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“Heaven Is Other People” 10 October 2011

A recently published book, Heaven in the American Imagination, by Gary Smith, notes that Americans as early as 1620 have shown a great interest in life after death. The interest centers not only on what heaven will be like but also how to get there. Part of an abstract of the book reads:

The way most Americans picture heaven and salvation is based in part upon their specific religious traditions—Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, or Muslim. However, it is also usually closely connected to the features of life people have valued most in the different eras in which they have lived. Americans have generally seen heaven as the most ideal and desirable place they can imagine. While their interpretation of sacred scripture strongly shapes many people’s understanding of heaven, their desires and personal life experiences have also significantly influenced their conception of paradise.

There’s no doubt that our personal experiences greatly shape the way that we picture heaven or the life here after. The encounter between a pastor and one of his flock, an elderly woman. The pastor admonishes here: “Now, Sarah, at your age, you should be thinking of the hereafter.” And Sarah responds, “Oh, pastor, I think about it all the time. When, I’m upstairs, in the kitchen or in the basement, I keep asking myself ‘What I am here after?’” 

It’s no secret that golfers are inclined to picture heaven as a place with the most beautiful golf courses. So the story goes: Two avid elderly golfers were playing golf on a course in heaven that was perfectly manicured, with dream greens that made putting pure joy. One remarked to other, “You know, John, we could have been here ten years sooner if we had not eaten all of that oatmeal.”

In a more serious vein, the pessimism of the French writer and philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, as far as can be observed, did not spend much time envisioning a life hereafter but apparently focused his attention exclusively on this life. One of the characters in his play Huis Clos (No exit) utters the well-known remark: “Hell is other people.” Those of us who have lived a little can testify to the fact that, in far too many instances, people can put us through the tortures of the damned, especially those who are near and dear to us by their disloyalty and betrayals.

Now Francis de Sales certainly experienced the ways in which other people can make hell for us on earth. However, he chose to emphasize not on how people make us suffer but how we can make them happy and begin to create the beginnings of heaven here on earth. This, he firmly believed, can be achieved, by developing true friendships that last forever:

If your mutual and reciprocal exchanges concern charity, devotion, and Christian perfection, O God, how precious this friendship will be! It will be excellent because it comes from God, excellent because it leads to God, excellent because its bond will endure eternally in God. How good it is to love here on earth as they love in heaven and to learn to cherish one another in this world as we shall do eternally in the next. (Introduction to a Devout Life, pt. 3, ch. 19).

His many mutually rewarding experiences of deep and lasting friendships certainly colored the way he envisioned heaven. So the way to get to heaven was to form spiritual friendships on earth since they would continue to exist beyond the grave. Who can doubt that our happiest moments on earth are those that we spend with those we love? So it was quite natural for this saint to picture heaven as the sublime heavenly experience of the undying felicity of friendship. Those that were the source of our earthly happiness will also serve that purpose in heaven: “[The saints] in heaven give to one another ineffable contentment and live in the consolation of a happy and indissoluble communion” (Introduction to a Devout Life, pt. 1, ch. 16).

This vision of paradise points to the belief that for Francis de Sales heaven is other people.

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