I figured out how to get into Heaven. I figured it out during Mass the other night, which is funny because the kids and I have made it to Mass all of five or six times in the last year and it’s October. Either God is rewarding us for showing up or letting me know it’s okay to show up when it makes the most sense for our lives. Or, more like one of the parables, the details that I think are important for the message are actually somewhat meaningless.
Yes, I’m working from the assumption that there is a heaven. I concede that there may not be a heaven, that our time and space on earth could very well be a random coincidence of atoms and when we die, our physical selves and souls are absorbed into the unexplained dark matter of the universe. In fact, if gun to my head on the witness stand, I might say there isn’t a heaven. Might. A few years before Ed died, on a walk in the trails near our house in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, I let him know that I had decided there wasn’t a heaven, that I was going to live like the only happiness to be found could only be found on earth when I was alive and it was up to me to find it here, now, and by golly, if there was a heaven, it would just a be a bonus. Because I have never liked the idea of going through life just sucking it up, showing up, gritting my teeth and waiting for a reward, particularly when that reward was death, and even worse, the unknown.
Promising heaven without evidence is unethical teaching. When I taught writing, I couldn't imagine walking into the classroom and saying, “Okay, class, I want you to write a paper. Do your best. Then turn it in. I’ll put it in a box, or maybe I’ll burn it. But know that all that work you did, all that time you spent has probably earned you a pretty sweet grade, though I can’t guarantee it. The rubric is this Book, well two books in one, of which there are countless contradictions. I can’t tell you what the grade will actually be or what the grade even means exactly. But it’ll be something and it will be worth all your time and effort. Though, I can’t exactly tell you what that something is. Just trust me.” I get why God and religion are seen as ridiculous. I get it, and yet I still keep showing up now and then to church. Life, too.
I think heaven is two places: the first are those moments when you are acutely aware of absolute grace and love. These tend to be fleeting moments. Moments that make the 23 hours and 50 minutes of the rest of the day suddenly all *okay.* For example, the other night, I was watching Amelie with my five year old. Reese was just two when her dad died, so she doesn’t remember much, or if she does, didn't have language to be able to articulate the memory. We were watching the scene where one of the Bretodeaus's come down the stairs in a coffin. Reese asked about the coffin and I explained it’s where dead bodies are put before they are buried.; Reese asked if we buried daddy. I said no, we burned him. She turned and looked at me like I was nuts. “YOU BURNED HIM?!” She turned back to the movie, shook her head and claimed that “People are CRAZY: burning people.” It is crazy. Like the notion of 10 minutes making up for 23 hours. But in that moment, I laughed full and hard, loving that she could express the hilarity of death's practicalities while snuggling up to me and stroking my knuckles the way she does when she gets sleepy.
I'm finding heaven in another place, one that takes a LOT of practice (and failure) to discover: the state of being that easily assumes love’s presence, the decision to see that love is there, perhaps hidden in the actions of our friends and neighbors even (especially) when our insecurities and fears fog over the love. And, by contrast, sinning is assuming the absence of love. I attended a Lutheran church during college; Pastor Swenson wrote incredible sermons. In one sermon, he wrote that the definition of sinning was simply “missing the mark” and somehow we’ve turned it into this “gotcha” game of doing something wrong. I think about missing the mark all the time-though not as much as I actually miss the mark. I think about how long it takes to shoot an arrow and actually hit a bulls eye -- one has to miss the mark a million times to know how to hit the mark (I do, at least). My whole Iife, I’ve been trying to even hit the freaking cardboard that the target is painted on. Mostly, my arrows land on the grass or hit innocent bystanders, far from the mark. We tell our athletes that practice and messing up leads to better performance. In school, the good assessments are ones that give students the space to explore and get it wrong without consequence so they can learn without their grade being impacted (too much). So, it seems to me that sinning, or trying to hit the mark and missing, is actually a necessary part of discovering heaven. Of course, I still worry that messing up might actually cost me more than I am comfortable with. Probably because sinning and mistakes all got a bad rap early on.
And this is the lesson that will take me years to explain and show my children (and one that will likely be fully revealed more through the other people in their lives than me): that heaven is an individual discovery, a blend of really hard work, serendipity, trial and error. It’s the decision to assume love is there and ACT in a way that reveals that assumption without losing a sense of self. I wish this “taking action in a way that reveals the assumption of love, and doing so authentically and with self-respect” was a class offered at various times through life. Where, of course, we could fail, over and over and the only consequence would be an abstract grade. Instead I rely on life and death, and all their teachers to slowly reveal that it’s more likely we have to create our own life rubric and discover the criteria for heaven in the context of our individual perspective and temperaments. Mostly, for those 23 hours and 50 minutes, it’s hard work, heart break, disappointment and let-downs. It's failed relationships, over-reacting to my kids because I couldn't overact at work, spending the grocery money on fancy boots that fall apart, the inability to discern what really matters; it's not speaking up about what my gut tells me needs to be said even at the risk of being misunderstood. Free will sucks.
Seeking heaven on earth is not hard. It’s damn near impossible. By Thursday, I am fighting back tears of exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed. I fight back the tears walking from my office to the printer, my super-sensitive emotional response to an attempt to push off with all my mental might the weight of emails unanswered, the dozens of tasks that need completing, my shortcomings and growing resentment for not having time to find heaven, that place I told my best friend likely only existed on earth. By Thursday, I just want to stop looking. I call uncle. I want to fall into the line of thinking that says, just give up, stop thinking and feeling so much. I want to be lazy and just wait and see if when I die, there just might be more. More than what feels like 10 minutes a week. But then I think about the shield of security I have felt Non-Stop as if fact since the night after my husband died. How I’m so used to feeling fully and absolutely safe, despite our house being broken into twice and escaping, unharmed, two car accidents-both in the last two years. How that security is so common I take it for granted. And, gun to head, I would have to admit, I am given a healthy, even gluttonous, dose of heaven on earth.
I think about the people in our lives that act heavenly. They amaze and remind me how short I fall from that target. They appear to be hitting the mark consistently and seemingly without effort. I’m pretty sure that that they have this heaven on earth thing all figured out. But, then, I think, I may be missing the mark yet again. Assuming they have it figured out separates me from them. And separating myself from those who model love is missing the mark completely. Maybe they struggle with assuming love. Maybe they encounter a daily barrage of confusing situations and guarded, mean people and piles of dust and unfolded laundry that have them questioning if they have the stamina to assume love’s presence. Because, in those brief conversations between talks about the kitchen remodel or who is going to the Mother Son glow bowl, someone shares honestly how hard it is for them to see how those 23 hours and 10 minutes are worth the 10 minutes. And, in that authentic moment when we can be honest about who we are because the other(s) person assumes acceptance and love, we are seeking heaven together. And it's not so hard. And, I think, maybe heaven is seeking us.