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Ballroom Dancing: a Vision of Heaven on Earth

Like great literature, sometimes the cinematic arts are a source of theological insight. The Fisher King, a now-classic movie dating back to 1991, has plunged me into eschatology, the theology of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

Parry is a homeless man suffering delusions as a result of post-traumatic stress. He is enamored of Lydia, who works for a Manhattan publishing firm as a low-level editor and who is extraordinary only for her klutziness. At the close of each business day, Parry trails the unaware Lydia through Grand Central Station as she plows her way through the crowd on the way to her commuter train. The scene captures Parry entering the station ten or so paces behind Lydia. As he plunges into the crowd, eyes fixed only on Lydia, the first tentative beats of a Viennese waltz are heard, the immense space becomes a ballroom, the music swells, and the crowd dissolves into a swirling mass of dancers. People of all walks, colors, and backgrounds – business people, sailors, nuns, teenagers, Hasidic Jews – twirl with grace and joy in the line of dance while Lydia wends her way with Parry in tow. Then, as the clock strikes 5, the waltz dissolves into, once again, the hurly-burly of the crowd.

That dance scene gave me a fresh image and vision of heaven.

Culture and religion offer us images of what the afterlife will be like. Long ago, our Catholic tradition settled on the metaphor that the good and righteous would enjoy the “beatific vision,” a phrase that literally means seeing that makes happy. Now I hope as much as anyone for the blessedness of knowing God face-to-face, but as a child of the television age, I find “beatific vision” a less than satisfying thumbnail description of eternal life in heaven. It is static, passive, and, frankly, boring; it turns eternal happiness into life as a perpetual couch potato with the added benefit of lacking commercial interruptions.

In sharp contrast, the dancing scene at Grand Central Station supplies a dynamic and active image. None of the dancers loses his or her individuality, yet the entire corps of dancers twirl and swirl as one to the pulse of the gorgeous music. Each one knows and revels in the dance, each one practices superb floorcraft, and the result is a magnificent, organic unity.

The scene, barely two minutes long, took 9½ weeks to stage and shoot. Such perfection is not easily achieved. I shudder to think of how much jostling and how many collisions ended up on the cutting-room floor. Imagine all the blisters and sore muscles and other physical and emotional aches the dancers had to endure. None of that mattered once the footage got distilled down to the finished two minutes.

Eternally twirling and swirling in the cosmic dance, to the music of the spheres, where every step and pattern has been perfectly internalized, where continually each dancer changes partners with grace and ease, where the feet never get blistered or sore, where one never runs out of breath or energy, where the music never stops building, where no one ever gets bored. . . .

Now that’s heaven.

Bob Cassey lives in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He is a retired lawyer and a permanent deacon who ministers at St. Petronille Parish. He has a Master of Arts degree in Word & Worship from the Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, Chicago.

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