Why Doesn’t the Way to Heaven Look like a Roadmap?
The liturgical prayers for the Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension ask that we might follow Christ to the place where He has gone. They ask that we, the Body of Christ, might follow and dwell in hope where “the Head has gone before in glory.” Likewise, that we might “rise up to the heavenly realms” and be drawn onward “to where our nature is united” with Him. Where or what this place is, is described by the Lord as a “room.” As He returns to the Father’s house, He goes to prepare a place for us too:
In my Father’s house are many rooms. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going. (Jn 14:2-4)
Each of us has a unique path that leads directly to the specific room Jesus is preparing for us. And no two paths are identical. What does yours look like?
It probably doesn’t look much like a path at all. Speaking as a Californian, I know the way from San Diego to Los Angeles and from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Freeway signs indicate the mileage, show where to merge, and many familiar sights along the way remind me that I’m on the right road. But what about our own path to the Father’s house? Are there signs, sights, and milestones? Does it always feel like we are heading in the right direction?
First let’s confirm what we do know. Our path must always mirror the Lord’s: the way of sacrificial love, the way of the cross. Unless we take up our cross and follow after Him, we are no disciples of Jesus. But listen to what He tells the Emmaus disciples on the very day of His resurrection: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” They didn’t think so. Most people who saw our Lord suffer didn’t think so. And I would say that looking at our own lives, we tend not to think so either.
We accept that Jesus suffered for us but our own suffering is much harder to accept, much harder to see as “necessary.” It is an intruder, messing up our lives, throwing things off balance, getting in the way of our timeline and agenda. What does this tell us? That the path to glory, for Christ as for us, may not be as obvious as we think it should be. Those who saw Jesus suffer in His passion unanimously drew the wrong conclusion about it. Everyone to the last man was wrong about what it meant. To one and all (except for our Lady) “these things” that Jesus suffered meant complete failure. The Emmaus disciples even said, “We were hoping….” And Jesus of Nazareth did not fulfill their hopes.
But it was necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory. I think we have to ask: What are your “things”? What are the things that God has given you to suffer in order to follow Him into glory? What are those things that keep getting in your way, keep holding you back, keep challenging you—those things about which you say, “My life would be so much more ideal, so much easier, if these things weren’t happening”?
Are your things clearly stepping stones to glory or do you trip over them? Do they seem more like stumbling blocks to your happiness—the things whose only purpose seems to be holding you back from contentment, joy, and peace? Many look at the things that cause them suffering in life and immediately reject them as bad luck, a random twist of fate, things that somehow escaped God’s providence. And even if we don’t think that way, it can be very easy to act as if we do.
When we have passed from this life, we will see what God has prepared for us—which is, of course, the blessed vision of Himself. But we will also see all things in Him, including ourselves, our lives, the history of the world, and how He used all things to bring about His greater glory and our glory. Then we will realize why He chose a particular way for us. We will finally see how necessary it was for our salvation and sanctification that we have our health problems, personal defects, these parents and not others, these struggles and not others, this environment in which we live and not another.
Then will we say: I wish I had surrendered more completely to what God had chosen for me? I wish I had worked with it all instead of throwing up my hands and doing nothing. I wish I had accepted more wholeheartedly my shortcomings, my trials, my weaknesses? It was necessary, it was all somehow necessary, so that I might enter into the glory of God, and into the dwelling place He has prepared for me. If we might say such things then, how might we respond better now?
I’m not proposing an easy path any more than Jesus proposes an easy path for us. But I think we need to look twice at our path as it is, look at our attitude toward it, and then ask if maybe God has a different point of view on it. If “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” then can we expect to understand everything as we journey to a place whose happiness is absolutely beyond us, is absolutely inconceivable?
Understand? No. Trust, yes. This is what God is asking of us. He does not ask that we walk by crystal clear sight, but by humble faith, with the humble confidence that comes from following One who has gone before us to prepare a place perfectly suited to us.
And I will lead the blind
in a way that they know not,
in paths that they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16)
Once we reach our blessed destination, all the turns along the way will seem quite necessary. What our eyes, ears, and heart could not take in here below, will be poured over us in a full measure of glory prepared only for us.
“May the eyes of our hearts be enlightened,” says St Paul, that we may know that Christ does not forsake us, that He has not set us on a path toward destruction, but toward life: “You show me the path of life; fullness of joy in thy presence, at thy right hand happiness for evermore” (Ps 16:11).