I’d like to start with a story my cousin Greg sent me the other day:
There was a young woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. So as she was getting her things in order, she contacted her Pastor and had him come to her house to discuss certain aspects of her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at the service, what Scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in.Everything was in order and the Pastor was preparing to leave when the young woman suddenly remembered something very important to her.“There’s one more thing,” she said excitedly.“What’s that?” came the Pastor’s reply.“This is very important,” the young woman continued. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”The Pastor stood looking at the young woman, not knowing quite what to say.“That surprises you, doesn’t it?” the young woman asked.“Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled by the request,” said the Pastor.The young woman explained. “My grandmother once told me this story, and from that time on I have always tried to pass along its message to those I love and those who are in need of encouragement. ‘In all my years of attending socials and dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, “Keep your fork.” It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming ... like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful, and with substance!’
“So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder, ‘What’s with the fork?’ Then I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork … the best is yet to come.’”
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9; cf. Is 64:4). This is not merely a promise but the literal truth. Just as no merely human mind or soul can compass God as He truly is, so even our richest evocations of Paradise must fall well short of its reality: all metaphors must suffer inadequacy.
Let’s think about it: While Scripture tells us that Man was created “in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Gen 1:26-27, 5:1), we’ve also known, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it, that God Himself is “a single uncreated eternal Essence, the same forever, which transcends all our ideas of distance, conceived of as without increase or decrease, and beyond the scope of any definition; and that time and space with all their consequences, and anything previous to these that thought can grasp in the intelligible supramundane world, are all the productions of this Essence” (On Infant’s Early Death). How could you have thought that Christians conceived God as a really old guy with a white beard hanging out in the clouds?
Then we have angels: Immortal (cf. Lk 20:36), receiving their knowledge unmediated from God (cf. Summa Theologica I:56:3 SC), with a higher perfection of powers (2 Pet 2:11), how could they be limited to floating in the sky playing harps except by some poor artist’s attempt to express the inexpressible? Is not the minuscule winged conscience riding on human shoulders due to the feebleness of human wit?
So it is with Heaven. David sings in praise to God, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Ps 16:11). Joy and pleasure that will never pass or fail, St. Augustine explains: “Those days are days without end: they all exist together: it is thus they satisfy us: for they give not way to days succeeding: since there is nothing there which exists not yet because it has not reached us, or ceases to exist because it has passed; all are together: because there is one day only, which remains and passes not away: this is eternity itself” (Exposition on Psalm 90, 15).
Some people accuse us of treating Heaven as a club for the spiritual élite, because the criteria for gaining it is narrow. But if it is an exclusive club, it’s the only such club whose members are trying to get others to join. We don’t want people left out! Why else would we be trying to get converts? Why else do we remind each other that we too need periodic re-conversion?
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. … When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:51-52, 54; cf. Is 25:8).
When St. Peter asked Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:27-29).
There is no riches we have been given, no pain we have suffered, that can compare to the joy that is promised if only we take up our crosses and follow the Lord (cf. Mt 16:24-25).
Keep your fork. The best is yet to come.