If Hell was the bottom of existence, a fiery chasm where the despicable and the disobedient sank and settled and stayed forever, then Heaven was the top. Floating above the loftiest peaks and even the highest clouds, it was a place infused with yellow sunlight and immeasurable goodness. All interactions there were calm and devoid of hostility. All motion was smooth and effortless.
Or, depending on your age, it was a candy store that offered unlimited free samples, where you could have all the ice cream you wanted and jump on the furniture without getting yelled at.
And it was where we’d finally get answers to our annoying questions – “Why does God want us to wear uniforms to school? How come my little brother gets nosebleeds when he eats fish? Is Jesus still mad at those people who nailed him to the cross? Can I have sprinkles on my ice cream?” — the questions the priests and nuns managed to ignore or evade with a consistent response that was both authoritative and motivational: “You’ll understand everything when you get to Heaven.”
In all versions of paradise, there was mostly silence, except for the sound of harps and soaring voices singing ethereal songs that would come right out of thin air and make you feel as if something important was about to happen, even though you’d been hearing the same music, continually, since you arrived.
The saints were there, acknowledging prayers and welcoming newcomers. They were also handing out little maps, I hoped, like the ones we got when we went to Freedomland or the New York World’s Fair. I’d always found things on Earth to be somewhat bewildering, so I couldn’t conceive of an afterlife that was any different, although I was counting on a little more guidance.
Somewhere in the crowd was my grandmother, and Babe Ruth, and possibly my Uncle Frank. And there were angels, who looked like regular people, except they were a lot cleaner and their hair was combed. The angels had huge wings on their backs, wings made of thick feathers that I imagined were like the heavy coats piled onto my parents’ bed when our relatives came over for the holidays.
God was there in Heaven, of course, because he was the owner and that was where he worked, although he occasionally went down to Earth to see if we all needed to be drowned in a flood or turned into statues. He would also travel the galaxy, and the other galaxies, too, to make sure the comets and planets were in their correct orbit, and to see if the sun needed refueling. But most days He was on a throne at the head of an oak conference table, in charge of a big meeting, with Jesus seated at his right hand.
I knew where Jesus was positioned because I had memorized the Apostle’s Creed, or at least the line that said he was seated at the right hand of the Father. Why Jesus was sitting so much, I had no idea. It seemed to me that he’d have way too much to do, forgiving sins and helping the crippled to walk again, and that he’d be constantly on the go. But I also had to assume that whoever wrote the Apostle’s Creed knew what he was talking about, so in my mind, Jesus was almost always in his chair next to God’s right hand.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Heaven was that I might be allowed to listen in on these meetings myself, and find out what they were talking about. I also wondered if we’d all have assigned seats, or if it was only Jesus.
At the same time, I had a pretty strong suspicion that I wouldn’t be invited to the meetings, and that I’d be outside, roaming around with everyone else. I worried that I wouldn’t know what I was supposed to do, but even more, I worried that there wouldn’t be anything to do. Maybe Heaven was one long nothing, an ongoing and empty bliss. As if to reinforce my fear, every school day began with a series of prayers, and many of them included the phrase forever and ever. So did much of the Sunday Mass:
“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.”
“We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.”
It was this addition of the words and ever that jumped out at me. I might have been able to make peace with the concept if they had just left it at forever. But they kept raising the stakes on me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that an everlasting life in Heaven, while preferable to being roasted and tormented twenty-four hours a day, would still turn out to be boring, eventually. And this was the part that troubled me about the whole thing. That, and the fact that I never got an answer about the sprinkles.
This has turned into a four-part post, so comments will be off for Parts 2 and 3.
Original artwork for the cartoons was done by Ron Leishman.