We walk to heaven backward, said Blessed Cardinal Newman, who will be canonized Oct. 9. I’ve always been able to look back on my spiritual biography and trace a bright, clear line between where I was and where I have arrived. I’m sure we all could. Who we are now is not who we used to be. But we’re only able to do so as an after-the-fact exercise, using the cleverness of the human mind to connect the dots in an orderly fashion. In reality, my journey was chaotic, progressing by way of error as I foolishly backed myself along a path. I knew not where I was going.
Newman isn’t saying that we sin and stumble our way into heaven, but that we seem to be easing our way in by a crooked path, marked by humility and hard lessons. Perhaps this points to the fact that we don’t actually achieve heaven at all. It is gifted to us.
I learned very quickly after being received into the Church that my new spiritual mother has high standards for me. I’m expected to not sin. Ever again. Other forms of spirituality may equivocate and concede — well, you’re good enough just like you are, or, you may be a sinner but God overlooks that — only Catholicism walks the brave, narrow path, the one that requires us to both acknowledge our sinfulness and also cooperate with God’s grace to actually do something about it.
Heaven may seem always to be behind us, just over the shoulder if we could crane our necks around to see, but the hiddenness of the divine life conceals just how close we are getting. As we stare back down that path, barely knowing what’s ahead of us but with a clear view of where we’ve been, we may be looking back on a lifetime of embarrassment, but we do so not to form regrets but in order to see how much we’ve learned, the extent to which we’ve been forgiven, and be amazed at how far we’ve come.
Cardinal Newman insists that if we look intently enough and focus far enough back, our gaze becomes Edenic. “Surveying Eden,” he says, is a way of, “looking back on our own childhood; and in aiming to be children again, we are aiming to be as Adam on his creation.” It’s inevitable that we kick up dust as we make our pilgrimage, a glance back to the innocence of childhood reminds us to throw ourselves entirely on the mercy of God and to never tire of doing so. Through His forgiveness, we may always recover innocence.
If heaven is the sunrise at our back, then the shadows at our feet are nothing more than a sign of how bright the future truly is. One day, each of us will turn around and finally see God face to face. We won’t be merely recovering our past, or be reinstated to Eden — we are being reborn.
Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.