Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Glimpses of Heaven

Every once in a while I get the feeling I’ve been somewhere before. I am certain that you do, too, for this phenomenon is called déjà-vu, something that nearly everyone I’ve ever met has experienced at one time or other. It is the distinct feeling that you have done this exact thing, met this exact person, or smelled—and this is the strangest one—this exact smell before. In the case of the last of these, it may not be déjà-vu at all; it may be an actual memory, one unlocked by a mere scent.

In any case, what is known as déjà-vu is like, but not precisely the same thing as, what I am calling here a glimpse of heaven. Now, different cultures have (or have had) various different ideas about heaven. In Norse mythological sources, such as Eiríksmál, a tenth-century poem describing the death of Eric Bloodaxe or the Prose Edda a thirteenth-century work attributed to Snorri Sturluson, Valhalla is described as the hall of the dead, the place where those fallen in battle go after death. Buddhists hold to the notion that souls either transmigrate (a spiritual process known as metempsychosis) or, once perfected, achieve Nirvana, a state in which nothing is left but the mind itself. And, of course, both Nirvana and Valhalla have found their places in the English language to suggest the notion of a state of spiritual bliss, peace, or rest. But I do not want to address different conceptualizations about the afterlife here.

Rather I want to speak about those moments, those rare moments, when we might get a glimpse of heaven that is something like déjà-vu. It is not like déjà-vu in the sense that we feel that we have been there before. Not at all. In my experience, such a momentary glimpse of heaven always seems extremely foreign to me. No, for me it comes when I realize how very far I am from it. It normally follows a moment of self-examination or a moment of consideration of the divine.

“Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” Such a verse, in this case from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah (v. 12) causes me to think. It makes me think of the vast difference between myself and God. Ten verses later Isaiah adds, “ It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: that bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.”

And so it goes, as the Old Testament is very clear—often frighteningly so—and quite consistent in describing the ways that people are very different from God. Yet that difference, which is far from p.c. by being frightening, is not only so; it is also quite enlightening. And that occasional burst of enlightenment is what I am speaking about when I refer to a glimpse of heaven.

But let me put it in more human terms. Imagine you are away on a business trip. While you are out of town, your colleagues are gathered around the water cooler or are off at the local coffee shop or lunch bucket and your name comes up in conversation, a possibility that may be particularly true, of course, if you hold any kind of position of authority at your work place. The truth comes out about you: you have a tendency to do X, Y, or Z irritatingly; your choice of ties or shoes or whatever you might prefer is (perhaps quite rightly) called into question. Your organizational skills are panned; your capacity for fomenting good channels of communication is criticized roundly.watercoolerWorst of all, what it would most pain you to hear, your work ethic is called into question. And even though you’re not there, you know somehow this is going on; and, what is worse, you know that if they are having such a conversation, they are probably at least partially, if not mostly, right. They have seen and diagnosed the “real you” more or less correctly; and of course they have, they know you well. They know that the real you is a failure, just as you yourself know it.

Now I am not speaking to a reader who may at this point be thinking, “I am no failure. I am successful at everything I put my hand to.” If that is you, you should perhaps not bother to keep reading (even though you just ended a sentence in a preposition, so at least your grammar could be called into question). Rather, I am speaking to someone who, like me, knows that he or she is in fact the very person described in graphic detail by his friends at lunch.successNow for me a glimpse of heaven can come only after I have realized that the luncheon discussion is true. Okay, perhaps not 100%; maybe you do work harder than they see, because you get up in the middle of the night to do 50 of the 100 or more or so emails you get in a day, and they don’t see that or know that you get that many emails, that you put out so many minor fires. But, if you’re honest, they’ve got at least some of the rest right. In fact, you’re not the person you want to present yourself as, as you want to seem on top of everything precisely when you feel that everything is on top of you.

And that’s when I have a feeling, a very strong feeling verging on a strange kind of knowledge of things I likely have no business knowing anything about, that the one who “hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,” even though he sees us for who we really are, loves us anyway. Admittedly, I base my opinion about this not on a hope for achieving Nirvana or a glorious entrance into Valhalla, but on precisely the opposite. I base it on the tender and broken look of a mother’s eyes. When Jesus was entering a town called Nain, he saw a widow in a funeral procession:

Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother. (Luke 7:12-15)

This widow might well have been feeling that God was punishing her for some reason or other, for in addition to her husband, she had now recently lost her only son. She probably artificially assigned fault to herself, felt guilt for being a poor mother and an inadequate wife, and probably blamed herself, at some gut level, for the death of them both. And while the lunch conversation about her would likely have been no different than that about the rest of us—as a human being she, too, no doubt had her faults—she was in no wise, of course, directly responsible for the death of either of them. And now she was alone, broken, processing forth with deep wailing, that of a mother for the loss of a child, going about the business of burying her only son’s corpse.

And just then, just then when all seemed lost and truly all was, as far as she was concerned, lost, she got a glimpse of heaven, a glimpse breaking through the dark clouds as a shaft of powerful light to touch the earth. Even though she knew who she was and even though she likely blamed herself and might even, dare I say it, have been angry at God for the death of her son, Jesus interrupted the procession.

We can at best fancifully imagine the response of the widow. Or can we? Perhaps if we have had a glimpse of heaven, a moment when we know for just a moment how rightly judged we are by our colleagues and by God but loved at least by the latter, and unconditionally so—perhaps we know the emotions, the love, visceral compassion that woman must have felt.

These, at any rate, are my thoughts on getting a glimpse of heaven. In this life heaven is perhaps more often later than now, but when it is now it comes in a kind of strange preview, one that I, at least, can handle only every once in a while.

salerno ivory
Raising of the son of the widow of Nain Salerno, Museo diocesano (1100 AD)




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