And There Will Be No More Night
July 04, 2004
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day--and there will be no night there. . . .
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 21:22-25; 22:1-2)
Reading from Swedenborg
All the relationships and interactions in heaven develop in harmony with heaven's arrangement, which is a pattern of divine truth from divine goodness coming from the Lord. We mesh with this pattern in our spirit by living according to divine truth.
This gives us an idea of who makes up the new heaven, and what it is like: it is completely harmonious. When we live a life of faith and kindness, we love others as much as we love ourselves, and we unite with them in love. This goes both ways; it is mutual. In the spiritual world, love is union. When everyone loves one another, there is harmony among many people--even among the countless people associated with one another according to heaven's form. We become like one person, since nothing separates or divides us; everything unites us and helps us to work together.
Since the new heaven was formed of everyone who had lived a life of faith and kindness from the time the Lord was on earth right up to the present, it is obvious that both Christians and non-Christians are part of it. (The Heavenly City #2, 3)
Recently I had the distinct pleasure of taking part in the Gathering Leaves conference at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It was a conference that brought women together from the various branches of the Swedenborgian church to promote harmony among all people associated with the various Swedenborgian organizations around the world.
From what I can tell, the conference was a huge success, and I think we all had a wonderful time. But for me it was particularly important because it served as a confirmation of something I had long suspected: that no matter how different people may be in terms of their belief system, the ideas that separate them are always relatively few compared to the ideas they hold in common; and further, that we have so much to gain by honoring and exploring our differences.
There are so many different ideas in our theology that I love. But one that always comes to the fore when I think about why I am Swedenborgian is the idea that the Lord receives sincere practitioners of all faiths into heaven. Or to put it another way, good people of all religions are saved. By extension then, if we take this idea a step further, we realize that what we believe--the specifics of doctrine--are not as important as the quality of love and life and spirit that we cultivate in our life by means of that doctrine. It is not our faith alone that saves us, but our life shaped by the Lord through that faith. We find our salvation in learning to love others as the Lord loves us.
I live for this idea, this precept, this tenet. For me at least, it is at the core of what it means to be Swedenborgian. So I have always found the reality of different Swedenborgian denominations to be a curious anomaly, if not a source of embarrassment. If, as Swedenborgians, we all agree that what we believe is not as important as how we live out what we believe, why can't we, of all people, agree to disagree on various points of doctrine, and yet still live in harmony with one another? What I learned at this conference is that:
- We can, and:
- The fact that there are different expressions of our faith that manifest as entirely separate denominations is no stumbling block to harmony, nor is it a failure on our part to practice what we preach.
I would like to put forth the radical idea that the diversity in our organizations is actually a natural correspondence of the diversity that exists in the heavens. It is a diversity that we are not always comfortable acknowledging, but one that is as much a reality in heaven as it is upon earth. It is a reality we need not shy away from, but one that we can embrace and use to further our understanding and efforts to see that the Lord's will is accomplished here on earth as it is in heaven.
There is plenty of evidence in Scripture and in Swedenborg's writings to suggest that heaven is a place of infinite variety. "In my father's house are many mansion," says Jesus, "if this were not so, I would have told you" (John 14:2). In Revelation we read that there is not one gate to the city, but twelve, representing all truths from good--and that these gates are never shut. Heaven is not described as a home to one nation under one king, but to many nations and many kings; a place for all people who seek the Lord.
And in our reading from Swedenborg today, he says, "Since the new heaven was formed out of everyone who had lived a life of faith and kindness, from the time the Lord lived on earth right up to the present, it is obvious that both Christians and non-Christians are part of it." Heaven is as diverse as earth, with the exception that in heaven they seem quite comfortable, indeed delighted by such diversity, whereas here we continually struggle to make sense of our own identity in the face of our differences, and we have a penchant for defining ourselves most clearly in opposition to each other.
I think that on some level this stems from the fact that we do not place enough trust in the idea of variety. We hesitate to see variety as an act of providence, a part of the divine design. And when it comes to matters of faith, many of us find it threatening.
This does make sense on a practical level. After all, why believe in something if it isn't really True?
When I say "True" I mean capital "T" true: the only truth, the complete truth, and nothing but the truth. It can seem a bit of a conundrum to believe that our faith is as true as someone else's faith, which just happens to be completely different. If we are going to invest so much of ourselves in our religion, we'd at least like to know that it is right . . . right?
The only complication, at least here on earth, or here in the limited capacity of our finite brains, is that we brush up against the big T "Truth"--that is, the Lord--all the time, but we have very limited access to it . . . and as far as I can tell from our behavior, an awfully low retention rate.
Hence the great need for variety. Hence all the different faiths of the world doing their level best to contribute their piece to the puzzle that represents our less than coherent collective understanding of God. However, I don't think our inability to come together and assemble all those pieces into a coherent whole is a disappointment to the Lord. I think it is actually an expression of the Lord's affection for variety.
The Lord is not a monochromatic entity. If we open our eyes and look at the world around us, it is obvious that the Lord loves variety of expression, form, texture. If the Lord thought there was only one right way to do each thing, then wouldn't all flowers be roses, or all trees only oaks, all birds simply sparrows, all fish merely tuna, all people exact replicas of Adam and Eve?
If we open our eyes, we see that this is not the world we live in. We live in a world created to sustain millions and billions of species; a world laced with infinite variety. The contemplation of this leads us right to the gates of the heavenly city, New Jerusalem; to gates that are never closed; to gates that welcome the glory and honor of all nations and peoples, faiths and practices that place love for the Lord and love for the neighbor at their center.
Wander around this city with me for a moment. Notice that there is no need for a temple, for the Lord God Almighty is the temple. There is no separation, no mediating force, no need of religion to span the distance between us and the Lord, for we will dwell fully encompassed in the light of the Lord's sun at all times. There is, therefore, no separation between faith and life. It is a vision of full spiritual integration. Notice the variety of peoples who populate this city and refresh themselves with the same water--the water of life.
And gaze for a moment at the tree of life--a single tree so miraculous that it somehow manages to stand on either side of the river. I admit I don't quite know what to make of that. A tree whose leaves are for the healing of all the nations. In this city there is no more night, for the Lord is its light and shines on all who dwell within its walls. It is a beautiful vision. It is a vision of hope and healing and wholeness.
And what I want to say to you all today is that this is not a vision limited to the future. This revelation is not offered to us through John as merely a portent or sign of things to come. No, this vision is an invitation to embrace in ways large and small the reality of the New Jerusalem in the here and now.
And believe me, even as I say it, I know it sounds too good to be true. If you look at the world on any given day, it seems impossible. There is so much darkness in the world. How could we, even with the help of the Lord, ever work our way out from under the shadows that our pain, anger, and misunderstanding have cast upon each other, and find a way to cultivate this vision of a bright and shining city, where all peoples dwell in peace, harmony, and mutual affection?
There is such violence and hatred at work in the world right now, and so much of it seems so deeply rooted in perversions of our faith, that one wonders if faith can ever save us, or if it will only bring us more harm. Cycles of violence and degradation beget still more atrocious acts of violence and degradation. But this is part of the reason we are gifted with the book of Revelation, and with the hope of the Apocalypse. . . . Yes, the hope.
We are not to contemplate these visions in Revelation in order to stir up fear, or to make us complacent, but to plant the seed of hope within us that this is not the end; this is not the ultimate; these societies and principalities and wars that we create are not the only option--and will one day be dismantled. Fear will be no more. The Lord will indeed be with us, not as some cosmic conqueror, but as a shepherd who will sit beside us and ever so gently wipe every tear from our eyes.
It is all too easy to dismiss this vision, so glorious and full of light--this vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. For most Christians, there is no sense of connection between that future reality and our present one. That is there, this is here. That will be then, this is now. But as Swedenborgians, we believe in heaven and hell not just as places we go when we die, but as states of being we cultivate in the here and now.
How can we draw ever closer to this reality? How can we strive for a spiritual state in which there is no more night? Is it possible?
I believe it is. And I think the key lies in how we treat each other, how we love each other, how we find ways to accept one another and be grateful for the differences we see in each other. It comes in our ability to receive each other without fear. It lies in our ability, with the Lord's help--always with the Lord's help--to refrain from casting darkness upon each other: the darkness of war, prejudice, hatred, bitterness, misunderstanding, and abuse. It comes when we lay down our need simply to be right in favor of our need simply to be loving.
I have for many years been inspired by a story from the Hasidic tradition of the rabbi who was asked one day by a student, "How can one tell when the new day has come?"
The rabbi reversed the question, as rabbis are wont to do, and asked his student, "You tell me how you can know."
The student guessed, "Is it when the rooster crows to signal a new dawn?"
"No," the rabbi answered.
"Is it then perhaps when one can discern the silhouette of a tree against the sky?"
"No," he was told.
And then the rabbi said, "The surest way to know when the night is over, and when a new day has come, is when you can look into the face of a stranger, the one who is so different from you, and recognize him as your brother; see her as your sister. Until that day comes, it will always be night."
What I experienced at the Gathering Leaves conference was a gift of hope; a revelation in and of itself; a new day in the making. I learned that we are not placed upon our paths in this life, given our particular understanding, and apportioned our particular love in order to get everyone to agree with us and fall in line right behind us. We are gifted with love and wisdom and a heavenly goal that we might walk side by side, traverse parallel paths, wend our many ways to the same city. Our paths may cross--and when they do, let us take joy in the opportunity to share the journey for a space, and in the various gifts of nourishment that the Lord provides along the way. When we do--when we recognize each other across the way not as strangers, as others, as those people, but as brothers and sisters seeking the same Lord, we not only draw closer to the heavenly city, but we begin to build it.
This is what made the Gathering Leaves conference such a success. Its goal was to promote a sense of charity and good will such that each of the women present would be able to look at her neighbor and say, "No matter what form her doctrine and her external form of worship take, this is my sister; I observe that she worships the Lord and is a good woman" (See Arcana Coelestia #2385). And it worked.
My hope is that we can keep that spirit of appreciation alive and well in our church, and carry it out into the world. For heaven, be it high above or here below, is not a place for a precious few but for the many--for the whole human race.
I'd like to leave you with a story from Kathleen Norris that captures for me the quality of love that defines this vision of heaven. In her book Amazing Grace she shares her favorite definition of heaven. It came from a Benedictine sister, who told her that as her mother lay dying in a hospital bed, she had ventured to reassure her by saying, "In heaven, everyone we love is there." But the older woman shook her head, and with great wisdom replied, "No, my dear, in heaven we will love everyone who is there."
Lord, you are both Lamb and Shepherd, peacemaker and sword-bringer, earthly Jesus and cosmic Christ. You know of this variety of which we speak, for you are our Creator and Redeemer, our Messiah and our King. This is your design that we speak of and admire. This is your way that we seek to learn from and follow.
Inspire us, dear Lord. Inspire us to recognize every friend, every stranger, indeed--and perhaps most importantly--every enemy, as a child of God, and therefore as a brother or sister created to glorify you. Open our eyes that we may see, and open our mouths, that our lips might show forth your praise in all that we say and do. Amen.
Rev. Sarah Buteux