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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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The Saints Raise Their Hearts & Minds to God

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There are a lot of misconceptions about heaven.  It is not simply a place where we can better satisfy hedonistic longings.  Many of the renditions of heaven on television and in movies would in time probably more resemble hell than paradise.  It is not simply a place where nice people go after death.  Being nice will not save us.  The pattern given to us by Scripture is crucial:  repentance, faith in Christ, conversion and loving obedience.  Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life.  There is no other way to the Father.  This truth of the kingdom may strike many as unfair, but God is the one who sets the parameters for justification.  The preoccupation of heaven is not further self-absorption; no, it is rather transformation and identification with Christ.  The disposition open to grace and holiness is what remains crucial.  We must empty ourselves to be vessels of the holy.  The saints of heaven have one overriding activity— they give eternal glory to God.  Any vision of heaven that neglects this facet is false.

We were made for God.  Our hearts will know incalculable joy in being within the divine presence.  Heaven is not merely a place where men will reason without feeling like the Star Trek Vulcans attempt to do.  Our minds will acquire the truth for which we have always longed— to see and know God face to face within the beatific vision.  But while we will not be afflicted with fickle emotions, as human beings we will have our hearts and feelings saturated by the divine presence and we will be touched by infinite love.  We will be home with the Lord.  There will be no more sadness and tears.  All will be joy.

 

We are promised restoration beyond the grave.  We will not be disembodied ghosts forever.  We believe that just as our Lord rose from the dead in a glorified body, so shall we be restored, albeit with immortality.  Further, while on our earthly pilgrimage, our emotions and passions are often rebellious and our nature is wounded by concupiscence.  The saints will not know rebellion in their members.  We will know control and order, not as robots or ants, but as the children of Adam and Eve were meant to be from the beginning.  Of course, we will also be more as the incarnation and work of Christ has merited for us a share in the grace-filled divine life.  Humanity is raised to a level higher than ever before.  Like the angels, there will neither be marriage nor the begetting of children; instead, we will experience in the light of Christ the immensity and purity of love beyond the current shadows.  While our bodies have often had dominion over our souls, the situation is reversed in heaven.  We will be our true selves.  We will know and love and live in grace, no longer subject to the accidents of nature or corporeal chemistry.  We will be able to think and feel without distraction and disorientation.  As Dr. Kreeft said in his essay on heaven, “All our humanity is perfected, not diminished, in Heaven.”

The Reality of Ghosts

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“When Saul saw the Philistine camp, he grew afraid and lost heart completely. He consulted the LORD; but the LORD gave no answer, neither in dreams nor by Urim nor through prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, ‘Find me a medium through whom I can seek counsel.’ His servants answered him, ‘There is a woman in Endor who is a medium.’ So he disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and set out with two companions. They came to the woman at night, and Saul said to her, ‘Divine for me; conjure up the spirit I tell you.’ But the woman answered him, ‘You know what Saul has done, how he expelled the mediums and diviners from the land. Then why are you trying to entrap me and get me killed?’ But Saul swore to her by the LORD, ‘As the LORD lives, you shall incur no blame for this.’ ‘Whom do you want me to conjure up?’ the woman asked him. ‘Conjure up Samuel for me,’ he replied. When the woman saw Samuel, she shrieked at the top of her voice and said to Saul, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!’ But the king said to her, ‘Do not be afraid. What do you see?’ ‘I see a god rising from the earth,’ she replied. ‘What does he look like?’ asked Saul. ‘An old man is coming up wrapped in a robe,’ she replied. Saul knew that it was Samuel, and so he bowed his face to the ground in homage. Samuel then said to Saul, ‘Why do you disturb me by conjuring me up?’ Saul replied: ‘I am in great distress, for the Philistines are waging war against me and God has turned away from me. Since God no longer answers me through prophets or in dreams, I have called upon you to tell me what I should do.’ To this Samuel said: ‘But why do you ask me, if the LORD has abandoned you for your neighbor? The LORD has done to you what he declared through me: he has torn the kingdom from your hand and has given it to your neighbor David. Because you disobeyed the LORD’s directive and would not carry out his fierce anger against Amalek, the LORD has done this to you today. Moreover, the LORD will deliver Israel, and you as well, into the hands of the Philistines. By tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the LORD will have delivered the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.’ Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, in great fear because of Samuel’s message. He had no strength left, since he had eaten nothing all that day and night. Then the woman came to Saul and, seeing that he was quite terror-stricken, said to him: ‘Remember, your maidservant obeyed you: I took my life in my hands and carried out the request you made of me. Now you, in turn, please listen to your maidservant. Let me set out a bit of food for you to eat, so that you are strong enough to go on your way.’ But he refused, saying, ‘I will not eat.’ However, when his servants joined the woman in urging him, he listened to their entreaties, got up from the ground, and sat on a couch. The woman had a stall-fed calf in the house, which she now quickly slaughtered. Then taking flour, she kneaded it and baked unleavened bread. She set the meal before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they got up and left the same night.” (1 Samuel 28:5-25).

If genuine, then Samuel was a ghost summoned by a medium.  He would be regarded as a hero of faith and today as a saint.  However, he would have come from the limbo of the fathers as Christ had not yet open the way to true heaven.  Genuine or not, the manner in which the ghost was called forth was a violation of God’s law.  I suspect that he appeared, not because of the medium but rather by God’s permission to announce judgment against Saul.

Jews and Christians alike are forbidden to use mediums, oracles or fortune-tellers (see Deuteronomy 18:11 and Leviticus 19:31).  God was already displeased with Saul.  Now Saul had sealed his fate by employing the services of a witch.

Many of us are intrigued by ghost stories.  Protestants more so than Catholics, tend to regard them as either pure fiction or as demonic deception.  Many Catholics have an open mind about such phenomena.  Indeed, some of the stories seem to reaffirm our teachings about purgatory.  If there be ghosts, from where do they come?  This topic can be somewhat dangerous.  We are warned not to be obsessed by such preoccupations.  Séances and Ouija boards are condemned, not merely as superstition but as a slippage into witchcraft or the occult.  Catholics pray for the dead and invoke the saints to intercede for us.  However, we do not seek direct two-way communication.  The proper focus of all prayer, even sanctoral orations, is always almighty God.  There are stories of the saints appearing and speaking with the living, as in the life of Joan of Arc.  However, there is a difference between what God permits and what men might seek.  The danger is demonic subterfuge and lies.  There are cases where supposedly demons masqueraded as the souls of the dead.

An article, “Fourteen Questions About Heaven,” by Dr. Peter Kreeft speaks of three types of ghosts:

  1. Ghosts from heaven;
  2. Ghosts from purgatory; and
  3. Ghosts from hell.

I have already made some reference to the first.  There are numerous other cases in the long history of the Church.  These are the apparitions of visionaries, often with messages.  Like the Virgin Mary, they always direct us back to Jesus and implore repentance and faith.  We are urged to pray and to remain steadfast. They are not subject to diabolic necromancy or sorcery.  They would never promote rebellion against the Lord or his Church.  Neither would they tolerate or legitimize immorality.  If a paranormal entity is malicious then it is not from heaven.

 

Kreeft speaks about the saints who come with a message or warning from heaven. I have always emphasized the ones from purgatory who need our prayers. The third type has undergone much speculation but about which many of us were unsure. If there were an evil or malicious haunting, I would usually regard it as demonic and not originating with a human soul or ghost. However, those who speak about the need to heal the family tree and certain forms of deliverance would join Kreeft in speaking about ghosts from hell. While the living can be haunted by past trauma and memory, I would have thought the damned souls too helpless and restrained by God to intervene in earthly affairs, but I may be wrong.

I remember a story told years ago about a convent of women that felt assured about the saintliness of a particularly pious nun who had recently died.  One day while at chapel in prayer, her ghost walked toward the altar.  Turning to her fellow sisters, she told them, “Pray for me.”  She then placed her hand print in some wet mortar used to repair the wall and disappeared.  Presumptuous of her personal holiness, correction was offered; she needed their prayers as a soul in purgatory.

The Intercession of the Saints

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Taking the side of the Pharisees over the Sadducees, Jesus testifies to life after death.  “That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:37-38).  While the gates of heaven were closed before the coming of Christ, our Lord speaks of a genuine communion between the living (on earth) and those heroes of faith who had come before.  Jesus will ultimately translate these souls from the limbo of the fathers into heaven.

Over the years in debates with fundamentalists about the communion of the saints, many of them insist that the saints are sleeping and others that they are alive but cannot possibly be aware of what is happening on earth.  Catholicism would argue that the heavenly saints are alive, aware of us and praying for us.  Admittedly, there is some question as to whether this awareness is part of the fabric of the afterlife or whether it is made possible through a special divine intervention.  We know that in Jesus Christ love is stronger than death.  While our loved ones are taken from our sight, we are still bonded to them in love.  This speaks to the profound mystery of the Church in pilgrimage, in purgation and in glory.

Some of our number have run the race and have won a share in the crown of Christ.  They remain in solidarity with brothers and sisters in the world who are still being tested.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

I do not believe that our guardian angels and the blessed souls watch us as earthly voyeurs might watch a reality television program.  Instead, they are actively engaged.  They reach out to us with their love and worship God with orations of praise and incessant intercession.  They seek to protect us from malignant spiritual entities.  They would have us where they are.  Those in glory are not suffering amnesia about those they have left behind.  Indeed, I suspect they know us better than before because now they see us as we truly are, behind all our posturing and deception.  They cannot force us to the will of God.  But their witness and prayers may help some to find the path to eternal life.  One critic suggested that if the saints were to see their earthly family and friends sinning then it would bring them sadness— and this is contrary to heavenly joy. While it might be hard for us to understand, this is not the case.  Heaven will never be held hostage to sin or hell.  The saints cannot be sad because where they are has no room for sadness.  While they are aware of us, their sights are also always upon God.  The barrier or membrane between heaven and earth will allow such helps as happiness, counsel, and love to pass through; but never sadness, manipulation, hatred or despair.  The heavenly saints like our Lord are now impervious to pain.  This is one of the most profound mysteries for us who must still endure this veil of tears.  The saints implore grace that we might know repentance, conversion and faith.  They pray that we might be courageous in adversity.  They beseech the throne of God to be merciful to us.  Chief among the saints is Mary who loves and intercedes for us with her immaculate and “maternal” heart.

Christ is the way, literally the link between heaven and earth.  This is our lifeline.  This is the real reason why the saints are still aware of us and why we remember them as alive in the Lord.  We are not orphaned by God.  While we await the final judgment and the consummation of the world, we acknowledge that we have not been abandoned.  Christ is present in the proclaimed Word.  Christ is present in his priests who stand at the altar and who offer the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus is present in his person and in his saving activity at every Eucharist.  We receive the risen Christ in Holy Communion.  The Lord is with us when we gather to pray.  The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ.  No part of this body has been severed.  The Church is one:  the Pilgrim Church, the Church in purgatory and the Church in heaven.  We are one in the Lord.  We have been reborn and given a new identity by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

The saints are calling us to the other side of the rainbow.  The Lord calls us each by name.  Heaven beckons to us.

The Ranks of Heaven

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While discussing the nature of heaven, a view was put forward that seemed eerily similar to the utopian goal of communism.  It was suggested that the kingdom was a classless society where everyone was equal in terms of standing and in reference to spiritual gifts.  This was claimed as necessary to avoid conflict and competition.  It was even argued that God, or at least the incarnate Christ, would be in the mix as just one of the crowd.  I was aghast at the notion, and argued that Jesus is a divine person of the Blessed Trinity.  Our posture in heaven is to adore or worship God.  Given that there is a hierarchy of angels and multiple choirs, why would we think that mankind would be reduced to one rank and a single chorus?

My own views were parroted back to me.  As a believer, it is my conviction that the dignity of persons and the sanctity of life are “incommensurate” goods.  If such be the case in this world, then how could I argue a loss of value in the world to come?  Attempting a response, I asserted that everyone is loved by God as precious and irreplaceable— that is true.  But that does not speak to our personal histories, the depth of our faith and convictions and the capacity we have for grace and holiness.  It is apparent that some have a greater capacity to sacrifice and to love than others.  There are certain people who live such exemplary lives of witness that they are canonized as saints by the Church.  They become our heroes who demonstrate how many callings and lives can follow in the one way of Christ.  Some have walked with the Lord their entire lives.  Others have borne great crosses.  Still some come back to the Lord late in life.  They may all win heaven, but I would not suspect that we would suddenly become all the same.  While I certainly think the existence of heaven and hell is an expression of divine mercy and justice; I do not think it necessitates an egalitarian equality in our status before God.

Pride can have us wrongly demand a choice place.  I suspect this type of mentality might awkwardly land us in hell.  Pride can also demand that no one else have a better or more desirable place.  This way of thinking would probably (at least) land us in purgatory.  I do not believe the souls of the just are concerned about such matters.  They are just happy to have a room in the house of God.  One may have the basement and another, a penthouse; the saints are not afflicted with jealousy.  Our posture or place will reflect the truth and that will be enough for us.  The tremendous joy of being in God’s presence will make any sentiments of loss impossible.

I suspect our proximity to God will be dynamic and always moving forward.  Just as we must be disposed or open to the graces of God in this world; the souls of heaven will abide with God in direct proportion to their ability to know and to love and to open themselves to the divine mystery.  Analogies fall short.  This is more than being in an actual room of a house.  We will know a profound union with God.  We will live within the Trinity itself.  Some will find themselves in the periphery of this mystery and others will be closer to the heart.  We are made for God.  We are not interchangeable, and as distinct persons, each of us will have our own song in the divine harmony of praise.

 

We Will Never Exhaust the Divine Mystery

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The souls of the dead in heaven are divinized as saints by grace but by nature are still human.  We will have a share in the risen life of Christ.  However, we will always be finite creatures.  There can be no boredom in heaven because by intellect and will we can never fully exhaust the divine mystery.  We will be drawn eternally into the depths of knowing and loving God.  This process begins in this world.  We come to the Lord with a faith realized in loving obedience.  God gives us sanctifying grace and we are made sons and daughters to the Father, kin to Christ, children of Mary and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.  Death makes this orientation permanent.  We encounter Christ, not as strangers but as friends.  Indeed, restricting ourselves to this world, we find that all the saints of the Church demonstrated great holiness while many of their ideas, even in reference to religious faith, often fell short or were erroneous.  Error will certainly end when we pass through the door from this world to the next; but our capacity to understand and to contain the mystery of God will always be limited by our nature.  This truth applies to both angelic and human spirits.

I do suspect there is a profound openness to truth and the gift of love in heaven.  This would conflict with hell where the demons and lost souls know something of the truth but place a limit or barrier upon their knowing and loving.  We experience in this world a similar type of division and adversity where someone says, “I want nothing to do with you!  I don’t want to know anything more about it!  You mean nothing to me!  I disown you!”  The damned probably have a comparable mentality and stagnation of the heart.

Here on earth we receive the risen Lord in the Eucharist.  God feeds us.  There are no sacraments in heaven as there is no need for sacred signs.  The saints see God and the mystery directly.  There is no more faith because the saints see and know God (as well as his truths) in an immediate fashion.  There is no more hope because every aspiration has been realized.  The only theological virtue that can cross the threshold of heaven with us is love or charity.  This love draws us into the Trinitarian life.  The banquet of heaven is literally one course after another.  The pattern is established with the Pilgrim Church.  God will continue to feed us with himself.

As I said in my first paragraph, there can be no boredom in heaven.  This is a far cry from the popular image of lazy angels sitting on clouds playing harps.  The mystery of God can never be diminished.  There will always be more to know.  The more we know, the more we will love.  The more we love, the more we will want to know.  This is the pattern of the finite creature to the infinite Creator.

I can well appreciate that secular critics deny the soul and view the intellectual life as the operation of our brains.  Romantics might speak of the heart as the source of love, but in truth the brain is the place where material memories and thinking takes place.  As a Christian, I would suggest that as a composite of flesh and spirit, the efforts of the brain mimic the powers of the soul.  Brains are not all the same and all of them have limits in regard to learning and to the physical senses.  Brains can also become diseased, causing people to struggle with thinking and remembering the most basic of facts and relationships.  The brain is physical and like the rest of the body, it has parts that can break down.  Parallel to this, the human soul has no parts and is indestructible.  It grants us a self-reflective knowledge that goes beyond the ability of the brain.  We are more than thinking meat.  Memories are not merely stored as electrochemical processes used by neurons but also make lasting impressions upon the human soul.  Just as we are often surprised by the detail of dreams; I suspect we will also be surprised as to what the soul retains after death.  What would a human being be if he was never to forget and we were to ponder matters with perfect clarity?  I suspect that the material brain both enables rational knowing and reflection as well as impedes it.  (In any case, I would not want to define the soul as simply a hard drive or cloud backup of what is in our brains.  There is a constant interworking that is part of the mystery of the human mind as understood by Christian believers.)  What we now see as through a fog or veil, we will see clearly.

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What and who we know, as well as love, survives the grave.  Indeed, it gives us our eternal orientation.  We are either like the wise virgin bridesmaids at the door with the burning lamps or like the foolish one who walk away looking for more oil.  When Christ, the divine bridegroom comes for us, he should find us alert and ready to enter into the nuptial banquet.   If we fail to remain steadfast and prepared, we might hear those terrible words of damnation, “Amen, I say to you, ‘I do not know you.’”

If pride is the overriding sin of the devils, then a lasting humility is the posture of the saints.  Compared to God we may seem insignificant, literally as nothing.  And yet, Almighty God has looked upon us as his children.  I would argue that the prayer that Jesus gave his apostles will have an eternal significance.  The word for “Father” that is used by Jesus is literally the one used by little children.  I suppose we would render it as “papa” or “daddy.”  All of us, even the greatest doctors of the Church like Augustine and Aquinas, may be counted among the babes of heaven.  We are summoned to know and to love God while in this world.  All we know is still just scratching the surface.  Eternity will allow us to continue this exploration of knowing and loving.  Humility is not just the approach of men and women in this world, but of the saints and angels in the next.  We must become like little children if we want a place in the kingdom.  Those who are bloated with pride, feeling that they are all grown up and know enough already will find themselves in hell.  Similarly, all those who place limits on love will also know the loss of heaven.