I have never felt more free in my life!” exclaimed my close friend, a widow who has experienced some crushing family difficulties in her life recently. Clearly, although she had suffered for months, she was not discouraged. If anything, her faith seemed to have grown more solid. Her joyful response to these burdens lifted my spirit too.
My friend’s joy comes from her belief that Heaven Starts Now, the message—and the title—of a new book by Fr. John Riccardo, a priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan. A popular speaker and radio personality, Fr. Riccardo compiled the book from talks he has given to thousands of parishioners who have completed an evangelization program called Alpha. Heaven Starts Now is meant to help Alpha participants and other interested believers to deepen their faith, solidify their conversion experiences, and pursue a life of holiness.
The beginning point of the journey, Fr. Riccardo says, is the proclamation of the gospel, or the Alpha. The end point is sainthood, the Omega. The process of moving from Alpha to Omega is what this short, inviting book addresses. Its goal: to help the reader grow in Christ, be transformed, and begin to live the life of heaven now—not someday.
Make a Plan. So how do we begin? The first step is to make sure we are clear on God’s will for our lives. Fr. Riccardo points us to Scripture. “This is the will of God, your holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). It could not be much clearer! If God wants us to become saints, we need to have a plan, much like a businessperson makes a plan for success.
“This isn’t an exhaustive list; it’s just a way to get started,” Fr. Riccardo says, suggesting that we make simple elements such as prayer, service, and sacramental life a part of our plan. I took his advice myself and constructed a simple plan for my own spiritual growth. I spotted a weakness in the area of Scripture study; as a result, I have begun to reorder my schedule a bit. Now, I wake up earlier each day to reclaim some precious time for the Lord to speak more clearly to me through his word.
Identify Stumbling Blocks. From the foundation of our personal plan, Fr. Riccardo begins to address several areas of our lives such as unforgiveness, greed, and self-centeredness. He calls these stumbling blocks to living the life of heaven now. He devotes a chapter to each of these, with a few questions for reflection at the end of each chapter.
He begins with forgiveness, “the single most significant stumbling block we can face.” We don’t always feel like asking God’s forgiveness, he points out.
We may think our sins are too big—or too small—for the mercy of God. Fortunately, our Father is always merciful, even when we don’t know we need it! As one of the psalms says, “Merciful and gracious is the Lord. . . . He has not dealt with us as our sins merit” (103:8, 10).
In addition to keeping us from receiving God’s mercy, our thought patterns and emotions can also block our ability to forgive other people. I saw the effect of this through my parish’s Alpha program, which I have participated in several times. After listening to a talk about God’s compassionate mercy, one participant looked at me through misty eyes and said, “Now I understand my problem. I have been harboring resentment toward my sister about something that happened twenty years ago. I have refused to forgive her, so my heart has remained closed to the Father’s love. Now I realize that if I forgive, I will know my heavenly Father’s forgiveness.” The truths expressed in that Alpha talk set her free and set the stage for God to move her forward, closer to her ultimate goal of sainthood.
Let God Order Your Life. Although it is counterintuitive, Fr. Riccardo urges us next to take our hands off the “wheel” of our lives and let God take over. I want to do this—to surrender my life to the Father and let go of my tendency to control—but I often find myself distracted. Life pulls me in different directions. On top of caring for children and grandchildren, sick family members and friends, I face the challenge of decreasing vitality as I age. How can I surrender all these challenges to the Lord and let him guide the way I deal with them?
Fr. Riccardo clarified my dilemma with this explanation. We all have important responsibilities, but what we do is not what we are made for. We were created to be saints. And for that, we need to surrender the details of our lives, our time, and our relationships to our Father and Lord. By calling him “Father,” we acknowledge an intimate relationship with someone worthy of trust. And by calling him “Lord,” we allow him to exercise his reign over us. Fr. Riccardo puts it this way:
If you really want Jesus in the middle of your life, you have to obey him unconditionally. You have to give up control of your life and drop your conditions. You have to give up the right to say, “I will do this if . . .” As soon as you say, “I will obey you if,” that’s not obedience. What you are really saying is this: “You are my consultant, not my Lord.”
Jesus is my Lord, but I have to pray more—from the heart—to stay focused on his role as the “driver” of my life.
Look for Signposts. Heaven Starts Now brings a holistic approach to challenging areas of our spiritual lives. If Fr. Riccardo merely gave a set of instructions for how to become a saint, I would become discouraged quickly. But instead, he presents the reader with profound truths about God’s merciful nature and his incredible vision for our lives. These truths are guides for a lifelong journey. For me, Fr. Riccardo’s book itself is a signpost directing me toward heaven—the most important quest of my life.
Mary Ann Russo lives in Mount Airy, Maryland.
Heaven Starts Now by Fr. John Riccardo is available from The Word Among Us at www.wau.org and amazon.com.