Chances are many of you have seen, or at least heard about, a movie currently playing called Heaven Is For Real. It’s based on the true story of a boy named Colton who supposedly had a life-after-death experience while undergoing emergency surgery; afterwards, using simple language and images, he claimed to have seen angels and to have met Jesus while visiting Heaven, along with meeting several of his deceased relatives about whom he previously knew nothing. As an innocent and guileless four-year-old, Colton described Heaven as a place of great beauty, joy, and peace. His father, a Protestant minister, later wrote a book about Colton’s experience, thereby giving hope and inspiration to many people. (Incidentally, Colton claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary kneeling in adoration of God, and also sitting on a royal throne next to her Son Jesus—a detail his father wanted to downplay because it sounded too “Catholic.”)
Colton’s experience—assuming it’s authentic—is nothing new; throughout the history of the Church, a number of people claimed to have experienced visions of or visits to the Kingdom of God. For instance, in the 6th century Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote of a man named Stephen who visited there and encountered, in Gregory’s words, “delightful meadows carpeted with green grass and sweet-smelling flowers. The meadows seemed to be meeting places for people clothed in white. Such a pleasant odor filled the air that the sweet smell by itself was enough to satisfy the inhabitants who were strolling there. In that place each one had his own separate dwelling, filled with magnificent light” (Michael H. Brown, After Life, p. 98). A contemporary author who claims to have seen Heaven describes huge and impressive golden or crystal streets, lined by mansions of incredible beauty and variety—calling to mind Our Lord’s words that in His Father’s house there are many dwelling places (Richard Sigmund, My Time In Heaven, p. 37ff). There are apparently other buildings there as well, such as libraries and colleges containing all the secrets not only of human history, but of creation itself—for constantly growing in learning and wisdom is one of Heaven’s many joys. We’re told there are colors, aromas, plants, foods, and music of exquisite delight, far surpassing anything earth can offer. Everyone in Heaven is intensely happy; there is no old age, illness, or physical limitation or suffering of any kind, nor any worries, embarrassment, boredom, or any other difficulty or problem. We will not only rejoice to see our deceased loved ones in Heaven; we will also take immense delight in getting to know and being in the company of everyone there, including people of every time of history and place on earth, along with all the angels and saints—most especially Our Lady. Above all, we will see God Himself face to face—a joy we can’t even begin to describe or imagine.
Is Heaven real? Yes, it is—we have Our Lord’s word on it. Is our arrival there one day guaranteed? No, it is not—we must humbly and actively choose to live as followers of Jesus if we wish to share in His Kingdom. Each day we’re alive here on earth we’re helping determine and shape our eternal destiny. This is a wondrous and awesome responsibility—and getting it right is so important that, ultimately, nothing else matters.
The Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7) describes how the early Church continued to grow, with new members and new roles of leadership and service constantly being added. This idea of dynamic life is very appropriate, for St. Peter (1 Pet 2:4-9) tells us we must be “living stones” being built into a “spiritual house” for the glory of God. This, of course, can only happen by staying rooted in Christ, for in the Gospel of John (14:1-12) Jesus describes Himself as the way, the truth, and the life, and promises that everyone who believes in Him with a truly living faith will do great things in God’s service.
What does this mean for us in practical terms? How are we supposed to live as Catholic followers of Jesus here and now? What does true discipleship require of us? The great Christian author C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither” (Mere Christianity, p. 104). In other words, if we live a life of love, integrity, and compassion, we will recognize and appreciate God’s blessings and experience inner peace and joy, despite life’s challenges and problems—but if we lower our sights and goals, and place our hopes in this world only, we’ll sooner or later be overwhelmed by disappointment, emptiness, and regret—and even worse, will find ourselves disastrously unprepared for death and judgment.
Being ready for Heaven means, among other things, always trying to live in a state of God’s grace—or, if we commit a serious or mortal sin, going to Confession as soon afterwards as possible. It means coming to Mass and receiving Holy Communion every weekend—for the more we allow Jesus to live within us this way, the more we become capable of receiving the gift of eternal life. It means praying—ideally, every day—in addition to reading the Bible and continuing to learn more about our Catholic faith—for the more we do this, the easier it becomes to resist temptation and stay on the “straight and narrow path” that leads us to God’s Kingdom. It means treating everyone with kindness, love, and respect—for every single person we meet is potentially a future fellow citizen of Heaven. It means not becoming so caught up in the duties, pleasures, and possibilities of this world that we ignore, set aside, or downplay God’s will for our lives—for when we encounter the Lord face to face, nothing will matter more than hearing Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; come, share your Master’s joy.”
A little girl taking a night-time walk with her father gazed up at the stars in wonder, and exclaimed, “Oh, Daddy, if the wrong side of Heaven is so beautiful, what must the right side be!” (Charles L. Allen, quoted by Roy B. Zuck in The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 190). For the time being, we are on the “wrong side” of Heaven, or on the outside looking in—but our faith assures us that, through the mercy of God, we will finally arrive at our true home, a place of incomparable beauty, peace, and joy. Let us center our lives around this goal—for in this way we will glorify God, grow in His grace, and one day experience the fullness of life and salvation through Our Lord Jesus Christ.