10. An Enthusiastic Heaven
Joan’s funeral was a grand farewell: beautiful music, readings and hymns she had chosen, fine and moving words from many friends. And a chapel packed with people of all ages and persuasions. Grief and fondness; loss and celebration.
Joan’s death was not unexpected, but her illness had been. Diagnosed with a brain tumour only a few months earlier, it was a cruel bolt from the blue for a person otherwise fit, trim and vivacious, who looked so much younger than her fifty or so years.
Enthusiasm was the word used by a friend to epitomise Joan’s spirit. She went on to explain that enthusiasm, from the Greek enthousiasmos, literally means possessed by or filled with a god. It seemed the right word for Joan: that larger-than-life zest for life, that energy easy to admire but sometimes difficult to be in the company of, a fire of the spirit that burned true and bright but which knew as well the excessive potential of all fire.
The large gathering celebrated Joan’s life. We prayed for her eternal life and peace. It all seemed right until the end: May she rest in peace. I thought to myself that while Joan might desire peace, (after all, as Augustine knew, our hearts are restless until they rest in God’s) would she really want eternal, perpetual, never ending rest: to sleep in the Lord- the sleep of death?
It is only a metaphor of course, like all our talk of heaven, and like all metaphors it is both graphic and inadequate: the great feast, the eternal paradise, harps and pearly gates. Perhaps the truest word of our life beyond is this one belonging to St John:
What we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; we shall be like God because we shall see God as he really is. (1 John 3:2)
Rest or sleep as an image of eternity has its appeal and its integrity. It conjures up images of stone lords and ladies, hands joined in prayer, atop their bed-like graves. It promises comfort and a warm, womb-like safety to those whose lives have been marked by penury and hard labour. But for people like Joan, for small children, as well as those whose lives have been constrained by imprisonment of mind or body, it could be seen to promise not paradise but disappointment.
I remember reading years ago a dismissal of the rest in peace kind of heaven by the renowned Australian iconoclast Norman Lindsay, artist and writer. He maintained that if heaven were all peace, serenity and sleep, he didn’t want to go there at all: it would be too boring!
For an apt and evocative alternative idea of heaven, I turn to a poem by the great English spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill:
Heaven’s not a place…
No! tis a dance,
where love perpetual,
loved one to lover.
What a different and refreshing view she presents. Full of life and movement, music and love. Not sleep but dancing is the order of the eternal day. Celebration! I think Joan would like the idea. I hope she is now enjoying the company of the Lord of the Dance.
Mary Wickham rsm