Blessed John Ruusbroec says, toward the end of his masterpiece The Spiritual Espousals, that “the contemplative life is a heavenly life.”
In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I describe mysticism as “living in heaven consciousness.” (We’ll see if that phrase survives the editing process, but I like it, so I think it will).
I just read on Twitter where somebody quoted Thich Nhat Hanh as saying “The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter.” What a great and challenging quote. Without meaning to impugn the peace movement (and in my experience, thankfully, I can say that this observation is not always true), I think Thich Nhat Hanh is on to something because sometimes in a zeal to promote one kind of good, we abandon another good. It’s like Christians who are so hateful to people they perceive to be sinners. Talking about missing the point!
Thich Nhat Hanh, like Jesus, understands that you can’t be for peace unless you love your enemies. I have a friend who is an angry atheist, and is contemptuous of fundamentalist Christians. This morning I imagined what it would be like to ask him why he holds such bitter feelings in his heart. I imagine he would say, “Because the Christians themselves are so contemptuous.” My response: “Oh, so you want to drag yourself down to their level?”
If we are the body of Christ, then we are called to put on the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16, Philippians 2:5), and I don’t see how this can mean anything other than living a heavenly life, right here, right now, starting today. Starting this very minute. We do not have to wait until after we die to go to heaven. We do not have to wait until after we die to surrender our lives to God, right? Nor do we have to wait until after we die to be loved by God. If being loved by God and giving our lives fully and joyfully to that Love isn’t heaven, then I don’t know what is.
“Oh, no,” I can hear the nay-sayers now. “We are in the vale of tears, we are in a world trammeled by sin, and suffering, and darkness and doubt. How can this be heaven?” But that line of thinking is all about victimization, not victorious living (to use an evangelical catchphrase which seems appropriate here). Living in heaven consciousness is not about everything being easy or pleasurable. Frankly, much of the wickedness in the world today stems from people doing things to themselves and each other in vain attempts to create ease and pleasure. So if we don’t need streets paved of gold and cute cherubs floating on the clouds playing their harps in order to live a heavenly life, then what do we need? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we need love. John Ruusbroec suggests we need contemplation. I think if we work on becoming more loving and more contemplative, and then really listen to where the Holy Spirit is calling us, and actually get off our duffs and do something about it, we will end up pretty far along the road to heaven. Because, you see, heaven isn’t about what happens to us, but rather is all about how we respond to God’s love, and put that response into action, right here, right now, no matter how bad things might be in the moment. This is why a poor person fighting cancer can be light years ahead of a completely healthy and abundantly wealthy person when it comes to living a God-infused life.
Psalm 139:7-10 is instructive here, and I particularly like the King James Version. The Psalmist is addressing God and says: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” If we cannot flee the presence of God, then our choices are simple: to bask in that presence, or to struggle against it. Here, it seems to me, lies the secret of heaven and hell. Of course, basking in God’s presence is no cakewalk. It’s no hedge against suffering; on the contrary, God has an annoying habit of showing up precisely in those places where suffering is the most acute. But there’s a universe of difference between meaningless suffering and suffering that is, or can be, redeemed.
Back to contemplation: the point behind spending 20-30 minutes every morning and evening in silent prayer is simple: it’s a way of calibrating our inner compass, to keep ourselves pointed Godward. So that we can bask in God’s presence, rather than struggle against it. So that we can look for heaven not in those places that are armored against suffering, but where we can find redemption, somehow, even in the midst of the greatest of pain. And by doing these things, we don’t make suffering go away or somehow work magic to “make it all better.” But by opening ourselves up to the surprising and unexpected ways that God can redeem even the most horrible of circumstances, we begin, slowly and falteringly and with frequent failures and relapses, to live a heavenly life. Just like Ruusbroec said.