Mystic Mondays October 3, 2016
Heaven is not a far off hope, but a present reality right here on earth.
I wrote those words in my last Mystic Monday post as I pondered the implications of the faith of our Orthodox brothers and sisters and their belief that life is a mysterious dance between the human and her partner, the divine. One reader, Roy, admitted, “Brian, I’m confused. (If this is true then) what do we have to look forward to after we die?” I promised this reader that the next post would be my answer to him. Here it is:
Great question! In fact, the question itself reveals the exact point that I am trying to make. I take the risk of making a gross generalization between typical Western Christianity and the mysticism of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but I think it’s worth drawing the distinction in order to answer your question.
Both Western Christianity and Eastern Christian mysticism concern themselves with the subjects of heaven and earth, heaven and hell, and life and death. But Western Christianity draws thicker lines between heaven and earth and life and death. Western Christianity tends to associate this earthly life with the presence of sin (and the doctrine of original sin) and trials and tribulations. Heaven is not something that is hidden underneath the veil of earthly existence, but a reality that we get like a Christmas present if we have been more good than naughty.
Western Christianity is very concerned (and often anxious) about what happens after death. And rightly so. We worry about what life will be like after marriage, the birth of children, divorce, retirement, etc. But with those we at least have the benefit of seeing others who have survived those tricky stages and have lived to tell about it. Death appears to be just a little more final and so far no one has come back to tell us, “Guess what? The water is fine!” So, it’s no wonder we give so much eternal worry to the subject of death.
Eastern mysticism also acknowledges the presence and finality of death. But those traditions that nurture a more mystical lens tend to give very little credibility to the power of death. The mystical traditions believe that God is both the God of life and of death. In fact the Brief Statement of Faith that was adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1983 begins with these words, “In life and in death we belong to God.” A mystic would nod in approval at that sentiment.
You see, we tend to make a big deal about life on this side of the grave and life on the other side of the grave. Mystics tend to trust that the God who put all of this in motion, the God who created the magic of the seasons, the God who could transform a caterpillar into a butterfly, and the God who can create a mighty oak out of a rotting seed is a God who knows what She is doing when a human life is extinguished. Mystics tend to think more like the Ecclesiastical poet who wrote,
To everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die.
The mystical wings of our religious traditions also believe that there is a heavenly life that is far more beautiful, peaceful, just, loving and fulfilling than this earthly life that we typically see and experience. The difference between the Western Church and the Eastern Church is that in the West we tend to see heaven as a future reality only accessible after death and in the East heaven is a deeper reality that is accessible now. The former distinguishes between two very different realities–life and death. The latter sees only one reality–life with God–a life that not even death can put a wrinkle in.
I am reminded of the scene in Field of Dreams when John Kinsella asks his son, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) while standing out in the middle of a baseball field created by the clearing of a corn crop, “Is this heaven?” To which Ray responds, “No, this is Iowa.” John looks around again and shakes his head and says, “Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven.”
Maybe heaven isn’t a place that we one day get to, but a place that reveals itself when we are ready to see it. Maybe we don’t have to die to get to heaven. Maybe all we have to do is to live, really live.