The Upside Down

[Note: this post has very mild spoilers for the first season of Stranger Things]

I’m currently watching the newest season of Stranger Things on Netflix (Season 4), which reminded me of something I had thought about posting back when the first season aired. In the first season a lot of the mystery centers upon something called “the Upside Down.” What is it, and what threat does it pose? It proves to be a sort of parallel dimension to earth, with everything twisted in a dark direction (hence the name). The objects of this world appear dark, corroded, and suffused with a sinister miasma. It is cold and largely devoid of life, leaving those that find their way there isolated and alone. What life they do encounter is monstrous and desires to consume them, body and soul. These monsters stalk along right next to us in this life, hidden from sight but hunting for a place to break through and attack. The Upside Down is a terrifying place!

What struck me about this is how it actually gives us an insight into heaven, although in an inverted way. Heaven is often thought of as far away and unconnected to this life. However, this is not what our faith teaches. St Paul quotes a poem to describe our connection to God: “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Heaven right now is a spiritual existence – meaning non-material and therefore not visible, yet one that permeates this reality. We often picture it as geographically located above us (the words “heaven” or “cielo” point to the sky), but in fact this is just an analogy used as a crutch to help us imagine it.

Heaven can be seen as the complete right-ordering of this world, “the Right-side Up” in contrast to “the Upside Down.” It is a place of light and warmth. It is a place of communion with God and the angels/saints. These are not monsters seeking to destroy us, but helpers close at hand to lend aid. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1).

One place that we experience this in a particular way is in the celebration of the Mass – which in the Eastern Church is often called “the Divine Liturgy.” Here we enter into the proximity of earth and heaven in a way that strongly echoes an inverse of the Upside Down. We have the chance to encounter a break-through of grace into this world and a foretaste of the good things to come.

Spending time in the “Right-side Up” (whether during Mass or in personal prayer) can also help us to see this world more clearly. GK Chesterton invokes a similar image in writing about the life of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis had been drawn during his conversion process to spend some time living in a cave and dedicated to prayer/reflection. Chesterton describes him as coming out of the cave “walking on his hands,” seeing the world upside down. The things he used to trust in (eg wealth) he now sees as precarious. For example, a large castle might seem sturdy and trustworthy, but when viewed upside down it seems to be hanging and likely to fall. In contrast, the things that Francis used to doubt (faith and charity) seem to be the most secure things.

The band Mumford and Sons actually incorporated this Chesterton quote into their song “The Cave,” expressing it this way: “So come out of your cave walking on your hands, and see the world hanging upside down. You can understand dependence when you know the Maker’s land.” A glimpse of heaven (the Right-side Up, the “Maker’s Land”) helps us to better see this world. It helps us to understand the closeness of God, even when we do not perceive it. Likewise, it helps us to better grasp the Communion of Saints. To quote the opening prayer from the recent feast of Corpus Christi, may this meditation help us – especially in the Mass – to “experience in ourselves the fruits of [our] redemption,” and the closeness of the Kingdom!

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