Today is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What I find interesting about this idea of the assumption is its implications for those of us living here on the earth today.
Morning prayer today includes this Responsory: “Today the Virgin Mary was taken up to heaven.” Now, if we can agree that heaven is all about being in the presence of God, and if we can also agree that God is omnipresent, then it seems obvious that we can be “taken up to heaven” right here and right now. No leaving earth required. Nor, for that matter, must we wait until the completion “of the course of our earthly life.”
Just to be clear, so I don’t upset either my firmly Protestant or my traditionalist Catholic readers: I’m not trying to argue about whether Mary was (or was not) bodily assumed. To me, that’s about as useless as arguing about whether the resurrection actually happened, or whether God is really a Trinity or not. Some people believe in all these things, and others don’t, and still others aren’t so sure. Arguing rarely changes anybody’s mind, but sure creates a lot of pain and strained relationships in the meantime.
In other words, if we use Catholic teaching about the assumption (and Protestant resistance to that teaching) as a way to argue with each other, trying to prove who’s got the truth and who doesn’t, then we’ve missed the point altogether. We’ve missed the invitation to be taken up ourselves into heaven, into the presence of God, right here and right now. To me, the assumption is not so much about what did (or did not) happen to Mary at the completion of the course of her earthly life. Rather, it is a mystical teaching that we can reflect on to consider what God promises each of us.
The New Testament is filled with language about the presence of God. “I am with you always,” promised Jesus. Paul notes that believers have the mind of Christ, and collectively are the Body of Christ. Peter comments on how we partake in the Divine Nature. None of this is deferred until the end of our earthly life. It’s all a promise in real time. So what would it mean for you and me to be “taken up” into the heavenly presence of God, right here, right now?
That’s not something we can make happen, like someone makes a decision to save 10,000 dollars over the next year and then starts socking away $193 bucks a week. Notice the passive quality: Mary was taken up to heaven. She did not issue the orders here: she accepted what was given to her. Now, I’m not saying that all we have to do is open our hearts and minds to the possibility and suddenly we will all be having supernatural experiences of Union with God. I don’t think Union with God is all about supernatural experiences anyway.
If you and I truly recognized that God is fully present in our lives, right here and right now, I don’t care how much pain we would be suffering or how many problems we would be facing. The fact is, we would be in heaven — body and soul. How does this happen? If we are to believe the great mystics, it is pure grace, but we can prepare for it through immersing ourselves in the word of God, the sacraments of the church, daily prayer, and daily meditation. Loving our neighbors as ourselves, and being radically generous and kind to those less fortunate than ourselves is pretty important too. Doing all this, day in and day out, without hope for reward, just because these things are the right thing to do in themselves. Every day, we open ourselves up to God’s presence, which we may believe in but not necessarily feel. Which we may experience as a thought, or an emotion, or even an altered state of consciousness. But God is not our thoughts, nor our feelings, nor our experiences, nor our states of mind. So the Union we seek, the heaven we long for, is somehow higher and deeper than all those things.
I think that whatever may or may not have happened to Mary at the end of the course of her earthly life, is, in a way, a decoy. It diverts our attention from the more interesting question: how did Mary experience the presence of God, day in and day out, as she lived her life as a follower of the way? Ponder that for a minute. Then turn this question back to us: how can we live our lives, ordinary, day-t0-day living, in such a way that, as the prayer goes, “we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ”?
How can I open up to the presence of God that our faith teaches is always, already, present? How can I trust that presence, knowing that my thoughts and feelings — my “monkey mind” — are notoriously unreliable? What lies beneath the chatter of my mind-monkey, and how can I find that reality deep within me (within all of us, within all of creation)? I don’t know if I will be “taken up” to heaven or not — but how can I open myself to discovering the kingdom of heaven which is within me, and among us, right here and right now?