Welcome to day 26 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
“A world of wonder / may be paradise to me”
Christian theologian and and writer C.S. Lewis imagines heaven as a world of wonder, of wondrous natural beauty, because it is more real than Earth. Earth — in the Chronicles of Narnia series, in the Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), in the The Great Divorce: A Dream (about heaven and hell), in some of his sermons, and probably in other of his works — is a shadow or copy of heaven, a diminished and limited reality, not as full, not as substantial, not as palpable, present, vital as heaven (or perhaps it’s not earth but our perception of it that’s diminished and limited, to the extent that we don’t “have heaven”):
“Hell is a state of mind — ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind — is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains” (The Great Divorce).
In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan’s Country (i.e., heaven) “is sketched broadly, as extremely high up and surpassingly beautiful, filled with blazing sunlight, riotous birds, huge trees, and rippling streams” in The Silver Chair, and in The Last Battle, it’s depicted as “a huge land of light and joy. It is a place of youth … , of health … , of abundance …, and of freedom (it feels like ‘the country where everything is allowed’). And it is a place of beauty and of bounty: They see groves of trees, thick with leaves, and under every leaf there peeps out the rich colors of fruits ‘such as no one has seen in our world,’ fruits compared with which ‘the freshest grapefruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry.'”
And that’s only the outskirts; deep heaven is where “those who love and long for Aslan [God] find fulfillment.” They recognise it: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” (Source) It’s home that feels more like home than home ever did. It’s what we’ve hungered, thirsted, longed for all the time, and maybe even glimpsed, inhabited for a few moments: “We usually notice it must as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light. What we feel has been well described by Keats as ‘the journey homeward to the habitual self.’ You know what I mean. For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world” (Lewis, The Weight of Glory).
As Michael Edwards writes in “C. S. Lewis: Imagining Heaven” (1991/1994), Lewis’s conception of heaven is of it both here on Earth (glimpses, anyway) and also not here:
“… imagining heaven means attending, first, to the everyday earth, to the world in space and time that we have been set to inhabit: to ‘this place’, since this is the house of God and this is the gate of heaven [alluding to Genesis 28:16-17]. It means, not beaming up to a totally different otherwhere but responding to, and indeed loving, what Lewis was still prepared to call the real. … So heaven for Lewis is both other and the same. It is first, the real enhanced. Readers of Perelandra will remember the heightened sensations of Ransom as soon as he wakes on the new planet. … He encounters the smells of the forest: ‘To say that they made him feel hungry and thirsty would be misleading; almost, they created a new kind of hunger and thirst, a longing that seemed to flow over from the body into the soul and which was a heaven to feel.‘… For Lewis imagines heaven as the world changed, as the more-than-real, as the really real.”
But heaven, in Lewis’s conception, is not just a better Earth; heaven is truly unimaginable, except for being more real somehow; and trying to imagine it is like living in a world where wheat exists “only in the form of seeds and trying to imagine acres of wheat shining in the sun and swishing in the wind.”
“I know that if I have heaven / there is nothing to desire”
If we have experienced only seeds, how then do we long for sunlit landscapes of waving wheat, or wildflowers? And yet, we do, because (says Lewis) all joy reminds us of a deeper joy; joy tugs at us, makes us aware of a longing for some kind of union with beauty, with love, with full reality: “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status: always reminds, beckons, awakes desire. Our best havings are wantings” (from a 1954 letter).
In The Weight of Glory, he writes,
“We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see … to become part of it.”
And in Surprised by Joy, joy is defined as ‘an unsatisfied desire — which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction … and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure … it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief.”
There is, for me, a certain melancholy, almost a nostalgia, that I feel when an experience is so joyful, so pleasurable (I would use that word, though Lewis feels it’s not as worthy as “joy”), when I feel like my heart will burst, which sounds unpleasant and probably would be and yet there’s such a desire in the moment for escaping the limitations of my small heart, small mind, small soul into a spacious, fully loving, fully real existence, that it’s a trade I might make. As Ransom felt about the smells of heaven’s forest, it’s “a longing that seemed to flow over from the body into the soul and which was a heaven to feel.”
It’s hard for me to imagine, with my small mind, a heaven where that heavenly feeling of desire doesn’t exist. But I also admit that my imagination is small, my perception of the real diminished, and that there may be, “nothing to desire” when and “if I have heaven.”
“The ideal would be to pass through the glimpses of a heavenly, or haunted, earth into the fullness beyond: to come out on the other side. For Lewis, the longing for heaven is not that we should shuffle off this mortal coil and go elsewhere but that we should enter, and advance always ‘farther up and farther in.'” (Edwards, ibid)
We may or may not have to “shuffle off this mortal coil” to find heaven, but we do have to die in some sense, says Edwards of Lewis’s conception of heaven:
“To meet the real, however, to know even the outer edge of reality in this life, is also (and this too the poets say) to encounter death. It is to discover the necessary supersession of the self and of its world as they are now.”
My conception of heaven, and of eternal life, includes the deaths that come before mortal death; that is, the deaths to ego, to self, that we can practise every day, that teach us to participate in (eternal) life more fully now, on this good earth, to “allow [ourselves] to be transformed into a mansion of life without end in the midst of the world.” Here I turn to James Alison, my favourite writer on theology, who writes in his book Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (1996) about how death holds us in thrall:
“The [physical] marks, then, of Jesus’s death were something like trophies: it was his whole human life, including his death, which was made alive and presented before the disciples as a sign that he had in fact conquered death. This not only meant that he had personally conquered death, which he had manifestly done, but that, in addition, the whole mechanism by which death retains people in its thrall had been shown to be unnecessary. Whatever death is, it is not something which has to structure every human life from within (as in fact it does), but rather it is an empty shell, a bark without a bite. None of us has any reason to fear being dead, something which will unquestionably happen to all of us, since that state cannot separate us effectively from the real source of life.” (He quotes Heb. 2:14-15 here)
I feel in every part of my being that nothing can separate us from “the real source of life,” as Alison says of the “absolute aliveness” of God, and which Lewis talks about as heaven, what’s fully real, vital, unshakable.
Edwards quotes from Lewis’s The Silver Chair (in the Narnia series), when Eustace meets the resurrected Caspian at the end of the book:
“[H]e draws back, and says to Aslan, ‘Hasn’t he – er – died?’ to which the comeback is this: “Yes,” said the Lion in a very quiet voice, almost (Jill thought) as if he were laughing’. … He has died. Most people have, you know.’ At the end of the chronicles of Narnia, on the final page of The Last Battle, this is how the children react to the thought that they might be dead: ‘Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.'”
What if, far from being boring and unchanging — “The waves are perfect and the sun will always shine / But there’s got to be more to death than surfing all the time” as Dar Williams sings in the wonderful “Alleluia” — heaven is full and free participation in the reality of absolute aliveness?
Featured image: Slice of Heaven cafe, Jamestown, RI, May 2017
“If you want to reach the infinite, then explore every aspect of the finite.” — Goethe
I enjoyed this selection of quotes along with the beautiful photos. It good to think about carefully observing the “real” around us, knowing that heaven is “more real”.