Heaven? I’m in heaven?
—Prior Walter in Act V of Angels in America: Perestroika, Tony Kushner
We sang Vaughan Williams’s “O how amiable” surrounded by dozens of panels of the AIDS Quilt, we noshed on Keen’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, we contemplated Paul’s cryptic “I heard it from a cousin who told his friend” commentary on “the third heaven,” whatever that is—that is to say, I was back at church for the first time in a month, my longest stretch without church proper in years, and it was as good and jarring of a homecoming as I could have wanted.
I had actually been in the courts of the Lord already the previous evening for Quilt: A Musical Celebration, Judsonite Mark Perry’s benefit show for the Callen-Lorde Health Center and Frontline AIDS. Mark had arranged for a sizable showing of the quilt itself, which I’d never seen in person. I texted a picture of Freddie Mercury’s panel to MaryBeth; I shuddered with a sort of bilious grief at Roy Cohn’s, emblazoned with the legend “BULLY-COWARD-VICTIM.” But the panel I won’t be able to forget is the very first one that was made, Marvin Feldman’s, by Cleve Jones, who conceived the quilt and the NAMES Project. In the panel, Johnson is slight and serious, with round glasses and a moustache; he is surrounded by a Keith Haring-esque corona of bold dashed gray lines; and he holds a small gray tabby cat.
So the next morning, with all its talk of heaven and paradise (not, as it turns out, one and the same), might have seemed incongruous. The quilt and the show evoked the particular hell of AIDS in its early days, the fearmongering and the neglect and the heartbreak. I was reminded of a Judson cameo in the documentary How to Survive a Plague, featured because it was one of the few churches offering memorial services for AIDS victims. The room in which I worship stood witness, again, to that grief as the walls supported the quilt.
Still. Let’s talk about Paul, he of the extremely cryptic third heaven rumors that are really worth quoting in their entirety: “2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” (Fourteen years ago and you’re just getting around to jotting it down? Maybe you’d have a better sense of the situation if you’d written it down sooner, Paul. But I digress.)
You really need a doctor of divinity around to parse that one, and fortunately we have one. Donna explained that paradise is a Greek word, the third heaven and distinct from the “up there” heaven. Paradise is more properly understood a place of origin, Eden rather than Heaven; not without flaws, as even Eden was flawed, and a place that isn’t a result so much as a restoration. The only time “paradise” comes from Jesus’s mouth is when he speaks to thief on the cross beside him, when he says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Sometimes in the words of institution before we take communion, Donna says that Jesus ate the meal “knowing that he had come from God and was going to God.” Paradise is a return to a primal innocence, not a perfection. You can imagine such an experience, as that of the one Paul knew, as an inexpressible one, one you couldn’t repeat even if you were permitted to do so.
Maybe the quilt became a sort of paradise: a return for all those people who’d undergone such terrible suffering to a place without pain, a place where they were remembered and held, to which they were brought in the arms of God. A place where Marvin Feldman gazes with quiet eyes at the world, cradling an obviously beloved cat; a place where Liberace’s gold sequins are juxtaposed with simple white cotton festooned with red felt hearts surrounding “Bob.”
If paradise is beyond our reach, maybe it’s still worth asking what we can do about heaven. We ended the service by singing “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” to prepare us for the world outside, the world of pandemics that break bodies and families and marriages, the world in which children cry for their parents in substandard conditions in detention centers. We imagined a world with a little bit of heaven in it. We got ready to go back to work for it, on behalf of those who cannot now tell where they have been caught up.