Returning to God

(This is Neil)

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.
Sacrosanctum Concilium 8

Especially because it displayed a positive blurb from the Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr, I read GR EvansChristian Belief: A Short History for Today on a long train ride. The book might be bewildering for beginners, but it does demonstrate the nuance and complexity of a trajectory of thought from the Church Fathers to the Cambridge Platonists. Other than a discussion of “sacrifice,” the book doesn’t have very much to say about liturgy, but I was reminded of the previous passage by Professor Evans’ wonderfully concise discussion of the image of heaven as a “return to God.” (Heaven can also be seen through other images – as a garden or city or even as “hiding in God.”) If heaven can be described as a “return to God” and liturgy is a “foretaste of that heavenly liturgy,” then we must always worship as pilgrims, always in via.

Let me provide an excerpt (I leave out a puzzling end paragraph that seems to depend on claims about the time-symmetricality of the world):

That this wrong place we are in now is a “region of unlikeness” (regio dissimilitudinis) became an important idea. It seems to take its Latin origin from the reference in Augustine’s Confessions (VII.x.16) to Augustine’s discovery by self-examination that he has strayed far from God, into a “region” where he has lost the likeness (similitude) of Genesis 1:28, the image and likeness to God in which God made his human creatures. This metaphorical or spiritual “distance” becomes a semi-literal “distance” for some commentators. Bernard of Clairvaux places the “realm of unlikeness” on a “map” on which he identifies “this present life.” On the map are also other regions: purgatory, hell and heaven (the regio expiationis, the regio gehennalis, the regio supercaelestis).

This is not mere exile from a place but alienation from the intended “human condition,” on the assumption that that is the only possible satisfactory condition for human beings. Ailred of Rievaulx suggests that this is a useful clue affording an explanation of God’s divine purpose in allowing his people to linger miserably in exile in this world. People need the opportunity and the time to find their way back, and indeed to realize that they want to. Thomas of Chobham uses the idea of the regio dissimilitudinis in connection with the Prodigal Son of Luke 15:13. “Often the strangers and outsiders who return from a far distance like the prodigal son, praise God more than those of his household who remain in his house.”

William Langland’s Piers Plowman ends with a beginning. Conscience decides to begin on a pilgrimage and walk though the world. “Is the [Divina] Commedia of Dante the most nostalgic poem ever written?” asks Dorothy Sayers. “From beginning to end everybody is homesick. … It’s a poem by an exile, about exiles, for exiles.” John Bunyan describes in The Pilgrim’s Progress the journey of the human soul through life in this world. He called the book and its hero after the centuries-old tradition of Christian pilgrimage, in which the faithful journeyed in the body to a physical place which was holy by association with some saint or event of Christian significance and by analogy journeyed in the soul to a spiritual place.

This is the motif which lingered in Christian consciousness despite the unpromising unfolding of the distinction between mankind and a God eternally displeased with him, and quite other than his creature. Moses glimpses the Promised Land across the Jordan but he will never enter it. It is not merely a matter of getting back to the right “region” from a place of exile. The driving force of the pilgrim’s journey, the journey from the region of unlikeness, is the relief of the pain the creature feels while it is separated from God.

There is, then, a strongly marked thread in the Christian tradition which sees this life as a departure from the place where we ought to be and heaven merely a return. The return is often seen as the restoration of a “primordial” relationship with God. Our perception of things encourages us to see time as flowing in a single direction. We cannot go back to yesterday except in memory. To “return” to God has always been conceived of as involving a fresh journey, a going back which is also a going forward.

Till man’s first heavenly state again takes place
(Carol: “Christians awake, salute the happy morn”)

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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