God's infinite mercy. I believe that His mercy is truly infinite, and that even in hell, if anyone is truly repentant, and truly wants to be with God, their wish will not be denied. St. John tells us that the gates of heaven will never be closed, and never means never. Anyone who wishes it- even after death, even in hell- may, I think, be saved.

But will everyone truly wish it? I don't know. With Julian of Norwich, I hope so. But I think the answer is no. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it, and I believe that there will be some who choose hell, even unto the rest of eternity, rather then submit to God and to the fire of his love. Dostoyevsky said that hell was the condition of being unable to love, and there will be some that are so wrapped up in themselves, so drunk on their own pride and self-absorption, that as horrible as the pains of hell are, they still prefer them to the joys of heaven. The apocryphal 'Gospel of Peter', written around the end of the first century, tells us of the Roman soldiers who witnessed the dying Christ forgive the repentant thief hanging next to him on the cross. Seeing this immense, inconceivable act of mercy, they weren't overcome by love but rather by hate, and 'they resolved that there should be no leg breaking, that he should die tormented.' There are some, even in this world, who respond to love by becoming even more embroiled in hate, in pride, and in impotent selfishness. This is, perhaps, the inner meaning of all those cryptic references in the story of the Exodus to how God 'hardened Pharaoh's heart': not by design, but by the free choice of Pharaoh.

We can, then, believe in hell as a place from which redemption is possible, but not assured: hoping with Julian that all will be saved, but recognizing that it is quite possible that some may choose not to be. For God honours our choices to the end: and perhaps for those who choose hell, as painful and horrible as it is, it is less painful to them then the fiery love of God would be; and maybe, in this sense, it is true that 'all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well'. And above all, we should remember, that when we talk about sin and separation from God, we should talk first and foremost about ourselves. We should never talk about hell and death without remembering what Paul said, and applying it to ourselves: that 'this is a true saying, and worthy to be received: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the chief.'

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Tree of Life: Reflections on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

This Sunday’s reading, from the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5).

“And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.

“And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.

“And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

“And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.”

This is one of the richest, most beautiful, and most vivid passages in Scripture. In it, St. John gives us his vision of Heaven, and of the everlasting City of God which awaits us in the world to come. He describes- as well as anyone can describe that which is inherently indescribable- the beauty and splendour of that City. St. Paul said of heaven, that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him,” and again he said that in his journey to the third heaven, he saw things “which it is not lawful for a man to utter,” but nevertheless St. John gives us a sense, and a kind of foretaste, of what Heaven will be like. Many homilies, paintings, songs, stories, and creative imaginings could be based on every single one of the sentences in this passage (and indeed, the passage is just a short excerpt from the much longer discourse on heaven in these two chapters.) How much we could write just about a single image, say that “the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl.” But I can’t write about everything in this haunting and beautiful mystical passage. I’ll just say a little about one particular image, this one: “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

The Christian story is a story based around the icon of the tree. It begins with the Fall of Man, during which our first parents ate of the tree of knowledge, and became liable to sin, hell and death. It ends with our return to paradise, and our vision of the Tree of Life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, one for every month of the year. In between, of course, stands a third tree, that on which all else depends, the Tree of the Cross; in his sermon to the people of Jerusalem, Peter preached about Jesus “whom ye slew and hanged on a tree”. The parallels between these three trees were remarked on by the early Christians: the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, possibly drawing on ancient traditions from the first century, envisioning Christ’s descent into Hell on Holy Saturday to free the souls in prison, says “O Prince Satan, possessor of the keys of the lower regions, all your riches which you had acquired by the tree of transgression….you have now lost by the tree of the cross.” Between these three trees, the whole of the Christian story, and its explanation of why we suffer from sin, evil, and death, and of how we can eventually triumph over them, unfolds.

Genesis is a myth, of course- we know now that humans and other animals were not ‘created’ in their current form, but evolved from other life forms, in a chain going back to the first life on earth. But then, it wasn’t intended to be read as literal fact. The early church fathers saw Genesis as authoritative because Christ quoted from them and because they prophecied Christ, not because they provided a factual account of the origins of the world. All that matters for the purpose of the Christian story is that at some point in the history of life, God gifted some highly developed primates, products of a long history of biological evolution, with rational and spiritual faculties, and that almost immediately they chose to use those faculties to rebel and assert mastery over their own lives, instead of submitting to God. The whole of the Christian story takes off from there.

This point in the story- the end of our earthly story, and the beginning of a whole new, and better, and greater story, centers around the Tree of Life. The tree of life made an appearance at the beginning of the Bible, just after the Fall of Man, when God has pronounced judgment on the first humans, and also foretold the coming of Christ. He then expels them from the garden, “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” Ross Douthat, the conservative Catholic writer, elaborates on this line, and how it hints, in an intriguing way, that death could be a gift as much as a punishment. “[this] could be read as a suggestion that the only thing worse than a life corrupted by sin is an eternal life corrupted by sin.”

But we should never forget that though we are not ready for the tree of life now, and though we need to die in order to truly live, we will be ready for it someday. The day will come when we are ready to “eat, and live for ever”, and when we will be allowed to taste of that fruit which was forbidden to us once. The day will come when we are allowed to “enter in through the gates into the city”, not jumping over the fence as a robber, but invited in as permanent and everlasting guests. C.S. Lewis, in his beautiful children’s book “The Magician’s Nephew,” gives us the beautiful image of the tree of life as encased in a garden: it yields its fruit to whoever will take it, but to those who enter through the gates and take of its fruit for others will find it sweet to the taste, and conferring long years of happy and fulfilling life; those who steal it, and take it at the wrong time and for the wrong reason, will “find their heart’s desire, and find despair.”

The tree of life epitomizes all that is beautiful in heaven, and that’s why St. John takes it as his icon of the afterlife. Like the branches of a tree, heaven is a place where we will keep becoming more and more unique, more and more individual, more and more different in healthy and good ways from one another. The branches of a tree divide and ramify into twigs bearing little leaves; in a similar way, our existence in heaven will be a deeply individual existence. It won’t be a place where we are all dissolved into a formless ocean, where we become little sparks of light incorporated into the one Light, or where we are simply ‘remembered’ to eternity by God, as some have thought. As every branch of a tree is a unique module by itself, so in heaven we will continue to be unique individuals, becoming more and more ourselves then we ever were on earth.

But the tree of life isn’t merely a symbol, it tells us that there will be real trees in heaven, more beautiful and more amazing even than the most beautiful trees of earth. Most of us have planted trees, at some point in our lives, and watched them grow, and those of us who have, can appreciate the pleasure we get out of watching our trees grow. The seedlings rise up through the dark soil; there is no light around for them to strive towards, but they can sense the presence of gravity. Plant roots have dense starch grains contained in little organelles, and the function of the starch grains is to sink in response to a gravity gradient. The plants can tell which direction is ‘down’, even if they can’t perceive the presence of light, and they grow upwards, away from gravity. Later they break through the soil surface, at least if it’s not too hard and unyielding, and enter into the bright and sunlit world. If they experience a gentle environment- partly shaded, well watered, not too fiercely cold or hot, with enough nutrients in the soil- they grow upward, towards the sun, getting taller and spreading out. Almost immediately we see the young leaves, often reddish in the first flush of their youth, then turning to a deep green, a vivid and rich green, the green of chlorophyll. Individual leaves live out their lifespan, turning yellowish and then fading and dying as the nitrogen and other nutrients in them is absorbed and recycled to new leaves; and newer leaves succeed older ones, all carrying out the same function of catching light and using that light energy to produce food for the plant. Eventually we see the seedling branch out, and divide. We see the green sapling begin to produce wood, the pliable young stem become firm and tough, We see the development of tough and dry bark, we see the tree grow to the height of our knee, our waist, our chest, above our head; we see it begin to produce flowers- white flowers, pink flowers, blue flowers- and then fruits. We see it, at last, become full grown- maybe in our children’s time or our grandchildren’s time. Many trees can live for decades or centuries, some of them even thousands of years.

The happiness that we get from seeing our tree grow is the happiness of seeing the process of life unfold, and witnessing the miracles that evolution has given us through plants and what they do. It’s something akin to the happiness that God experiences when he sees his children unfold their destinies, learn and grow, become greater in virtue and love. What an amazing thing the green plant is; Shakespeare said, “what a piece of work is man?”, but the same could be asked of green plants as well. Green plants are the workhorses of life on this planet. They convert the light of the sun into usable chemical energy, and they convert the gases of the air into food sugars, and they incorporate dissolved nitrogen in the soil into proteins. The plant leaf, thin and flat, exposed to the sun, often (in many species) changing its angle depending on the hour of the day, is perfectly built for catching energy, allowing water to escape and carbon dioxide to be dissolved. Flowers, for their part, are in many cases nearly perfectly adapted to the needs of their pollinators- bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, bats, in a few cases even bizarre situations like rodent pollination. The depth and angle of the flower, the colors of the petals and sepals, the height of the anthers, are exquisitely adapted to allow for pollination to happen and for pollen to spread to other flowers of the same species. The scents of flowers and tastes of fruits can be wonderful sensations, and God promises us that what evolution has done on this earth, he will replicate for us in heaven, but at an even higher and better level.

Do you love the feel of the resins on a pine tree, sticking to your hands and drying to aromatic, yellowish-brown beads? Heaven will have trees like that, but even better. Do you like the scent of magnolia flowers and cherry blossoms in the springtime? Heaven will have trees like that, even more beautifully perfumed. Do you love the grayish, almost blue color of a blue spruce tree? Heaven will have trees like that. Do you like the reds and oranges of maple trees in the fall? There will be reds and oranges like that in heaven, and the pink of the cherry and magnolia and dogwood flowers in spring, too, for there will be seasons there; as it is said, “[she] yielded her fruit every month”. Do you like the euphorbias of the tropics, with almost no leaves, with succulent green stems that bleed white latex when you break them? Do you like the swollen baobab trees, that store water in there trunks, whose crumbly soft wood the mushrooms grow on when the trees die? Do you like the bristlecone pines of the southwestern desert, that can live for up to 5,000 years, and some of which are alive today, and were alive when Christ walked on earth? Do you like the flamboyant trees of Madagascar, planted all over the tropics today, with their brilliant red flowers like a particularly feverish sunset? Do you like the fig trees of the tropics and subtropics, each of whose inflorescence contains a myriad of hidden and enclosed flowers, inside of which the male fig wasps live out nearly their whole life cycles? Do you like the moringa trees, with their edible leaflets, contained on finely divided leaves like feathers? Do you like the citrus trees, which can be grafted with related species such that they really do, like the tree of life, bear more than one kind of fruit? Do you like the apple trees, with their fruits ranging from sweet to tart to crisp tastes, from brown to green to red in color? Do you like the trees of the rain forests, which support little bromeliads (in the pineapple family) on their trunks, that get all their nutrients from dust carried by the air and the rain? Do you like the trees of the north, with their ability to survive temperatures down to 60 degrees below zero? Do you like the way the trees of the winter regions can evacuate the water in their cells of all dust and impurities, and allow it to stay liquid at temperatures well below freezing, because its near purity will keep ice crystals from having any surface on which to form? Do you like the way other trees can allow water to be withdrawn from their cells as it freezes, so that the cells stay unfrozen even as ice forms outside them? Heaven will have trees as beautiful, and as wondrous, as all these, and even more.

A third century Christian text called the ‘Apocalypse of Paul’, probably drawing on earlier visionary experiences and traditions, goes into more detail of what the trees of heaven will look like. The writer sees date trees, with branches dividing into clusters, and clusters into dates: “From the root of each tree up to its heart there were ten thousand branches with tens of thousands of clusters, [and there were ten thousand clusters on each branch,] and there were ten thousand dates in each cluster…..And there were other trees there, myriads of myriads of them, and their fruit was in the same proportion.” Some ecologists nowadays tell us that this isn’t a bad structural model for the way many plants are built: they consist of ‘fractal’ structures in which a main stem divides into two or three smaller stems, each of those divides into two or three smaller stems, and so on, with each point of division involving a similar proportion of daughter to mother stems, or branches, or veins. Think of a parsley stem, for example. That a pseudonymous writer in the early Christian era would anticipate something that no one really thought about for many centuries afterward does suggest that he really had some kind of vision and insight into the hidden nature of things, and in itself suggests there was some core of genuine supernatural experience behind this vision, and that perhaps we should take the writings of this and other mystics seriously.

But more important to our point, the writer of the Apocalypse of Paul is telling us that the order, and proportion, and beauty, and fertility, of trees and other living things on this earth are just pale shadows of the order and proportion and beauty and fertility in heaven. The trees of heaven will have more fruit then any tree could bear on this earth, and will be better proportioned, and more beautiful. All the beauty that we see around us in this world is a foretaste and a signpost towards the beauties of heaven; the wonders of nature on this earth are foretastes of the wonders of transformed, resurrected, transfigured nature in heaven. As St. Paul tells us of our own bodies, “It is sown corruptible, it is raised incorruptible”, and so it is with all good things in this world, including plants and animals.

We live in a world of shadows, like the benighted cavemen in Plato’s cave, and though we can see the shadows, which are real things and pretty in our way, we can only imagine what the substance behind the shadow must look like. For the existence of a shadow testifies to the existence of the substance, and from the existence of partial and imperfect good we can infer the existence of pure and total goodness. Which makes it all the more necessary that we treasure and cherish those rare moments in human history, including but not limited to this powerful and beautiful vision that was vouchsafed to St. John the Apostle, the best friend and adopted brother of our Lord, as he laboured in the mines of a Roman prison colony, in which individuals were given flashes of insight into the nature of heaven and allowed to share that vision with others. We walk in a world that is often dark, bitter, and lonely, and to have hope, which is a theological virtue as well as an existential necessity, we need to know what we are hoping for: as the Creed tells us, “We look to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” We don’t know what the life of the world to come will be like, but we can and do know that it will be better then anything we can imagine, and that it will have trees in it, lots of trees, more amazing and more beautiful then the most beautiful tree of this earth- in its shape, its structure, its height, its scent, its leaves, its flowers- could ever be.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Death Shall Be No More: Reflections on the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Last Sunday’s reading, from the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:1-6).

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
“And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done! I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”

This beautiful vision of the new heaven and earth is a favourite of the Christian liturgical calendar, and is often included in the readings. It is read liturgically (during some years) on All Saints' Day (Nov 1), on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28th), on this fifth sunday of Easter, and during the Burial Service. It’s included in this Sunday’s reading, probably, because it speaks of renewal: “Behold, I make all things new,” or in Latin, “Ecce, omnia nova facio.” But it’s included in those other feasts (one of which is concerned with the afterlife, and the other with a particularly tragic episode of martyrdom) and in the Burial Service, most probably, because it speaks of victory over death.

Death is the most basic and ultimate reality in our lives. It is the one thing that can’t be denied, nor escaped. All of us, as children, go through a particularly painful and traumatic stage when we realize, for the first time, that our lives are finite, and that we are going to die. Yet there’s no getting around it. And from the beginning of human history, the minds of thoughtful people, and the hearts and souls of sensitive people, have been captivated and tormented by the challenge of death. The great French scientist and mystic Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not material beings leading a spiritual existence, we are spiritual beings leading a material existence.” But more then that, we are creatures of the infinite leading a finite existence: creatures who were meant for eternity, leading an earthly existence which terminates, inevitably, in the grave.

My priest back home likes to tell the story of one Cyril Alington, headmaster of Eton College, who was once asked by a particularly annoying and stupid parent, “So, Mr. Alington, in a word, what are you preparing my son for?” His answer was short and to the point: “In a word, madam? Death.” How true. Any worldview or philosophy- and there have been many- which seeks to evade the reality of death, is in the end futile and sterile.

There are many ways to deal with death that people throughout history have chosen. One of the most common- and from a Christian point of view, the worst and most opposed to morality and decency- is to see life as a contest of strength, in which death is the penalty paid out to the losers. Lots of warlords, kings, big businessmen, and other ‘successful’ people throughout history have taken this view: it’s one that appeals to the winners, not so much to the losers. Of course, it’s based on a lie: for if death is the loser’s hand, then all of us are losers in the end, and whether it comes for us in one year or after fifty, does it much matter? A much less immoral- but still incorrect- way to view death is as simply a part of life- the end, to be seen as neither good nor evil but simply a fact of the world. This was the path taken by people like the Stoics. Finally there are those who have seen in physical death the ultimate evil, and have tried to avoid it by any means necessary. This has really become popular, and feasible, since the invention of modern medicine that allows us to extend life longer and longer. But even before the invention of modern medicine, people _tried_ to extend their lives through all sorts of bizarre and sometimes creepy means. Through fruitless quests for the Fountain of Youth, through drinking rejuvenating tonics made from animals and plants, and through magical rites. Mr. Aldous Huxley’s book, “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” portrays, witheringly to my mind, the ultimately unnatural and dehumanizing (in a very literal sense) logical outcome of the quest for earthly immortality.

The long and sad history of people trying to evade death through medical and magical means, nevertheless says something about our natures. It says that at some level we recoil from death, and crave to be eternal. And that in turn suggests that what we are seeking for actually exists, though at a different level than the prophets of 200-year life spans have been looking for. Though the people who strive to radically extend the human lifespan are doing something wrong, the thirst that they are seeking to quench is a real thirst, which suggests that it was intended to be really quenched in some way. If we found a fish suffocating on dry land, it would be reasonable to conclude that lakes and oceans existed, even if we had never seen one; if we found a keyhole in a door, it would be reasonable to conclude that keys really existed. Pascal said that ‘at the center of each heart is a God-shaped vacuum’, from which we can infer that God himself must exist, for why would the vacuum exist unless there were a real object for which it was striving? In the same way, the human thirst for eternity and immortality is a hint that beyond this life, eternity and immortality really do exist.

We don’t know what life would have been like in an unfallen world, but death as we know it is an expression of our fallen nature. In the Christian worldview it isn’t simply a good thing, a neutral thing, or a bad thing: it is all of the above. It’s a bad thing in that it separates two things, body and soul, that were never meant to be separated, and in that it causes the tearing apart of human loves and relationships. As it separates body and soul, so it also separates us from those we love, and from the world we know, and plunges us into the great void of the unknown and the unknowable. Death is a tragedy: we are told that when he saw the death of Lazarus, “Jesus began to weep.” We don’t know why, since he was even then preparing to raise Lazarus in just a few minutes; but perhaps we aren’t intended to know why. Like many other things, it’s a mystery.

But in a way, death is also a good thing, for as Christ tells us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give up his life for his friends,” and the corollary of this is that a world without death would be a world without sacrifice, and therefore a world without love. This is how we know, incidentally, that Christ was really a man as well as God, because if he had not really lived as a man he could not really have died, and his sacrifice could not have been perfect. Death is the greatest limitation to our lives, and as the essence of our human nature is limitation, to seek to avoid death is to seek to make ourselves less human. Simone Weil said that death can be seen not just as a result of the Fall but also as an amelioration of it: “Man placed himself outside the current of obedience….consequently, labour and death, if man undergoes them in a spirit of willingness, constitute a transference back into the current of supreme good, which is obedience to God.” Death is one of the key moments in our lives when, if we accept it willingly and humbly submit to it, we can strip ourselves of the pride and rebellion that caused our separation from God in the first place. Original sin consisted in seeing ourselves as masters of our own destinies: submission to death is the ultimate expression of the idea that we are _not_ masters of our own destinies, and the ultimate expression of the sentiment of our Lord, when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be thy will, take this cup away from me; nevertheless thy will, not mine, be done.” This is a sentiment that some of the most thoughtful minds in history have at some level perceived: as Shakespeare said, “Nothing in his life became him as the leaving of it.”

Yet we should remember that inasmuch as there are good things about death, they are only secondarily good. Death is a necessary part of life on earth, so necessary that Christ himself had to go through it; as he said, “whoever loses his life for my sake shall gain it.” But this is a result of our fallen world, and in the world to come, unfallen and perfect, there shall be no death, not now and not ever. “Death shall be no more….for the former things have passed away.” As long as this world exists, and as long as life exists on it, there must be death; St. Paul tells us that death will be “the last enemy to be destroyed.” But we have the promise that there will be a new world, not only without death, but without sorrow: “Neither shall there be any more pain….”.

We cannot achieve the fountain of life by ourselves, and merely to try, in this life, is immoral and irreligious. We are not intended to be immortal, and to try and escape from death is to try and escape from our human limitations, which is the essence of sin. But we are promised that what we cannot do for ourselves, God will do for us: “To him who is athirst for the water of the fountain of life, I will freely give,” and again he says, "Whosoever shall drink of the water that I give him shall never thirst...". The Latin version here uses the emphatic pronoun, ‘ego’: Jesus here is stressing not just that we will receive immortality, but that He Himself will give it to us. “Ex aqua quam ego dabo ei.....” In the end, no matter what we suffer in this world, no matter what the pain and sorrow of our life and the horror of our death, Christ the Lamb will recompense us. For he is truly the good shepherd, who will lead us to drink of living waters, and of him who is the Water of Life, and once we have drunk of that we shall never thirst again.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.