As I write this, we are on the eve of the first anniversary of my mother’s death. The last in a year of firsts. I know I’m not alone in this — just in my circles alone, I know SO many people who have lost a loved one this year. It has been a rough year for a lot of us.
Of course, whenever we lose a loved one, we spend a lot of time asking the question: Where is she now? What is she doing? Can she see me? What will it be like when I see her again?
The mystery of what happens after death is perpetual, but it becomes much more personal when we lose a loved one. My mom was the eighth of 10 siblings to die — 10 siblings who loved each other a lot and had a lot of fun when they were together. So, at our family reunion last summer, we spent a lot of time speculating about whether they are all together again, and what they are all doing. Being a German family, we figured they are all up in Heaven doing what they loved to do best — drinking beer, playing cards, telling stories and dancing to old time music. Only now, mom and the aunts have glorified bodies with intact bladders, which means they can dance all they like without having to change their clothes.
It’s fun to speculate about what Heaven is like. We imagine they are doing whatever it was they loved to do best — just as we imagine that when we get there, we will do what we love to do best. Horseback riding, dancing, storytelling — we figure that whatever we love here on earth will be Heaven to us.
But, of course, we know we’re just speculating. St. Paul himself told us that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor 2:9). We project the best things we can possibly imagine because, well, we can’t imagine any better. But what is there must be even better. Because, let’s face it, we can’t imagine anything that would keep us happy for all eternity. Endlessly dancing the polka would get tiresome.
It all reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
We are the children in the slums, and we imagine Heaven will consist in making mud pies, because our experience limits our imaginations. Heaven is the ultimate “holiday by the sea,” but because we have never experienced it, we can’t fathom it.
I was inspired to write on this particular subject by a quote from Maria Von Trapp that I read in last month’s Magnificat. I can’t tell you the exact quote, because I absent-mindedly threw the magazine away at the end of the month. But what she said was simple: in Heaven, we will “know” in a completely different way. We will possess “infused” knowledge — knowledge of we-know-not-what, we-can’t-possibly-imagine that is not learned, but directly placed within us by the Holy Spirit.
My mom has infused knowledge! (Or she will, as soon as I pray her out of purgatory. See? So much about the “other side” is mysterious.) If my mom is in Heaven, she is playing in an entirely different league, operating in an entirely different realm, that I cannot possibly begin to imagine. That is such a gigantic leap for my brain to make. My mom!! This frail woman, whose well-being was so largely my responsibility for so many years, now no longer needs me. In fact, I am free to need her in an entirely new way. She still loves me, she still sees me, she still prays for me. Only she can do it all in this brand new, completely unfathomable way. And your loved ones can do the same.
We know that the ultimate happiness in Heaven comes from beholding the face of God. Again, it’s hard to imagine how that would fill us for all eternity. But apparently that is what we were made for. And, given that Scripture tells us that we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses,” apparently they can behold the face of God while also loving us, praying for us, and cheering us on.
I still hope and believe that my mom and her family are reunited in Heaven. We hear so many stories of people seeing their departed loved ones just before they die. I love the thought that her parents and brothers and sisters came to her in that frozen yard and accompanied her into the next life. But as to what happened after that? “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard …“
But I’m betting it’s pretty fabulous.