The Lowest Place in Heaven

When we hear the Gospel passage (Mt. 20:21-23) in which the mother of the Apostles James and John (to whom Jesus gave the title, “Sons of Thunder”) petitions Jesus to permit her sons to sit on his right and left side in the Kingdom to come, many of us might think: “typical Jewish mother” or “what cheek! – who do they think they are?”

But there was a time in my late teens, when, after becoming acquainted with the mystical treatises of St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, Henry Suso, etc., and lives of various saints, I identified with the Sons of Thunder, aiming for nothing but the top. I even joined a religious order for a couple of years.

And I was impressed by St. Louis de Montfort’s prediction that towards the end of the world the greatest saints would be produced, via devotion to Mary. So (I conjectured) in our nuclear age, with all the talk about doomsday weapons, this might be the “end times,” and spiritual greatness might be around the corner, with a little help from Mary.

But now I have a better understanding of Jesus’ answer to the petition. (Mt. 20:22) He raises the question whether James and John can drink the chalice that he drinks. And who would be able to bear the sufferings undertaken by Jesus – or even by James and John. Taking all this into account, and as no great lover of suffering, at present I would be satisfied with the lowest place in heaven – even just inside the gates.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante visualizes the lowest place in heaven, in Canto III of the Paradiso. The inhabitants he meets are nuns, monks, or others who have made solemn vows to God, but because of circumstances were prevented from fulfilling them. The problem is that, when circumstances improved, they made no effort to return to their vowed condition.

Dante takes note of their inferior state in paradise, and asks them whether they would wish a higher place. They reply that they are fulfilled with happiness to the brim, as much as they can hold. Of course, this is an intrinsic aspect of heavenly happiness for everyone – that there are no unfulfilled desires. And besides, as one of them remarks, “In His will is our peace.”

It goes without saying, the lowest state in heaven is certainly better than what Dante visualizes as the place that could be called the “vestibule” of hell (not quite inside the “first circle”). Dante meets up with a crowd of indifferent souls – those who never made a decision between good and evil. They (including some “neutral” angels) got themselves into a rut, and ended up with fitting retribution, because neither heaven nor hell wants “fence-sitters.”

Dante and the Three Kingdoms by Domenico di Michelino (c. 1460)
Dante and the Three Kingdoms by Domenico di Michelino (c. 1460)

Their fate reminds me of Jesus’ parable about talents (Mt. 2:24-25), and the sad fellow with one talent, who decided to bury it, rather than use it or misuse it. I also think of the admonition of Jesus in the Apocalypse about decisiveness – be either hot or cold, not lukewarm. (Rev. 3:15-16)

I find it strange, however, that geographically these pitiful souls seem to be situated “higher” up than the first circle of hell (limbo), containing various eminent pagans like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Homer, Caesar, and Virgil himself – who know that they are missing the supernatural glory of heaven, live in a decorous twilight, but do not otherwise seem to be in great torment.

As I have gotten older, and made a lot of mistakes, I have begun to realize more clearly what Jesus meant, when he answered to the Boanerges, “you don’t know what you are asking!” In other words, the key to the Father’s apportionment of degrees of blessedness in the afterlife involves heavy quaffs from the “cup of suffering.” With my now-arthritic limbs and other physical impediments, I find it hard to recapture that initial youthful spiritual enthusiasm that can lead believers to reach for the stars. Would I want to compete with the great martyrs? – St. Lawrence on the gridiron, St. John boiled in oil, St. Bartholomew being skinned alive, etc. Or with the great ascetics, like St. Simeon Stylites living atop a pillar, or teenage St. Anthony setting up a hermitage in the desert and living there until 105 years of age.

I could maybe follow the “Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux, if I could master my bad temper and a few other moral handicaps. But in the final analysis, I tend to identify with that character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” who “could never be a saint, but. . .thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

I have a healthy interest in distinguishing good and evil, so I don’t think I’m like those indifferent souls sighing away in the vestibule of hell. Psychologically, however, I have always had a hard time hobnobbing with really powerful and important people, and sometimes get tongue-tied in their presence. In heaven, I wonder, who would feel comfortable sitting or standing next to Abraham or Moses, or the “Sons of Thunder,” or St. Peter or even my patron saint, St. Paul? What would we talk about? What trips would we take together?

Scandalous as it may seem to say, in a world that prizes initiative and ambition, the lowest place in heaven would be enough for me, as long I make it. In addition to the ex-monks and nuns that Dante envisages there, I suspect there might also be massive numbers of deathbed converts, and other interesting types, with whom there would be never-ending possibilities of sharing experiences, discussing surprising aspects of God, exploring the angelic hierarchies, etc.

Even the “low” end of heaven would be wonderful, because as Dante says elsewhere, it’s become clear to me how “everyplace in heaven is paradise.”

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.