Jean-Paul Sartre thought that 'hell is other people'. And I imagine most of us, whatever we think of anything else Sartre said, have had occasion to identify with this particular aphorism. All Saints' Day, though, reminds us of another truth-that heaven is other people. For this feast is, among other things, a celebration of heaven, as today's Preface makes clear: ‘Today we keep the festival of your holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother.' It's not so much a celebration of heaven as a place, but rather of heaven as the people we find there.
More precisely, we should say that heaven is about persons, for at the centre of this heavenly vision is God, the God who is three persons. God, and our vision of God, is at the centre of what heaven is, as the second reading makes clear: ‘We are already the children of God but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed: All we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is.' (1 John 3:2)
Surrounding God, as the first reading paints the picture, we see various other persons. There are the angels, who also are persons. But then there are persons who are human, flesh and blood people like you and me, that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, who ‘have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb.' (Rev 7:14) Not just a privileged few, but a privileged multitude-‘a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language.' (Rev 7:9)
Heaven is other people, united in communion around God. The Catechism makes clear this vision of heaven as a nest of relationships, of communion: ‘This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity-this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed-is called "heaven".' [CCC 1024] This community, this communion of persons is called heaven. It's what we mean by heaven. And while Scripture uses various images of this life with God and all the saints who are in Christ, the Catechism reminds us that it is a mystery beyond all understanding and description: ‘No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.' [CCC 1027; 1 Cor 2:9].
While we cannot grasp the mystery entirely, we can get some glimmer of understanding of heaven from the sorts of words used to speak of the fullness of life in the Kingdom. The Beatitudes in the Gospel for this feast, for example, refer to realities which we already begin to experience on earth, but which will find their fulfilment, like all fulfilment, only in heaven. Heaven therefore is a state in which those who have lived the Beatitudes ‘shall be comforted, shall be satisfied, shall have mercy shown them, shall see God, shall be called children of God, where their reward will be great.' (Mt 5:3-12) We find other aspects of heaven mentioned in the prayers of today's Mass. In particular, reference is made at a number of points to the joy of the saints and of their peace in God's kingdom. Pope John Paul II spoke in an All Saints homily of peace as ‘the sum of all messianic blessings'-the peace of perfect communion with God and with other people.
If we wish to share in this peace and joy of the saints, in this sense of being comforted, of being satisfied, of being called children of God, of having mercy shown us, then the way ahead for us is clear-to live the Beatitudes as they did. This feast encourages us in that journey which at times can seem so fraught with tension and trial-that journey of seeking to be gentle, to hunger and thirst for what is right, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, involving being persecuted in the cause of right. It encourages us by pointing us to the countless examples of those who've gone before-people famous and well-remembered, people perhaps we alone have known as the saints that they were, that God has made them, people like you and me, yet opened up in powerful ways to the grace of Christ to be victorious in them.
They offer us example. But more importantly, since we cannot follow their example by our own power, they offer us their prayer and support. The sorts of things they pray for us are made evident in the prayers of the Mass for this feast of All Saints: that we may have God's forgiveness and love; that we may be filled with the Spirit that blessed the lives of the saints,; that we may share their faith; that they may help us and deliver us from present evil. And especially that we may, in the end, come to share the fullness of peace and joy in that heavenly Jerusalem, with God and all the saints.
Fr Robin Koning SJ