Mt.Hood, photo via goodfreephotos.com
High on the southern slope of Oregon's Mt.Hood sits the historic Timberline Lodge, an architectural gem and magnet for many winter sports fans. The visitor enters a stone building that in many ways feels like a real-life structure from Middle Earth. I believe the architects called the style "Cascadia", but on my visits, I've been struck by the heavy Nordic influence, with grace-notes of American Indian motifs, which in turn sound echoes of Rohan and the Dwarf kingdoms. Heavy, hand-forged ironwork graces the massive central, stone fireplace, while on the upper level, the huge beams of carved wood spread and soar like the branches of a primeval tree. On my visit, all was suffused by the sunlight reflected off the snow outside the panoramic windows.
Beyond the historical significance of Timberline, buried deeper than the lasting beauty of all its sturdy, handcrafted details, I was touched by the transcendence of this particular 1930's WPA project. "Transcendent' because it was built not as a private residence or a commercial venture, but was intentionally built to inspire hope. It was built to give hope to people who were simply hopeless, in the depths of the Great Depression. Instead of being given a hand-out and a pat on the back, the artists and craftsmen were given worthwhile work, and that work was done with eagerness, love and dignity. And so the building endures, bringing beauty and inspiration to all who are interested in discovering those things.
Once our parish priest reflected briefly on the meaning of Romans 8, speculating as to just how "real" the "New Earth" is going to be. This is something I've often wondered about as well. Some theologians present a picture of Heaven that is, frankly, too abstract, cerebral and off-putting. They inform us that the Biblical passages speaking of streets of gold, pearly gates and Heavenly cities are just allegorical. They pooh-pooh Near Death accounts of gardens, houses and reunions with dead pets. But what if those experiences are true? What if part of Heaven---perhaps the vestibule, the area prepared specifically to put newcomers at ease before they journey further inwards---is composed of gardens and buildings? Real gardens and buildings? What if the very best things built or cultivated on earth, things built with love, are translated into a heavenly existence?
We know that our experience of eternity is being built here and now, brick by brick, but we tend to think of this as just a metaphor. I wonder how much more seriously we'd take this proposal if we thought we'd be spending a considerable amount of time in an actual structure that we designed and built through our own actions. Would we go about our daily chores more mindfully, with more patience and love? Stately mansion or a pit of despair, rose garden or weed patch---it's our choice.
Whether or not Heavenly architecture will be "real" in the sense we understand that concept now, I find it helpful to make the goal of building an eternal mansion a part of my prayer life. In my primitive spiritual state, the promise of being part of an eternal choir just doesn't appeal to me. Other than the Trinity, the reality of the Beatific Vision is probably the most difficult concept to sell to most flesh-bound minds, and other than a line or two from Meister Eckhart, I've never yet encountered a scholarly consideration of that state that really made sense to me. I'm not in a choir now----why would I want to be in one forever? I can envision myself hanging out on the peripheries, hoping no one notices that I'm just mouthing the words of praise because I can't stay in the right key. The whole drifting-about-in-white-robes-in-the-clouds image sounds a bit...boring. Of course that picture is just a cliche, but it is fairly deeply embedded in our collective cultural experience, and can be damaging. We know that whatever Heaven is, it isn't boring!
Yet the idea of having a beautiful house, one completely suited to my style, is one that appeals to my literal and dully material mind. I can get motivated and excited about it. When I wipe down a countertop or sweep a floor now, I imagine that another piece of my personalized eternal home is being set in place. By working in love here to create a peaceful, welcoming space on Earth, I have faith that I'm really erecting something infinitely more beautiful and lasting elsewhere.
In C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, upon arriving in Heaven the children are amazed to find England itself, as well as Professor Kirk's country house. They are told by the faun Tumnus, "But you are now looking at the England within England, the real England, just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England, no good thing is destroyed."
That's enough of a theological argument to satisfy me, to give me hope the real things here will be more real there, and that simple things done with love here will be transformed into something unimaginably wonderful there.
So when we all meet up in Heaven,look for my home. It's going to be sort of like an elven treehouse, spiraling around the trunk of a massive oak, with walls partially made of stained glass, and lots of open rooms with decks overlooking hills covered with small purple flowers. We can sit and talk for awhile before we arise and continue traveling "further up and further in", perhaps taking a side trip to the eternal Timberline before going on to the Heavenly Jerusalem itself. And all of it bathed in the light of the Lamb.
(c) S. Kirk Pierzchala. A version of this essay originally appeared in 2014 on the blog, Beauty in Belief