April 4, 2003
Dear Friends and Benefactors,
Eternity - "the thought of thoughts", said St. Augustine. The thought that puts this little life on earth in its proper perspective. The thought that will not get into our little heads. The thought that we shall never grasp, yet which helps us to grasp a multitude of other thoughts - the thought of eternity.
Catholics know with certainty that we human beings are composed of body and soul, that at death the soul leaves the body behind, which normally disintegrates without it, that the soul then begins on its own an existence which continues forever. At the end of the world, this soul will be re-united with its body, mysteriously re-assembled, and then the two together will either enjoy unimaginable happiness or suffer unspeakable torments, without end... without end... without end...
Preachers have resorted to a variety of images to represent this endlessness. For instance, they imagine a blackbird flying back and forth the 236,000 miles between the earth and the moon, and each time the bird lands on the moon, it pecks away a lunar fragment, then flies back to earth, and so on. The preachers then ask, how long will it take the blackbird to peck away the whole moon? And when it has done so, will eternity even have started?
Yet no amount of images can succeed in representing the stretch of eternity. Why? Because all creatures, and images of creatures, are by their nature limited, whereas eternity consists precisely in the lack of limitation. But, it may be objected, if God on the one hand destines us to eternity and on the other hand surrounds us with no creatures capable of adequately representing to us that destiny, is He not being contradictory? How can He expect us to strive for a goal which He gives us no means of knowing?
The first part of the answer is that God wants all of us human beings to get to Heaven (I Tim II, 4), because He can have created none of us for any other purpose. This means of course that in some way or other every single human being since Adam and Eve has received grace or graces sufficient to bring that soul to Heaven, if only it chose to co-operate. However, it would be a poor Heaven whose idea could fit inside our little heads, and God means to reward with no small Heaven those who respond freely to His love. That is why St. Paul says, quoting Isaiah (LXIV, 4), "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him" (I Cor. II, 9).
But the problem remains: how can man be expected to act, in particular to follow the Way of the Cross, for a reward of which he has no idea? Here comes the second part of the answer: man does not have no idea at all of eternity, Heaven and Hell, on the contrary every man has an inkling of them, at least in certain special moments of his life, and this inkling will reach further and further if only he will choose to bend his mind in that direction instead of turning it away. But rather than inkle eternity, most men prefer to short-circuit their minds with the pleasures of this life, which is why they fritter their lives away.
And here, following on the thinking of the unthinkable length of eternity, is another huge thought: the value of time. If the whole length of my eternity in the afterworld depends upon my short life in this world, then every moment counts! If whether I spend eternity in Heaven or in Hell depends upon how I spend an average of, say, 70 years on earth, a period which is nothing, but nothing, in comparison, then every single day is a drama of building my Heaven or preparing my Hell!
But how can God let so much depend on, comparatively speaking, so little? How can He make such a limitless and unimaginable consequence depend on so few years of limited images? It is because God knows the innermost secrets of men's hearts, so that even if a man dies in the flower of his youth, he will have lived long enough to make sufficiently, as God knows, his choice between living with God for ever in Heaven or without God for ever in Hell. So at that soul's particular judgment, God will have given to it the eternity it sufficiently chose, and that soul will not be able to deny that the moment of its death was another mercy of God, either to preserve it for Heaven from the dangers of living longer amidst temptations on earth, or to prevent it from falling by a prolonged life of sin much deeper into Hell.
Thus every moment of our brief lives on earth is given to us by God for us either to get out of sin and into the state of grace, or to build up in our souls a higher degree of grace and charity, to which will correspond a higher reward of eternal happiness.
Thus if a soul is living in the grace of God, each new day, every hour of life is a gift of His for us to merit more in eternity. Why else life? We would eat to live, and live to eat? No, we eat on earth to live on earth, and we live on earth to merit for Heaven, and if we make this right use of each moment, who will complain any longer of this life's limitation when it is earning a reward wholly disproportionate by its illimitation? And when Our Lord traces out for us the Way of the Cross as the road to Heaven, who that believes in him will complain even of a lifetime of suffering? That suffering should be the way to Heaven is as mysterious as the mystery of sin, but the better I understand Our Lord, the closer I can come to the saints' rejoicing in each moment of pain. War, illness, old age, grief of any kind - it can all be minted into the coinage of Paradise.
Conversely, if a soul is in mortal sin, then without doubt the grace of God is all the time reaching out to it, now very strongly, perhaps most of the time quite faintly, because God will leave the sinful soul free, and he knows that too strong an appeal would merely push the soul into a stronger and more damnable refusal. "Fearful silence of God", said St. Augustine, referring to God's abandoning a soul to its own devices. And again, "Beware of grace passing once, and not twice". Yet, to the very end, God will appeal. Yet how many souls around us only want to drive Him away, and have Him stay away, so that they may sin undisturbed!
This value of time for eternity, for the sinner to repent and for the saint to merit, highlights the length of God's mercy. Knowing how weakened we are by original sin and how much weaker we become by our personal sins, and knowing, as we do not, just what eternity means, God has a boundless compassion on our human frailty. A man may fall again and again and again, but if there is only a spark of true repentance, God can forgive him again and again and again, because this brief life is our only chance, and upon it depends our eternity! "It is appointed to man once to die, and after this the judgment" (Heb. IX, 27). None of us lives or dies twice. Re-incarnation is a lie with which the Devil re-assures souls wishing to be deceived. But if we live only once, have we not almost a right to God's compassion?
No, compassion should not be defined as something that anyone has a right to on the part of anyone else, least of all on the part of a God continually offended by our sins. Nevertheless we find in the Old Testament an abundance of references to "the mercy of God that endureth for ever", notably Psalm CXXXV, and of course the New Testament presents to us in Our Lord the incarnation of compassionate mercy, especially towards sinners: Mary Magdalene, the Prodigal Son, the woman caught in adultery, the good thief on Calvary, etc.. It is the same one true God in Old and New Testaments, it is the same mercy, it is the same tireless reaching out of God's Catholic Church towards all souls for their eternal salvation.
And it is the same perversity of men that in most cases responds. A day or two before his crucifixion and death, Our Lord has run into the Temple leaders' deicidal hatred, in which he knows they will be followed by the ordinary people on whom he has lavished so great benefits for the three years of his ministry -"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not? Behold, your house shall be left to you desolate" (Mt. XXIII, 37, 38). The Sacred Heart is broken with grief at the thought of souls then and now to whom he made salvation so easy of access, yet who prefer their eternal damnation.
Divine Heart of Jesus, torn with sorrow for the everlasting perdition chosen by so many souls, and, even after death, shedding upon the Cross the last drop of your blood to draw us towards everlasting happiness with you, grant us we beseech you so to ponder on our souls' eternal destiny and so to cling to your Mercy for their eternal salvation, that when our souls are laid bare at death in the unsparing light of your judgment, still we may have full confidence in our sins being forgiven by that divine Mercy that endureth for ever, Amen.
Dear men, there are two five-day Ignatian retreats at the Seminary this summer to give a frame to meditation on these and other grand truths (July 7-12, and 14-19), and there is a study session on three encyclicals of John Paul II (Divini Redemptoris, Dives in Misericordia, Dominum et Vivificantem), to help study in depth how far the Newchurch is departing from these Catholic truths (July 22-26). But the hand of God is not shortened by the naughtiness of men (Is. L, 2).
Patience, and all blessings, in Christ,