St. John Henry Newman on Heaven, Happiness and Holiness

Are you prepared to be glad in paradise?

(photo: Giusto de' Menabuoi, Ceiling of the Padua Cathedral Baptistery, c. 1377)

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died within one day of each other in December 2016. Todd Fisher, Carrie’s brother and Debbie’s son, later made some comments on ABC’s 20/20 about his sister and mother dying and being together again after death. Knowing nothing of his religious upbringing or background, his comments gave me pause and made me wonder: What do we, as Catholics — what do I, as a Catholic — really think heaven is?

Fisher referred to God calling Debbie Reynolds to heaven to help the angels handle her daughter Carrie, who might have been creating some problems. He described how close the mother and daughter were and how much Debbie wanted to help Carrie all the time. He pictured heaven as them being together, continuing the relationship they had on earth. He clearly believed in a life after death. His view of heaven seemed like a continuation of this life — just without all the problems of addiction, failed relationships, thwarted projects, bad days and other human troubles.


Life Everlasting

Reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church on heaven reveals great mysteries of happiness and holiness. In the Creed we say that “I believe in life everlasting,” and as the Catechism explains, that life after death will either be spent in heaven or in hell, after each one of us has been judged on the basis of our “works and faith” (1021). Our particular judgment results either in immediate entrance into heaven — or a period of purification before heaven — or “immediate and everlasting damnation” (1022).

Those who go to heaven become like God! They see him as he is, “face-to-face.” With the angels and saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, they achieve the highest, most perfect happiness. Paragraph 1024 states: “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”


What Is Happiness?

The Catechism (1027) acknowledges that this is the great mystery of heaven and one that we can’t completely understand:

“This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).” We get glimpses of happiness throughout our lives, but do we really know what happiness is? Am I prepared to be happy in heaven?

Deal Hudson wrote a book in the 1990s, Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction, in which he described a more classical view of happiness that might prepare us better for the mysterious happiness of heaven.Hudson noted that our conventional idea of happiness is that we feel good; we are satisfied by what we do or what we have. Our happiness depends on things and how we feel about them. That sort of happiness prepares us for a heaven in our own image.


‘A Church Is Like Heaven’

The classical and medieval view of happiness meant that a person must be good to be happy; should be living her life according to moral standards — should be holy.

That happiness as holiness prepares us for the heaven the Catechism describes. St. John Henry Newman describes this standard of holiness in his Parochial and Plain Sermon, “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness”:

“To be holy is, in our Church’s words, to have ‘the true circumcision of the Spirit’; that is, to be separate from sin, to hate the works of the world, the flesh and the devil; to take pleasure in keeping God’s commandments; to do things as He would have us do them; to live habitually as in the sight of the world to come, as if we had broken the ties of this life, and were dead already. Why cannot we be saved without possessing such a frame and temper of mind?”

And then he makes the startling statement that “even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.” Newman comments that we can have the wrong idea about heaven — that it will be a place of pleasure and satisfaction — and then proposes a better way to think of heaven:

“Heaven, then, is not like this world; I will say what it is much more like — a church. For in a place of public worship … we hear solely and entirely of God. We praise Him, worship Him, sing to Him, thank Him, confess to Him, give ourselves up to Him, and ask His blessing. And therefore, a church is like heaven; viz. [namely] because both in the one and the other, there is one single sovereign subject — religion — brought before us.”

So someone who has no thought of God, what Newman calls an “irreligious man,” would be miserable in heaven: The face of God and the worship of God “would be no object of joy to him.” On the other hand, if you are happy in church, at Mass, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, etc., you will be happy in heaven, as heaven truly is.


This post was updated this month; it was first posted on Jan. 11, 2017.