Sometimes re-reading a novel after many years can be quite eye-opening. I recently made this discovery while revisiting Lost Horizon by James Hilton, written in 1933. Even with concessions for it being dated, it was a huge disappointment this time. Quite frankly, it left me a bit shocked. It was always a hokey premise: a plane crashes in the Himalayas and once the passengers climb a ridge, they find a beautiful populated valley, Shangri-La. Its ‘perfection’ includes incredible longevity for those who live there. What shocked me, however, was the philosophy described by the plane wreck survivors’ mysterious host who said that their “prevalent belief is moderation…. avoiding excess of all kinds – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself.” In short, they practiced goodness in moderation, immorality in moderation, and so on. The host said that as in everything, their faith is approached with moderation so that they are even “moderately heretical;” later he states that “many religions are moderately true.”* This is not perfection, but rather it is dangerous, a type of relativism: anything goes… within moderation, of course! Since the novel was written, many have equated the phrase “Shangri-La” to mean a blissful place, but in the book Shangri-La is not a place of true freedom. As I considered this, I began to reflect upon Heaven as taught by our Christian faith in which it is clear that Heaven is not some ‘thing’ on earth, utopian in essence. Let me be clear: utopia does not exist, Shangri-La does not exist, and perfection on this earth does not exist. But Heaven does exist, precisely because it is not at all of this earth. Rather, Heaven is the one true Paradise which we will enter only after we leave this life. It is true eternal life with God forever based on His love and mercy. There is nothing perfect on ‘this side’ of Heaven, but the magnificent gift is that because of God’s mercy, we can enter into it someday.
When we recently celebrated the Assumption of Mary into Heaven we celebrated that when she died Mary went ‘whole’ from the earth; but where did she actually go? We know the answer is “Heaven,” but the truth is that Heaven is not a place. Rather, Heaven is a state of being which is totally different than that of this earth. It is outside of time and space as we know it, ** and it is where God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) dwells. In Heaven we will spend eternity with God “where He will wipe away every tear and there will be no suffering” (paraphrase, Revelation 21:1-4) We cannot attain Heaven and simultaneously still be physically alive on the earth, though we can get ‘glimpses’ of it in prayer or in spiritual experiences when we are overcome with joy that has no explanation as to its source other than that it comes from God. These moments are brief and fleeting, (though sometimes they can last much longer);*** but the effect of the experience ‘proves’ to the pray-er that it did happen. These experiences are nearly impossible to put into words, but that is also a sign that the experience was real. We simply have no words to describe the indescribable.
The reality is that we will have to experience all that life entails, the suffering and difficulties, joys and blessings, before we can get to Heaven. Jesus assured us that if we are baptized and have belief – (this means we freely accept the gospel teachings He gave and put it into action) – and we sincerely attempt to grow in holiness, we will end our earthly days with entrance into Heaven. After death, some of us will first have to deal with unrepented sin or sinful attitudes; that is, we will need to be cleansed of whatever has kept us from growing as we should have. (Like Heaven, Purgatory is a state outside of time and space, an experience of being purged or refined so that we become perfected for entrance into Heaven.) If all this seems difficult, it is. Jesus clearly said the road is narrow and the way difficult. But the Good News is that God freely offers powerful graces and we can freely accept them. In fact, He will give any graces we ask for to attain that end. It presupposes we have a relationship of love with Him forged through prayer. And it means that we are humbly grateful before Him because we know that we can do nothing without God’s help.
There is no perfect place, nor does perfection exist outside of Heaven. Any attempt for humans to create Heaven on earth will fall short at best and end disastrously at worst. God sent His Son to offer that which no human can create: He alone offers everlasting life, the redemption and perfection that only exist within Him. While God never said our life here would be free of pain and difficulty, He does offer us freedom from those things at the end of our journey if we stay the course. The beauty lays in personal discovery of God’s deep love and mercy, which we can accept as gift and then offer to others. All we need do is seek, ask, and knock, and it will be given.
May we seek after the true paradise, life in Heaven with God forever! May we ask the help of the Holy Spirit to attain the purpose for which we were created: to know, love, and serve God in whatever way we are called! May we spend time in prayer with the gospels, especially the proclamation of the Kingdom by Jesus! May we pray for the gift of discernment, that we might learn to recognize the voice of God and to reject the seductive voices of the world! And may we have the consolation of Jesus, who is always present, guiding us home to Heaven! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Lost Horizon by James Hilton, Digital Fire edition, 2020; pages 42-43; 62.
** Magnificat, August volume, Bishop Robert Barron, Daily Gospel Reflections 8/15/2020
*** St. Teresa of Avila, for example, had extended experiences of union with God or had a sense of viewing Heaven. Many others such as St. Catherine of Siena, St. Faustina, and St. Seraphim of Sarov also had visions of Heaven. Though this is rare, it is indeed possible not just for those who are adept at prayer, but God can break through to anyone at any time since these experiences are pure gift. It is my belief that on some level great artists, writers, composers must have an intuited sense of Heaven in order to create such works of beauty. For a bit more on this, see
1. My photo, near Mont Blanc, Chamonix, French Alps. I know this is not the Himalayas, of course, but it was the closest photo of a snowy mountain and valley (with a stretch of the imagination) that I have.
2. My photo of a painting in a church in Verona, Italy: The Assumption of Mary.
3. My photo, taken in the highlands of Scotland, near Grantown-on-Spey. If ever there was a place that made me feel like I was seeing Heaven, it was in the Highlands, particularly this spot.
4. Painting, inset of Tree Triptych for Rivera Funeral Home by Fr. William Hart McNichols. Within the leaves of the tree, there is a space that looks like a heart. That is what drew me to this painting.
If you would like to obtain a copy, go to https://fineartamerica.com/featured/tree-triptych-for-rivera-funeral-home-220-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5. Again my photo, a peaceful garden in Lerwick, on the Mainland of the Shetland Islands, Scotland.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
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Heart Speaks to Heart