Last December, I decided to attend a retreat in Finland, of all places. A retreat in — say, Bermuda — might’ve been preferable that time of year, especially for a Minnesotan. But the Finnish retreat would be led by Dave Oshana, a spiritual teacher I admire and respect, so I put on my heated socks, zipped up my parka and got on a plane.
The retreat was held on a small island on the edge of the Baltic Sea, three hours southwest of Helsinki. Starlight reflected off snowy hills as we drove to our destination. That area of Finland is so sparsely populated I didn’t see so much as a streetlight for long stretches.
There were about 20 of us in all, and we stayed in a large farmhouse on the island. A sizable A-frame nearby was used for our group meetings. It was on the last night of my visit that something quite remarkable happened.
As I sat quietly in the vaulted structure waiting for our evening session to begin, I looked out the window at the evergreens laden with fresh snow, and felt like I was in a Christmas card — or perhaps some holiday movie from the ’40s with Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Bing Crosby. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, at that moment, jolly St. Nick himself came sliding up with a team of Finnish reindeer.
I was also struck by the quiet and peace that descended upon us as we sat surrounded by flickering candles. Dave began our last night together by posing a simple question: “What do you think of God?”
The attorney next to me gave a thoughtful answer that reflected his fine intellect. I was up next…Hmmm, what to say? I certainly have read many books on the subject and so I shared what I thought was a clever point: “Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest Christian theologian ever, concluded at the end of his life that he only knew one thing for sure — that we can never know what God is, we can only know what God is not.” In other words, our finite pea brains will never be able comprehend the infinite. Yet, even with all our limitations, we can know that God is not ignorant, cruel, prejudice or unfair. As the next person responded, I was left feeling rather pleased with my answer.
When we got to the far corner of the room, a long-term student of Dave’s broke down in a deep sob and recounted how he had almost died in a plane crash in China. He concluded by saying that in that moment, he had experienced a grace that he could not express in words. The woman next to him then spoke through tears of a heart-wrenching loss and that she, too, had experienced a peace beyond understanding.
Afterward, Dave asked the class who we thought had dared to be the most open, honest and vulnerable? We were unanimous: the two in the corner. He then asked to whom would we like to go to and comfort? Unanimous again: the two in the corner.
Dave went on to say that in the end, when all that is artificial in us is stripped away, what is left is our true essence, and that essence is one with heaven. All you have to do is look into the eyes of a baby to understand what this essence is…purity, innocence, curiosity, joy and a sense of wonder.
The two students in the corner were willing to be open, honest and vulnerable and, as a result, we each felt compelled to comfort them. If we, burdened by selfishness and other human failings, instinctively wanted to comfort them, then how much more does heaven — i.e., God — want to comfort these people?
Dave concluded by saying that heaven is tuned into our hearts and simply can’t hear the clever arguments and righteous opinions of the mind. The compassion of heaven is limitless and eagerly awaits our call, but it is tuned into only one frequency: hearts that are open, honest and vulnerable. All else is static.
If, during this holiday season, we each take the risk to share our most open, honest and vulnerable selves, perhaps we can experience heaven on earth.