Heaven is a place of real joy, satisfaction and peacefulness, very different from the pleasures of this world.
The good things enjoyed by the blessed seem something like those possessed by the kings of the earth; but they are so much greater and more excellent as heaven is superior to earth. Wherefore, the kingdom that is prepared for the blessed is not simply called a “kingdom” but the “kingdom of heaven,” that so we may understand the difference between the pleasures of each the one being limited, base, mean, and temporal; whilst the others are boundless, noble, spiritual, and above all, eternal.
The goods of an earthly kingdom are considered to be, power, honour, riches, and pleasures. An earthly monarch can command his subjects; and if they obey him not, he can imprison them, banish them, fine them, scourge them, or put them to death. Hence kings are feared by the people, for they appear, as it were, to be gods. Again, kings wish to be honoured with almost a supernatural veneration, by the knee being bent before them, as if in adoration; and often they will not deign to listen to us, unless we bow down to the earth; and whenever they appear in public, they wish every one to make way for them.
In addition to this, they require a large “exchequer,” full of gold and silver; neither do they count their money by hundreds or thousands of pounds, but by ten hundred thousands; and with reason, since they are obliged to support, not ten or twenty servants, but to lead whole armies forth against their enemies. Lastly, they do not condescend to indulge in ordinary amusements, but only in those which they suppose become their royal majesty such as banquets, hunting, and the theatre on which they squander immense sums of money. Now these are the chief pleasures which earthly princes possess; and all of them are short and fading, since they begin with life, and end in death; unless it should sometime happen, that their life was of longer continuance than their kingdom.
But, moreover, these pleasures are not pure, because power is joined with infirmity, honour with ignominy, riches with poverty, and joy with sorrow and affliction. The power of a prince is such, that the people should depend on the will of their prince; but power is infirm, because the prince depends on the strength and resources of his people. What can a king do in capturing or defending a city, if the people are either unwilling or unable to assist him? But a prince depends not only on the resources of his subjects, but also on walls, fortifications, arms, engines of war, and “money” which is called the nerves of war. Wherefore the people depend on the pleasure of their prince, and serve him alone; the prince, on the contrary, depends on many men and many things, all of which he is obliged to employ.
Whilst kings are present before others, they are certainly honoured and respected; but when absent, they are often ridiculed and spoken against: even when present, many praise them with their lips, whilst they despise them with their heart, so that, if the number of those that praise them and those that revile them could be counted, the latter would be found more numerous than the former. Truly, therefore, the ignominy of kings is often greater than their glory, since few are those who honour their dignity when present, but many accuse them when absent of avarice, and others of cruelty, others of luxury.
But perhaps the riches of kings are pure, without any admixture of poverty. No, for none are so poor as kings; they have immense incomes and great treasures, but their debts and expenses are much greater. He that possesses little is not as poor as one who desires many things, because he stands in need of them. And is it not a great proof of poverty when kings beg a mite, as it were, from the poor themselves, by exacting as taxes what is necessary for their support? I do not speak thus as if I wished to blame the exaction of tributes, for I know it is just they should be paid to kings, according to what St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: “Wherefore be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For therefore, also, you pay tribute. For they are the ministers of God, serving unto this purpose. Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom tribute is due: custom, to whom custom: fear, to whom fear: honour, to whom honour.” (13:7).
But I merely wished to show the miserable condition of kings, who, although they abound in riches, are yet compelled to collect a part of them from the poor and destitute. But what shall we say of their pleasures? Kings have certainly gardens, orchards, sumptuous banquets, hunting, &c., and whatever else can amuse them; but they also have the gout, headaches, complaints in the liver; and what is more distressing, the most painful cares of the mind, which deprive them whole nights of sleep, together with suspicions, fears, and anguish. If the doors of their chambers creak at night, they suspect treachery; if an armed multitude have been seen, a desertion is apprehended.
Thus, joy is mixed with sorrow, and rest interrupted by care; this is the reason why many have resigned their crown, that they might lead a private life. But let us hear how St. John Chrysostom, in one of his Homilies (Hom. 66) to the people of Antioch, speaks of the kings of his time: “Look not at the diadem, but at the multitude of cares look not at the purple, but at the soul, blacker than the purple itself. The crown does not so much circle the head, as cares do the soul. Neither consider the troops of attendants, but the multitude of troubles.
For no private house can be found so full of cares as a palace: everyday deaths are expected, but in the night one cannot tell how often the soul is terrified, and thinks it is about to depart. And all this in time of peace. But when a war breaks out, what can be more miserable than life? How many dangers befall friends and subjects!
But such is not the state of the kingdom of heaven.” How truly this great saint hath said, “Such is not the state of the kingdom of heaven” we shall now see.
The kings of the kingdom of heaven, who all live in happiness with God, possess power without infirmity, honour without ignominy, riches without poverty, pleasure without pain; for of them the Psalmist speaks: “There shall no evil come to thee: nor shall the scourge come near thy dwelling.” (Ps. 90:10)
And in the Apocalypse: “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away” (21: 4.)
Wherefore exceeding great is the power of these heavenly kings, without the least admixture of infirmity. One angel, without an army, without swords and spears, instantly slew one hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrians; neither was he afraid of being wounded by any of the soldiers. St. Gregory relates in his “Dialogues”(Lib. iii. cap. 36) that a certain holy man, when the executor with uplifted arm was about to behead him, exclaimed, “St. John, save me !” and immediately the executioner could neither move nor stir his hand in anyway. St. John therefore heard the prayer of his client; and with such quickness was the executioner struck, that the stroke, though just falling, was prevented.
Such then is the power of the kings of heaven, that neither the distance of place, nor the situation in which this just but defenseless man was placed, nor the multitude of armed enemies, could prevent St. John from delivering him from instant death. Numerous examples of the like nature could be mentioned. The honour these heavenly kings possess is so great, that not only good men, but the wicked also, and even devils, are forced to respect them.
Many there are who despised and spurned these holy men whilst they were upon earth; but afterwards they honoured and venerated them when translated to heaven, especially if the Church by a public decree numbered them among the saints: and even the demons themselves, who were wont to harass the saints with temptations when living in the flesh; and even, by the permission of God, to beat them with many stripes, now fear their relics and images since they reign with God. What shall I say of the riches these kings enjoy?
“Their great treasure is, to want nothing, because God is all in all. He is not rich who possesses many things; but he who desires nothing, because he stands in need of nothing: the soul ought to be rich, but not the coffers; heaven and earth and all things therein, contribute to the riches of the saints, for what do not they possess who are “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ?” and whom the Father has appointed “heirs of all things?”
There now remain but the pleasures which the blessed enjoy in heaven: these are pure and sweet, without any ingredient of sorrow or affliction: we have already heard from the Apocalypse, that God will wipe away all tears from their eyes, and that sorrow and mourning will be no more. But on this point we shall dwell more at length, when we speak of Paradise.
The good things which the blessed and all the saints will enjoy in heaven together, are such, that they can in no way be compared with the pleasures of earth; especially since the latter are temporary, the former eternal.
– – – written by St. Robert Bellarmine