During my years of teaching in second-levels schools, I taught Irish, English, Latin, and French. This involved a lot of essay-work, and journalism of different kinds. To instil a very important aspect of essay-writing, I spoke of a chicken drinking water. The chicken takes the water in the beak, and then lifts the head so that the water flows back down the throat. The point I was trying to stress was how important it is, when writing an essay, to lift one's head off the page, and look once again at the title of the essay. It is so easy to wander off the subject, and to get side-tracked into material that has nothing whatever to do with the subject under review. "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (Heb. 12:2) is the advice given the early Church in the letter to the Hebrews.
In Matthew 14, we are told a story about Peter walking on the water. Jesus came to them walking on the water, and Peter asked if he could do that too. Jesus invited him to walk towards him. Peter did this, and was doing very well until his attention was distracted from Jesus, as he became aware of the wind and the waves. Immediately, he began to sink, and cried out for help. Jesus reached out and took him by the hand, and brought him to the boat. Every one of us can find ourselves in this situation on many occasions. If we could only keep our eyes, our attention, focussed on Jesus, we could experience a whole new power, and a world of infinite possibilities.
If, however, we become preoccupied with ourselves, and our problems, we are in trouble. We change management, and take over the controls ourselves, and, of course, this is a recipe for disaster. We cannot manage, control, or run the show ourselves. In the face of life, with all its permutations and combinations, we are essentially powerless. We cannot add one moment to our lives, nor can we halt or control the march of time. Despite all the cosmetics and plastic surgery, the aging process is relentless. It is so easy to lose the vision of the reality of human existence. It is so easy to take our eyes off the title at the top of the page, and to get lost in uncharted waters, without rudder, sail, or life-jacket. God has mapped out the road very well for us, if we chose to follow that map. We are on our way back to the Garden, and God sent his own Son to lead us home. We get lost only if we choose to get lost.
In the Catechism of my youth we were told that "Purgatory was a place or state of punishment where some souls suffer for a while before they enter heaven." Purgatory was not a destination, but something that was part of a journey. While I accept that heaven, or the Garden is our ultimate destination, I also like to think of life as being a reality in itself, and not something to be endured, while we await something better. In a way, life is an end in itself, because it is during the journey that the graces are received and experienced. There is really nothing I will receive when I get back to the Garden that is not on offer along the journey. I have God, His Spirit, His blessings, and His life. Ok, so I'm 'boxed into' this body, and unable to experience all that is available to me. The mystics have no surrounding walls, no horizons, and the third and final stage of life for them will be when the vision is permanent, and all distractions are gone. Saints Therese, Padre Pio, etc., struggled in their 'cages', and yearned to fly into the great blue yonder. They were in exile on this earth, but they knew they would make it safely home.
Jesus makes many promises about eternal life. He promises a full restoration of our divine birthright when our present sojourn is completed. "Anyone who believes in me will have eternal life."(Jn. 6:35). "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live again."(Jn. 11:25). "Love Story" is a movie that was quite popular some years ago. What was different about it is that the heroine dies at the beginning, and the movie then brings us back through the story that unfolded up to that time. This meant, in effect, that, as we watched, we already knew the outcome; we knew how it was going to work out. Our lives are something like that. We are asked to live the NOW, and leave ETERNITY to God. God doesn't send me anywhere when I die. Rather he eternalises the direction in which I now choose to travel.
I have absolutely no concern about the after-life. I am concerned, however, about this present life. My concern comes from the need to ensure that I really live it to the full. All people die, and not everybody lives. Some people settle for existing; drifting along without enthusiasm, wonder, or the sheer excitement of living. They wrap their talents in cloth, and bury them, rather than getting out there in the market-place and investing all that they are in the wonderful adventure of life. Life can be compared to a lit candle in a dark room, which gives all it has until there's nothing left. It is in giving that we receive. If we do not invest, there can be no return. There is a happy balance to be struck here. While I keep my destiny in mind, and am always mindful where it's all leading, I still give the present moment all I've got. I cannot spend my life sitting around 'waiting for Godot'. The present moment is the sacred moment, and the only time that exists on God's calendar. Just a few years ago the Olympic Games took place in Athens. I cannot watch an athlete break a world record, or pick up a gold medal, without thinking of all that went before. That medal has been won over the past ten or twelve years, rather than during a ten-second dash today.
Hope is the hallmark of the Christian. Losing hope is the only real sin for someone who is redeemed and saved by Jesus Christ. Jesus has done everything possible and necessary to ensure that we make it safely back to the Garden. Paul tells us that our salvation is based on 'his blood and our faith'(Rom. 3:22). Jesus has done his part, he completed the task entrusted to him by the Father. The second part of the equation is whether we hook into that, avail of that, and live with the power that he made available to us. When Jesus had completed the work entrusted to him by the Father, he returned in triumph, to sit at the right hand of the Father. He then sent his Spirit 'to complete his work on earth'. In the second and third chapter of this series, I dealt at some length with the role of the Spirit in our Christian journey. "Learn to live and to walk in the Spirit", St. Paul tells us (Rom. 8:9). The journey is clearly mapped out for us; we are given food for the journey, and we are endowed with all that is needed for a happy and wholesome experience of living life out to the end.
Some people seem to get a very raw deal in life; like a poker player with a very poor hand. I don't pretend to understand why this happens to some and not to others. This is something that I must leave until I get all the answers later on. Rilke said that life was a journey from the certainties of callow youth, to a time when we find ourselves living with questions. We learn to live with the questions, and even come to love the questions, knowing that, at some future time, we will come into possession of all the answers. If I were to hazard an explanation, or a possibility, it would be to believe and hope that, no matter what the circumstances and situations of our lives may be, we all have free access to the power of the Spirit to deal with every possible situation life may throw up before us.
We have canonised saints from every walk of life, and bearing every possible cross that could happen. St. Paul speaks of one of the struggles he experienced. "Lest I become proud, after so many and extraordinary revelations, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a true messenger of Satan, to slap me in the face. Three times I prayed to the Lord that it leave me, but he answered, 'My grace is enough for you; my great strength is revealed in weakness'"(2 Cor. 12:7-9). As it happens I spent most of the past few months in three different hospitals. Thanks be to God for his grace, because I can now fully appreciate the experience as being a wonderful lesson about my own mortality, and the frailty of human existence. I genuinely appreciate all that my experience taught me, and I am much enriched because of it.
Jesus speaks about two men who went up to the Temple to pray(Lk. 18:10). One was a Pharisee, the other was a Publican. The Pharisee stood up at the front of the Temple, and began to tell God how good he was, how he had been faithful to all the commandments, and how his life had been a model of perfection. Instead of "Praise the Lord", his prayer was "Praise me, Lord"! The other man stood at the back, fell on his knees, struck his breast, and prayed "Oh, God, be merciful to me a sinner". Jesus tells us that it is this second man who was justified before the Lord. Those of us who are 'cradle' Christians/Catholics, were placed in the Holy of Holies by our parents and teachers, and the implication was that we should strive earnestly to remain there all our lives.
Anyone who followed this literally could easily join with the Pharisee in declaring to God how faithful I have been to every commandment, direction, and instruction of the gospel. Those who have LIVED life will readily admit to brokenness, weakness, and powerlessness, and will have no hesitation in joining the Publican at the back, praying "Oh, God, be merciful to me a sinner". It is a long journey from the Holy of Holies(where God dwells) to the back of the Temple(where we belong). Holiness involves becoming more and more convinced of my own sinfulness. The nearer I come to God the more obvious my own human weakness becomes. Remember that I am heading back to a warm eternal hug of forgiveness and belonging. The more convinced I am of my need for that the greater that meeting will be.
There is none of us can claim that we will not, one day, die. Somehow or other, though, there is a tendency to push death back into the background, and not dwell too much on it. This is understandable, and I think it is much healthier to give life all I've got, than to be sitting around thinking of dying. We attend funerals, we visit graves, we listen to details of some world tragedy, in which hundreds have perished. We come across a serious road accident, in which some people were killed. I myself discover that, when I move away from such a scene, I tend to drive a little slower, for just a few miles! In no time at all, I'm back to my usual driving, never dreaming that such a thing could happen to me. There is some sort of instinct for survival within all of us that insulates us from direct confrontation with death. We are not sure how to deal with it. Do we face up to it now, or wait till it approaches us?
I myself find that the thought of going back home to the Garden gives me a much more positive attitude towards death. On a few occasions during my several periods spent in hospital, I had reason to believe that "This is it", and I was greatly consoled to discover that the thought did not upset me unduly. I found this to be very reassuring, and, I hope and pray that, when the time does come, that I will feel then as I have felt on those other occasions. The last book I wrote was called "Jesus said it, and I believe it", and it contains reflections on 157 Promises in the gospels. Many of those speak to us of eternal life. There is no way that I am asked or expected to stagger along on the road of life, and hope to God that it's leading somewhere. Jesus is the Way, and it is only by following him that I can end up in the embrace of the Father. He leaves us in no doubt about this, and he refers to it quite frequently.
On many occasions, Jesus referred to the fact that he himself would soon be returning to the Father. This is what kept him going. "Father, into you hands I commend my spirit" (Lk. 23:46) were his final words in death. On several occasions, he reminded the Pharisees that, unlike them, he knew where he came from, and he knew where he was going. St. (Padre) Pio said that he would stand at the gate of heaven until the last of his spiritual children entered in. Jesus himself will be there to welcome us, as will his Mother, and all of our family and friends who have gone before us. That moment will be a meeting with all our old friends, never having to say goodbye again. Just imagine never having to say goodbye! All of our dreams will be fulfilled; all of our hopes will be realised. Home, home, home at least. I thank my God that I'm home at last.