The other day I stopped at a Wawa convenience store to fill up my gas tank. As I walked in to buy a coffee and a lottery ticket, I held the door open for two men coming out with their lunch. As they passed through the opening I casually announced, “I’m only allowed to do one good deed per day, and this is it!”
The first, younger man looked at me as if I was trying to steal his ham and cheese hoagie. The older gentlemen following, said in a country drawl with a smile and a nod, “We appreciate that. I’m sure there’s a place in Heaven for you.”
Of course, that got me thinking.
My first concept of Heaven probably developed around age 7. While I may not remember the exact details, I believed that if I were a good boy, Heaven was a place I would go for all eternity; that was the goal. Today I’d envision “Up There” as a really nice, gated community with its own zip code, unlimited front row seating, and really fast internet; every day is sunny. Tight security is maintained by the Gatekeeper, whose detailed list of ‘who’s been naughty and who’s been nice’ even precludes the need for a Police Department. Everybody in Heaven is perfectly content.
Even with 6 years of parochial schooling and another 4 or 5 years of catechism training, my concept of Heaven never really evolved beyond this happy place. Now when I reflect on this concept, I suspect at least some of my training on this topic may have been more about behavioral modification than actual spiritual truths. Could you imagine, somebody using “God” to manipulate other people into behaving a certain way? And children no less!
Along the way I learned about Purgatory. This is like spiritual detention. (I definitely understand ‘detention’) This is for people who were not quite pure enough to get by the Gatekeeper on the first ballot, but would have a chance to work out their “issues” in a holding area. The actual amount of time spent in this state is measured by a device called a ‘Purgatometer.’
This soulful adding machine calculates how long one needs to spend “working it out” prior to enjoying those front row tickets and lightning fast download speeds. Although the small print contains a rather complex set of exemptions, amendments, and buyout options, the concept is quite simple: When I do, or think, bad things, I add to my time in Purgatory. When I do, or think, good things, I subtract time. If I do something good while actually thinking something bad, it’s considered ‘Purgatorily neutral’.
I personally find it very exhausting. Just the other day while standing in line at the Wawa I racked up another 238 years in purgatory; and I only hit 4 of the 7 deadly sins! Zip Code Heaven might be a ways off for me.
My concept of Heaven didn’t really begin to change until I was 34, when my own dance with cancer had me flirting with various “what if” eternal scenarios. Cancer patients don’t sleep at night because we’re afraid of not waking up. It is this “alone-time” where a lot of spiritual meandering and literal soul-searching happened for me. (It’s also when I became acquainted with the Purgatometer). While I always knew Heaven was one of those places I should want to go, honestly, I really wasn’t looking forward to the trip.
To say that I “drifted” from the church of my upbringing may be an understatement (‘Spiritual Wanderlust’ sounds more hip!) The fact is I have dabbled, explored, and run from a wide range of beliefs and practices. While I have noted there are some perennial philosophies that are shared by all major Faiths, a defined Heaven is not one of them. Developing a consensus on what Heaven is really like is probably not going to happen. At the end of the day, what seems like mindless drivel to one may be divine logic to another.
During this period of soul-searching a woman said to me, “God gave you a brain. Use it.” So through my own inquiry and interior exploration I have developed my own concept of Heaven; it’s a Heaven I can live with.
The first hurdle was to define “the eternal life”. What is eternity? If my purpose in this earthly life is to prepare for life in all eternity, does that mean ‘eternity’ doesn’t begin until the end of life? Is ‘eternity’ just an old school word for Afterlife? Or has eternity always been, and always will be? Is it timeless? Does eternity include the “Before Life”, the “Now Life” and the “Afterlife”?
On the one hand, if ‘eternity’ in fact doesn’t begin until the end of life on earth, then the Purgatometer seems to be the likely path for me to get to Zip Code Heaven. There’s nothing more to think about. WhenI get to Zip Code Heaven I’ll be with all the good people looking down at those in the ‘now life’.
On the other hand, if ‘eternity’ is actually timeless, without a beginning or an end, can I touch Heaven right here, right now?
I think so. That’s my choice, my path. My idea of Heaven is being right here, right now. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing; it is simply engaging the flow of life and living in the moment. I touch Heaven when I’m being the best man I can be. I touch Heaven when I am grateful, I touch Heaven when I choose love and tolerance of others. There’s no detention, no purgatory. There is no reason to carry a Purgatometer, and certainly no reason to “look down” at anybody. The effortless simplicity by which I can access Heaven and eternity is astounding.
Zip Code Heaven may very well be a better place (and perhaps even more spiritually accurate) than my concept of Heaven. But I do have to say – the single-most-shittiest-thing anyone ever said to me after my mother died was, “At least she’s in a better place!” That may be nice poetry, but all it did was rub salt in my already tired, red eyes. I found it neither comforting nor consoling. It just made me hurt more.
Mindless drivel or not, I’m sticking with my Heaven. When I have gratitude, there is no need to look down on anyone. Gratitude, love, tolerance; I just love it when I love what I’m doing. And if it’s really meant to be, I trust Zip Code Heaven will still be around when I get out of detention .
“Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the Company.” ~ Mark Twain.