By Ron Rolheiser
It was George Carlin, I think, who once quipped: “When Iwas born, I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak for twoyears!” There’s a homily in that.
Recently, I received a letter from a young mother whodescribed her delight in watching her new baby awake tomore awareness. Her words: “She’s beautiful. She’sstarting to vocalize a bit and smiles a lot when we talk toher. This morning, while her six year-old sister and I werehaving breakfast, I looked into the baby’s eyes and said:’Are you talking to me?’ She replied with something thatsounded like ‘yeah!’ Her sister was so excited-‘Mommy,she talked!’ I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it wasjust a random utterance.”
This is a wonderful image, I believe, to describe what itwill be like for each of us when we are born again intoheaven. The maternal side of God will be looking us in theeyes, smiling, and trying to coax a smile and some wordsout of us, but we will be a bit too overwhelmed and underdevelopedto speak. The saints will be following ourprogress with joy, delighting in each of our little breakthroughs,as we awaken and struggle to learn the languageof heaven.
A generation ago, C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant little book onheaven, hell and purgatory, entitled The Great Divorce. Inthat book, he stresses the moral continuity between thisworld and the next. However, because Lewis wanted somuch to emphasize that the way we shape our hearts inthis world will determine how we respond to love in thenext, the reader can easily get the impression that heavenis a lot like here, only nicer, that heaven will simply be ourpresent life beautified. No doubt this is true, but our faithcautions us to not think of this too literally-Eye has notseen, nor ear heard, nor is the human person even capableof imagining what God has prepared for those who lovehim.
Heaven is going to be wonderful, no doubt. However, itisn’t going to be a simple extension of this life. Rebirth willbe as much of a stretch for us as was first birth. We will, Ibelieve, wake up in heaven, like an infant again, too overwhelmedto speak, needing to be coaxed into a newlanguage and a new consciousness by God’s smile and thedelight of the saints. Some of this, learning this newlanguage and consciousness, is already possible for ushere. I knew an abbot recently deceased who, through thelast 25 years of his life, used to sit in silent prayer for 4-6hours a day, every day. He described this silent prayer asan attempt to enter into God’s stillness, into the divinequiet, into a silence that contains all words, all languages,all understanding, all compassion, all unity. Throughsilent prayer, he was struggling to enter into a languagethat is beyond all languages. In a manner of speaking, hewas spending 4-6 hours a day in a language lab. When hedied, I suspect, he wasn’t as overwhelmed as he mighthave been. He had already been trying to learn heaven’slanguage for all those years.
Not all of us are abbots, monks or contemplative nuns,who have, by vocation, the chance of spending suchquality time each day in silent prayer. We will, each of us,therefore, have to try to learn that language, the languageof God’s stillness and divine quiet, in our own way.Perhaps it might be through our intimate relationshipswithin marriage and family, where words at a pointbecome superfluous or perhaps it will be in our lonelinessand solitude, where silence breaks through both sopainfully and peacefully or maybe it will be through thevery tediousness of our daily tasks, where burdens oftenreduce us to silence or perhaps it might be throughteaching our own baby how to speak. There are variousways of being a monk. All of them good.Jesus told us that each of us needs to be born twice, oncefrom below and once from above. We need also to betaught twice how to speak. Our mothers once gave usbirth, from below, and they also coaxed, cajoled and luredus into speech. Each of us has a “mother-tongue” (notineptly named).
Our second birth, our rebirth, our birth from above, will, Isuspect, be somewhat similar. There will be time of havingto leave the womb, the familiar, this life, and then a lonelyjourney down an unwanted birth canal into the greatest ofall unknowns. Light, love and community will greet usupon arrival. However, it will be somewhat overwhelming,beyond language and imagination. We will betoo stunned to speak, but God’s smile and the delight ofthe saints will, I don’t doubt, soon awaken within us asmile and evoke from us something that sounds like a”yeah!”