One of the best parts of a pastor’s day is when he gets away from his desk, out of the office and into the school. I especially love fielding questions in the classroom. Granted, typically the young ones are obsessed with questions like “Why didn’t God make chicken nuggets healthy?” or “Do priests wear black when they go swimming?” But when you get past the little questions, the good ones come out.
A lot of the time, they want to know about heaven.
It’s impossible to describe heaven in clear terms because it’s a mystery that lies mostly beyond our material experience. Aquinas, again, comes to our rescue when we’re trying to grasp this question of the infinite. He said that heaven is the state of being wherein we finally behold God face to face. God is perfect goodness, and we long for perfection in goodness, so being united to God means each person will experience the complete satisfaction of their will. That doesn’t sound immediately interesting, but let’s unpack it.
Our will is our faculty for wanting, the appetite that longs for goodness. We choose to do things because we think they will satisfy us. In heaven, we will no longer want or need anything more. We will be completely satisfied, and in a most surpassing manner. We have no idea what that would be like. We’re used to always being hungry, as it were.
To get at this concept with the kids, I talk about earthly joy as a foretaste. Imagine the greatest day of your life. For me, it was my surprise birthday party in fifth grade. Everybody was there, I had no idea it was coming, Mom and Dad set up my favorite meal, and we all laughed and played and had the best time. I was so surprised I felt like I was floating – cloud nine. But even as a kid, I remember right in the middle of it thinking to myself, “Wow, this is amazing. But soon everybody’s going to have to go home and the party will be over. And that makes me sad.”
That really sums it all up, doesn’t it? No matter how good we might have life, we’re never totally satisfied. When we finally buy something we’ve been saving for, or see that perfect sunset, or hear the finest performance of our favorite symphony … we’re happy, but it’s just not quite enough. Stuff gets old, the sun goes down, and music ends. We can have the “perfect” day, but we still have to go to bed and start over tomorrow. No created, earthly experience, as good as it may be, can ever satisfy our infinite ache for goodness, which is an ache for infinite goodness.
Aquinas said there are thus two kinds of happiness: the everlasting happiness called beatitude (and the beatitudes are indicators of how we’re called to live in view of that eternal offering), and felicity. Felicity is imperfect happiness, happiness that is partial, passing, but still really wonderful. And it’s supposed to point us onward to beatitude, eternal happiness. Our authentic experiences of moral goodness always bring about felicity, and felicity points us toward our ultimate goal. We can savor our experiences of holy yet passing happiness and remind ourselves that these are foretastes of heaven. And we can even try to imagine what it would be like if that perfect day never had to end, and was even more perfect than we could imagine. Heaven.
As we let our experience of passing happiness inspire us onward, we also remind ourselves that Christ never said it was an easy road there, nor that it’s an automatic entry. Check out Matthew 25. But as we know from the Gospels, Christ lights the way by going before us, and He sends His Spirit upon the Church to accompany us.
God wants us in heaven, bathed in everlasting goodness.
That might be easier, for now. And at times it will seem satisfying. But we’ll still be hungry. And only God can fully satisfy.