One winter, when I was between homes, I rented a condo directly on the beach. It was my joy each morning to witness the most spectacular sunrises, unequaled to any I had ever seen before. I finally stopped taking photos and just let my spirit bask in the beauty of each moment while the sky was painted with an array of rainbow colors as the sun peeked above the horizon.

The beauty of these displays was never interrupted by my knowing that the sun really doesn’t rise and we are on a round planet with a 365 day yearly rotation around our sun. What other terms would we use for sunrise and sunset? Does it really matter? Who would spend time arguing this fact? Also, the ambiance of sunrises and sunsets is such a deep part of our psyches, our songs, our art and our daily living.

I see the words heaven and hell in the same way. Today the words heaven and hell are used very loosely in the English language. Swiss chocolate is heavenly, we say. When someone is happy, he or she might say, I’m in heaven. A person who is enduring a really hard time might say, it’s been hell. We know what they mean because most of us understand that to be in heaven is to be at peace, enjoying the reward of a good life. To be in hell is to be suffering bodily, spiritually or psychologically.

At a time when people thought the earth was flat, it made sense to believe that heaven was above where the gods lived. The night sky, thunder and lightning, rain, everything was a mystery that couldn’t be explained. Every people and tribe passed on creation stories and imagined gods above the earth who ruled over humans and could affect their fates. Conversely, the place of the wicked or the fallen gods and angels must be below earth in a place called hell, a place humans could end up if they defied the gods.

Many guides or holy ones, over the centuries, in all the spiritual traditions have taught us that God/Divinity/Life’s Source/Heaven is within all of us. Jesus said, The Kingdom of God is within you. From another tradition, we have the same concept. In a commentary of the Yoga Sutras we read: God, the underlying Reality, is by definition omnipresent. Though the Reality is everywhere, we can only make contact with it within our own hearts.

Many people have heard of the term “thin places.” A thin place is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the Divine more readily. The wind-swept isle of Iona is such a place. A friend who just returned from there spoke about the sense of transcendence that was all around her. There are many, many such places on earth which allow us to understand that heaven is not a place we travel to but a place we open our souls to.

And so our call, as I understand it, is to seek Divinity within us through whichever way speaks to our souls. There are many: in nature, through song, meditation, mindfulness, receiving and giving love, or artistic expression. To answer my own question, I don’t think of heaven as a place but as a state of being which is accessible to all, in whatever spiritual tradition they choose, and however they understand God.

Helen Rousseau is an interfaith minister. Her website is at

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