I find it quite fascinating that St John begins the account of his heavenly visions by saying: “I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door!” He immediately heard a voice that said: “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place…” (Rev. 4:1). So it is possible to be granted access to the mysteries of Heaven. Yet such visions are not experienced by everyone, indeed by very few. But is that because God simply does not choose to grant them, or is it because we have rendered ourselves incapable of perceiving what He would in fact like to show us?
I read something recently by Hans Urs von Balthasar. I don’t read much by him, since I can only understand about 11% of what he writes, but I think I got the following, and it may give us a hint as to why Heaven’s door usually seems closed to us. “It is very easy to ask Christians perplexing questions, because from the outside Christ’s mysteries appear to be mere paradoxes, and it is very difficult to solve them at this level. (The attempt often leads to a false apologetics.) The chief concern here, rather, should be to awaken in the questioner an elementary sense for mystery and awe … from here one can ascend to the love of God” (The Grain of Wheat). He is speaking about the inadequacy (and even distortion) of giving too-facile answers to essentially unanswerable questions about Christianity from outsiders. But I submit that even insiders wrongly ask such questions and hence become frustrated, because they are seeking the same kind of rational, logical answers that the others seek.
While the Christian mysteries are not irrational, they transcend reason, yet at the same time offer rational grounds for belief. But in order not to get hung up by the inability to resolve the paradoxes easily in logical fashion, von Balthasar suggests we begin by developing a sense of mystery and awe. One of the fathers said something to the effect that rational concepts are limiting and can even become idols, but that only a sense of wonder can really grasp profound truths.
I’ve thought to myself at times that I could probably never be an apologist (endless arguments), an ecumenist (endless compromises), and perhaps even a catechist (having to reduce the Faith to doctrinal propositions). It seems to me that it’s just not adequate to deal with divine mysteries on the level of rational discourse, though of course there are times when this is necessary and good. I think all I can really be is a pray-er and a preacher—trying to peer into Heaven’s open door and then sharing something of what is given to me. This was St Paul’s commission, given through the holy man Ananias: “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14-15). Christians are called to be witnesses of what they have seen and heard.
Now I hasten to add that this does not mean that subjective experience is the norm for the true faith, for the history of “visionaries” is riddled with error and fraud. Any light that is granted in prayer must be checked against what has already been definitively revealed, and must not be in contradiction to it or go off on any sort of weird tangent from it. But it still remains true that the entrance into incomprehensible divine mysteries is not going to be accomplished through mere apologetics or ecumenism, nor by trying to figure things out according to human logic or even by reciting dogmatic propositions, though these may be unassailably true.
Let’s get back to mystery and awe. I think that I sometimes hit a snag here myself, since I tend to interrogate God as if He must somehow to be expected to answer in the terms and concepts and limited vision of my own questions. God certainly has the answer to everything, but his answers may not always be reducible to the terms of our questions. Try to explain to a beetle certain facts about its environment or even some of the mysteries of beetledom. You may know precisely how to explain these things clearly, but its poor beetle-brain just can’t grasp the concepts. So it crawls away, unable even to realize that it is missing something important. As Jesus told his disciples, there’s much that He could tell us, but we are, at least for the time being, unable to get it. So we walk away, thinking that the fault is on his part (I wonder if beetles blame us for anything), even though it is we in our ignorance who cannot grasp what He is saying to us and doing for us. Thus God seems to be silent, inaccessible or (on our bad days) even unwilling to help us in our obvious need. But it is not only our creaturely limitations that prevent us from perceiving more of God’s revelations; it is our sin that truly blinds and befuddles us.
Our approach to God, then, cannot merely be based on what is intelligible to us, nor can we expect to penetrate the divine mysteries by using categories and concepts wholly inadequate to them—nor can we expect to see the pure light of heavenly mysteries if our hearts are not yet purified of sin. There is a lot more that God can effectively reveal to us than we can effectively reveal to beetles, but there will always be a huge gap between what we can understand and what is far beyond our best efforts at comprehension or articulation.
The only way, then, to cleanse our vision of what hinders and distorts it, and the best way to get a glimpse of what is beyond Heaven’s door, is (following repentance) simply to fall down in worship, in reverence and awe. Enough has been revealed to us so that we know that God is worthy of adoration. The refrain “Worthy are You…” occurs repeatedly in the Book of Revelation, as we see angels and saints ceaselessly worshipping God. The great vision of heavenly glory described in chapters 4-5 ends with the ultimate expression of the approach to God in mystery and awe: “Every creature in heaven and on earth… fell down and worshipped.” That’s the ultimate reality; that’s where everything is heading. If we don’t want to miss the bus to eternal glory, we had better abandon all our reservations about giving ourselves wholly to God.
From here, wrote von Balthasar, one can ascend to the love of God. Our worship of the awe-inspiring mystery of God in faith will open not only Heaven’s door to us, but also will open the door of our hearts to God. For God is not simply an utterly incomprehensible Mystery, He is our Creator and Father who loves us and desires us to love Him in return. It is both the sense of mystery and awe, and the love in our hearts, that will overcome the paradoxes, take us beyond the unanswerable questions, and enable us to rest in Him who loved us first. Let us not think that we’ll ever find satisfactory answers solely on the level of human reason, but let us also realize that the acceptance in faith of God’s ever-greater Reality, and our wholehearted worship of Him in wonder and awe and love, will take us to places we’ve not yet even begun to seek, and will answer questions we’ve not yet had the sense to ask.