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HomePerspectiveMary Beth BonacciYou can't get to heaven on your own — so stop trying

You can’t get to heaven on your own — so stop trying

Well, I was typing on my phone during Mass again last Sunday. My fellow parishioners must think I’m a terrible heathen. Or at least irreparably screen addicted.

But I’m not. I promise.

In my last column I discussed what heaven will be like. Or rather, how we cannot know what Heaven will be like, so we project our favorite earthly activities onto the eternal realm. I also mentioned, briefly, our belief that the true happiness of heaven lies in beholding the face of God.

I realized later that I wanted to expand on the subject of “beholding the face of God.” I didn’t want to create the impression that God’s face is just something neat-o to look at, and that everybody gets to file by and take a peek just because they had the good fortune to die.

The truth is much more profound.

Of course, God the Father doesn’t exist in human form and therefore doesn’t have a “face” with eyes and a nose. But scripture is full of these references — because we are human and understand things in human terms. Beholding God’s “face” essentially means beholding his glory, his essence, his true reality. In the book of Exodus, when Moses asks God to show him his glory, God’s response is telling: “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20).

God’s glory is so overwhelming that to look upon it directly would kill us.

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This, of course, is not an issue in the afterlife, as the subjects have already passed on. But the nature of his glory doesn’t change. Timothy says that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16).

So obviously, if heaven consists in truly beholding his glory, we require a certain amount of spiritual “strength.” Perhaps this is why the book of Revelation says of heaven, “nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev 21:27). God is ultimate purity, ultimate goodness. Nothing impure can stand in his presence. This isn’t a matter of God saying, “I am so wonderful, I don’t want my presence soiled with all of you filthy little rug rats.” It’s not about him. It’s about us. Because of the reality of his nature, we could not stand in his presence. It would be painful. Deadly painful, apparently.

So how do we mere mortals become worthy of this privilege? By becoming pure.

And how do we do that? Do we have to be perfect? Can we never sin at all? How could we possibly accomplish perfect purity?

That’s where the homily come in.

My pastor, God bless him, preached on the simple idea that we cannot purify ourselves. It is impossible. Doomed to fail. It is God who does that work in us. He works through our openness, meets us where we are, and converts us from the inside, giving us his grace.

And it is that grace that makes us worthy to behold the Face of God. A priest friend once described it this way: The love of God is like the sun. And we are like roses. What happens when the sun shines on a rose? Well, that depends. If the rose is well watered, the rose will take in the rays of the sun and use them for photosynthesis — to become even more beautiful and fragrant and glorious. But what the if the rose is not well watered? In that case, the sunlight scorches the rose, drying it out and eventually killing it.

That water, for us, is grace. We need grace. We need his action, his Spirit, working us, in order to approach him.

To believe we can somehow “bootstrap” ourselves into holiness is to buy into the worst stereotype of Catholics — that we somehow “earn” our salvation by our own efforts. It conjures images of the Stern Old Man Above, watching us jump through hoops while barking “Higher! More! Not good enough!!”

No, it is his action in us, changing us and making us “new creations” in him.

So how do we avail ourselves of this grace, this power? First and foremost, as Catholics, we avail ourselves of the sacraments. What is a sacrament? “An outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace” (Thank you, Baltimore Catechism). When we receive the Eucharist, when we repent of our sins in reconciliation, when we join the family of Christ in baptism, we are being bathed in grace.

There are other avenues as well. We pray. We seek him. We open ourselves to his will. We strive to follow him. We love our neighbors. We work to root sin out of our lives. All of these make deposits to our “grace” bank accounts. When we turn away from him in deliberate sin, we make withdrawals from that account. If we reject him completely through serious, deliberate sin, we can drain the account completely. Which is not wise, because we’re going to need that grace, in this world and especially in the next.

The main thing to realize here is that this God, this Pure Goodness, this Unapproachable Light — he loves us. He wants us to be with him, far more than we even know how to want unity with him. He’s not up there waiting for us to mess up so that he can zap us. He sent his son to show us the way to him. He comes to us where we are, and beckons us to approach nearer. He never forces us. But he is constantly inviting, constantly loving.

How “pure” do we have to be to enter heaven? Perfectly, I suppose. We are, or course, not privy to the details of how God works that out with any individual human soul. We as Catholics believe that God, in his great mercy, offers Purgatory to those of us who love him, but still need some “finishing.” We also know that the Good Thief, who led a highly immoral life, repented moments before his death and was assured he would be in Paradise “this day.” So who knows? We only know that he loves us, he wants us to be with him, and he is constantly working to bring us closer to him.

Our work simply is to let him.

Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci has been giving talks on love and relationships across the United States and internationally for . . .well . . . her entire adult life. She was among the first Catholic speakers to introduce audiences to St. John Paul II’s beautiful Theology of the Body. She is the founder of Real Love, Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting respect for God’s gift of human sexuality. Her book Real Love, based on the Theology of the Body, has been translated into ten languages. She is also the author of We’re on a Mission from God, writes a monthly column for Catholic newspapers and contributes regularly to the Catholic Match Institute blog.
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