“For with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you.”
Concerning the story I am about to relate, permit me to use the words of Father Peter Lonergan in The Quiet Man: “Well, I can’t say it’s true, and I won’t say it’s not.”
Several years ago, I was walking along the streets of New York City. As I passed the rear entrance of the Metropolitan Opera House, a big, black, chauffer-driven limousine pulled up, and who do you think stepped out? None other than Luciano Pavarotti himself, accompanied by two burly bodyguards! I could hardly believe it.
When the great singer spied me standing there on the sidewalk in my Roman collar, he exclaimed: “Santa pace! Madonna mia! Sacerdote!” To me he said in a heavy Italian accent, “Father, I am-a so happy that you are-a here to see me in my performance of-a Puccini’s La Boheme. Look-a what I’m-a gonna do for you!” Then to his two bodyguards he enjoined, “Ernesto, Giovanni, show Father and his two friends to the very best seats in the house!”
The egotistical Signore Pavarotti would have been heartbroken had he known the real reason for my presence in New York. In point of fact, I had not come to the Big Apple to see the opera at all. I had been on my way to FAO Schwartz Toy Store. As for my “two friends,” it was clear that the illustrious tenor mistook for my intimate companions the two people who at that point in time just happened to be standing next to me on the sidewalk. Up until that moment, I had never seen them in my life!
Well, there was no refusing Ernesto and Giovanni. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself, along with my two brand-new friends, seated in a grand box seat overlooking the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. As the orchestra tuned, I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to make the acquaintance of my two chums.
On my right sat a charming young lady by the name of Sarah Nade. She was a student at the Julliard School of Music, fluent in Italian, and she said she knew every note of every aria of La Boheme. She told me that she had indeed planned to attend the night’s performance, but that she had been able to purchase only a less expensive, student-discount seat. Having been given one of the best box seats seemed to surpass her wildest expectations. And meeting Luciano Pavarotti on top of everything! That was more than she could fathom.
The individual who occupied the seat on my left was a singularly not-so-charming specimen of adolescent humanity. I had no difficulty ascertaining that his name was Mike Rophone and that he had a habit of speaking rather loudly. His hair was purple, and he had so much body piercing that, to borrow an expression from Garrison Keillor, he looked as though he had spent the previous night rolling around in a giant tackle box! Mike wore a set of headphones, and it was obvious from the constant sizzling noise that emanated therefrom that he had never made the acquaintance of anything remotely resembling harmony. The poor fellow was clearly not looking forward to the approaching ordeal. He nonetheless remained relatively subdued. This was no doubt owing to the quiet, yet imposing presence of Ernesto and Giovanni.
At last the house lights dimmed. The audience fell silent. The overture began.
Now throughout my life, I had been exposed to some very beautiful orchestral concerts and a few romantic musicals. I had, however, never gone so far as to attend an opera. Listening to corpulent stuffed shirts and rotund prima donnas, bellowing lines in incomprehensible vibrato was not high on my to-do list. Yet, much to my surprise, I found myself halfway enjoying the experience. I knew no Italian, but I could not help appreciating the gorgeous voices, extravagant costumes, and lavish scenery. It did not take me long to figure out that Puccini’s masterpiece is all about a pompous young man named Rodolfo who tragically falls in love with a fragile damsel named Mimi. Alas! In the end, Mimi falls deathly ill, and amid very much coughing and lamenting, she dies just as her lover comes rushing on stage. Rodolfo’s anguished cry of “Mimi!” is followed by a strident chord from the orchestra, and then the curtain falls. How heart rending! How beautiful!
All throughout the performance, I could not stop glancing over at Sara Nade. My enjoyment of La Boheme was as nothing compared to hers! She laughed at all the happy arias (of which there were apparently very few) and wept at all the tragic ones (of which there were very many). Her whole mood might aptly be described as one of rapt ecstasy. At times, the lovely Sara Nade seemed to be all but levitating!
Not so with Mike Rophone. As the curtain rose, Ernesto had been quick to confiscate the punk rocker’s headphones, and soon the teen’s state of torment became all too evident. It was all Mike could do to sit still, and the performance would have been marred by his frequent expletives had not both bodyguards stood behind him and cowed him into an unwilling quiescence. The moment the curtain fell for the last time and his two captors stepped aside, Mike fled the opera house faster than a bat out of you know where. With a string of profanities, he could be heard shouting, “I’d rather be in a blankity-blank dentist’s chair than sit through another minute of this blankity-blank blank!”
Here, then, is the point, mes ami. All three of us—Sara Nade, Mike Rophone, and yours truly—attended the very same opera. Yet whether we enjoyed the performance, and how much we enjoyed it, depended on what we had done before we got to the opera house. That is so important that I think I will say it again. Sara, Mike, and I all experienced the self-same operatic performance, but the degree to which we enjoyed it or failed to enjoy it was determined by our individual experience of music prior to the opera. Opera, you see, is an acquired taste.
Consider Sarah Nade. Her whole-hearted pursuit of musical excellence and her determined efforts to familiarize herself with every aspect of Puccini’s La Boheme expanded her capacity to enjoy the performance even before she arrived at the opera house. By way of illustration, imagine, if you will, a very small teacup gradually enlarged until it assumes the proportions of a rather large bucket. Thus, by the time Sarah crossed the threshold of the Metropolitan Opera House, she had become capable of enjoying the performance to the fullest degree. No wonder she was so ecstatic!
As I have said, prior to receiving Mr. Pavarotti’s gracious invitation, I had only a limited exposure to what might be called decent music. The love of music had never been an all-consuming passion for me, as it had been for Sarah Nade. Hence I took some pleasure in La Boheme, but my capacity for enjoying the opera was quite small. In comparison to Sara Nade’s ample bucket, the pleasure I took in the operatic performance might best be compared to a tiny shot glass!
What about our friend Mike Rophone? Before being compelled to sit through Puccini’s masterpiece, he had apparently done nothing to acquire a taste in fine music. In fact, we can go so far as to say that he had actually destroyed his ability to appreciate harmony and melody. Thus Mike’s enjoyment of the opera was nil. His ruined capacity to take pleasure in beautiful music might well be represented by a paper cup with a gaping hole in the bottom.
Again, Sara Nade, Mike Rophone, and I all experienced La Boheme quite differently, and this difference depended on the extent to which each of us had pursued, or failed to pursue, a love of music prior to the performance.
God, in some ways, is very much like Luciano Pavarotti. At baptism, He presents every one of us with a ticket to the opera of heaven, paid for by His Son Jesus Christ. Yet whether we will enjoy heaven, and how much we will enjoy heaven, will depend on what we do before we get there. In other words, our capacity to love God and our neighbor here on earth will determine the degree of happiness we will experience in heaven. Saint Paul says (2 Corinthians 9:6): “Mark this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
Alas! I make only half-hearted efforts in pursuing holiness. Thus if ever I pass through the Pearly Gates, I will indeed take joy in the Beatific Vision of God, but my joy will be limited, as compared with that of, say, Mother Teresa. Here is a woman who, while on earth, strove with her whole being to do the will of God. Hence she expanded her ability to receive joy to the utmost, and the happiness she knows in heaven is no doubt great indeed. My soul’s shot glass capacity for joy will be very small when compared to the capacity of her bucket-like soul.
Here it is important to point out that, while all the souls in heaven will be fully happy, they will, by no means be equally happy. A shot glass and a bucket may both be filled brim full with liquid, but the amounts they contain will clearly not be the same. If I make it to heaven, I will be fully happy, just as Mother Teresa is fully happy. We will both rejoice in the presence of God to the greatest extent to which we are capable. Yet her joy will be far greater than mine, just as Sarah Nade’s capacity for appreciating La Boheme far excelled my own. God, you see, is an acquired taste.
Will the souls’ differing capacities for heavenly joy result in any envy or shame? Certainly not! If I find myself in heaven, Mother Teresa will be for me a cause of delight rather than shame or envy. I will be exceedingly glad to be in the presence of one whose joy is so ample. Mother Teresa, in turn, will not look down on yours truly, but will rejoice in my happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas describes heaven thus: “Everyone will love everyone else as himself, and therefore will rejoice in another’s good as in his own. So it follows that the happiness and joy of each grows in proportion to the joy of all.” In his book Discourses on the Apostles’ Creed, Father Clement H. Crock explains the matter rather nicely: “…[T]ake a father with two sons varying in size and age. Both get a suit from the same cloth. The smaller is not jealous of the larger brother…[because the latter’s suit contains more material].” In heaven, there may or may not be beer, but there definitely is no envy.
Unfortunately, just as some people destroy their capacity to enjoy beautiful music, so some souls, while on earth, destroy their capacity to enjoy God in heaven. These are those who die while not in a state of grace, with unrepented mortal sin. They are the Mike Rophones of the spiritual life. A cup with a hole in its bottom is incapable of retaining liquid. Even so, the soul with mortal sin is incapable of receiving God’s joy in heaven. God will want to fill it to the brim with His love and grace, but it will flee from His presence, just as Mike Rophone fled from the Metropolitan Opera House. Such a soul would rather be in torment apart from God than joyful in His presence. Recall Mike’s desperate and colorful cry as he made his escape from Puccini. “I’d rather be in a blankity-blank dentist’s chair than sit through another minute of this blankity-blank blank!” Hell, then, as Father Benedict Groeschel so aptly puts it, is the unrepentant soul’s self-chosen refuge, a place of suffering as far as possible from the love of God—the last mercy a loving God is still able to bestow.
What are we to do? Suppose I were given a ticket to attend an operatic performance six months from now. In order to get the most enjoyment out of the opera, I would study the libretto, listen to a good CD recording of the opera, and watch a DVD version of the performance. If I were really ambitious, I might learn a little Italian. I would make it a point to learn as much as possible about the opus in question. Otherwise, when the day of the performance finally arrived, I might prefer to be elsewhere.
Or what if, despite the fact that you have never skied in your life, your best friend invites you to come along, fourteen months from now, on an all-expenses-paid, six-week vacation to the world’s greatest ski resorts? If, after your initial shock, you accept the invitation, you would obviously do well to take some skiing lessons and make learning to ski a top priority. That way you would get the most out of your friendship and your vacation. What if, however, you decided to sit around for more than a year and do absolutely nothing? When the time came for you and your friend to depart, you might, at the last minute, choose to go some place warmer—if you get my drift. Skiing, like opera, is an acquired interest. You cannot expect to take to it without some conscious effort. The same is true when it comes to heaven.
It takes grace to become a saint, but it also takes a determined resolve. Our Lord tells us (Luke 13:24): “Strive to enter by the narrow gate.” [Italics added.] So why not get with the program? Let us resolve to make the love of God our top priority, to stay close to God in prayer, to receive the sacraments worthily and regularly, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to perform works of charity. Let us resolve to see everything in the light of eternity–and thus expand our capacity for true joy. Who knows? God may very well offer us, when we least expect it, some of the best seats in the House.