Monday, May 31, 2010

The glorious samenes of eternity

This was part of one of the readings for Trinity Sunday yesterday:

And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever,

The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
(Revelation 4:8-11)
And it suddenly reminded me, of all things, of Dante's Inferno. One of the most horrible things about Dante's hell is the repetitiveness of it. In one circle, for example, people are eternally hacked into pieces, over and over again. It never, never, never ends.

What's interesting about this vision of heaven is the use of the present tense. The beasts never rest, day and night. They continually cry, "Holy, Holy, Holy." And when they cry, the elders fall down and worship.

One could think about this uncharitably: What, is it sort of like those window displays at Christmas in downtown Chicago when I was a child? The beasts saying the same thing over and over and the elders mechanically falling down and worshiping, getting up, falling down and worshiping again?

What is John conveying here? Well, first of all, I think he did have a vision like this, so I think he's telling what he saw and what he understood--that praise to God in heaven is unceasing.

But another idea, which I think we find hard to receive aright, is this: When we are finally in heaven at the end of all things, human history is over. The beatific vision is not at all like ordinary human life, with its ups and its downs, its reversals, its suspense, failure, success. But when we become what we should be, this will not bother us. We will not be, to put it bluntly, bored. We will want, as the catechism has it, to enjoy God forever.

And I think that in our best moments here on earth, led by the Holy Spirit, we catch a glimpse of the true glory and excitement of that state in which we praise God forever and ever and ever.

May we love that which God commands and desire what he promises, "that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found."


William Luse said...

Well, I think this is a nice post.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Bill. I haven't been feeling very inspired lately, but this really is what occurred to me in church, so that seemed like a good thing to post.

Kristor said...

It's one equal music; but that does not mean it is a monotone. It's equal because it runs the gamut.

Lydia McGrew said...

It's sufficiently unimaginable that I think those who write about it imaginatively, from St. John to Dante to C.S. Lewis, always have to choose an aspect to capture. Lewis makes heaven sound very attractive indeed (_The Last Battle_), but he does so by making it sound like an endless holiday. Dante and St. John make it sound more like an endless worship service. Yet John's is the inspired vision.

Kristor said...

I take the cherubim and seraphim and the four living creatures as indicative of the heavenly experience generally, so far as our human understanding is capable of comprehending it. The seraphim look now like a man, now like an angel with six wings and full of eyes within, now like a fiery serpent. They are somehow all of these at the same time, yet we can take in only one of their aspects at a time. Ditto for the cherubim: griffins, men, angels. And the four living creatures are - well, I can't make myself visualize them. They shift and waver in my imagination (a lot of Revelation evokes this feeling; which is an indication to me of its verisimilitude).

Lewis has a passage near the end of Perelandra, wherein Ransom encounters two seraphim, or at least angels of a very high choir, and they keep shifting before his eyes; he can see them perfectly well, but he can't tell what they look like, can't peg the experience.

So, then, think of this equally perplexing thing: billions and billions of saints all in the same room worshipping the Ancient of Days and the Lamb, and all singing the same Sanctus. How? No matter how vast that Temple, how?

In their heavenly ascents, the Merkavah mystics were often shown a book that had everything - everything whatsoever - written in it, and were able to read and apprehend the whole of it at one glance. Or they were taken up to a great height and shown everything - everything whatsoever - and saw it all at once, and understood it all. How?

All these visions indicate to me that in Heaven all goods & all beauties will somehow be coincident, and all make room for each other without conflict or contradiction; the lion lying down with the lamb.

So the music of heaven will be all conceivable instruments, each with all the stops pulled out, so that every last horn and string and reed and membrane is playing at once, each sounding all its possible notes, with an overall result that is perfectly harmonious and beautiful, wherein each voice and style and composition may be heard and abstracted from the whole, while yet adding thereto its peculiar values.

And just as the Temple and the Church, and their liturgies, are synecdoches and allegories of the whole order of being, including Heaven and Day One, so are Heaven and Day One, and its liturgy, synecdoches of the whole order of being; they have to be, since that whole order came from them, and partakes in them insofar as it exists. The communion has to work both ways or it is not a communion. When we partake of the Bread of Heaven, He partakes of us; when the book that says everything whatsoever became incarnate in a Galilean man, he became incarnate in the whole creaturely order, of which that human body was a product and procedure; so that the whole creaturely order now partakes in that Incarnation, as He partook in creaturely being.

As the whole order of being participates in the Incarnation, so also it participates in the Ascension. If it will; sin is a decision not to participate in Heaven; not to eat the food here present.

So, just as in the Mass we offer the whole of our lives, our selves, souls and bodies, as reasonable sacrifices, it is hard to see how the all the multifarious excellences and beauties of our lives - those that withstand the fiery furnace, at least - i.e., all the really good parts - can fail to make it into Heaven. What good thing would God abjure?

So the liturgy of Heaven is likely to be both intensely grave and serious and intensely thrilling and fun, even hilarious (joy is all these things); and it already involves a lot of eating, even in its salients here below.

Lydia McGrew said...

Great stuff, Kristor, feel free to keep it coming and don't be put off by the absence of any more intelligent response from me.

One small correction, though: The angelic beings Ransom meets are, technically, planetary intelligences. Lewis apparently regards them as not being among the higher orders of angels. He gets the idea of an "intelligence" as a type of personal being that guides a planet from medieval cosmology. I gather that the fact that planetary intelligences are not included in the traditional nine orders accounts for the fact that there are one or two disclaimers in the space trilogy about simply calling them "angels."

Kristor said...

It's been about 10 years since I read Perelandra (at bedtime, to the son who now wears a "Got Jesus?" t-shirt to philosophy class), so I'm fuzzy on the details. But my impression, based on some stuff I've read since then, is that Lewis was in the Space Trilogy invoking the old Near Eastern - and Greek - notion that the stars were the bodies of angels. Planets were wandering rather than fixed stars, but they had their angels, too. Lewis seemed to love the pagan gods too much to give them up entirely, so he identified them with the orders of angels. As the Hebrews did. For the Hebrews, as for all the Near Eastern peoples, lots of things had angels, or genii. Including us; that's where the notion of the guardian angel came from. The Gods of the Nations, also called Shepherds, were the angels thereof, who (with the exception of the Shepherd of Israel) were subsidiary to the gods of the planets where those nations resided. There were rank on rank of the hosts of heaven, billions of them. "Sabaoth" means "Host arrayed order of battle"; so does "Cosmos."

At least, that's what I've read.

Lydia McGrew said...

I know Lewis definitely got the planetary intelligences from the medievals. They are mentioned in Dante, though one can't always tell reading Dante that they were regarded as personal beings rather than something more like mere forces. The planets as the "bodies of" the intelligences is a bit more tricky in Lewis. Venus is spoken of in such terms, but Mars is not. And in both cases he actually goes to a certain amount of trouble to explain that the intelligences actually reside in the heavens and have to act in some deliberate way (moving very quickly) so as to appear on a planet at all. In any event, from his way of referring to Gabriel the Archangel in a letter of his, I do know that he regarded angels engaged in pure contemplation of God as higher in order than those with tasks--messengers and so forth--among men. So I would assume he would put the intelligences lower than the cherubim and seraphim, for the same reason. Malacandra, for example, is very much an active, messenger spirit, even coming to earth to "get" Ransom and transport him to Perelandra.