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Fear of Heaven

On the meaning of eternity.

I am afraid to go to Heaven. That’s a bit laughable for me to say—I regularly avoid confession and I am perennially too hungover to wake up for Mass. I would be lucky to escape Hell with only a few thousand years in Purgatory. When I’m asked where I think I’ll go when I die, my reaction is a panicked doubt that I’ll escape eternal fire and unending torment. In my gut, I favor Hell’s odds on scooping up my little soul. 

But in my heart, I feel a faint voice telling me—much like a mysterious, well-dressed stranger at the horse track—to ignore those odds and to bet on the underdog. I genuinely do not know if the voice in my palpitating heart comes from above or if I’m experiencing the first symptoms of a heart attack—the one that seems to come for all Nerozzi men in the end, saints and sinners alike. 

While I ponder in fear, I continue to trip up on that word—eternal. Eternity is forever, but what kind of forever? How will I perceive eternity if I am lifted up and out of our time-contingent world? Will I be conscious for eternity? The Catholic Church—and any remotely orthodox form of Christianity—tells me the answer is a cacophonic “yes.” 

Consciousness for all eternity. Awareness of my own unending existence. Forgive me for saying something so ignorant, but that sounds horrific. 

During my years of wandering from the Catholic faith, this concept of eternity frightened me to my core. It was a source of severe doubt about the afterlife. Late at night, often boozed up or toked up or crossed up, I’d unconvincingly tell myself that maybe re-incarnation is real, because that sounded like the least terrifying of the possibilities. After all, you can’t be driven to insanity by eternity if you’re always forgetting what happened last time you spun the Wheel of Dharma. 

I returned to the Catholic Church in earnest while I was in my last years at the University of Pittsburgh. Even then, freshly re-engaged with God and on fire with passion to receive the entire deposit of Christian wisdom, this question of eternity noisily rolled around my head like misery-colored marbles. During a young Catholics theological discussion after mass (that I initially only attended for the free pizza), this anxiety became so great that I approached the priest about it. 

“Eternity . . . is a long time,” I remember telling him. 

“Yes, it is,” he responded, blank-faced. 

“Won’t it get old?” I asked. 

“You’re afraid that the glory of the Beatific Vision will become boring for you?” he asked with sincere charity. 

“I just don’t know that I want to live for eternity,” I said. “I definitely don’t want to suffer for eternity, or die and be annihilated, obviously. But being conscious and active and aware without end, no matter where I am or how good life feels, is kind of horrifying.” 

The priest, to my amazement, grasped what I was getting at with my inarticulate babble. I was too naïve at that point to recognize there’s very little about Heaven and earth that a good priest hasn’t given at least a cursory consideration. 

He asked me if I had ever spent an evening talking to someone I loved. I told him that of course I had. 

He asked me if, in those moments, I’d ever experienced the passage of time in a peculiar way. He asked if I ever found myself still talking with that person well into the depths of the night without knowing where the time had gone. 

My mind filled with scenes of my life in which the stream of time had suddenly become a flooding, expanding ocean, and entire nights were submerged in the bliss of being with the people I held close. My beloved family. Dear friends and adoring girlfriends. Mentors. Teammates. Distant relatives brought together by holidays or birthdays or funerals. 

Those sterling moments didn’t blur. They didn’t speed up or get lost in my memory. Often, I could remember every topic of every drifting tangent of our conversation. In those moments of love, time had truly warped into a vast, beautiful body of beatitude without a beginning or an end. A perfect prism.

“God,” the priest said, “Is something like that—but more than you can possibly imagine.” 

My brain is small and God is immense—when I say I am afraid of Heaven, I don’t mean to say that God doesn’t have an answer to my concern. I do not pretend to have noticed a mistake that the Lord overlooked when He created me. I do not—not for a second—mean that I don’t want to go to Heaven. I am sure that if God is as real as He seems to me, He has a plan for my eternity and it will be sublime, and it will be golden, and it will be beyond my comprehension. But the fear persists, even years later at my apartment in Washington, D.C., far away from Pittsburgh.

I know it’s not something I should worry about. I can trust that if I somehow get my soul in order and accept the grace sufficient to stumble into the great beyond, there’s an endless ocean of love waiting for me. And when I plunge into it, time will be immaterial to me as I experience something impossible to measure in minutes or weeks or years. I’ll find my peace in the unending night of sweet conversation with a friend and lover and parent Who never runs out of things to say.

I just have to make sure I get there to meet Him.