The idea of heaven can be upsetting for a few different reasons, not least to Americans, who expect that everyone should and will be treated equally. But from what we know of it from Scripture, there are different states for different people. On several occasions in the Gospels, we glimpse that paradisiacal place through the words of Christ; Jesus himself is our source of knowledge about the different ranks in the kingdom of God. He said that the last would be first and the first last. His disciples accepted this as a natural matter of fact. When, for example, two of his disciples asked for places of honor in his kingdom, he demurred, saying those honors were not His to give; but he accepted their existence. Our Lord also stated that the 12 apostles would sit on 12 thrones judging the tribes of Israel.
None of this should surprise us or worry us. Our Lady enjoys an intimacy with Christ that we cannot imagine, but we can still be as close to Christ as we desire. And if we happen to be great sinners, there’s nothing stopping us from becoming great saints. Look at St. Paul, the great persecutor of the Church, who became its greatest missionary. Or St. Olga of Kiev, who was responsible for the massacre of thousands as ruler of the Kievan Rus’ in the 10th century before her baptism and conversion. That said, the holiest of men do not usually proceed from the most degenerate state. St. John Henry Nemwan, in his sermon “Saintliness not Forfeited by the Penitent,” explains what the path of sanctity tends to look like and how we are to travel it.
The earlier we befriend Jesus, the greater potential we have to grow in intimacy with him throughout our lives. “The greater the sinner, the greater the saint” is a catchy phrase, but it’s only seldom true, Newman says, because the great sinner loses time: “And in this sense I must certainly grant he never can be so great a saint as if he had never sinned; that is, the efforts which he must now make merely to undo what he has done, would, in that case, simply have told towards his advancement in holiness, and would of course have brought him forward to a higher point than they now enable him to reach.”
The story of a great conversion, like St. Paul’s, from persecutor to apostle, is both inspiring and beautiful; but it should not be envied or emulated. While our sins are forgiven, they still carry a punishment: “Further, it must not be supposed, because sinners have sincerely repented, that therefore they have no punishment for their past sins; and this puts a vast difference between the state of the innocent and the penitent. In this sense they never can be on a level: the one, if God so wills, is open to punishment, and the other is not; for God does not so pardon us, as not also to punish. When His children go wrong they are, in St Paul’s words, ‘judged.’ He does not abandon them, but He makes their sin ‘find them out.’”
In his Confessions, St. Augustine describes his early life as a pursuit of created things rather than a pursuit of the Creator. When Augustine finally found the Lord and converted to Christianity, he wrote, “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee! For behold Thou were within me, and I outside; and I sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou were with me and I was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to me and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness …” Though he did not follow Christ until later in his life, he is known as one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church.
Yet, though we may have lost time in following God, though we may have punishments for our past sins, we are not without hope of becoming great saints. “Not by languid efforts, not without great and solemn trials is it reached; not without pain and humiliation, and much toil, will they make progress towards it; but it can be gained. This is their great consolation,—it is in their grasp; they have not forfeited, they have but delayed…if they have but the will for great things, they have the power.” Whether we become great or not, nothing can stop us from becoming saints, from allowing God to forgive, heal and sanctify us. Sanctification is His work, after all, and nothing is impossible for Him. He only needs our “yes” to proceed.
When we feel weak and unable to respond, we can think of St. Therese who tells us that Jesus is like an elevator. “We are in a century of inventions; now one does not even have to take the trouble to climb the steps of a stairway; in the homes of the rich an elevator replaces them nicely. I, too, would like to find an elevator to lift me up to Jesus, for I am too little to climb the rough stairway of perfection … The elevator which must raise me to the heavens is Your arms, O Jesus! For that I do not need to grow; on the contrary, I must necessarily remain small, become smaller. O my God, You have surpassed what I expected, and I want to sing Your mercies.”