“Them Pearly Gates” – Revisited
THE CATHOLIC THING
TUESDAY, JUNE 18, 2019
Note: Yesterday marked exactly the two months since the death of our esteemed colleague Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. Tomorrow there will be a memorial Mass for him at Georgetown University, 6PM in Dahlgren Chapel, for the many students, colleagues, and friends who weren’t able to go to California for his funeral. Today we thought we’d do our bit of commemoration by bringing back one of his columns (originally published in March 2018) in his regular Tuesday slot: a typical Schallian “Thing” – clever, humorous, and somehow also profound all at once. And also poignant in that many of us are quite sure that he’s now passed through those Pearly Gates. He’s set the gold standard here at The Catholic Thing for what we strive to bring you first thing every morning. Please, help us keep that ongoing inspiration very much alive. – Robert Royal
The four “Seekers,” dressed in formal garb, with a tambourine, a bass, and two guitars, sing their bouncy rendition of the old spiritual, “Open Up Them Pearly Gates.” Most everyone has once sung this lively tune. A singer by the name of Viola Billups used “Miss Pearly Gates” as her stage name. And the name “Gates,” pearly or otherwise, is quite familiar in contemporary technological culture.
The inspiration of the words of this song probably comes from Revelation 21:21, which reads: “The twelve gates (of the New Jerusalem) were twelve pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl; and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.”
We have here yet another effort, this time from a pretty good source, to imagine what heaven might be like, a topic difficult to let alone. Even the modern heathen do not reject it. They just want to locate it in their version of this world. Their “new” New Jerusalem always turns out, sooner or later, to be yet another horrendous version of the Brave New World rather than the City of God.
The first words of the song are these: “Listen all you people; / Come take a lesson from me. / Get yourself prepared for the Judgment Day. / Hallelujah Lujah. / When you hear that trumpet blast, / Then you’ll know you’re home at last. / Open up them Pearly Gates for me.”
In these days of walls, of getting some folks in and keeping other folks out, we see Revelation’s picture of the New Jerusalem to include walls with gates that need to be opened not just by anybody, but by those qualified to judge those worthy to enter.
Everlasting life does not seem to be a mixture of good and bad people, but of good – and those bad ones with sense enough to repent in time and to acknowledge the truth about their personal version of badness.
Many verses of the song are quite specific. Grandpa Jones makes no bones, as it were, about what is at stake: “Listen, all you sinners! / If you want to get to Heaven, Heaven. / Better get down on your knees and pray, / And you gambling sinners, / Better quit saying Seven-Eleven. / Get yourself prepared for the Judgment Day.” The Judgment Day – shadows of Plato – is pictured as something that needs to be prepared for, something that will be rendered in the light of our lived lives.
“Sinners,” even “gambling sinners,” are to get down on their knees to pray. And if we hear that “trumpet blast,” then “we’ll know we are home at last.” Some evidently won’t hear it. They will never make it home. They are the sinners who know that they are sinners, but who did not get down on their knees.
In the song’s narrative, what is lacking to sinners is praying for forgiveness. Even for “gambling sinners,” it is too late only when the Pearly Gates are closed to them, evidently at their death. They don’t hear the ”trumpet blast.”
This comment may be Jesuit casuistry on a basically Protestant hymn, but probably those who shoot pool for a few bucks or who play blackjack once in a while will hear the blast. It’s the high rollers with shady connections that we are worried about. And if “a little wine is good for the stomach” and is meant to “cheer the hearts of men,” probably the good and careful teetotalers will have some knee-bending drinking companions in the Eternal City.
It is remarkable to note that when we do manage to pass the Pearly Gates, when we do hear the “trumpet blast,” we do not come into some strange place. Rather we come “home,” and know that we do. We have intimation here of Chesterton’s remark on the strangeness of our life on earth. It is that, especially if we live it well, we begin most poignantly to feel “homesick even at home.” We have here no lasting city.
In recent years, we have heard much about judgment and non-judgment. The song makes it clear that we do not pass through the Pearly Gates until and unless we are judged for how we lived. This is the drama of our personal existence that is worth singing about.
It is also the sober reminder that not getting down on our knees has consequences. The primary way to make our lives meaningless is to maintain that how we choose to form our souls makes no cosmic difference to anyone, even ourselves.
Perhaps, in an old cemetery in New Jersey or Iowa or even California, we come across a fading tombstone marked:
Here Lies Jefferson Zachariah Smith.
Waitin’ for that Trumpet Blast.
We will someday know what he meant. Yes, one more time, everyone! – “Open up them Pearly Gates for me. Hallelujah Lujah.”
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James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)
James V. Schall, S.J. 1928-2019, who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.