Abba Hyperichius said: “Let your mind be ever upon the kingdom of heaven, and you will soon win its inheritance.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.35
The kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) is not an obvious concept to many people today. I cannot claim any comprehensive understanding myself, but I can offer here a few basic observations, particularly in relation to faith, itself an often misunderstood concept.
Though the phrase does not appear to explicitly occur in the Old Testament, it still seems to get some mention. For example, it is said in the book of Daniel of the Most High: “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (Daniel 7:27). There is a theme all throughout this prophetic book, in fact, of the supremacy of the rule of God/heaven over all the kingdoms of the earth. As the prophet tells the king of Babylon: “your kingdom shall be assured to you, after you come to know that heaven rules” (Daniel 4:26).
So in a very basic sense, the kingdom of heaven means the rule of God. Many saints, in fact, recommend that we take all that we experience in life, whether good or bad, as the will of God. This does not mean, of course, that they don’t mourn for evil or vice or suffering or tragedy, nor that they would ascribe sin to God, but rather that in all things they wish to submit themselves to God in heaven.
In the Gospels the kingdom of God becomes one of the most central themes and seems to expand beyond the meaning already described. Both Jesus and John the Baptist teach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17), and Christ instructs the apostles to do the same (Matthew 10:7). Jesus reveals to us, though it is certainly implied before him, that heaven, when referring to the abode of the Almighty, is not properly speaking a “place” at all: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3); “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10); and perhaps most vividly:
Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
I could add to this the many cryptic parables of Jesus, almost all of which begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” But I would rather not get into that specific level of detail. The point is that from these references we can see that the kingdom of heaven is more a state of being or, perhaps better, an immaterial reality. To relate it to our first, Old Testament insight, in the harmony of one’s heart with the will of God, viz. holiness and righteousness, one finds the kingdom of heaven.
These things are not simply states of our souls, as I said, but furthermore a participation in divine grace, the life of God himself. As such, they have a transfiguring effect upon our vision, which brings me to the subject of faith.
It often happens, by both those with faith and those without, that faith is confused with fideism. Fideism, generally speaking, is the complete divorce of faith and reason. It is the faith of those who exalt faith to the disparagement of reason.
On the other hand, there is another extreme that basically conflates the two: rationalism. The problem with rationalism is not reason, it is rather the all-too-common fallacy of those who presume, “I do not understand how X can be reasonable, therefore it is not.” It submits all things not to reason per se, but to one’s own understanding.
Different writers land closer to one pole or the other, but complete embrace of either extreme is not the traditional understanding. St. Basil the Great offers a good, middle-of-the-road position:
Which is first in order, knowledge or faith? I reply that generally, in the case of disciples, faith precedes knowledge. But, in our teaching, if any one asserts knowledge to come before faith, I make no objection; understanding knowledge so far as is within the bounds of human comprehension. (Epistle 235)
Anyway, the point I am trying to make is something more than a via media between fideism and rationalism. Faith, in one sense at least, is more like a faculty, like seeing or hearing. Believing in the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven is about having a transfigured vision. It is about looking through this new lens—the will of God, holiness, righteousness—and seeing everything differently. Thus the saying of Abba Hyperichius: “Let your mind be ever upon the kingdom of heaven, and you will soon win its inheritance.” If the inheritance is virtue, righteousness, holiness, and God himself, then certainly fixing one’s mind upon it is an essential practice on the way to achieving those ends.
This understanding of faith as seeing or hearing has precedent in Scripture as well. In fact, Jesus ends nearly every parable about the kingdom of God with the words: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Regarding sight, the Epistle to the Hebrews offers its own description of faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It continues: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” Faith, then, is a conviction that transforms our understanding of “the things which are seen.” It connects them to unseen realities—virtue, logic, love, truth, the will of God, God himself, or any other unseen yet immanently good and real thing.
It reminds me of a scene in C. S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Midway through the book (spoiler alert), Orual, the narrator, is overjoyed to be reunited with her sister, Psyche, who claims to have been wed to the god Cupid. Crossing a river, Orual comes to what Psyche refers to as Cupid’s palace, but something is wrong. Psyche offers her wine and honeycakes, and Orual pretends to drink and eat, thinking it is all make-believe. At a certain point, however, it becomes clear that the two have very different perspectives.
“Wine? What wine? What are you talking about?” [says Orual.]
“Orual! The wine I gave you. And the cup. I gave you the cup. And where is it? Where have you hidden it?”
“Oh, have done with it, child. I’m in no mood for nonsense. There was no wine.”
“But I gave it to you. You drank it. And the fine honeycakes. You said—“
“You gave me water, cupped in your hands.”
“But you praised the wine, and the cup. You said—“
“I praised your hands. You were playing a game (you know you were) and I fell in with it.”
She gaped open mouthed, yet beautiful even then.
“So that was all,” she said slowly. “You mean you saw no cup? tasted no wine?”
I wouldn’t answer. She had heard well enough what I said.
Presently her throat moved as if she were swallowing something (oh, the beauty of her throat!). She pressed down a great storm of passion and her mood changed; it was now sober sadness, mixed with pity. She struck her breast with her clenched fist as mourners do.
“Aiai!” she mourned, “so this is what he meant. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. For you, it is not there at all. Oh, Maia … I am very sorry.
Whether intentional by Lewis or not, this is the closest I have found to approximating the experience of faith compared to those who don’t have it. The kingdom of God is quite real for its citizens, but often quite foreign to others. It is as if we look upon the same things and see something entirely different, so much so that despite whatever love we may have for one another, some part of each of us (justly, I might add) suspects the other of perhaps being mad after all.
Given the foregoing, to believe in the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven may be precisely what Abba Hyperichius recommends: to fix one’s mind upon it, and by so doing to approach it. In this way “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” for everyone, if only one has eyes to see and ears to hear.
But there’s the rub, I suppose.