Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Matter of Perspective: Rewards in Heaven

As I mentioned in my post on scrupulosity, one of the bizarre things that I've often fretted and worried about, spiritually, is the thought that in Heaven I'll end up with a lesser reward than I could have achieved and, since this reward is locked in for eternity, I will have suffered an eternal loss.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but I feel--for the benefit of non-Catholic readers--that I should again explain this Catholic teaching, this time in more detail than I have before.  The Catholic Church teaches that in Heaven (and in hell for that matter) not everyone experiences it the same way.  Where some other faith traditions teach that everyone who goes to Heaven will have the same experience regardless, Catholicism holds that based upon how faithfully one cooperated with God's Grace in this life to produce good fruit, one's reward, which is to behold God clearly and face to Face, may be experienced to a fuller or lesser degree in Heaven.   In the Council of Florence the Church teaches that souls in Heaven "clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits."

This is because for us, Grace--although it is a gift which we do not earn or purchase--is not a gift in the way that a whatnot or a picture frame is a gift.  In other words, it's not just given and then our job is merely to "have" it.  It's an active gift, a gift of utility, one that you don't just "get" and then sit on your laurels.  Yes, we rely totally on the Grace being given to us without our earning it, and any good deeds we do flow from that Grace, and not our own power, but if we're spiritually and morally lazy, the transforming effect of that Grace in our lives will not be as great.

This doesn't mean that Christ's victory is less great, but rather it means that--just as with believing in the first place--God will not force us to reach the greatest heights of transformation against our will.  If He were willing to do that, common sense says every baptized Christian would instantly be living the fullest, most faith-filled, heroic life of virtue possible, because God would have forced this transformation.  We'd just be programmed to do whatever a "great Christian" should do from the moment we received Grace.

Meet Christian!!!  He comes pre-programmed with 2,341,313 perfectly devout behaviors;
if you're an omnipotent Deity in need of predictable devotion that never gets it wrong,
Christian is sure to please!
But if we are in some sense responsible for how well we cooperate with God's Grace, it is reasonable to assume that we will experience our heavenly reward differently according to that same response.  Even the scriptures point to this.  In that parable of the Ten Coins that I've mentioned no less than twice in this blog (Luke 19:11-27), Jesus tells the story of a a nobleman who left ten servants with one gold coin each.  When he returns, he finds that the servants have earned different numbers of coins, although they were each given the same.  And what does he do?  He says to the servant who has earned ten more coins, "take charge of ten cities."  He says to the servant who has earned five more coins "take charge of five cities."

Notice something.  The nobleman, obviously representing God, does not say to the two different servants, "Well done, but your different levels of work make no difference to me, so you will all have the same exact reward."  In the similar parable of the man who gave his servants "talents" (Matthew 25:14-30), it's true that the man rewards all the good servants equally despite their different earnings, but there's a significant difference there:  Each servant was given a different number of "talents" in the first place.  The one who earned ten talents had started out with five, and the one who earned four had started out with two.  So both have done the same amount of work with what he had:   Namely, each doubled it.  That's why no difference is made between them, and this is indeed a comforting reminder that God does not hold us responsible for doing the great deeds of another if we were not given as much to work with as the other.

Not so in the parable of the ten coins.  The servants each started out with the same means, so it's clear that the one who earned more had done more.  And so, the number of cities entrusted to these servants matches how many coins they have earned, with each servant being given one city for each coin he had added to his master's fortune.

So one of these... one of these?
Man, inflation's ruined EVERYTHING since those days!

For my non-Catholic readers, I'm not trying to convince you, just showing that there's a case to be made for this, and that thinking this way isn't just something a random Pope made up to make life hard on scrupulous folks like myself.

With all that out of the way, as you know, I am scrupulous, and these thoughts have made my life hard at times.  Now that's no excuse for dumping the belief or saying it's bad.  The belief in morality makes one's life hard at times when one wants to do something wrong, yet I don't think any rational person ("rational" is a key word) would suggest we should go about eradicating morality of any kind on account of those "poor souls" who are troubled by it.  Still, I've often been anxious about the thought that I'll get to Heaven and find that I "should have done more" on Earth (by God's Grace, of course) so that I would have a fuller reward in eternity.

Some may say:  "How foolish!  If you get to Heaven at all, that should be good enough!  Why care about rewards?"  But remember that the reward in Heaven is not something like gold or possessions, something that's "nice to have, but it's just extra."  The reward is to directly experience presence, love, and glory of God.  The difference in one person's reward and another's, then, is not a matter of numbers, but of how fully they each experience God in Heaven.  I've heard it said, for example, that a person who cooperated with God's Grace more in this life increases the size of his spiritual heart, so that it can hold more, and broadens his spiritual mind so that it can contain more, so that a great saint would be capable of holding more of God's love and comprehending more of His glory in Heaven than someone who barely loved and served God well enough to just get his foot in the door.

Now, both of the hypothetical souls I just mentioned would be equally happy, because they would each be receiving all that they could possibly comprehend and contain, meaning from his own perspective, each soul is receiving all that it's possible to receive.  Somehow, though, that bit of consolation has failed to do its job with me.  The knowledge that, for all eternity, my capacity to contain God's love and to comprehend His glory might be more limited than is humanly possible has caused me a great deal of grief and loss.  I want to know God, in eternity, as intimately and as fully as it any human being could ever wish, so that there's nothing at all I could be said to be missing.  

Oh, is that all?  For a minute there,
 I thought you were gonna make lofty, cosmic demands.
But a couple of years ago, I began to envision a hope.  I still have no idea if it's a realistic hope, and I have no authority whatsoever to proclaim it as if it were a fact.  That said, if you're like me and you want to join me in entertaining this hope, or even if you're just curious, read on.

I got to thinking of some of the very things I posted about recently, namely the post about the unity of all souls with God and with one another in Heaven.  If it's true that in Heaven we will be so profoundly one with one another that, despite keeping our distinct identities and personalities, we might also know what it is to be (and experience reality as) each of our brethren in Heaven, then doesn't this say something about the way we will experience the Heavenly rewards?  If I get to Heaven and I am so very much at one with Brother Don from the monastery down the street (note:  No such monastery exists, and I'm sure I'm losing Heavenly merit by making up such a terrible lie) that I can "see Heaven through his eyes," as it were, does this mean that I will experience God through his capacity and comprehension (that is, his reward)?  And vice versa?

We're all one body, and according to Saint Paul, that's just how it works.  In 1 Corinthians 12:26, he writes:  "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share in its joy."  To experience extreme suffering in one part of a body is enough to bring pain cancelling out whatever joys the rest of the body may feel.  To experience, on the other hand, extreme pleasure or joy in one part of the body is enough to send good feeling throughout the entire body.  I have hope that it's the same with the faithful in Heaven, then.  That whatever joy there will be for the greatest of saints will be experienced, to the full, by the least.  When Mother Teresa experiences great depths of God's presence, mystery, and love for her compassion and kindness on Earth, little plain old Joshua will feel her joy, will share in her experience, not in the detached sense that he's merely happy for her, but the same way that a great massage, though located in one part of the body, radiates real pleasure to the rest, so that the shoulders are not merely "happy for" the neck when it is massaged, they're experiencing that pleasure for themselves.

Does this sound unfair?  Why, after all should Saint Holy's-Her-Face, with her impressive barrage of good deeds and a heart that was, in life, positively bursting with love and compassion, have her same reward experienced--through unity with her--by Saint Mediocre's-His-Name, who let fear and anxiety keep him from doing all he could for God's glory in this life?  Won't the saints be like the workers in the parable of the vineyard, grumbling and complaining that average, mediocre folk should get to experience their rewards?!  I think not.

Sainthood has always been about two things:  First, the love of God, but secondly the love of neighbor.  You don't become a saint by putting your own happiness as the highest good.  Otherwise Ayn Rand would have been canonized by now.

Note how full the chairs are of people waiting for THAT announcement.

Saints, instead, delight and rejoice whenever, by their labors, they might bring happiness to others.  I think, as Catholics (or at least among the scrupulous) we sometimes get the idea that in Heaven the greatest saints will suddenly be content to rest easy, fat on some reward that is exclusively their own, while the "little people" in Heaven must make make due with lesser things.  Preposterous!  Do you remember that incident where Pope John Paul II tried to give Mother Teresa a car, but she raffled it off for money to help the unfortunate?  That same spirit will thrive among the saints in Heaven:  If God were to give them a reward and say "Now this is for YOU!  Don't share it with those who haven't earned it!" the reward would become a heavy chain around the necks of these holy men and women, whose chief delight has always been to share with others, especially the greatest treasure they had:  God Himself.

Even the aforementioned parable of the ten coins subtly hints at this:  The reward given to the servants is the responsibility over cities.  A holy servant in charge of a city doesn't have this reward simply for his own benefit and prestige, but to serve the citizens, to make the city as happy and prosperous a place, for all, as it is within his power to do.  Doesn't that sound like what the saints would also do with their heavenly reward?   If so, I would think the great saints will, in return, experience our reward, and experience God through our capacity for Him too.  Let's not think too little of that, either:  St. Therese mentioned how the smallest flowers in the field bring just as much glory to God as the larger, so it makes sense that the larger flowers would be just as honored to share in the glory of the smaller as the smaller would be to share in the glory of the larger.

So that is the hope I have held for some time now, that has helped me to go through life without scrupulously obsessing over this issue at every moment; the hope that, with as flawed and average as I am, I will not "miss the boat" of experiencing God as only some greater saint than I might experience Him, with no hope for a "do-over."  Instead, I might find that, while it's true that I will not, on my own, experience God in the same way that St. Joan of Arc or St. Francis of Assisi might experience Him, I will share their same experience because of my unity with them.  And in that way, I won't be missing a thing.


  1. (Originally posted on 2014/08/26 at 5:53 pm by Victor S E Moubarak)

    "I must say this is all news to me. I didn't realise that there's some sort of “reward” waiting for us in Heaven commensurate with how “good” we've been here. For example Padre Pio or Mother Teresa would have a bigger more luxurious house than me (I jest).

    I think I follow the logic of what you're saying. Is this Catholic dogma?

    God bless you."

    1. (Originally posted on 2014/08/26 at 6:07 pm by myself):

      "Thanks, Victor; God bless you too!

      As for the “reward” in Heaven, yeah, according to the quote from the Council of Florence (near the beginning of the post) it does seem to be dogma. The language of “reward” isn't used in that quote, that's just a way that I've heard it spoken of in a shorthand. Rather, the quote says that souls in Heaven “clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits.” In that sense, there is one reward for all, to clearly behold God as He is, but according to the quote the “difference” comes in with how “perfectly” different souls will behold Him. “Different rewards” is just a shorthand for acknowledging that difference.

      I think there's also something about it in the Council of Trent. St. Therese also talks about this belief in her autobiography.

      It is kind of an obscure dogma, though. Plenty of very faithful Catholics have never heard of it either. It's not spoken of a lot, and in fact even the Catechism doesn't really mention it, so unless someone happens to have heard of it otherwise (reading the lives of the saints is a place where people typically first encounter it) and then reads up on some of the Councils where it was proclaimed, a person could easily miss it."

    2. (Originally posted on 2014/08/26 at 6:11 pm by myself)

      "(If I'm not mistaken, the dogma was emphasized more in previous generations than now, so it was probably less obscure at one time than it is now)"

    3. (Originally posted on 2014/08/26 at 8:39 pm by Victor S E Moubarak)

      "Thanx Joshua for your full answer. Much appreciated.

      You know, as a Catholic it pains me sometimes how we make things difficult for ourselves; and leave ourselves open to criticism by non-Catholics. This dogma, as you've explained, has been decided by Papal committees years ago. Yet, in my simple opinion, ('cos I'm simple), I'd like to believe that only God decides who will enter Heaven and that, once there, He'll treat everyone with a Divine Fatherly love. I doubt very much He'll have preferences and league tables as to who merits more or less than someone else. But that's just my opinion.

      I'm glad I found your Blog, because I learnt something new today.

      God bless you."

    4. (Originally posted on 2014/08/27 at 12:30 am by myself):

      "” I'd like to believe that only God decides who will enter Heaven and that, once there, He'll treat everyone with a Divine Fatherly love.” Me too, and I think, in some paradoxical way, the Church does teach that. To put it into the terms similar to the way St. Therese's sister explained it to her, God will treat us all in Heaven the same, pouring His presence and love out upon us all equally, like a stream of comfort and love. It is *we* who are different, so that one of us may be like a small cup, and others of us will be like an enormous chalice–the same divine love is eternally being poured out generously and without reservation on both, it's just that the one has capacity to hold more at one time than the other. But both–in the analogy from St. Therese's autobiography–would be full, would be lavished with as much as they could hold, to the full and even the overflowing. So from that point of view, it's not that God has preference or leagues, it's a matter of our own selves. In one sense we might say that our capacity for perfectly beholding God will be as great as we want it to be, and in that sense it reflects our lives (our merits) not because we are literally being “rewarded” distinctly from our brothers and sisters but rather because the way we live our lives–the degree to which we are willing to “stretch” ourselves for Him–reflects how much beatitude we *want*.

      This is why ultimately I think that words like “rewards” and “merits” are unhelpful, because they are only analogies for something simpler and deeper, and analogies which–as you note–make things sound more complicated or petty (as if God's keeping score and dividing people up into leagues for “bragging rights” or something) than they are. I use this language in my Blog to identify the teaching because I think this entry, and the hopes I have in it, are most helpful to those who know of the teaching (and have therefore fretted about it like I have, perhaps), and most people that have already heard about the teaching have probably heard about it in precisely those terms, “reward” and “merit,” even if the terms are somewhat unhelpful (and even though the quote from the Council of Florence, at least, doesn't use the term “reward” at all, wisely so I think).

      It makes me happy that you're glad to have found my blog!

      God bless you too!"