I recently posted a brief response to a Fr. Richard Rohr reflection and think I generated more confusion than enlightenment on the concept. It seems after me saying what I said some saw it as me saying that Heaven and Hell were not afterlife experiences. I didn’t say that, and seeing as though I have no evidence of the contrary I would not assume to say so. However, the primary point I was trying to make seemed to remain largely misunderstood. Why should I be surprised? Often this is the response I get in a Facebook post. So, I’ll try here to explore this concept a little more deeply and see if we can come up with a better understanding.
In my original post I was echoing what Rohr was saying which is certainly not a new concept of Heaven and Hell being a choice that is made now, not after death. My guess is that among Christians I would have close to 100% agreement on that statement. But where this apparently got murky was when I began saying that the actual experience of Heaven or Hell, as Fr. Richard Rohr suggests as well, happens upon our choosing, when we choose it. This is not to imply that our earthly experience negates, or replaces, what is to come. Never did I, nor did Rohr, say this, but it seemed to get interpreted this way by both my Christian and atheist friends on Facebook. This might explain why Rohr is so polarizing, especially among Catholics. If what he’s saying is that easy to misinterpret then no wonder he’s looked at skeptically, as am I when I try to reflect upon his reflections. But again, I’m always misunderstood so nothing new here. But let’s try to make this a little more clear, nonetheless.
Jesus was clearly saying something of Heaven, or paradise, was attainable now. He uses the expression of the “Kingdom is at hand” repeatedly. Does he mean that eventual access is at hand if we wait until the afterlife, or is he inferring something much more profound and elusive? Fr. Rohr seems to believe so and I totally agree. Even if we look at the controversial exchange with the St. Dismas, the “Good Thief”, we see what could easily be understood as the coming of the Internal Kingdom from his acceptance of the lot he has been granted. Again, not saying that there’s no afterlife here, but what we do know without debate is that there is a life. It’s quite easy to take a step back and look at the crucifixion as the perfect metaphor for this understanding. Here we have Dismas in acceptance and the other criminal in denial. One is present to the reality of the moment and the other is vehemently in opposition to what is now and living in a future that doesn’t exist and never will exist.
This is what I believe is the primary problem in Christianity. We have a lot of professions of faith but very few true expressions of faith. When we have God fearing, bible believing, Christians stockpiling weaponry for the apocalypse it’s not a very solid expression of what should be the single most recognizable trait of the Christ follower and that is peace. If we have peace we can trust. If we have trust we can love. Jesus says repeatedly in scripture, be not afraid. We hear him speak constantly of not allowing worry to get in our way. Now I may be wrong, but if you’re not worried why then do you need a stockpile of weapons? People at peace with the now don’t need to be prepared for anything other than the now, and that requires no preparation.
I’ve mentioned before Katie Byron and the book Loving What Is. I’ve also read her, Mind At Home With Itself. She is expert at getting people to see outside of the traps of the fear of what was or what may be. Even the moment can’t be grasped according to her teaching. So why would we allow anything to bog us down? She approaches this with a self-inquiry she calls The Work. It’s a very simple way of seeing that the anxiety you’ve developed around an issue is really just a construct of your perception and not really real at all, at least not provably so. Once you walk through her simple examination you’ll find yourself laughing at the way you handled the situation before. All of the tension and anxiety that we wrap ourselves up in is gone in seconds once we start asking these questions of ourselves.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said things like, “look at the birds and flowers”. He was inviting us to get in the moment and in the moment see God’s providence all around us. We don’t do that well. I don’t do this well. I don’t see Christians doing this well. I was talking with an Eastern Rite Catholic friend recently who says his priest finds it trivial when people ask him to pray for certain outcomes of things. He said that the East sees God’s providence in every moment and in every situation to the point that the ultimate expression of faith being an acceptance of what is, the way it is, right now.
I have to admit that I once struggled majorly with serenity. I even had a talk that I’d do for men’s groups about not accepting the “things I cannot change” as the Serenity Prayer suggests, but rather to tackle every ounce of discontentment with pure action and fortitude. This isn’t how I see it now. I see the moment as being the moment. And while I haven’t eliminated all of my anxiety, I am way better at accepting the providence of God even in the things that I’m not crazy about. This, to me, is where Heaven begins. My yoke of will to the will of God says I’m willing to take whatever he gives me. If I truly have faith I don’t really need to profess that as much as I need to express it. Can I be seen as accepting the moment, or am I always running toward tomorrow, or worse, yesterday?
I think the only authentic witness, and what is sadly lacking in our faithful today, is that expression of faith that resembles heaven. I’ve seen some people with such fervently outward prayer lives that I wondered if they had a moment of real peace. If all you’re doing in your “faith walk” is trying to bend God’s will then how is that an expression of what you believe? Or, if you’re so concerned about worshiping and connecting with God you forget to connect with those right in front of you how effective can you be as witness?
Jesus says to let tomorrow take care of itself, that has to include the afterlife, if you ask me. Have no anxiety, he says. Take no extra provisions, he implores. If this is all true why don’t we start living like that? That expression of faith could literally transform the world.