Sunday, June 1, 2014

Thoughts on Suffering and on Heaven

I am still reading The Authentic Voice, which may well be the best of the many biographies of C.S. Lewis that I've read, concentrating as it does upon the actual words used by Lewis and by those who knew him. As a reviewer on Amazon pointed out, the author's policy of devoting an equal amount of pages to each year gives us a real sense of Lewis's life as it happened. (It seems to me a real weakness of most biographies, including autobiographies, that they pay so much attention to the most eventful parts of the subject's life and less attention to the less eventful parts. I am actually more interested in the less eventful parts, the daily routine, the wet Tuesdays.)

But that's by the by. What drove me to the keyboard was the section describing Lewis's book The Problem of Pain.

It might be a funny thing, but the famous 'problem of evil' (of which the problem of pain is, I suppose, a sub-category) has never, as far as I can remember, caused me a moment's difficulty. How is there evil in the world if God is all-good and all-powerful? That, or something similar, is the usual form in which it is stated. To me, the question just seems to beg so many other questions that it's not even worth asking. And, insofar as it is worth asking, the words of St. Paul seem to be the glaringly obvious solution: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us."

But this might be a quirk of my own life. I have been very lucky to have been spared almost all physical pain and sickness in my 36 years of life so far. In fact, I know I am deficient in sympathy for those who suffer physically for this very reason.

On the other hand, I have had (I suppose) as much mental and emotional anguish as most other people, and I still wouldn't agree with the Buddha's great insight that "life is suffering". (At least, not if that is taken to mean that life is mostly or exclusively suffering. I defer to Buddhists on what he actually meant.) This is a claim that we encounter constantly, from Samuel Johnson to Samuel Beckett, from Sigmund Freud to Arthur Schopenhauer, and from a million other writers and thinkers.

It's never made much sense to me, because it's always seemed to me that happiness and unhappiness are incommensurable anyway. It's not like we can quantify happiness and unhappiness using some kind of scientific unit, tot the scores up, and then decide which is the biggest figure. How do you compare a moment of pure ecstasy, perhaps while watching a movie or looking out a window by the first light of dawn, or while kissing your beloved or cradling your child or playing Scrabble, with an ankle sprain? Or a heart attack? Or a terrorist attack?

But my scepticism regarding the 'life is suffering' thesis goes even deeper than this. I've always tended to believe that most people are fairly happy most of the time. This simply seems evident to me. Look out a window or walk down a street. Most people are smiling. Most people are animated. Most people are absorbed. Isn't this enough?

But then, what about Jesus, and what about Heaven? Don't we need salvation? Don't we look towards a perfect bliss?

My response to this (and please don't take this as being solid theology; it's just a suggestion) is that human happiness is already attuned to Christ, even before we accept him, even before we know about him. We look forward to redemption. We hunger for it and enjoy it in anticipation. And the true misery in life is to reject Christ and to reject the hope of salvation. Then life is suffering, because all the savour and all the excitement goes out of everything. The great Event for which all the universe seems agog (and which other people call Art or Revolution or Self-Fulfilment, but which Christians call Christ and the Inbreaking of the Kingdom) is ruled out. We become blind to the morning light that fills the world. We kill that child-like excitement in the soul that is always whispering to us that something wonderful, something more wonderful than we can possibly imagine, is waiting for us.

My feelings about Heaven are rather similar. Non-Christians are sometimes very sceptical about whether Christians really look forward to Heaven, since they dread death and treat it as a tragedy, and they cling to life.

I rarely even think about Heaven, because I know I can't understand it. Principally, I can't understand eternity, since I can't conceive of it as anything other than infinite duration-- which idea, if you dwell on it for more than a few moments, is deeply disturbing. However, I know that eternity is related to time in a way that I can't even conceptualise now. So I don't try. (Pope Benedict's encylical Spe Salvi addresses this subject very well.)

I often feel that I have premonitions of the joys of Heaven in this life. I don't just mean that earthly joys and beauties seem to be a prefiguring of a greater, Heavenly joy. I mean that this life seems to partake of that Heavenly joy-- sometimes so much so that, in that moment, we don't want anything more and can't imagine anything better.

I could write a lot (too much!) on this topic; but I am especially fascinated by how Heaven seems to reveal in itself in the Church and the life of the Church. The contemplation of Christianity-- the liturgy, the lives of the saints, the Bible, the mere sight of somebody saying the rosary-- gives me, personally, a kind of bliss that seems, not only a foretaste of Heaven, but in some mysterious way a taste of Heaven itself. It's not an orgiastic bliss. It's not a prolonged bliss. It's a strangely subdued, distant, indirect sort of bliss. I can feel it while being bored and fidgety at Mass.

I think of examples. A few months ago, myself and Michelle visited the church she attended for much of her girlhood-- The Church of the Holy Eucharist in Tabernacle, New Jersey. It's the kind of big, modern chuch that is, objectively speaking, entirely ugly, and that most people rightly detest, but that I actually like-- through some strange kink in my psychology.

Unforgiveably, the tabernacle is not behind the altar but in a tiny side-chapel. We visited this and prayed together for a few minutes, alone and speaking in hushed voices. It was a tender moment, even at the time. But, the more I remember it, the more it comes to mean to me and the more it seems to comes into focus. Even thinking about it fills me, more and more, with the kind of bliss I'm talking about-- like a taste of Heaven.

Another moment is last Christmas Eve, when I flew in to JFK airport. I had a connecting flight to take and a few hours to kill. I spent a lot of time wandering around the terminal. One particular bar had the Mass of the Nativity that Pope Francis was celebrating on the TV screens. It was muted (though there were captions), and few people were looking at it-- but somehow, that only seemed to make it more potent. The busy, cheerful, mundane, holiday atmosphere in the terminal seemed to harmonise perfectly, and indeed to draw its fuel, from the sacred mysteries that were being celebrated, unwatched, upon the screen. Whenever I think of that evening, I am filled with the same kind of bliss that I've described before-- the certainty that there is a beauty and a joy revealed in the life of the Church that is deeper than any other joy, that is infinite, just like the living waters promised by Our Lord at the Well of Jacob.

Words fail me. But then, when words don't fail me, I suspect that I am discussing a matter of little importance.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes when I am at church (after Mass) or when I'm particularly concentrating on holy things, I think I get a feeling that might be slightly like what you're talking about.