Imagining Heaven, Growing in Hope

On Wednesday, I explored Pope Benedict’s comment, made in Spe Salvi, that the hope-filled aspects of the Christian expectation of the Last Judgement are often overshadowed its dreadful aspects.  To be sure, dread may not be an utterly unreasonable aspect of this expectation.  But I think Benedict’s point is that it should not be the primary way we approach it.  When it is, Benedict says, we’ve lost what’s at the heart of that teaching.

Benedict makes the interesting observation that art may play a role in this.  Though he didn’t point to any examples in his encyclical, I did on Wednesday.  I offered some examples of how some medieval masters represented both the glory of heaven and the pains of hell — and it’s hard to deny that the pains of hell int hese works capture one’s attention a bit more forcefully.  (I think the damned hanging upside-down from the crotch of a monstrous skeleton in hell has to be my favorite.)

My contention (and I think Benedict’s, too) is that it needn’t be that way.  Sure, it may be helpful that we gain a healthy dread of hell from these gruesome images. But isn’t it also possible to present heaven in a way that captures our imagination and fires it with longing to experience it?  Somehow, the examples in yesterday’s post, though they do depict heaven, just don’t seem to do that. 

In a couple of those works, “the elect” of heaven look like a crowd standing around waiting for a bus.  And the primary joy of heaven, other than the fact that you get to wait for the bus naked, seems to be that you avoided being placed on the other side of the picture. 

But the joy of heaven is far more than the fact that you aren’t in hell!

So, how can we nourish our hope for heaven as effectively as those medieval images nourish our dread of hell?  My primary answer is this: Those images of damnation are so effective because of how strongly they engage our imagination.  I think nourishing our hope for heaven will be an exercise of our imagination as well.

This is not a new idea.  One of the most popular works of Christian spirituality of all time is St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life.  Published almost exactly 400 years ago, it remains an extraordinary training guide in holiness, specifically for laypeople.  St. Francis offers many meditations throughout his work, guides to helping his readers pray through the concepts he discusses.  And imagination is a primary tool that he would have use during this meditations.  In one chapter, he advises:

1. Represent to yourself a lovely calm night, when the heavens are bright with innumerable stars: add to the beauty of such a night the utmost beauty of a glorious summer’s day,—the sun’s brightness not hindering the clear shining of moon or stars, and then be sure that it all falls immeasurably short of the glory of Paradise. O bright and blessed country, O sweet and precious place!

2. Consider the beauty and perfection of the countless inhabitants of that blessed country;—the millions and millions of angels, Cherubim and Seraphim; the glorious company of Apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and saints. O blessed company, any one single member of which surpasses all the glory of this world, what will it be to behold them all, to sing with them the sweet Song of the Lamb? They rejoice with a perpetual joy, they share a bliss unspeakable, and unchangeable delights.

3. Consider how they enjoy the Presence of God, Who fills them with the richness of His Vision, which is a perfect ocean of delight; the joy of being for ever united to their Head. They are like happy birds, hovering and singing for ever within the atmosphere of divinity, which fills them with inconceivable pleasures. There each one vies without jealousy in singing the praises of the Creator. “Blessed art Thou for ever, O Dear and Precious Lord and Redeemer, Who dost so freely give us of Thine Own Glory,” they cry; and He in His turn pours out His ceaseless Blessing on His Saints. “Blessed are ye,—Mine own for ever, who have served Me faithfully, and with a good courage.”

 St. Francis de Sales, in other words, wants us to imagine heaven vividly (if through images and metaphors), and to allow our imaginations to nourish in us a desire for it. 

Fast forward 400 years and we see the contemporary Christian band Mercy Me doing the exact same thing in their beautiful 2001 song, “I Can Only Imagine,” which had huge success outside of the exclusively Christian market.  It is entirely devoted to imagining the glory of heaven in strong, concrete, and compelling images:

I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
I can only imagine

Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you Jesus,
Or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in your presence,
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing Halelluja,
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine
I can only imagine

Consider using your imagination the next time you sit down to pray.  Take Francis de Sales or Mercy Me as a guide, or let your imagination take you in a different direction altogether, thinking about the glory to which each of us are called. 

Such an exercise of our imagination can be more than just a pleasant reverie.  It can even be more than spiritual growth.  It can be a matter of our eternal salvation, if we are indeed “saved in hope.”

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