Looking to Heaven Brings Blessings to Earth

In Catholic tradition, three senses of Scripture—the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical—are built upon the foundation of the literal sense. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 117, in the anagogical sense we “view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us to our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.” When I read these words years ago, what dawned on me was that, in my own ministry, in different contexts and affiliations, I had given short shrift not only to the anagogical sense of Scripture but also to the subject of heaven in general. Upon reflecting on my neglect of the latter, I realized I wasn’t alone among those in Christian leadership, and though the reasons for this omission are diverse, in my case, one came to the fore.

When a priest or pastor, who really cares about his flock, looks out at them on a Sunday morning, there sometimes is a tendency to focus on their immediate needs—difficulties in marriage, family, work, finances, friendships, etc.—and how to help them in the present moment. It’s a kind of Homiletics of the Now. As a young pastor in an evangelical—charismatic church, I was also told that if you wanted your church to grow, you would tailor the Sunday service to the unchurched and focus on these “kitchen table” issues.

If a Catholic priest discovers that one of the readings for the next Mass is Colossians 3: 1-2 (NAB)—“If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on the earth”—he may be tempted to gloss over it lightly and emphasize the readings that are not so otherworldly. He may not want to lead his flock to the ethereal mists of heaven when they need help in their quotidian worlds.

This makes perfect sense if, as Peter Kreeft says in Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, “…we conceive of the end—truth, goodness, beauty, eternity, or heaven—as static and abstract rather than dynamic and concrete.” He adds: “It is not eternity but time that is abstract, as a surface is an abstract aspect of a concrete three-dimensional solid, and the solid itself is an abstract aspect of an historical event in which it is involved.” Thus the pastor, priest, or Christian leader who fully engages Colossians 3: 1-2 is really taking his flock away from the abstract and static to the concrete and dynamic. Too see things any other way is to have a misguided Anagogical Imagination—an erroneous perception of the Church’s teaching on heaven.

Some Christian leaders I’ve known have opined that too much focus on heaven would diminish the importance of social justice. They don’t want to become so heavenly-minded that they would be no earthly good. C.S. Lewis debunks this kind of thinking in Mere Christianity: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.”

One could add to the list all the heavenly-minded Catholics who have led the way in building orphanages and hospitals all over the world; many devout Christians who marched for civil rights in America in the 1950s and ’60s; and, thirdly, many believers who are out ahead in the arenas of charitable giving and volunteerism whose generosity has been chronicled in the seminal book by Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Perhaps those who are occupied with eternity more readily take up Christ’s agenda of seeing his Father’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

C.S. Lewis confessed that heaven (what he called “Joy”) was constantly on his mind and lamented how little it was discussed even among believers. Jesus didn’t avoid the topic: his sayings are sprinkled liberally with references to both heaven and hell. What’s sometimes overlooked is that some of his most famous words, the Beatitudes, that begin his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, have an eschatological tilt. Biblical theologians Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch are accurate in pointing out that the ten verses “announce that the blessings of the New Covenant will be fully realized in heaven. Some do promise blessings that are partly enjoyed in this life, but all of them look beyond the struggles and hardships of this life to the eternal blessedness of the life to come (Mt. 5:11-12).” Jesus sums up the general upshot of the Beatitudes in verse 12 by exhorting his listeners to “rejoice and be glad because their reward is great in heaven…”

To assert that we live in a post-Christian age in the West, is as self-evident as saying that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Reticence about heaven among Christian leadership is to cooperate with the prevailing Zeitgeist that is executing its eclipse. Cultivating an Anagogical Imagination is one way to be counter-cultural and stand prophetically against a corrosive materialism that reduces all of reality down to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics.

A small beginning of a wish list promoting the spread of the analogical imagination in Christendom is not difficult to generate. As a practicing Catholic I’d love to see a theologically and pastorally substantive papal encyclical on heaven and a much longer treatment of the doctrine in the Catechism. More great books on the market like Lewis’s The Great Divorce and the two excellent books by Peter Kreeft would be welcomed. Evangelical Protestant Randy Alcorn has received glowing reviews for his In the Light of Eternity. Seminaries that are rooted in orthodoxy—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—could have an entire class on the subject, not just a single class session during the required course on Systematic Theology. Ditto for undergraduate programs who could have something like a senior seminar. Priests, pastors, and Christian leaders would work a little harder on their exegesis of texts related to heaven and the education ministries of local churches would be more intentional in underscoring its importance. Seminars, conferences, and retreats related to spiritual direction would integrate the analogical imagination into their teaching and practice. Dozens of other suggestions could be added to this list.

A second wish list could be created that reflects the effects of the first wish list on the spirituality of both the ordained priesthood and the lay priesthood. A small beginning of a best-case scenario might look something like this:

Believers would understand and put into practice the truth that they have a dual citizenship. We are in Christ; he is in us. He is seated at the right hand of the Father; therefore we are also “seated in heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6) and “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). This means that we may be a citizen of the U.S. celebrating the Mass on a Sunday morning at Our Lady of Sorrows in Akron, Ohio, but we are also in heaven celebrating the Holy Sacrifice with the saints and countless angels. These realities are true whether we feel them or not. This needs to be emphasized in a feeling-based American culture that puts a new spin on Descartes: “I feel; therefore I am.”

Believers would know that exercising their Anagogical Imaginations will help them with immediate needs in their daily lives. Imagine a man in his early 30s sitting in his backyard alone on a Saturday morning. Many things in his life feel a little out of control: marriage and family life, work, finances, and his health. In his time of meditation he knows he is seated in heavenly places and, because of this, has a renewed understanding of the sovereignty of God. His anxiety begins to give way to peace.

He also has a big decision to make by Monday morning. He has been offered a promotion at work that would mean a substantial raise with more authority and prestige in the company. It would also mean more traveling, longer hours, and a lot less time with his wife and three small children. Because he is seated in heavenly places, he can look at the decision with an eternal perspective and see things through the lens of agape love. It’s a no-brainer: he decides he doesn’t want to sacrifice important relationships on the altar of money and achievement and decides to decline the offer.

Believers would learn to live in the tension of the Already/Not Yet of heaven. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of heaven and the transcendence of the future invaded the present moment with the Incarnation. In one sense heaven is already here, breaking into our lives in many diverse and wonderful ways. A practicing Catholic who prays the Rosary receives graces from heaven from the Queen of Heaven and enjoys a foretaste of the Beatific Vision in the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

In another sense the fullness of heaven is not here yet until we see the Beatific Vision. On this side of eternity we are betrothed to Christ and wear his engagement ring; on the other side we will enter into the fullness of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Put in culinary terms, we get the salad and the appetizer in the Already and then the main course and dessert in the Not Yet. Because, as Lewis says, we were created for the next life, there will always be a “something’s missing” feeling in this life. This dissatisfaction, by the grace of God, can be transformed into Hope that becomes a bridge between the Already and the Not Yet.

Believers would embrace their identities as Detectives of Transcendence. This means that, with the eyes of faith, experiencing the Transcendent not only in the religiously explicit (e.g., Mass, the seven sacraments, the Rosary, the Divine Office, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, etc.) but also in the religiously implicit—in the waitress’s smile, the desert wildflower, and an inspiring, well-crafted movie. The latter is a kind of Sacrament of the Ordinary and becomes more difficult to experience as our culture becomes coarsened and the armies of secularism advance. However, there are always tender shoots of grass that refuse to die and come up through cracks in the broken sidewalk: “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” I’m deeply moved by movies where the protagonist begins in narcissism, but, by the end of the story, is engaged in Christ-like sacrifice for others. Schindler’s List and the great German film, The Lives of Others, come to mind. The main characters become configured to the Passion and the movies become grace-filled pieces of cinematic real estate that have the fragrance of heaven.

In exercising their Anagogical Imaginations, believers would know that they are part of the antidote to the Secular Imagination. The latter, as said before, reduces everything to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. This world, this life, is all there is. When you’re dead, you’re dead. The Humanist Manifesto: “No god will save us; we must save ourselves.” The Anagogical Imagination stands prophetically as a Signpost in a Secular Age pointing to eternity and says, “No, no, no; there’s infinitely more to life than that. There’s Goodness and Beauty and Truth beyond your wildest dreams and a Person who is Beauty and Goodness and Truth who is ever extending his tender mercies to you.”

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Coronation of the Virgin” painted by Diego Velazquez in 1645.

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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