How to live for heaven here and now

Several years ago, I climbed the tower of the Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney stone. Though I could have survived without the experience, as I am not a fan of heights — and the thought of being dangled to kiss a stone seemed a bit absurd — my sister was determined to do so. Naturally, I decided to join her.

After the daunting climb and watching my sister perform the act, my turn arrived. I hesitantly laid down, viewing the drop through the gap between the stone and the tower. Eyeing the area in which I needed to lower myself backwards into, I ended up clutching the arm of the man whose job was to help lower the tourists to kiss the stone. Eventually he relayed: “You need to let go!”

He was right. In order to lower myself and kiss that stone I needed to let go of him, extend my arms backward and grab the poles by the rock.

Clinging to attachments

Perhaps one of the most curious conversations in Scripture involves letting go. It takes place when Christ appears to the grieving Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. Believing Christ’s body to be stolen, she distraughtly asks a man, whom she thinks to be the gardener, where the thieves took it. In reply, Christ utters Mary’s name, revealing who he is. As Mary reaches out to touch him, the risen Lord commands her: “Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.”

In Scripture, Christ never before prohibited anyone from seeking an encounter with him — from touching him. The hemorrhaging woman, desperate for a cure, approaches Christ, grasps his garments and is cured. After the Resurrection, Christ prompts the apostle Thomas to touch his divine wounds. Similarly, when Christ heals, he often does so in a physical way with a touch: Christ places his hands on the eyes of the blind man in the moment of healing, and he touches the leper who asks to be clean.

Why, then, can’t Mary Magdalene touch Christ after the Resurrection? St. Augustine comments on this, saying that perhaps Mary Magdalene was clinging to a false notion of who Christ is. The Church doctor speculates that Mary viewed Christ more human than divine — that she believed him to be unequal with the Father. Augustine writes: “For how could it be otherwise than carnally that she still believed in Him whom she was weeping over as a man? For I am not yet ascended, He says, to my Father: there shall you touch me, when you believe me to be God, in no wise unequal with the Father.”

Learning to let go

Like Mary Magdalene, we may find ourselves clinging to something which prohibits us from fully encountering Christ. C. S. Lewis’ book “The Great Divorce” depicts how deep these attachments are rooted within. He does so by describing a variety of people, who when given the opportunity to enter heaven choose hell instead in order to cling to their self-made idols, whether it be to certain ideas, routines, places, philosophies, possessions or people. The religious intellectual refuses to forgo his studies, seeing them an end in themselves rather than a pathway to God. A female ghost chooses to keep to her possessions, pride and vanity rather than relinquishing them for the joys of heaven. The artist clings to his desire to communicate beauty — for the wrong reasons, Lewis adds — but fails to fully reveal it, ponder it and fully experience it for himself. Another ghost, attached to the desire for control, believes she must “selflessly” continue to help her husband, Robert, whom she has manipulated on earth.

Perhaps one of the most painful and most human attachment that Lewis portrays in his book is that of affection. He depicts this through the ghost of Pam, who wishes to be reunited with her son, Michael, who died as a young boy. Pam converses with the spirit of Reginald, her brother, revealing the extent of Pam’s attachment to her son. The ghost practically suggests she will be happy even in hell, if only her son was with her. Pam declares: “No one has a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.”

Reginald encourages Pam to relinquish her claim on Michael in order to enter heaven. “You’re treating God only as a means to Michael”, he says. “But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for his own sake.” The spirit reminds the mother: “You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer. No, listen Pam! He also loves. He also had suffered. He also has waited a long time.”

Living in light of the Resurrection

Reginald’s reply to his sister provides much wisdom in overcoming our own attachments. As the intellectual, the proud female ghost, the artist, the controlling wife and the grieving mother, we all have those attachments — whether they be easily recognizable or not — which erode our lives, distracting us from God. He too, “has waited a long time” for us to recognize this and wants us to desire him for his own sake. He too has suffered on this account.

Reginald advises us: “It’s only the little germ of a desire for God we need to start the process” of uprooting these attachments. We need to nourish this desire for God, and allow it to take root within us. As our love for God grows, we learn as Reginald instructs, that all our earthly loves are fruitless unless they stem from God. They will only become holy when “God’s hand is on the reign.” As always, the “first step is a hard one” in relinquishing our disordered loves — we need the courage to do so. Yet, only when we start the process, do we “begin living.”

The resurrected Christ reminds us, as he did to Mary Magdalene in the garden, that to truly touch him and cling to him, we need to prioritize our lives, identifying and rooting out all that detracts from God’s glory. When we discover and shed what holds us back from fully belonging to Christ, we begin to live in light of the Resurrection.

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