I was thinking of Heaven as I was reading William Butler Yeats‘ classic poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (below) a couple of days ago. Suddenly it struck me how terrible it would be if Heaven were just a place we came up with in our minds, a Lake Isle of our own making, in order to counter the reality that we are in fact alone in this life. I then extended this idea further and considered how truly awful it would be if, as we are told in that nursery rhyme, this life itself is “but a dream.”
It then occurred to me that that’s what hell is, and the severest forms of mental illness (which are, in some sense, merely mirror images of each other): being alone in one’s own existence with nothing but voices and phantoms of one’s own making, an echo chamber of chaos where one is profoundly misunderstood even by oneself — and ultimately unknown to oneself. This is also the height of narcissism, which, I am convinced, is the DNA of all mental illness.
And so, if Heaven is real and, by extension, this life is not a dream, then Heaven must be an even deeper reality than this life, where we understand more and are, in turn, more fully known; we’ll see ourselves as parts of a larger whole, as separate (but not separated) parts of who we all are and who God is. And yet we will, in some sense, remain a mystery.
Which would make eternity, in our as-yet presently unredeemed state of individualism, hell. The boundaries between us must dissolve before the boundary of time can disappear. In heaven, we won’t be the same self-conscious, individuated people we are now. We will know ourselves for being known in communion with others. We will still be ourselves, no doubt, replete with bodies, but they will be imperishable bodies, unhindered by the atoms that now form locked rooms and solid walls and subjugated consciousnesses. Jesus taught us this. His body could contain a meal but could not be contained by the walls of an inner room. And so we, too, will be parts of a larger whole; the core of our beings like strings on a single violin.
In the meantime, we need to learn to see with our peripheral vision. Not “see” in the conventional sense, with our eyes, but in a spiritual sense (as “seers”) with our souls, where we acknowledge that not all of reality is necessarily subject to our scrutiny, and that there is no compelling reason to insist it be otherwise. Why must reality, in principle, be accessible to our senses, or to those instruments that are nothing but mechanical extensions of our senses? Why indeed.
God is beauty because, like beauty in the form of any good poem or piece of music or painting, God is marked by restraint. His beauty respects boundaries, understands the necessity of frames. But God, who is the object of the eyes and ears of our faith, cannot be seen directly, but can only be seen by our spiritual peripheral vision, which gives what we see an invisible context. Similar to what Paul meant when he said that we cannot see directly or clearly now but only through a dim mirror — but then we will see face to face. Right now, we are in the shadow of God, while God’s direct revelation to us in the Son is infinitely brighter than the sun on a clear summer day (and the darkness will not put it out), and like the sun, we cannot look at Him directly, but everything is seen more clearly by His light (GKC).
Mature self-awareness admits a certain restraint — the very concept of identity requires a willing suspension of knowledge; so to be able to define oneself fully is to render the self meaningless. “The essence of every picture is its frame” Chesterton reminds us, and so every text needs a context from within which to be understood. So to know a thing completely is to cease to know it at all, since what we don’t know about anything provides the context for our knowing it to begin with. All knowledge is contingent — in this life and the next. In other words, if anything made complete sense, it couldn’t be true. (I had a conversation with a student last semester about this. Abby asked, “But if everything’s a mystery, how do we know what’s true?” I told her that if anything ceases to be a mystery, you can be sure it isn’t true.)
J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis, in the midst of Lewis’ profound doubt about the veracity of the Christian story, that Christianity was a myth like all the other myths he so deeply loved, the only difference being that the Christian story was a myth that wastrue. And so, too, Heaven, is a Lake Isle of Innisfree, the only difference being that it isn’t merely a place created by my imagination. One is free, of course, to believe that Heaven is simply that: a projection of our own collective wish-fulfillment — of our imaginations. But I don’t think so. I feel it in my deep heart’s core, that some day, we all will find ourselves at a crossroads, or maybe simply at the foot of a cross, and will be given leave to say:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The only difference, of course, is that we won’t be alone, as, in fact, the speaker of Yeats’ poem is not alone. Notice the chorus of life he is surrounded by: the loud honeybees, the songs of crickets, the fullness of the linnets’ wings…