Friday, May 16, 2014

I thought Heaven was going to be White

 I grew up in the Church, and have been a Christian for 10 years now. I’ve read the classic Revelations 21 “What heaven will be like” text multiple times now, I’ve studied it at a retreat, I’ve read it in my personal time, I’ve shared it with friends. You would think I would be able to confidently describe to you how Heaven should look like. For some reason, despite having read about how heaven would be a  “city [of] pure gold”, I always thought to myself that Heaven was White. A pure blank White. Pretty much similar to the scene after Harry dies and meets Dumbledore in the after-life.
(I hope I am not committing blasphemy by uploading a picture from Harry Potter in a Lord of The Rings class)
            Perhaps when I think of Heaven, I get an image of purity and cleanliness, and hence a slate of white, maybe with some glass. When I think of resurrected new bodies, I guess I never thought there would be a change in physical appearance. I assumed that there would merely be a change in the condition of our flesh i.e. not sinful anymore. I wonder what has motivated this imagery of Heaven.  Perhaps I have unconsciously been influenced by Minimalist art and thinking, and moved away from the opulence of clutter. Admittedly, rather than attraction, I have an aversion to all things gold and shiny. Having studied abroad in Rome last fall, I remember my feeling of discomfort and unease as I walked through the bright gold and jewel-studded halls of St Peter’s Basilica. 
(A picture from the inside of St Peter's Basilica, which I took when I was in Rome)
             Perhaps it is my Protestant background that has fed this aversion - I abhor the idea of church and clergymen exploiting poor peasants to gain shiny trinklets for themselves. I confess that the sheer corruption and the abuse of power of the church during the dark Middle Ages has left me very afraid of jewels. I associate them with ostentatiousness, showiness and pride. Kings and aristocrats pursued these with dragon-lust and wore them to express their power and social status. When we were showed a picture of a reliquary crusted with gems, I found it excessive and unnecessary. I think of Paul’s letter to Timothy warning the women in his church to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.”[1] Pure and white is the way to go.
            Yet, in many ways, the discussion of Wednesday, as well as Tolkien’s tale of “The Simarillion” has provoked and challenged my assumptions about jewels, and given me a new perspective on how Medieval Christians have viewed and perhaps also how I should view them.  Jewels are more than just sparkly objects, and their value is not only extrinsic but rather have intrinsic worth. Marbode of Rennes’ “Medical Prose Lapidary” lists the medicinal properties of the twelve precious gems listed out in Revelations 21. Jasper is “Resistant against lightning” and Chalcedony “cures lunatics”, Emerald protects people from “epilepsy” and Amethyst washed in water causes a barren woman to fruitful, and the list goes on. More than just symbolic or representative, Marbode and many early medieval Christians seem to believe that jewels have intrinsic and internal healing properties. Such thinking originates not only from classical and traditional folklore, but also from the Bible itself.  In Exodus 28, the Lord commands Aaron, the appointed high priest, to make a breastpiece lined with 12 precious gems. He is to wear this breastpiece when he goes into the Holy Place. Hence, these gems were assumed to serve as a form of protection, allowing someone to meet God without getting struck down. Moreover, medieval Christians believed that the resurrected bodies of saints would be encrusted with gems. After all, these gems are permanent and lasting in property, similar to the “incorruptible” and “imperishable” resurrected bodies.[2] The origins of precious stones are in Paradise, the garden and rivers of Eden and hence an unmarred resurrected body must surely incorporate such beauty and glory.[3] Like the prophet Zechariah predicted, “like the jewels of a crown, [God’s people] shall shine on his land.”[4]
            Tolkien’s The Simarillion, a tale named after the Simarils (3 Great Jewels”), also gives us some insight and a commentary on the intrinsic value of jewels. They seem to have an extrinsic value, appear as “crystal of diamonds”, and “more strong than adamant” and obviously they are shiny and pretty to look at. Yet, Tolkien’s Simarils have a precious intrinsic value. They carry and preserve the imperishable light from the Trees of Valinor. They have an inner fire, and was not only a passive storer of light, but an active living thing which “rejoiced in light, received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before.”[5] Tolkien explicitly writes, “the crystal was to the Simarils but as it is the body to the Children of Iluvatar.”  This recalls medieval Christian thought that resurrected bodies would be encrusted with precious stones. Moreover, in Tolkien’s “Tale of the Sun and Moon”, the shiny jewels of the skies, the Sun and the Moon, are not merely objects but living things. The Sun is a ship of light borne from the fruit of Laurelin, one of the trees of Valinor while the Moon is also a ship, containing the flower of Telperion, the other tree. This perpetuates the idea that jewels are not merely sparkly and shiny objects for admiration, but living things with life and light within them.
            Yet, Tolkien does not merely describe the Simarils, but also expounds on what these great jewels do to the people that come into contact with them. He tells of how Melkor “lusted” for the Simarils, that even the “memory” of it radiance produced a “gnawing fire” in his heart. The inner fire of the Simarils caused a fire in the hearts of those who lusted after it. “Fiercest burned the new flame of desire” in Feanor, the creator the Simarils. He had a “greedy” love for his creation, and was selfish about letting others behold its glory. He even started to forget that “the light within them was not his own”. The lust after these Simarils caused war and strive amongst the elves, Feanor threatened his half-brother with a sword at his breast, while his sons Maglor and Maedhros in trying to regain the Simarils, slayed many of their own kind. The dragon-lust was not only in dragons, but also these pure hearted elves. The incorruptible jewels corrupted the hearts of those who longed to possess them.
            How then does one resolve the tension thus created? Tolkien’s legendarium suggest that these jewels are meant to be pure and glorious and full of light, and yet the battle for possession of these jewels is bloody and full of strife. Bringing it back to the question of the place of Jewels on Earth – I still have an aversion to jewels, particularly when hoarded and collected by men. And yet, this aversion is no longer purely instinctual, for Tolkien’s work and our class discussion on jewels has been enlightening on my thought process. I hope I am not being presumptuous when I say that while they may have had the right heart, medieval Christians got it wrong when they crusted the relics with jewels. Jewels are meant for heaven, they should not be treasured on Earth.  Though they may very well have intrinsic value, and though they shine in splendor and beauty, pursuing them on Earth stirs up lust and desire in the hearts of men. Jewels belong to heaven, for there it will be truly glorious, free from corruption. When hoarded in the hands of men on Earth, it will be like the jewel in the hands of Maedhros and Maglor – “burning with a pain unbearable”, and it will give torment, anguish and despair. Just like how the Simarils eventually found its way to the airs of heaven, the earth and the waters, jewels are not meant for man’s hands. Maglor’s comment when he saw the Simaril in the Sky, is revealing, “let us be glad; for its glory is seen now by many, and is yet secure from evil.”[6] 
            What will heaven look like? On further reflection, I admit I am wrong; it probably would not only be white. Like Revelations 21 predicts, it will be a city of gold, endowed and crusted with all kinds of precious gems and jewels. And perhaps I do not need an unhealthy aversion towards shiny and sparkly things, for in heaven it will be glorious. And yet in Heaven, more glorious than incorruptible and beautiful light-giving jewels, will be The Jewel of all Jewels – Jesus Christ himself:
New glory and joy then forth did fall,
All sang to praise that fair Jewel.
The strain could strike through earth to hell
That the Virtues of heaven in joy endite.
With His host to laud the Lamb as well
Indeed I found a great delight.
 Delight the Lamb to behold the eyes
Then moved my mind with wonder more:
The best was He, blithest, most dear to prize
Of whom I e’er heard tears of yore;[7]

Perhaps when we get to heaven, there will be no need to admire the jewel-crusted walls in this city of gold, or the light that it gives off. For in this place, there is neither sun nor moon, for the glory of God gives it light, and the lamp is the Lamb, the pearl immaculate. And when we see him, it won't even matter if Heaven is white.
G Zhang

[1] 1 Timothy 1:9
[2] 1 Corinthians 15: 42
[3] Gold and bedellium and onyx are mentioned. See Genesis 1:10-12. 
[4] Zechariah 9:16. For more information on Marbode's lapidary, see: Marbode of Rennes, "Lapidary of 12 Stones in Verse," "Medical Prose Lapidary," and "Christian Symbolic Lapidary in Prose," in Marbode of Renees'(1035-1123) ed. John M. Riddle, Sudhoffs Archiv Zeitschrift fur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Heft 20 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1977), 119-129.
[5] J.R.R Tolkien, The Simarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Del Rey, 1985), 67.
[6] Ibid, 254.
[7] J.R.R Tolkien, "Pearl" in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo (New York: Del Rey, 1980), 120.


  1. Unless I've misunderstood, you seem to be raising the interesting discussion of the appropriate role for jewels to play in our imperfect Earth, and I agree with your observation that mortals, elves, and some Valar such as Morgoth have a dangerous tendency to become dragon-like in their affection for jewels.

    However, your solution seems to be to reject the use of jewels wholesale despite any intrinsic value since only in heaven can they be "free from corruption". It seems this implies these jewels, fragments of Heaven, can be corrupted, which I don't believe to be the case. Further, the problem doesn't exist in jewels but rather in the fault of possessiveness which exists in everyone in Arda. Though this is a grave problem, perhaps there are virtues in these jewels which outweighs the danger and threat of this dragon-lust - even if that virtue is only a beauty reminiscent of Heaven. To preserve such a divine reflection, I would rather suffer whatever evil. The total rejection of jewels on Earth seems, therefore, to me a rather draconian and rash act.


  2. Perhaps it might be appropriate to reconsider your statement that Jewels "are meant for heaven" and shouldn't be treasured on earth, or at least add a degree of nuance to the statement. If, as you say, Jewels in heaven are glorious and Jesus himself is the chief of these jewels, can they really be that bad to treasure appropriately on earth?

    If, as you say, jewels in heaven are splendid and Jesus himself is a jewel, shouldn't we seek what is beautiful on earth, even if it is not a perfect reflection of the ultimate beauty which might be experienced in heaven? Perhaps it is not appropriate to hoard jewels. Tolkien supports this—part of the problem with Feanor was his possessiveness of the Silmarils—but the Silmarils themselves served a purpose, a glorious purpose. And in your logic, jewels here on earth are a glimpse of a future glory. As such, can't we appreciate them as such? It seems to me that it all comes down to the way in which we venerate the jewels. Don't hide them or hoard them—a sentiment which I think rightly strikes you as unsavory—but present them in a way in which they can reflect that glory that they are a shadow of. If jewels are a glimpse of what Christ is like and what life in physical communion with Christ is like, then we should want to present them in a way which declares this. I'm not sure exactly what this would look like; perhaps some analog to the way the Silmarils were held before Morgoth seized them.


  3. I will resist the urge to stick up for the medieval relic-builders, but I will note this. The way that you feel about the purity of white (reflecting light, and an unsullied nature) is perhaps the way that people once viewed gold—as reflecting light, and having undergone a significant purifying process. I'm thinking here of psalm verses like “And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times” (12:6), or the Malachi text so familiar from Handel (“He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness”.) My point is not a quibble over the décor of heaven, but that I think you are actually sharing an instinct with medieval thinkers about “purity” (they were big on white, too)!


  4. While I, like you, have a sort of instinctive aversion to certain overly-gaudy displays of wealth in a religious setting, over the past couple of years I've started to shift away from that perspective. While I agree that Heaven seems like it would be a place of purity and cleanliness, let us not forget that Creation isn't exactly a white room. The world is a place of diversity and of harmony, and it is by witnessing the many that we can see through them to the One. I don't pretend to know if Heaven will be a white void or a golden city, but either might be expressive of the glory of God.

    So nothing I said above strikes me as particularly interesting, so I'd like to leave behind a parable I once heard. Two men, for whatever reason, were invited to a great castle. They arrived, and one man took the opportunity to marvel at the castle. He wandered through its gardens and libraries and ate fine foods, all the while in awe of the beauty and splendor around him.

    The second man, however, did not dwell on the beauty. He walked right past the gardens and the libraries to the throne room, because he realized that the rest was all ornamentation. What made the castle great was the presence of the King - all else existed only to advertise that fact.

    It is not the jewels themselves which are evil, nor is taking delight in them wrong, but to horde the jewels and to ignore what they exist to signify - therein lies the perversion and the roots of evil.

    - Daniel Betancourt

  5. To continue in the same vein as previous comments, I would also urge against saying that jewels are only for Heaven. If nothing else we should appreciate their beauty as a part of God’s creation. Perhaps the best way to treat them would be like the Teleri treat the jewels the Noldor give them (chapter 5 of the Silmarillion), that is, we should appreciate them for their beauty without giving them any monetary value (or at least not value them because of it). As you pointed out, the jewels themselves never cause problems; it is the people lusting after them and hording them who do that.

    Having said that, I will add that I very much understand where you are coming from. Growing up as a protestant in Spain (a very catholic country), I also tended to associate jewels and gold with the church showing off its wealth and power. I have visited countless churches and cathedrals where I have seen many gold covered alters and the occasional jewel encrusted reliquary. Although a part of me was attracted to the beauty I saw in these things, a much larger part of me felt almost guilty about that. The church, I thought, should not have spent so much on jewels and gold just to show off, at a time when there were people who were literally starving to death. And even today, doesn't the church realize how many people could be helped with the money from selling just one of its many treasures? After learning in class what jewels represented to the people who created these altars and reliquaries, I feel less critical of them. However, I think that the relation between the church and treasure is still an interesting question. What should the church do with these treasures now that people no longer associate jewels with the same thing? Is it acceptable for the church to spend money on treasure, instead of using to, for example, help hungry people? I do not claim to know the answer to this, and I have no idea what Tolkien might say about it. But I do think that today it is a problem.

    Elaina Wood