To Ascend to Heaven in Heart and Mind

A Homily for the Feast of the Ascension


Do you remember, brethren, what the Church invited us to when we celebrated the Lord’s coming to Earth? “Christ is on Earth,” the Church cries. “Ascend!”1 If such an invitation was appropriate and necessary then, then all the more so now, when Christ has ascended to Heaven. When He came to Earth, it was obviously better to stay with Him on Earth. It was even possible to descend from Heaven for His sake, as did many angels, but now there is clearly no reason to remain on Earth without Christ. It’s better to go to Him, to be in Heaven. “Christ is in Heaven … Ascend!”

“And who,” you might ask, “wouldn’t want to be in Heaven, if not for our coarse flesh preventing us?” But, brethren, didn’t Enoch have our same flesh? And yet, he was taken to Heaven (Gen. 5:24), having not seen death; that is, he ascended there in the flesh. Didn’t Elijah have our same flesh? And yet, he was taken to Heaven on a chariot of fire (4 Kg. 2:11). Didn’t St. Paul have our same flesh? But he was in the third Heaven and heard words unspeakable. Didn’t St. Mary of Egypt have our same flesh? But when she prayed, St. Zosima saw her elevated off the ground. Didn’t all the martyrs have our same flesh, but what didn’t they endure with this flesh? All the ascetics? And what miracles didn’t they manifest in this flesh?

The flesh truly draws everyone to the earth, for it is earthly; but it attracts and holds only those who are themselves glad about this attraction, whose spirit has become so earthen that it’s lost the ability to strive, according to its nature, for Heaven. For those who are able to resist the demands of sensuality, the flesh itself gradually weans itself from the earth, takes a Heavenly direction, and becomes spiritual; and we can say without exaggeration that if these people weren’t soon to be released from the bonds of the flesh by the hand of death, they would, over time, elevate their very flesh to Heaven.

But let us concede to the flesh its burden; let us not dispute the fleshliness of the flesh; let us give this honor to those who can accommodate it. Let the flesh remain on Earth. What prevents the spirit from ascending to Heaven? Doesn’t it have the ability to be wherever it wants, in the thoughts? What prevents us from using this precious ability to be in Heaven, with our Savior, among our Heavenly brethren in heart and spirit, as often as possible? Is this difficult? And yet, how few aspire, or even allow their thoughts and desires to aspire for Heaven!

Where are there no thoughts; what do people not think about? But ask the people with the most thoughts if they often find themselves in Heaven with those thoughts. But without this, is it surprising that the spirit that’s constantly engaged in earthly, worldly, perishable things, itself finally becomes earthly and coarse, and is filled with ruin and vanity?

“But what benefit is there if we ascend to Heaven in our thoughts, while the whole rest of our being remains on Earth? Will it help a poor man to live in the royal palaces in his thoughts?” It doesn’t help the poor man, but it helps us to think about Heaven. For the palaces of the king are not given to the poor man, but Heaven is destined for us: In thinking about Heaven, we will think about our own fate; and thinking about something often is no small thing. In man, everything begins with a thought. Start thinking about some subject more often: This subject will become more and more important to you, then it will enter into your very soul, fill it with itself, displace all other objects, and turn into the governing principle for everything you do. This also happens when a man is often lifted to Heaven in his thoughts—he’s filled with a sense of disdain for the world, becomes exalted above all sinful things, and it becomes easy for him to do good, Heavenly things.

“But,” you’ll say, “there’ll still be time to think about Heaven when we ascend to Heaven, after death. We have enough earthly cares now. Why jump ahead in the proper order of things?” Then the real order of things is disorder; then whoever doesn’t jump ahead will be late; then without a voluntary ascension in the spirit during your lifetime, the involuntary ascension after death not only won’t help, but will become a source of torment.

So, brethren, no matter how terrible this truth is, it’s not subject to any doubt, for it’s very perceptibly conveyed already now. What happens to those who climb mountains that are too high? It’s a beautiful view, but it becomes difficult to breathe, your head starts to hurt, your senses dull, and finally, you pass out. So it is with those who, having not prepared themselves, are forcibly transferred to Heaven by the hand of death. The Heavenly atmosphere, where the pure spirits enjoy beatitude, is unbearable for a pure heart; it can’t breathe it, and it falls by itself from the Heavenly heights—into hell!

This is why the sacred writers so often and so forcefully urge us to wean ourselves from the Earth in advance, to ascend to Heaven in heart and mind. Our Creator doesn’t need it—He has always been and always will be most blessed, even without us. We need it, so that when we pass over to Heaven without preparation, we’ll find beatitude there rather than torment. For Heaven isn’t blessedness for all, but only for those who have become Heavenly themselves.

“But how can we train our minds to strive for Heaven? External objects and needs constantly scatter it and turn it to the earth.” It’s true that we have many obstacles to constantly gazing upon Heaven with the mind, but no less than the incentives to gaze there. We need just once and for all to confirm in our soul the thought that there, in Heaven, everything is ours, everything is better. After that, the eyes of the mind, and even of the body, will involuntarily turn to Heaven quite often. Indeed, we have no difficulty constantly thinking about our home, and where is our eternal home? There. It’s not hard for us to remember our family and loved ones, and where are there more of them: on Earth, or in Heaven? There. We find ourselves often thinking about those over us, but where is our King and Lord? There. Thus, I say, we need only awaken the thought of what Heaven means for us, and we will find that thinking about it becomes a necessity for us.

But, dear brethren, I’ll say in conclusion: Whether you think about Heaven or not, you will end up there. Love the earth as much as you want and cling to it, but you will leave it forever. Your place isn’t here, but rather, either in Heaven or in hell!

So, it’s better to use everything, to endure all difficulties, to appear in Heaven prepared, than to be carried away by temptations, or overcome by difficulties, and thus cast down from heaven.


St. Innocent of Kherson
Translation by Jesse Dominick


1 Irmos 1, Canon for the feast of the Nativity of Christ. In Slavonic it reads: “Возноситеся!” which can also be literally translated as “Ascend!” English translations are typically rendered as “Be exalted!”—Trans.

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