What sort of immortality do we hope for? Perhaps immortality is the wrong word after all, a leftover from Greek and Roman religions that no one has practiced for centuries. The Norse and the Celts have their own immortal visions: the island of the Arthurian legend swims in the sea off the north coast somewhere, A Bali Hai that may call us any night, any day. Each of us is summoned by our own special home, a dream that blooms in the hillside and shines in the stream.
Resurrection as promised to us is inconceivable. What could it possibly be? Then we shall know even as we are known. We can aspire, at least, to a passionate and dynamic kind of knowing, a resurrected knowing, a beatific knowing, completely flooded and drenched by the love of God. This is a moment we can only guess at from moments of transcendence in the here and now, from human love, from reunions of the heart, from moments of insight, from breakthroughs in forgiveness, from embraces and reconciliations, from moments of high ecstasy in prayer.
Our ancestors took biblical images at face value, supposing they would be given a pair of golden slippers at heaven's door. Our contemporary jokes about St. Peter at the pearly gates reveal how hard it is to believe that God will keep his promise. "There were three men who met St. Peter at the pearly gates, an Irishman, a Vietnamese and a hippie, and St. Peter asked...."
Yes, the yearning for heaven is very deep ...
"Look, look, he's right over there!" I remember how in my first days in religious conversion I saw God on stage as the silent player in the theater of the absurd. While Lucky and Pozzo and Estragon and Vladimir waited for the Godot who never came, I saw God's presence in and through them, and wanted, like the child at her first theatrical, to shout from the audience, "Look! You're missing the whole thing! He's right over there!"
How is it that we constantly overlook God? Our unwillingness, our obstinancy, our determination to do it all on our own, without help from Anyone, this is the deep source of our anguish. We are Greta Garbos who want to be alone and then complain that no one comes to call. The deep mystery of our God is his willingness to be present to us even when we are absent to him. "Before they call, I will answer and while they are yet speaking, I will hear." (Isaiah 64:24)
Some teachers of the spiritual life want us to plunge into the immediate moment. But the spiritual life always has a far horizon. In all seasons of our lives, but especially the later ones, we feel a yearning, a pull to the future, a desire for God which C. S. Lewis speaks of as a desire for a "far country."
Lewis mentions the "inconsolable secret" that is in every human heart, the desire for God. This is a desire not merely to know God in our prayer lives but ultimately to be fully in God's presence, to meet God. In the past our religious ancestors voiced this in hymns. Some of these took their metaphors from Revelation:
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
Shall we gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.
Of course, all these longings are buried deep. One of the reasons why church worship is so appealing is that it allows us to voice these longings in hymns and scripture without the embarassment of admitting them to another living soul.