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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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The Dimensions & Appearance of Heaven

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Where is heaven? How big is heaven? What does it look like? Many past believers imagined heaven in the sky, particularly since Jesus ascended and Mary was assumed into heaven.  There was also the biblical presumption that hell or hades was under the earth.  Artists have imagined heaven with cathedral like buildings, where the streets are paved with gold and everything is illumined with an interior light.  As for how big, we imagine a vastness further than the eye can see.  God would certainly insure enough space for all who would call it home.  While God and the angels as spirits take up no space or extension; Jesus and the Blessed Mother have glorified bodies, just as the saints will possess.  These bodies will have to reside somewhere.  We sometimes speak of a new heaven and a new earth. However, I doubt there will ever be a celestial surveyor who could determine the boundaries of heaven or measure the jurisdiction.  How big is it?  It is big enough.  I have often pondered the question in reference to our final end.  We will live within the Trinity.  Any way we turn, we will see God.

Physicists speak about the relativity of time and space.  It is my supposition that when it comes to heaven, this relativity is taken to another level entirely with a signification hinted in the sacraments.  When we speak of the Eucharist, we assert that Christ is present in his person and in his saving activity.  The entire paschal mystery (our Lord’s betrayal, scourging, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension) is made present in the liturgical action and in the consecrated species.  Just as a taste of heaven can be condensed to the sacrament, we might imagine heaven as a spiritual gravity well, where the providence of God is fully realized and we are offered a share in eternal life.  This new signification or meaning makes the question about size inconsequential.  All of creation and salvation history meets in this singularity of the kingdom.  One might argue that material creation mimics this situation with its initial singularity, the release of energy with the big bang, and then the unfolding of the universe. God sustains both his material and spiritual creation.

Angels are discussed as spiritual creatures without physical bodies.  Stories about full-bodied angels are interpreted as phantasms fashioned so as to relate to men.  Like God, they are perfect spirits that exist outside of time and space.  However, God can give them liberty to become involved with human affairs.  Similarly, God as a perfect spirit can reveal himself to us by entering the human family through the incarnation.  The angels and the souls of the dead know duration but are outside of time.  It has been conjectured that with glorified bodies, the clock might start ticking again as matter and time are partners to each other.  But, having said this we really do not know much about the spiritualized matter or immortality of glorified men and women (where souls and bodies are reconnected).  The risen Christ appears in locked rooms and to men on the road— then just as suddenly he disappears and shows up somewhere else.  What would the space or dimensions of heaven matter if we could all travel at the speed of thought?

 

Much of this reflection is speculation.  What do we know for sure?  We have the promise of Christ.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:2-3).

 

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Art, Poetry & Song in Heaven?

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The question about art, music and poetry in heaven is more complicated than we might initially acknowledge.  These three efforts at creativity can either be directed to the bottom feeders or they can target the heights of inspiration and hope.  There is a vast difference between pornography and the human forms that speak of God’s creation and salvation history in the Sistine Chapel.  There is no comparison between a vulgar rap song that espouses violence and sexism to a sweet solo of Ave Maria or a full chorus and orchestra giving us Faure’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah.  There is an infinite distance between simple rhymes for children or off-color limericks for dirty old men and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s The Divine Comedy or Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven.

Believe it or not, I have heard arguments for music in hell.  Indeed, certain authorities intimate that the devil or Lucifer had a certain charge over music in heaven.  If so, this explains something of the terrible depth of his fall from grace.  It might be discordant, but the arts can both reveal and conceal.  I suspect that in hell they do the latter.  A fumbling king might imagine he has real greatness if only the trumpets blow and the fanfare is exalted enough.  Art can give us a counterfeit beauty, as a mask to cover the ugliness around us.  An intricate and moving poem can give a sense of mystery and importance, even to the mundane or hollow.

By contrast, what could an artist in heaven possibly paint that could better express the transcendent than the God and heaven that surrounds him.  His picture would be a poor copy.  The only true artist in heaven is God.  He has painted a masterpiece with the blood of the Lamb.  We are all a part of his great work and yet when one steps back from the depiction of all our faces, only one face is seen, the face of Jesus, God’s Son.

We speak of the Eucharist as a foretaste from the heavenly banquet.  I suspect that the best and most solemn hymns also grant us a tiny sampling from the heavenly choir.  There is something in the soul that vaguely remembers music from before the fall.  A note here, a piece of melody there, and suddenly we are conveyed to another plateau of existence. The celestial choir eternally sings the praises of God.  While on earth music can raise our hearts and voices to God; in heaven, we are already there— music can only express this abiding presence and the truth that we are made for God and must give him the glory.  Singing God’s praises in heaven might be like breathing on earth.

As for poetry, the greatest works seek to crack open the mysteries of God— to apprehend a fleeting truth.  Poetry and music are kindred threads.  The mystery they target is realized in heaven, but when it comes to the kingdom it has swallowed us up— filled us— transformed us.  God is the poet in heaven and we have become his poem.  All poetry in heaven is love poetry.  God takes the initiative because he loved us first.  We are called to the marriage banquet of the Lamb.

“My lover speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come! My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, Let me see your face, let me hear your voice, For your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely’” (Song of Songs 2:10-14).

If Good Dogs Can Go to Heaven, What About Bad Cats?

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There are a couple of gentle and devoted dogs I would love to see again.  There is even a horse I miss from long ago.  I am not untouched by the companionship given by animals.  I would be happy to see and to experience their presence again.  But I am also confident that God will satisfy every longing and that nothing is lost on God.

Dr. Kreeft asserts that it is irrational to deny the existence of animals in heaven. He cites C.S. Lewis who assumed that tamed animals might be saved as extensions of their masters.  But Kreeft says it is likely that wild animals will also inhabit paradise.  I suppose in this reckoning, Eden and its harmony is somehow restored.  Man is once again the steward of a creation made invulnerable to natural violence and extinction.

 

Really, is this so?  Call me mean-spirited or illogical, but I just do not know— it is hard for me to take a certain view on this matter.  Indeed, if I lean one way over another, it would be toward a kingdom inhabited by God, angels and men, but not by our furry friends.  But, I might be wrong.  I know Franciscans, true to their founder, insisting that animals will join us in heaven.  If I should find my old cat there I will be much surprised.  She consumed 20 years of my life and was reckoned by most as an evil creature.  She would pretend to have gentleness and then she would attack.  She delighted in relieving herself where it would cause the most anguish. She would literally bite the hand that fed her.  As for scratching, neither flesh, nor paper nor wood was safe.  I have heard hopeful rumors that dogs go to heaven; it would be easier for me to imagine my cat at the head of a gang of feline thugs, patrolling the boundaries of hell.

I have written upon this topic before and will rehash old remarks:

I suppose most Thomists would say that animals do not go to heaven, given that they do not possess immortal souls. This somewhat harsh response is often softened with the assertion that they are not entirely gone in that other animals (like dogs) share their substantial form. Others would say that an animal, like your favorite dog, continues to exist as an idea in the mind of God.

C.S. Lewis remarked that canine loyalty and affection oftentimes put human fidelity and friendship to shame. Because of this he thought that maybe dogs would be allowed to join their masters in heaven. Critics contend that this is just another instance of over-blown English sentimentality.

Why would a priest waste his time talking to people about the fate of dead animals? Well, to be honest, it immediately leads to their views about life after death in general. That is more properly my concern. Animals are often the first reminders to us, usually as children when we have lost a pet that everything that lives in this world will eventually die. We are mortal. We share our physicality with the other earthly creatures around us. Some, like dogs (and maybe cats), give us great comfort and companionship. They matter to us and so the question arises, is this all there is? Will we see them again? Can we find solace in knowing that all we cherish as good in creation will be reflected back to us in the beatific vision of the Creator?

I have had a number of inquiries about people’s pet dogs and the question as to whether they would be given entry into heaven.  I would move the gravity to stress human immortality and our hope for heaven. Animal substantial forms would continue to exist as paradigms in the divine mind. Anything more would be up to God’s mysterious providence and I would not presume to give an answer where the Church has not. Others are free to speculate, but we will not know anything more for sure until or if we find ourselves among the saints.

It is possible that my view would make some angry with me but I am not mean-spirited. Others come down on the side of continued existence of animals because these creatures are a part of our affection and shared existence in this world and thus, the argument goes, they would add to our happiness in the next.

Certain animal apologists cite Scripture and argue for a literal new earth. Some ridicule the whole notion of an afterlife, for anyone or anything. Others agree with me that the stress has to be upon the beatific vision and how we (people) are made for God.

I would not worry much about the fate of animals after they die. If we love animals we should do what we can now to protect them from abuse and suffering. We live in a world where many species are rapidly becoming extinct.

Further, some may err by the sin of presumption about their own salvation. Are you sure that you are going to heaven? Speaking for myself, I have faith in Christ and try to be a faithful disciple in the Church. I worship God and seek to serve him through my charity and sacrifices for others. However, if people forget God, discount obedience to the commandments, and hate their fellow man… well, they may be in for a terrible surprise!

Are the Saints Dressed with More than a Smile?

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Children used to be the only ones to ask the question, “Do the saints in heaven wear clothes?”  However, adults are increasingly asking me the same question.  Dr. Kreeft refers to visions from private revelation:  “They say that it is hard to classify the blessed as either clothed or naked. If clothed, it is as if the clothing were a part of the body, an organic growth, rather than an accidental, foreign covering: it reveals rather than conceals, and it is natural and necessary rather than artificial and accidental. If naked, it is shameless and not arousing erotic desires.”

 

I recall reading a speculative fiction paperback years ago where the people destined for heaven found themselves embodied.  As they went up to heaven their bodies began to change— principally their sexual organs began to shrink and disappear— making them appear as small children but without sexual passion or interest.  Those who went to hell seemed to go through a reverse process and became more unruly and manipulated by their desires and sin.  I really do not think that is the prospect that awaits us after death.  If our Lord could even carry the wounds of his ordeal in his hands, feet and side; then I think it is more likely that we will continue to be who we are, albeit no longer subject to concupiscence or the need to propagate the species.  Indeed, the need for intimacy will no longer require the joining of bodies but will be satisfied with the beatific vision and union with God.  Our souls, if not immediately then at the final consummation, will be rejoined to our bodies glorified and made immortal.  Naked or clothed it will make no difference because there will be no shame, just as it was with Adam and Eve in the primordial garden before the fall.

We will be recognizable and yet different.  Imagine if no one were overweight or starving, weakened by age or handicapped, and no longer anxious about tomorrow or weary from the world’s betrayals and difficulties.  It is no wonder that the women at the tomb did not immediately recognize Jesus.  Remember, they had last seen his scourged and crucified body taken down from the Cross.  Now, suffering and death no longer has any part of him… this is the smiling Jesus… this is the Christ of joy!

There are several instances where the Bible describes the vestiture of heaven as white, indeed when it comes to the Transfiguration (indicative of Christ’s coming victory over sin and death and his resurrection), his clothes are whiter than any bleacher could make them— almost like light itself.  It would make sense that believers would suppose that those who follow our Lord would be similarly attired. “After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him” (Matthew 17:1-3).  Light and truth are interconnected themes.

Clothes are worn in the garden because of a sense of shame or inadequacy.  Clothes are still worn, not only for warmth and comfort, but also to project something about ourselves— an image that may not always be in conformity with the truth.  Some wear tight clothing for reasons of seduction.  Others wear loose or baggy clothing to disguise shape.  Still others wear clothes that inspire or impress others.  Note that the new Adam is virtually stripped when he undergoes his passion and the victory of the Cross.  I suspect any clothing that we may wear or appear to wear in the coming kingdom will not disguise but rather show precisely who we are and what we are about.

A parable is told about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  After his initial guests made excuses so as not to attend, he sends out a general invitation.  “‘Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:9-14). It is important for us to remember that the wedding garments were readily available and given at the door.  This one person entered the feast unconcerned about honoring the king’s son and lacking any gratitude for the invitation.  There is no answer he can make.  He does not belong.  He is thrown out.  Note that he is tied up.  Turning to Jesus, outside the feast there is only bondage and despair— there is only sin and hell.  The wedding garment, these gowns of white for the elect, signify honoring Christ and that we are participants in the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Note that brides still often wear white dresses or gowns.  Those who attend the heavenly banquet are more than guests, they are members of the Church and the Church is the bride of Christ.  White is a precious sign of light, purity and marriage.  Groom and Bride wear white, indeed, the bride’s gown has been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. “Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, ‘Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you are the one who knows.’ He said to me, ‘These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:13-14).

There is an old saying, clothes make the man.  If this is the case, then wearing Christ means embracing the new man.  We are not what we were before and yet, in a sense, we have become our true self— what God has wanted us to become from the very beginning. The saints of heaven will be spiritually clothed in Christ, in whom nothing is hidden and where truth reigns.  “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:12-14).

Treasure for Ourselves in Heaven

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I remember many years ago a man who so loved his car that he made the news by being buried in it.  He literally tried to take it with him.  This stands in stark comparison to a priest I knew who was buried almost naked in a cardboard box.  The only thing he took with him was a fork as a symbol of his readiness for the banquet table of heaven.  The discussion here about possessions is a bit odd because we should all know that we leave this world as we came into it, naked and without earthly belongings.  The only treasure we can take with us into the kingdom after death is the gift of Christ.  If we have God then what more could any of us ever want.  If the question is about stuff in heaven, then it is certainly possible but I doubt there will be ownership as we now experience it.  Stuff will be insignificant.  We give material things value in this world.  But what happens when the only prize that measures is the greatest good, God, himself?

The formation of saints begins on earth, not in heaven.  The rich man lacked charity for the beggar Lazarus at his door.  “Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented’”(Luke 16:25).  The beggar was regarded as a thing of no importance, not a person of infinite value.  He was literally a door mat, walked over each time the rich man entered his home.  Indeed, worse than that, we are told the dogs licked his sores.  He had been reduced to dog food.  The rich man in this story is condemned, not simply because he was rich, but because he had no real or practical love for Lazarus.  We are told that the Lord identifies himself with the poor and the oppressed.  A failure to love the beggar was a failure to love God.  The reward given to Lazarus and the punishment suffered by the rich man is an expression of divine justice.

Scripture tells us that we have a jealous God.  “‘No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon’” (Matthew 6:24).  Jesus encounters a young man who has kept the commandments and desires spiritual perfection. “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:21-23). It appears that the young rich man is invited to be a thirteenth apostle.  But he goes away sad because his possessions are many.  Jews traditional view themselves as blessed by God according to wealth, land and progeny.  The kingdom of Christ turns this reasoning on its head.  The young rich man could keep the rules, but giving everything to the poor is a level of mastery with charity that he has yet to acquire.  It would mean putting aside worldly standing and the personal security that he has come to trust.  It takes faith and courage to live for the kingdom.

The apostles are perplexed by this episode.  They might have been poor or hard working men, but they probably also had dreams about being self-sufficient and knowing earthly security.  The question is asked, is there any hope for the rich man?  “Jesus looked at him [now sad] and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard this said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ And he said, ‘What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.’ Then Peter said, ‘We have given up our possessions and followed you.’ He said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive back an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come’” (Luke 18:24-30).  If we will not readily let go, death itself will force our possessions from our clasped hands.

We will have the Lord and belong to God.  “‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be’” (Matthew 6:19-21).

If we were to put anything before God in the life to come then we would not find ourselves in heaven.  Even the “self” must be given to God so that it may be perfected and made holy. Years ago I watched a television musical based on the story of The Littlest Angel about a shepherd boy who finds himself in heaven.  He loves the things of earth and has a hard time letting go.  It is only when he takes his recently recovered box made from scraps of wood and filled with the treasures of earth (two white stones, three blue eggs, a dry butterfly, a starling’s feather, etc.) and presents it as a gift to the Christ Child that he is ready to take his proper place in heaven.  (As a bit of humor, pockets are sewed into his celestial gown because, since there is detachment from things, no one there has pockets.)  He trades his earthly treasures for the one who will rest in the feedbox of the manger.

 

We may speak of possessing heaven, but in truth heaven will possess us.  God is goodness, beauty, truth, life and grace.  We will not know these attributes as things but as a person.  The Lord will share himself with us but we will never be able to utterly consume him.

Is One Free to Sin in Heaven?

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There are some questions that can be regarded as silly.  Why?  It is because they focus on a fallacy.  For instance, take this question:  Given that God can do anything; can he make a rock too heavy for him to pick up?  If the answer is YES, then he is not all powerful because he cannot lift the rock.  If the answer is NO, then he is not all powerful because he cannot make such a rock.  What is the answer?  The assertion is nonsense because it contains an inner contradiction.  Similar conflicts are found as in the biblical temptation scene.  Some will argue that if the devil’s temptations were real then Jesus could have potentially given in and sinned.  However, temptation does not necessarily imply the possibility of succumbing.  In the case of Jesus, it was impossible.  Sin is by definition an act of disobedience against God.  However, Jesus is a divine Person.  God cannot sin against himself.  Similarly, the question is raised:  if the saints of heaven are free then are they free to sin?  The problem is how we understand freedom.  While it might be misused in this world, it is perfected in the world to come.  True freedom means loving obedience to God.  The misuse of freedom or a false freedom is realized in sin or disobedience to God.  Indeed, it is to embrace bondage to the diabolical.

Free will and moral perfection are in sync for the saints of heaven.  While sin is possible for those who only see dimly as through a veil, such is not possible for those who see God face-to-face.  When confronted by the greatest good, which is God, the will is immediately disposed to embrace it.  There is no apparent good.  There is nothing which can compete with it.  Arguably even the angels knew some sort of demarcation when they were tested.

It can also be argued that our ultimate decisions were already made during our mortal lives.  Our orientation is fixed with death.  Along these lines, certain theologians argue that the unborn and children who die before reaching the age of reason might be given the opportunity for making a choice in regard to their eternal destiny.  Many suspect that their personal innocence and the intercession of the parents and/or the Church would nudge them to make free decisions in loving God.  But this is speculation, no matter how optimistic the Church might be in their regard.  In any case, the denizens of heaven, both human and angelic cannot change their minds.  They have freely turned their backs to sin and have set their sights on almighty God. Coincidentally, such is also the state of hell and the slavery they have exchanged for freedom. We read the following in the fourth book of Milton’s Paradise Lost:  “Nay, cursed be thou; since against his thy will / Chose freely what it now so justly rues. / Me miserable! which way shall I fly / Infinite wrauth and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell…” (line 75)

 

Sin in heaven would be a violation of the very identity of the saints.  Their wills are united to that of Christ.  They have been made holy as God is holy.

Who is Father Joe?

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Given that not everything is as it seems on the internet, a few people have asked if I am a real priest. I can assure readers that I am. I established the first parish web page in the Archdiocese of Washington in the 1990’s and have posted reflections on the faith on message boards and later on blogs. Indeed, when the Archdiocese began its own blog, a priest contacted me and said that I had inspired their effort. I try to be respectful to authority and faithful in transmitting Catholic truths. Pope Benedict XVI has commended priests to make the presence of the Church felt online. As for my credentials, I was ordained a priest in 1986 by the late Cardinal Hickey. I am currently the pastor of Holy Family Parish in Mitchellville, MD. The picture of me above was taken with my Ordinary, Cardinal Wuerl at a deanery meeting last year.

CLICK HERE for a previous post on this subject.

This blog is a personal effort, but always that of a Catholic priest in good standing. Hope this allays any fears or reservations. God bless!

FATHER JOSEPH JENKINS