Heaven and Earth: Lessons learned in Assisi

This past summer I had a profound experience that helped me to remember that heaven and earth are one.

I was in Assisi, Italy, on pilgrimage. I was there with other Franciscans who were preparing for (or discerning) final vows, and participating in a study pilgrimage sponsored by Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs. As a Franciscan sister, it is understandable that my heaven-on-earth experience occurred in Assisi, as the village is holy ground for those of us in the Franciscan family.

Sacramental graces        

After a morning Mass with our pilgrimage group at the tomb of St. Francis, I went into the upper church of the basilica of St. Francis.  I then found myself praying with Giotto di Bondone’s vibrant frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. Much was stirring in my heart as I examined the scenes depicting St. Francis’ life of conversion and penance.

Specifically, I was feeling very uncomfortable with my weak and imperfect ways of relating to other people. How come, whenever I try to be a good sister and love other people, I simply mess up? I want to love, but instead I just fail repeatedly. Why is God calling me to be a sister if I am so broken? Ugly waves of disappointment and depression vibrated through my body as confusion stormed around me.

Hungry for some spiritual comfort and grace, I found myself wandering down to the lower church. I walked through an area where Mass was starting and into a dim and stuffy corner where confessions were being heard in several languages. I waited for the one English-speaking confessor to be available and tried to do an examination of conscience, but realized I just felt clueless and sad.

Once it was my turn, I was grateful to meet a kind and compassionate Conventual Franciscan priest from Kenya. Naturally, he understood my vocational questions and listened very lovingly. Then, in his response, he normalized my struggles. The sacramental graces opened up my heart to an insight that he shared. “God has called you to give your whole self to him, including your tendency to fail. And, God cannot fail.”

With those words, wonder and awe flooded my once-stormy heart. Maybe this is what St. Paul meant when he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians:

. . . but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Cor 12:9)

After the completion of the sacrament of reconciliation, I left the confessional with newfound freedom. I had gained a fresh awareness about the blessings of union with God. I was healed, full of grace and felt very happy and relieved. Plus, I felt overwhelmed by all the transformations.

From the confessional, God brought me right into my heaven-on-earth experience. I had to exit the corner of the church through the area where Mass was happening. I stepped through the threshold and I walked into a brightly lit, energetic section of the church. Several hundred pilgrims from around the world were gathered, some kneeling, some sitting, some standing on the sides. Everyone was focused on the altar. A traveling choir filled the front pews and was singing the Gloria in a full and perfect harmony.

Waves of love overtook me, nearly knocking me over. People, light, music, love. It was a full-sensory, full-body, sacramental experience. I tried my best to be still and soak it all in. I sobbed with joy. This was indeed a moment when heaven and earth were totally touching.

Heaven is the way to heaven

St. Catherine of Sienna is quoted as saying that “all the way to heaven is heaven.” Maybe that’s why it bothers me whenever I hear other Christians talk about the goal of their Christian life being to get to heaven, for in the way the words are said there is frequently a tone of “after I die.” As a Catholic educator, I am fascinated with how often I hear such things said by my colleagues and students.

Of course, heaven is a noble and appropriate goal for all of us. What I take issue with, though, is the understanding that heaven is a “place” that we go to after death, or that we should do this or that to “help us get to heaven.” I don’t believe that God created us so that we could get ready to die! (This is not the teaching of the church either.) As I see it, if we live the Gospel and focus on building God’s reign through acts of service and love, we can hope for the bonus of heaven’s freedom when we die. Heaven can be a blessed bonus for life abundantly lived, but it is not the goal of living.

Really “heaven is now and not yet.” As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). It is coming soon, and it is also all around us, embracing us, if we only have the eyes to see it.  Heaven is another name for God (1 Mc 3:18) and the ways in which God is permanently pervading and sustaining the universe.

God is frequently embracing us with beautiful love and grace, yet we are often too busy or distracted to even realize it. We are all guilty, sometimes, of not paying attention to how near we are to heaven, or God, right now. That's why I'm so grateful for that moment of clarity and grace, when I felt clearly that heaven was all around me, in Assisi.

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]