Friday, January 25, 2013

Why aren't our plans working? -- part 7

(Letter to Frieda Begue continued interminably)

The question at hand is why bother to have Catholic schools, if not to live the Catholic life? And  why bother to live the Catholic life? The first good answer is that Christ offers real hope in the face of death. It is fascinating to think that the hope Christ offers is so great that practically all those who knew Him fearlessly died violent deaths simply for insisting that Jesus was who he claimed to be, when simply by renouncing Him they could have lived to a peaceful old age. It is yet more amazing that this willingness to die rather that to deny Christ has persisted throughout the history of Christianity. Untold thousands, even millions, have found the Catholic way of life, the Gospel way of life preferable to life itself. I told you the story of the first person I met who claimed to have had the experience of clinical death. He was only the first person I met to claim such things. I have told that story repeatedly and often people tell me about their own similar experience. I have to admit that not all of these experiences are pleasant. There is a second reason to follow Christ by living the Catholic way of life. It seems there really is a hell.

Years back, a couple of kids asked about heaven. I told them the story that I told you just last week, the light and the tunnel and all that. Their uncle, and old friend of mine was listening. He said that it was all a load of .....! 

He said, “When you die, you’re dead. I know. I died.” Later he told me, “What I said a while ago isn’t true. I was in hell.” 

I had known him since he was a child, and believe me, he was a difficult child. He got involved in theft and then selling drugs, and then worse. Finally his liver was almost severed in a knife fight. They lost him on the table, but  they were able to patch him back together and revive him. He didn’t want to go into the particulars of hell, but I have heard a similar from others. I particularly remember a young man who had died of an overdose. He had lived a violent and self absorbed life. He said that when he died, he found himself sinking into a dark alone-ness and he knew he was going to be there for a very long time. He saw Jesus in a distant light, the Christ whom his family loved and served, but who he had rejected. He cried out to the Lord as he fell into the blackness and begged for another chance. He woke up on the an emergency room table of the local hospital. True to his word, he turned his life around and is alive to this day.

If there really is a hell and if God is so good and so loving, how can he send anyone there? The answer is very simple. He doesn’t send us to hell. He finds us there. Think about it. When we are born into this world we are completely self-absorbed. We live in a world of one. If a baby wakes up in the middle of the night and wants a bottle, a change of clothes or mommy’s warm embrace, the whole house is up. It doesn’t matter that you have to be up before the dawn. A baby has a cry that can penetrate brick, and he wants what he wants. I know people who are 60 or 70 years old, who, if they want a bottle, a change of clothes and mommy’s warm embrace.... 

Catch my drift? Many of us never leave the place of fundamental isolation and narcissism into which we are born. We Catholics call this original sin. I suspect that when we die, all that happens is that time stops, and to paraphrase God’s words to Moses, “we are who we are.” And we will be that forever. If we reject God’s offer of grace and refuse to live for anyone but ourselves, then we will live in that absolute alone-ness eternally. Jesus compared heaven to a wedding banquet but He called hell the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

We want God to guarantee the pleasures of heaven, but we fail to understand that heaven is not so much a place as a relationship. If we refuse the relationship, we refuse heaven. More than heaven awaits us. God’s plan is to adopt us, to make us part of that relationship which is God. Remember that God is love, sacrificial love. If I cling to myself, I cannot cling to Him. If God is “agape,” sacrificial love, and I reject sacrifice, I have rejected God. God will not force anyone to go to heaven. He makes us free to reject Him or to accept Him. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: In the end there are only two types of people, those who will say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God will say, “No, thy will be done.” If we want only what we want, than we have made our choice. 

We Americans love to think that we are free. We may once have been, but are no longer. We are a nation of slaves: slaves to our possessions; slaves to our desires; to our sexual needs; to all the things we see on TV. We are enslaved to the cruelest master, our own desires. 

Jesus once said you cannot serve both God and possessions. Things, self-centered passions, an insistence on what we have decided are our “rights” and the inflated sense of our own importance are dragging us down to hell. We talk about freedom of choice. We don’t have and have never had freedom of choice. I may want to be eight feet tall and have a billion dollars. Neither is possible. I may not be able to have them, but I can want them. I can want them with a passion that excludes all other loves. 

Freedom of choice is a myth. All we really have is freedom of will. I can will my own desires, or I can say to God, “Not my will but Thy will be done. Into your hands I commend my life.” The possibility of hell is also the possibility of freedom. We want a God who gives us our every desire, and if He does not obey us, then He is not a good and loving God. Perhaps He doesn’t even exist. Most people love, not God, but what they think He can give, and when He does not give, He is no God at all. 

Perhaps you’ve heard me tell the story of the young starlet who is about to marry the rich old billionaire who has one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel. She is interviewed by the paparazzi and we all get a laugh out of her protestation that she is marrying for love. “I’d marry him if he was the poorest man in the world. I love him,” she protests!  Then, in a few months when he finally dies and leaves his fortune to her and her two chihuahuas, the battle is joined between the lawyers of the first, second and third wives and the lawyers of the starlet, over who gets the money. 

The young beauty wasn’t able to love him. She was so self-absorbed and he was so rich. She knew he was an old fool. We knew he was an old fool. The reporters knew he was an old fool. The only one who didn’t know he was an old fool was the old fool. I assure you that God is not an old fool. He can tell the difference between true love and manipulation.

To love God is not to desire Him for what He can provide, but to desire Him for who He is. He allows suffering and difficulty in order to give us the one prerequisite of love -- freedom. The possibility of eternal damnation is also the opportunity for eternal freedom. 

So why live the Catholic life? To live the Catholic life, with all its self-denial and sacrifice is to live in real freedom and to have the ability to truly love God who is Love itself.

1 comment:

  1. I for one love God (not as perfectly as I ought, to be sure, but as much as I can), not for what He _might_ give me, but for what He _already has_.

    I'm alive. Couldn't have done it without Him.

    I have my wife. (The case may be debateable in theory, but there's pretty ample evidence for Divine Intervention there too.)

    He already dragged me personally out of Hell at least once that I can tell you about.

    And oh yeah. He once came down to Earth, becoming like us so we might become like Him, walked around teaching as many of us as He could, and then handed Himself over to be tortured to death, just to drive the point home.

    I mean, seriously. Anybody who gets gifts like those, but still doesn't believe they're loved, isn't going to believe it with a billion dollars, either.