Readings: Jeremiah 7:1-11, Matthew 20:20-28, Heaven and Hell #403 (see below)
There is an anecdote in the beginning of Swedenborg’s book, Married Love, about what constitutes heavenly joy. In it, newly deceased spirits arrive in the spiritual realm, and are allowed to experience whatever it is that they think heaven is or should be. Some spirits thought heaven was pure unadulterated bliss, some thought it was constant enjoyable conversation. Some thought it was feasting with the Patriarchs, some thought it was enjoying a paradise. Some thought it was experiencing great wealth and splendor, and finally, some thought it was constant praise and religious celebration. An angel tells them: “Follow me and I will introduce you to your joys…” and the spirits got to experience exactly what they had been hoping for. But we don’t have the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for” for nothing. Not surprisingly, the spirits tired very quickly of their perceived joys. The spirits wishing for endless diverting conversation were eventually driven to distraction by the sound of talking, the spirits wishing for endless feasting grew sick at the sight of food, spirits wishing for the exercise of power and wealth came to see themselves as playacting, spirits wishing for constant paradise found themselves becoming inured and numb towards beauty, the spirits looking forward to constant praise found themselves bored beyond telling.(1)
The angels tell each new spirit that they have mistaken the “subsidiary adjuncts to heavenly joys” for actual heavenly joys. Meaning: they mistook the external form of joy for the source of joy.
A spirit then asks: What then is heavenly joy? To which the angels answers: It is the pleasure of doing something that is of use to oneself and to others, and the pleasure of being useful takes its essence from love and its expression from wisdom. The pleasure in being useful, springing from love through wisdom, is the life and soul of all heavenly joys.(2)
Swedenborg’s book Heaven and Hell describes it this way:
This is because virtues for everyone in the heavens are virtues in act, which are functions. Everyone there does something specifically useful, for the Lord's kingdom is a kingdom of uses. (3)
All the things that are good about heaven, or about angels—love, honesty, integrity, compassion, curiosity, connection—are not abstract virtues that are good just in and of themselves, they become good when they become real in action. Thus heaven is a kingdom of uses. Elsewhere in Swedenborg’s writings heaven is described as a realm of mutual love. In both cases though, it is clear that the life and soul of heavenly joy is usefulness, a recognition that we do not exist so that we might benefit ourselves only, but rather, we exist so that we might extend love, benefit, and blessing outward towards others. As heard in our reading, joy that rests on the notion of idleness, necessarily rests upon the notion of wanting more happiness than another; such a view is ultimately inward looking, contracted, dwindling, static. A notion of heavenly joy that rests upon useful service is inexhaustibly generative, a mutual love feedback loop that builds ever more towards the renewal and perpetuation of each person’s humanity. The Buddha said: If you light a lamp for someone, it will brighten your own path.
And can anything else make sense to us? As we consider eternity, could anything else be palatable for the human mind and soul? “Forever” is beyond our true comprehension, but I think that we all sense the truth of the anecdote which with we began, that human beings are not very good at choosing what will make us happy. If an eternal afterlife is to exist, there is nothing else but active, loving and useful service that could be remotely tolerable for an eternity, that could actually lead to true and lasting joy and happiness.
So, when Swedenborg describes what do angels do in heaven, it is delightfully quotidian, delightfully grounded, delightfully varied.
There are angels who take care of children who have died, angels who teach or preach, angels who welcome and guide new spirits, angels who take care of new spirits as they awaken, angels who monitor and moderate the actions of people in hell, angels who see to domestic duties, angels who participate in civic endeavors and communal government, angels who organize and oversee divine worship, angels who study, read and learn, angels who build and garden, angels who create art and music. Swedenborg makes sure to say there is literally no way to list all the functions that people have in heaven. Because, even with an impossibly exhaustive list, each angel also contributes their own unique flavor to their function. A beautiful variety, guided by the principle that we heard in our reading:
…angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
But, it is very important to note, however, that an active life is not necessarily a busy one. The life of heaven is not doing for the sake of doing. It is not the “Busyness Olympics” which many of us fall prey to in our lives here, whereby our busyness quotient might prove just how important, or passionate or in demand we really are. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote: I felt the need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days. Love in heaven is expressed through wisdom, which is about knowing what is truly needed in any given moment. A great pilgrimage in a far away land might well feel exciting, but it is true wisdom to recognize when it is an internal pilgrimage that is warranted, and not an external one.
Heaven is not a realm of performative busy-ness, but a realm of true usefulness, of thoughtfulness. Swedenborg himself, though an active member of society, was a consistent meditator. He understood deeply how essential contemplation can be, how useful reflection, renewal and Sabbath can be. Usefulness has lots of different forms.
Sometimes the most useful thing is to not be active. Sometimes the most useful thing is to slow down. Sometimes the most useful thing is to receive: receive care, counsel, perspective, or renewal. Heaven is not a kingdom of martyrdom, about constantly ignoring ourselves and our needs, but rather, about not elevating our needs above all other things, all the time. The heavenly view sees the self through the lens of community, through the lens of usefulness to the common good, of which each angel is a part. They rest and renew and receive, in order that it might serve their own sense of connectedness to God and to their neighbor. We will pray in a few moments the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi…Lord make me an instrument of your peace. This is an angel prayer: Lord make me an instrument of your peace, Lord make me an instrument of heavenly usefulness and generativity, make me an instrument of your infinite flow of love, make me an instrument of connection for the sake of the wholeness of your creation.
Since heaven is a realm where the true nature of things is apparent, it is clear to angels how this connectedness plays out. Each angel is the microcosm to heaven’s macrocosm. Each individual is a reflection of the whole of heaven. Swedenborg writes:
It is a secret not yet known in this world that heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual. In heaven, though, nothing is better known. Knowing this, knowing particulars and details about it, is the hallmark of angelic intelligence there…Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human…(4)
This, ultimately, is what I find so moving about the notion of heavenly usefulness. It is not so much about the virtue of activity, the virtue of creativity, the virtue of doing something good or even the virtue of love. It is participation in a grand symphony of inter-connectedness, whereby our unique individual identity is held in perfect balance with everyone else’s unique individual identity, like cells in the human body, because everyone agrees that everyone is a miracle but no one is the center of the universe.
Follow me, says the angel, and I will introduce you to your joy…I will introduce you to your place in the universal and divine human, where you might know your own value deeply but hold your selfhood lightly, where you might treasure your connectedness to others and every opportunity to be a benefit to them, where you might be alive in the truth of a loving God though whom all these blessings flow.
1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: “ ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 “ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Heaven and Hell #403
On the basis of an opinion formed in the world, some spirits have believed that heavenly happiness consisted of a life of leisure, being waited on by others; but they were informed that there is never any happiness in idling around in order to be content. This would mean wanting the happiness of others for oneself, in which case no one would have any at all. This kind of life would be idle, not active, a life that would lead to atrophy. They might in fact have known that apart from an active life, a life has no happiness, and that idleness serves that life only for refreshment, in order to return them to the active life with more energy. Then they were shown in many ways that angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
Prayer (attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)
Lord make us an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine One, grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.