Growing up I was very allergic to animals, many nights--many--I spent trying to figure out how to breathe. I remember my throat would get so raw from allergies that I would hang my head over the side of the bed to keep any drainage from going down it.
My father was against all medication, telling his children to suffer through it, so I daren't not tell him. So I bore the suffering in silence because I was trying to impress him with how brave and tough I was.
Some times my allergies would be so bad that I couldn't breathe out of my nose at all and at lunchtime in elementary school, I would go sit by myself because I had to keep my mouth open while I chewed and I thought that was rude and didn't want anyone to see me. When my friends, being nice and thinking I was feeling lonely would come sit near me, I would stop eating altogether.
And if I was starving, I would hold my hand over my face so that no one could see the inside of my mouth as I struggled to breathe and eat! That happened so often that it became a habit and even into college, people would notice my hand going up to cover my mouth when I ate.
All this as context for this paragraph....
So, as you can imagine, the stories of heaven full of lions sleeping next to lambs and riding giraffes
didn't have much of an appeal. I knew I wouldn't be allergic to them in heaven, but since I couldn't be around them now and develop a bond with animals, frankly a heaven full of animals was like a cartoon heaven I had no longing for.
And while gold streets and rainbows and living eternally playing a harp seemed nice, I just couldn't get excited about that either. Not that I
didn't care about getting to heaven, I did very much. But for a very different reason.
Heaven to Me
I had my own idea of heaven.
When I was in elementary school and our Bible classes would discuss the excitement of the afterlife, I would try and come up with what I would want heaven to be like--something that excited me about eternity.
I would lay in bed at night trying to figure out my perfect vision of heaven. Maybe I am not creative, but nothing did it for me until I imagined actually seeing Jesus--finally, finally, finally, seeing Jesus. That I could vividly imagine: I would see Him
from a distance. There He would be, standing on a beautiful green field--all alone. No animals, no people, just Him. I had Him all to myself for a moment. I would run as fast as I could and then fall at His feet, sobbing and I would look into His eyes. And He would know and I would know He would know and in that very second everything would finally be alright.
Heaven was about knowing that Jesus knew how much I wanted to please Him, how hard I tried even as a child to be one of the ones who didn't hurt Him. I had reasoned this way--if our sins put Him on the Cross and caused Him to suffer, that my being good would alleviate His pain.
(Probably not theologically accurate, but I was a kid!)
I wanted to be at the Cross comforting Him not adding to His pain, I remember being very envious of the women at the Cross, I saw myself there being martyred as I fought the Roman soldiers and I would try to get Him down and away from all these people trying to kill Him. (Remember--this is when I was a kid, so I figured I could slip through the crowd and somehow jump on the back of a soldier and punch his face!! haa haa!)
Therefore, with this theology in mind, I tried so hard to be good as a child for that reason. I didn't want my bad choices to add to Christ's tears. And heaven, to me, was that moment I could see in His eyes that He knew me and knew my heart.
That was the most important thing about eternity to me--that I got to see in Jesus' eyes that He knew, really knew how much I had tried with my whole soul, spirit, body, mind and energy to please Him. Once I got to see that in His eyes, nothing else mattered.
It's a bit amusing now thinking back, that when I was in my elementary years, I saw myself dramatic falling at Jesus feet in exhaustion from trying to be good. But believe me, I did feel that way. I was an intense kid and it was hard to be good! I have no idea how many times I succeeded in this quest, all I can remember is how hard I tried.
That same idea of heaven--five minutes of eternity--was all I ever imagined. I didn't go past that point unless someone pressed me to think about what Heaven was like, but nothing I imagined was of interest to me, except that moment. In fact, I have prayed to Jesus numerous times through the years that if someone else were to enjoy heaven with the animals and gold streets, let them have my place because those five minutes with Jesus was all I needed. Just to fall at His feet and thank Him for everything was enough of heaven for me.
And that is exactly how I felt until I became Catholic in 2008.
I will be frank, Catholicism has been a real stretch to understand its mysteries, its seeming contradictions, it "otherness." In some ways, it haunted me with a tinge of fright, because it is so big and wide and deep--like the ocean full of things I had never heard of and couldn't quite see.
When I asked God in my prayers about the Catholic Church, I often felt like Job. God doesn't always explain Himself. He, rather, looks down upon us and asks us "Where were you when I laid the foundations of My Church? Tell me, since you are so well-informed! Who laid the cornerstones when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy?" "Brace yourself like a fighter, Now it is My turn to ask questions and yours to inform Me."
There were things I really believed they were wrong about. I even would stomp my feet and have a real theological hissy-fit about some of the Catholic teachings. I would throw myself onto my knees and shake my fist and not want to humble myself and give up my wrong beliefs. God would respond:
"Do you really want to reverse my judgement and put Me in the wrong to put yourself in the right? Has your arm the strength of God's? Can your voice thunder as loud?" (God's response to Job.)
When you are a Catholic who seeks to understand your faith, when you sit at the feet of Jesus (like Mary) and listen, you find there is so much more than the physical eyes can see.
So, eventually I gave up striving against what I didn't want to be true and became Catholic. Not because I understood everything, but because I know HE is way, He is the truth. He is the life. And like Ruth, "whoever thou goest, Jesus, I will go." And if Christ started a church, I am following Him.
And as I walk in faith, the more the Holy Spirit teaches and assists me in comprehending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the more joy I experience each time I enter a Catholic Church. Each time I walk down the aisle to receive the Eucharist, I feel like I am fulfilling my deepest longing. When I kneel to receive the Eucharist on my tongue, I am there... there in heaven kneeling at His feet able to thank Him. Not in my imagination, not symbolically--but really there, present with Christ in a way that transcends what I can see with my eyes. I am there spiritually and that is more real than anything material. For I am with Him supernaturally--which means above and more and better and beyond our reality. I have entered the world of the spirit where God lives.
My vision of heaven is fulfilled in the Sacrifice of the Mass, for I know at that moment that He is in me and I am in Him and He knows. He knows!! He knows how much I love Him and I can experience heaven right then.
Do not misunderstand. I do not feel "that was a touch of heaven." I don't feel like I have a glimpse of heaven, I feel like I am there permanently. Heaven has become reality, even after I leave.
The Catholic mass is not just a porthole into heaven, it is the place where I receive the manna that will sustain my life forever. While some have called the Eucharist, ambrosia, food of the gods, manna, I know that even these do not begin to explain the Eucharist. It is the fulfillment of the Tree of Life. It is the Manna foretold by Jesus that would come out of Heaven. For it is Him.
In the mass, we step into eternity. We are at the beginning with Christ as He formed the foundations of the earth, we are there at the Cross loving Him, thanking Him, helping Him through the pain, we are there at the Second Coming. All history and all future meet at the mass. It is heaven, now.
And at times when I am there, Christ gives me a deeper understanding of what I am doing and an inexplicable, eternal and exquisite joy floods me. I see into His eyes, for I have entered Heaven.
Oh, that all, every knee could bow and experience this--the joy of kneeling at the feet of the Cross and every tongue confess, crying out to the depths and breath of their souls, "All glory and honor and blessings and thanksgiving be unto the Lord!"
If the Catholic mass is all there is of heaven-- if there were no afterlife (of course I don't believe that, I am just saying that if there weren't) the Catholic mass is enough. I have had and continue to have the greatest blessing ever known to mankind, ever known to the cosmos itself--I have knelt at the feet of Jesus, I have been to the Cross and I have experienced God. And that moment to me is an eternity of heaven.
Thank you, thank you God for Your gift of the mass.