I just finished reading a proposed prayer book for children. One of the matters that I commented on was that it seemed as though all references to eternal life and being with God were in the context of “going” to heaven (presumably when one dies). One of the struggles I have as a priest is helping my adult parishioners grow up-and-out of the concepts of God and the spiritual life that they learned as children. This is one example: It seems that when we talk to children about the spiritual life, we almost always refer to heaven as some “place” were people “go” when they die.
Instead of this “go to heaven” language, I suggested language that focused on being. For example, instead of the phrase, (in the context of the Second Coming of Christ, and not being lazy in our spiritual life) “let me go with you to heaven where all who love you sing your joy”; I suggested the following, “Help me get ready to be with you in heaven where all who love you sing your joy.” This is not perfect, but it is an attempt to move from the idea of heaven as a place where someone will go one day, to heaven as a spiritual reality that exists at all times and “where” one can be right now. In fact, right now is the only time one can be in heaven (heaven has no time–in the sense of duration–only a never ending now).
When we talk about spiritual things, we have no other language than the language we use to talk about our physical reality. Consequently, when talking about death, for example, we may use language like “go to heaven,” but this language is misleading. At death we don’t “go” anywhere. At death we are confronted with the reality of where we are (already). “Where” in this context, does not refer to place but relationship. Heaven is a relational reality. We are in heaven now, in as much as we are receiving and responding in love to the love and grace that God is giving us right now. We are in heaven now; however, being joined to “this body of death” and often distracted, confused and deceived by various lusts and fears, heaven seems very far away. It seems as if heaven is a place we need to “go” to.
But this is the reason why we pray. We pray to clear the air and see what is really there. We pray to pay attention to (or learn to pay attention to) that place within ourselves “where” we can know and love God–there it is always heaven. We pray in order to put our life in order, to remind our body that it is our servant, not our master. We pray to taste heaven, to smell its fragrance, and then, as much as we are able, to carry that fragrance, that flavor, with us throughout our day.