Leonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement
I have never been to Heaven, though I have been to Iowa. Iowa is not Heaven, but it may open to it. When Ray Kinsella built his Field of Dreams, he followed the seemingly nonsensical promise that turning his plowshares into baseball bats and his crop rows into foul lines would draw some untold company. But even as he built a destination for dreamers, the prophecy within the film—eventually spoken in the only voice that should ever deliver prophecy: that of James Earl Jones—reveals why the dream is for something other than the field itself. The thing that matters is not the place at journey’s end but to enjoy what you find there:
People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn into your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say, “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” And they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk off to the bleachers and sit in their short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines where they sat when they were children, and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray.
I love the little throwaway line in the middle of this monologue where the mystical enjoyment of this game—on this field—is described as bringing the pilgrims enjoyment so wonderful that it will “be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.” In Kinsella’s original book (which has somewhat bizarre religious overtones), this line is written like this: “…it will be as if they have knelt in front of a faith healer, or dipped themselves in magic waters where a saint once rose like a serpent and cast benedictions to the wind like peach petals,” (Shoeless Joe by Ray Kinsella). The contrast in images is startling, for a serpent rises up in order to strike with venom but in this case the rising up with the force of a serpent issues good-words that are as delicate, fragrant, and comforting as petals on the wind. I doubt Kinsella knew that he was basically describing Saint Juan Diego who as a child would have received a lecture from his father in which he was told “not to rise like a serpent and shoot out anger against the people, instead receive them in love,” (Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego: The Historical Evidence by Eduardo Chávez).
As a grown man, Juan fulfills and exceeds this instruction when, at Our Lady’s instruction, he rises up before the bishop to let petals fall from his tilma. Kinsella’s odd image suggests that one who embodies all the power of a striking serpent in order to bless rather than to curse is like a saint, and that the transformation of that power from fury to peace is like magic.
Imagine trying to teach a serpent to redirect all his instincts towards a new end. I imagine you would have to do nothing less than make him forget his former action before teaching him how to use the same power for a new action, one which is quite the opposite of his former one. That is what it would be like, say, for a soldier to wholly recast the power of his own efforts in favor of a new purpose—you know, like Ignatius of Loyola, who was first broken of his own ambitions in order to be re-educated for a new purpose. In service of that new purpose, Ignatius exercised no less passion than he did on the battlefield—i.e., he became the one who rose like a serpent not to strike down but to build up. Just so, the peasant Juan Diego takes on the serpent’s and soldier’s poise to strike with the blessing given to him from Our Lady. Perhaps Juan had to be given the soldier’s courage while Ignatius had to be given the peasant’s meekness. In either case, the union of opposites—“the meek soldier” and “the bold peasant”—is no less peculiar than a serpent offering benediction, which is so anomalous that only something like magic could explain it.
Which brings me back to that little throwaway line about being dipped in magic waters: You know who else imagined this kind of transformation in like terms? Dante. At the top of the Mountain of Purgatory—that place of transformation—Dante imagines two boundaries of water on either side of the Earthly Paradise. In truth, the two bodies of water are the same river that flow “from God’s own will” (Purgatorio 28:125), but on one side of the Earthly Paradise it is called Lethe and on the other it is called Eunoe. The River Lethe is a river of forgetfulness: as if by magic it “take[s] the memory of sin away,” (Purgatorio 28:128; cf. Inferno 14:136-138). These waters wash away all the prideful, envious, wrathful, slothful, covetous, gluttonous, and lustful urges, habits, and even consequences of such actions, leaving the one who emerges from the waters without memory. Every memory is taken away from the one who plunges into these waters because all of his memories—like that of a serpent for whom the instinct to strike with venom flows in every part of himself—were tinged with aspects of the sins that plague him. To be without memory, though, is to not be yourself, and to become yourself is the whole point of the purgatorial journey; therefore, on the other side of the Earthly Paradise, the River Eunoe flows to restore the memory of “all good done,” (Purgatorio 28:129; cf. 33:124-132, 142-145). All that power expended upon ulterior motives, slanderous thoughts and deeds, furtive games of rivalry, and acts of love muddied with undue self-regard… all of that power is restored and released for an holistic purpose: to praise the One who blesses and to serve the good of others. On the far side of Eunoe, the saint emerges with the power of a rising serpent speaking benedictions that are as fragrant, delicate, and comforting as petals on the wind.
Dante’s saints are free to praise and serve in the activity of Heaven, while Kinsella’s saints are free for what that dreamy field offers. For Dante, the saint is not simply defined as the one who passes from the Earthly Paradise to the Heavenly Paradise; rather, Dante’s saint is the one who enjoys the Heavenly Paradise. Likewise for Kinsella, the saints of baseball that he imagines are not made by coming to the Iowa field, but rather by enjoying the game they find there. Iowa isn’t Heaven because Heaven is not a goal, and Heaven is not a goal because gaining admission isn’t the point. Enjoying Heaven is the point.
John Henry Newman had a way of speaking of Heaven that made it seem rather un-enjoyable, at least at first glance. In one of his better-known sermons, he describes Heaven thusly:
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 no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit. These things indeed may be right in their way, so that we do not set our hearts upon them; still (I repeat), it is certain that we hear nothing of them in a church. Here we hear solely and entirely of God (“Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness”).
For most of us—myself included—spending eternity in a church actually sounds pretty terrible. If Heaven is like a church, then maybe it is rather like baseball: it’s tedious, it’s repetitive, and it takes forever. That, in fact, is precisely Newman’s point. We tend to conceive of Heaven on our own terms, but we would do well to practice re-conceiving of ourselves in the God-given terms of Heaven. The language of this world is often the language of suspicion and duplicity; the schemes of this world are typically directed towards one’s self-promotion; and the credit we seek to accrue in this world is weighed in the laudations we earn or even the laudations we trick others into conferring upon us. A church—rightly conceived—is a place free of these games because it practices its participants in another game: learning to enjoy that place where a good we do not earn is given and where we delight in sharing that good with others. That place is Heaven. In the world, we practice springing our energies in poisonous maneuvers to either subtly or not-so-subtly advance ourselves even at the expense of others. In a church we practice taking the good of others as our own good. The energy expended is comparable but the purpose is not. In a church, the mighty learn how to wield their might in favor of the meek and the meek learn how to boldly lead the mighty in benediction.
Only once our memories are cleansed of past grievances, shame, and worldly ambition, may our memories be restored to new life in forgiveness, gratitude, and charity. In a way reminiscent of Augustine’s contemplation of the life of the saints at the conclusion of Book XXII of City of God, Newman encourages us to seek memories redeemed in mercy:
Let us thankfully commemorate the many mercies He has vouchsafed to us in times past, the many sins He has not remembered, the many dangers He has averted, the many prayers He has answered, the many mistakes He has corrected, the many warnings, the many lessons, the much light, the abounding comfort which He has from time to time given. Let us dwell upon times and seasons, times of trouble, times of joy, times of trial, times of refreshment (“Remembrance of Past Mercies”).
There is a lot to remember there, and remembering all of that would take all of our energy, all of the time. This activity would be so engaging that we would hand over all we think we’ve earned and all we think we’re due as if we were “pass[ing] over money without even thinking about it” in order to enjoy the peace we once lacked. Money, here, stands for all that worldly ambition procures and giving that up is precisely the admission price for a “perfect afternoon”.
To think about this in another setting, consider the typically unadvertised condition of a majority (or at least a significant minority) of college students, including and perhaps especially those who are currently enrolled at their elite “dream schools”. The problem of conceiving of Heaven as a goal is echoed in the perils of conceiving of college admission itself as a goal, especially since in the case of the latter we often train children and teens to cultivate ambition toward that end, to measure themselves according to admissibility, and to compete with each other for position and ranking. For those in the most prestigious and selective colleges, the ambitious, achievement-driven, metrics-obsessed, comparison-laden, goal-oriented behaviors that they all virtually had to cultivate in order to get into their “dream schools” are the very same habits that prevent them from enjoying college.
When these students get to college, they keep often keep operating according to what they’ve been trained to value: the pursuit of accomplishments and the calculation of worth by inverse comparison to the merits of others. In short, their capacity to learn in order to grow, to venture even at the risk of failure, and to allow themselves to be seen as in process rather than finished products is dulled precisely because of how ‘the system’ (Newman’s “world”) shaped them in order to achieve admission to college and, moreover, what ‘the system’ continues to expect of them once they are in college. The antidote to the venom of the system is not to expect less of college students; in fact, the antidote is to expect more: they should be guided to be more fully human rather than little goal-gobbling achievement-machines, especially since little goal-gobbling achievement-machines eventually breakdown, whether during college or afterwards. (Full disclosure: I myself am a recovering goal-gobbling achievement-machine).
After all, you can’t enjoy a baseball game if you’re obsessed with how much everything costs, who has the best seat, and how to consistently “upgrade your experience,” just like you can’t enjoy Heaven if you keep thinking about how to get ahead, how to work the situation to your own advantage, or how to favorably compare your merits to those of others. In this regard, even elite Catholic colleges may not very much resemble Newman’s own idea of a university, which is certainly meant to cultivate virtue more than ambition, so that when the exorbitant tuition fees change hands it is not done with the consumer expectation that “I better get my money’s worth.” (Another note in the interest of full disclosure: I don’t think exorbitant tuition fees are okay.) What you should get when you gain admission is an education not for the sake of what you think you like but what will help you to enjoy life, unto life everlasting.
If we are to listen to the prophetic voice of James Earl Jones (as we always should), or that of Dante or of John Henry Newman, then we might come to imagine that if saints are indeed models, they are models not because of where they end up or what they achieve but because of who and what they become. The saints are grateful, they admire each other, they praise together, and they passionately enjoy all of this. The question of Iowa fields and (elite) colleges is also the question of Heaven itself: what are you learning to enjoy?
Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.
For a lovely reflection on the construction of a Cathedral, Field of Dreams, and Heaven, see Hope Feist’s blogpost from earlier this year.