THE EGO’S HEAVEN
I knew a man who disinherited his family and left all his money for Masses for his own soul. It was like changing his money to another bank, one that could transfer it to the next life for him; it was an attempt to take it with him. He had spent his life collecting for himself, and he kept it up to the bitter end. Can eternal life be bought? If so, then the rich would be first into the kingdom of heaven, having paid for it at the last minute with money that had just become useless for any other purpose. Yes, the ego would love to pull off that kind of deal: like buying treasures from simple people with worthless baubles. Ask then: what would the ego’s heaven be like? It would be very like the ego’s present life (because the ego is incapable of newness): a market-place, a place of profitable deals, a place in which greed would know neither shortage nor satiety.
It would be interesting to explore the ego’s heaven. The ego’s heaven would be an everlasting orgy of greed. The ego is greedy by nature; it is not a reality but only an idea: my idea of what I am. Ideas are not guaranteed by any reality, so the ego is totally insecure; it has to hold itself up, it has to defend itself and pay its own way. It is unable to go out of itself, unable to give itself to anything, unable even to look at things without having designs on them: a tree, for example, is not a tree for the ego, it is timber, or shade, or fruit...or just property. The ego is like a greedy boy at a party, filling his pockets with biscuits from the table. The ego’s heaven would be no better than that – and it would be extended to infinity.
What are we to hope for in the beyond? The safest thing I can tell you is not to hope for anything yet: not that there isn't anything to hope for, but that we would hope for the wrong thing. Hope, like everything else in us, has to be purified. “No eye has seen,” wrote St Paul, quoting Isaiah, “no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what is prepared for those who love God” (1 Cor 2:9). It is not what the ego would like, but something entirely other. Too often we have thought ourselves virtuous for believing that God will fulfil all our heart’s desires. Isn't that greed rather than virtue? This we know: we will be deprived of everything we have, even our very bodies, and our egos. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” said Jesus, “than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:24). Do you think you will get everything back once you have scraped through the eye of the needle? Do you think you can be the same old camel as before, with your full cargo? What will life be like? Can you imagine yourself without your body and without your ego (your idea of who you are)? If you can, you will have no difficulty in passing through the eye of a needle! But tell the rest of us quickly what it is like. This much we already know: we are promised a glorified body, though we have no idea what that might be like; but we will not get the ego back, nor anything that it ever coveted.
That eye of the needle is there in the Gospel to get us used to the idea of giving ourselves up completely now. All the saints have tried to tell us to be givers rather than takers, to share our property, to give away our time (which is to give ourselves away: your time is yourself). “Unless you give yourself away,” wrote Meister Eckhart, “you have given nothing away.” Lay down your life, say the saints, repeating the Gospel. Don't follow the way of the ego; don't think of what you can get, think only of what you can give; then you will be greedy neither about this life nor the next. That is how hope is purified.
But what are we to hope for? The answer is: God. We know nothing else about heaven than that. What we know of God is what we know of heaven, no more, no less. The ego tries to be its own god, and so its heaven is a projected fantasy of itself; there too, our god and our heaven are indistinguishable; they are a perfect match.