Trains in heaven: Embracing the mystery
About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.
During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.
Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say "yes, forever" if the future feels frightening?
With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.
I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to embrace my vocation and move forward on the path God put me on, using these words from Johnson:
Accepting our life means letting ourselves fall into this unfathomable mystery at the heart of our existence in an act of loving self-surrender. Such an act does not make everything clear; God does not spare us bewilderment. . . . But God is present where life is lived bravely, eagerly, responsibly. . . .
I realized I had been given a grace. I understood that professing my vows — lovingly surrendering to God — meant that I was agreeing to enter into a Holy Mystery for life. I imagined myself bowing, reverently, before all possibilities and saying "yes" to the "overabundance" of Holy Mystery.
Bowing to Holy Mystery, now that's something I can do. Something I want to do.
More recently, a couple of weeks ago, my sister and brother-in-law had to do one of the hardest things. They had to tell my 4-year-old nephew that his aunt was going to die.
His aunt on the other side of the family, a new wife to my brother-in-law's brother, had been put into hospice care for Stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after many months of treatments and trials.
During one of her strong stints last summer, I was able to meet my nephew's aunt at the baptism of our shared niece. Around her friendly and energetic spirit, I quickly found myself feeling happy, hopeful and inspired. Generosity and kindness poured out of her and brightened our family celebration, a barbeque feast on a sunny July day.
When my sister and brother-in-law had to tell my nephew on a dark December night that his aunt was dying, tears moistened eyelashes, and frowns creased their faces. The bright and perceptive child understood. He was sad but continued to play with his toys.
Knowing that my nephew was going to have to deal with the death of a loved one at a very young age, I was afraid about how the sadness might break him. I wondered about children and grief. I was concerned about the effects that grief might have on a child whose days are full of discovering the goodness and beauty of God's world.
According to my sister, a few days after she and her husband explained the circumstances to my nephew, the boy was struggling to adjust to tragic truth. He was very upset. Mama! I want Auntie to have trains in heaven! No matter what sort of assurance my sister and her husband offered, my nephew could not calm down. He was so afraid that his auntie would be deprived of one of his greatest joys — trains — when she died.
In need of reinforcements, my sister informed my nephew's preschool teacher what was happening. The preschool my nephew attends is ecumenical, and his teacher is wise. The teacher asked the local priest to talk with my nephew.
Secured into his car seat as my sister drove him home from preschool later that day, my nephew excitedly shared what he had learned. Mama! In heaven Auntie can eat all the ice cream she wants, she can see great-grandma and great-grandpa, and there's trains there too! Mama, there are trains in heaven!!
Heaven is one of the greatest mysteries of our faith. No matter how well developed a theology or how beautiful a description, none of us can really know what comes after death. The Catechism of the Catholic church even says that the communion to come is "beyond all understanding and description."
Like many people, my nephew is at a place in his faith development where the concrete helps him grasp the abstract, where he relates most clearly to what his own experiences have helped him know of joy and peace: ice cream, trains, family. As many people as God has created, there are different visions of heaven — varied ways that limited humans have tried to make sense of mystery.
My nephew's aunt died on Tuesday, December 27, 2016. That night my sister and her husband held their two children, my nephew and niece, and shared the tragic news. As a family of four united in the mystery of loss, together they sobbed. My sister shared that telling her son that his aunt had died was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.
During her 31 years on Earth, my nephew's aunt demonstrated how to live a life of joyful service. She shared light with others and died with grace, accepting the natural flow of life's mysteries.
Part of heaven's appeal, I believe, is the mystery of it. As people of faith, we live our lives moving toward this mystery, something deeply sensed as glorious, magnificent, awesome. It is a horizon we will never meet, part of God as Holy Mystery that is forever beyond and bigger than us. As Johnson describes human self-transcendence: "We will never reach the end of exploring, having figured it all out. It is something like parallel train tracks that appear to meet at a point in the distance, but when you get to that point the tracks have opened up to another distant point."
Heaven is beyond and around us, near and not yet. For the adult believer, such promise is often our motivation and hope: The reign of God fuels our love, service and devotion. We work to build heaven on Earth, because Gospel living is made up of "thy kingdom come, thy will be done" prayers and actions.
As all of us are on a journey through and toward mystery, we are touched by God who is Holy Mystery. Then, we are changed. No matter if the turns in the journey bring us to the courage to make final vows, accept our death, or move us into the mysteries of heaven, each of us must accept and surrender to the Holy Mystery.
With God's grace, we all can bow and say "yes" to the things beyond our understanding, to the reality of incertitude.
[Julia Walsh, is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a retreat presenter and a blogger who can be found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]
Learn about the benefits of communal living in our latest Notes from the Field installment. Notes from the Field reports are written by a Catholic Volunteer Network volunteers.
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