The last time I took a trip I spent about a month planning. I poured through two guidebooks, marked up maps, and printed out train schedules, bus schedules, mass schedules . . . you get the idea. I'm a planner.
I have yet to find a map, though, of the one place we all want to go to someday: heaven. As Catholics we believe in heaven; we say so every week in the Nicene Creed ('and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come'). But what is heaven?
What is Heaven?
First of all, contrary to popular music it's not found in your sweetheart's arms (See Belinda Carlisle, and more recently Bruno Mars). The YouCat defines heaven like this:
Heaven is the endless moment of love. Nothing more separates us from God, whom our soul loves and has sought our whole life long. Together with all the angels and saints we will be able to rejoice forever in and with God. (YouCat #158, also check out CCC 1023-1026)
Heaven is union with God, being with him face to face.
In the Gospel Jesus compares heaven to life, light, peace, a wedding feast, the Father's house, the heavenly Jerusalem, and paradise. But ultimately, we don't know what it's like. 'No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him' (1 Corinthians 2:9). The fact is, we'll just have to wait and see.
'What do you mean, wait and see,' you ask. 'I thought people have visions of heaven! So don't we know?'
True, people have visions of heaven. Some even write books about them, like Heaven is for Real, written about a four-year-old's experience. I even met a priest who knew a prisoner who'd had a vision of heaven (“And Father, Jesus was Catholic!”).
Are these visions real, or in people's heads? As Catholics, do we even believe such things are possible?
These visions are possible, and they are known as private revelation. Revelation is when God reveals himself to us in some way. Public revelation is everything that God revealed to us in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and to the apostles who passed it down through the Church. It's the teachings which all faithful Catholics profess to believe, like the Trinity, or Mary's Immaculate Conception.
Private revelation is what God reveals to people after the New Testament, but which the whole Church doesn't have to believe. Some private revelations are approved by the Church, such as Bernadette's vision of Mary at Lourdes. Others the Church has said aren't true, and still others the Church has no comment on.
What’s true or false?
The best thing to do is to compare the content of a revelation to the Church's teachings. If the vision contradicts anything in Scripture or Tradition, you know it isn't true. So if your friend had a vision of heaven where God was four persons and not three persons, they you know it's not a vision, just a really weird dream.
The Catechism says, 'Christian faith cannot accept ‘Ìâ‰âÂÌâèÏrevelations' that claim to surpass or correct the revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment' (CCC 67) This means that if we read about a vision someone had of heaven, and it doesn't contradict Scripture, we're free to believe it or not.
We have to keep in mind, though, what private revelation is for. It's not some secret knowledge or magic devotion that unlocks the mysteries of God. A true and good private revelation will lead us back to Christ. It will help us to grow in our faith, in our devotion to Christ, his Church and his teachings.
After all, there's no point in knowing what heaven will look like if we don't get there. We still have to lead a holy life here on earth, because as St. John of the Cross said, 'At the evening of life, we shall be judged on love.' Just because we don't have a map of where we'll end up doesn't mean we shouldn't be prepared for when God calls us to him and we leave this earthly life.
References: United States Council of Catholic Bishops, 'Popular Devotional Practices: Basic Questions and Answers'