When I was growing up, the afterlife was a big place with four distinct areas: Heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo. I completely understood hell. Hell was all the bad things you could imagine, forever. Very impressive. Purgatory was simply hell with a time limit. And limbo was just fair; babies couldn’t help it if they died before they were baptized.
Heaven, on the other hand, was a problem for me.
The only bad grade I got in Catholic school was for religion class, and it was because of heaven. I tried to stay out of trouble at school, because it was too complicated. Anything I got punished for at St. Ann’s was automatically matched by punishment at home, without a hearing. But something about the class on heaven didn’t sit right with me, and I balked.
The Baltimore Catechism, which we practiced daily in the form of question-and-answer sessions, taught us that heaven was a place where those who died in a state of grace, after purification in purgatory, were rewarded by seeing God face-to-face and sharing forever in his glory and happiness.
I raised my hand. I wanted to know more concretely what this forever sharing would look like. Sister said, we will join with the angels and saints singing Hosannas to the Father and the Lamb of God for all eternity. She said this somewhat crossly. I’m guessing now that she didn’t find this by-the-book description of heaven all that appealing herself, and she wasn’t happy that I pressed the issue.
I considered her description. I raised my hand again and said I did not want to go there. I said at least there should be treats. Also, I suggested what the treats should be.
This resulted in a bad grade for the quarter, which in my house was a Very Big Deal. A spanking and probably many rosaries kneeling on the bare floor.
My friend Marilyn told me that for this kind of offense, for asking questions in religion class, she got a slip of paper saying, “You will spend time in purgatory for time wasted in this class.” She kept a piece of paper with those very words, for proof. Children were literally condemned to time in hell for asking questions. For thinking.
Later I got even more upset about heaven when my Native friends told me the promise of reward in the afterlife was used by Christian missionaries to justify the theft of their land and resources, and the destruction of their families in this life.
My friend Tamara talks about heaven on earth, what would happen if we lived and loved like Jesus here and now. This interests me. I’ve always liked the Jewish parable of the long spoons. In the afterlife, people have spoons that are so long-handled, they cannot get food into their own mouths, so they starve in the presence of abundant food. This is hell. Heaven is the place where people figure out how to feed each other across the table with the long spoons.
This morning I took an early bike ride, and passed a small park near my home. At the corner, there was a man with a long dragging robe bent over the gutter poking something with a stick. I thought perhaps he was a homeless man and I was sad for him. An hour later, when I rode home by the same park, I realized it was an old man with a bent back, who was painstakingly raking all the leaves and twigs that had gathered, inch by inch. He was halfway down one side of the park. He was taking care of this beautiful place for all of us. Perhaps I was given a glimpse of heaven.