Greetings in the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ!
As a middle school student I was enough of a nerd that I drew elaborate maps and wind roses with pen and ink, going so far as to antique them by staining them with tea and baking them in a warm oven. Most of the maps were of imaginary lands (of which I, of course, was the ruler!) A feature I generally included—as found on real maps from ages past—was to label something on the border as terra incognita (sometimes found as terra ignota), which means “unknown land”. But then I discovered an alternate label from old maps, an alternate label that allowed me to spin additional “travelers’ tales” about what lay beyond. The term is terra nondum cognita, “land not yet known”.
In our human yearnings it is easy to think of the kingdom of heaven as terra incognita, as a state of being that we can know nothing about. But we must not do this, for to do so is to fall into a secular trap—that the possibility of knowledge is restricted to what can be measured. We must, instead, recognize and declare that the kingdom of heaven is terra nondum cognita. More to the point, the kingdom of heaven is not really “land not yet known” but more so “land known partially”, as famously described by St. Paul at 1 Cor. 13.12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”
My knowledge of God can be: (a) the beatific vision that Paul describes as “face to face” with God (but not in this world); (b) a direct mystical experience of God’s presence (a blessing experienced by more people than most think); or (c) what I learn by what God has chosen to reveal about Himself and His will in Scripture, in Reason (the observation of the created order accompanied by the reasoning that points me to the existence of a Creator), and in Tradition (the special revelation found in the universal dogmas of the Church, e.g., in the Creed). My knowledge in this world of the kingdom of heaven derives, therefore, from my knowledge of God, and what Scripture, Reason and Tradition all point toward is the reality that God’s will for us is blessing and salvation.
When we pay attention, we experience that the kingdom of heaven breaks into this world all around us. The kingdom of heaven is an eternal reality we participate in in the sacraments, and our knowledge of the blessing which is God’s will far exceeds the “travelers’ tales” that would otherwise pass for sacred writing. (There are very good, and well-documented reasons why many writings roughly contemporaneous with the Bible were excluded from the canon of Scripture.) But most importantly, we receive knowledge about the kingdom of heaven—about the blessedness which is God’s will—when we seek God’s will and seek His presence, especially in the sacraments and especially in Scripture. The “land” is not really “not yet known”. It is revealed more and more in how we seek this land, and the traveler’s tales we do receive are not the mere speculations and embellishments of a Medieval chronicler but the testimonies of the “great … cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12.1), the saints, who have and do witness to the reality of blessedness in all times, in all circumstances.
Start filling in the details in your own map of the kingdom of heaven. Just as a Medieval cartographer might have entered more details in a map (including the largely apocryphal “Here be dragons.”) as more accounts of what lay beyond a given sea or mountain range were brought, consider how your own knowledge of God and of God’s will—of blessing—is itself a blessing to be prayed over and to be shared. You might be the one who, in sharing your own experience of faith with another, allows that other person to fill in a space on his/her “map” that once was filled with the unknown fear that there might, in fact, be “dragons” as opposed to the face of God which looks upon His own in love and mercy. You might be the one to share faith in such wise that a space in this life that has been projected by another to be a place of swamp or desert can be, in fact, rich in fruits. Whatever map you draw remember that the path that leads you on, is one upon which the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ, walks before you. Follow Christ and know that your path is sure.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg