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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Heaven & the Comedy of God

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One definition of humor is this:  “complying with the wishes of someone in order to keep them content or happy with us, no matter how unreasonable such wishes might be.”  It is in this vein that we might understand God and heaven as having a sense of humor.  It may be that in the kingdom that which is serious and that which is comic somehow coalesce or become one.

There is much about the truth of Christ which consoles and challenges, and yet, simultaneously there is much that seems absurd. Creation itself is not immune from the comic.  It should be warned that trying to discern this element in God might inadvertently lead to a kind of cynicism.  For instance, focusing on God as the author of creation, I have heard it remarked: “Why did God make the most fertile females in the world, only sixteen years old?” Teens that are least able to deal with the needs of children easily have babies while established and mature women struggle to have offspring.  Those who work with crisis pregnancies often shake their heads in bewilderment.  We can laugh or we can cry about it.  God’s ways often seem unfathomable. It is almost as if intelligent design took a wrong turn.

Turning to salvation history, the ministry of Jesus begins with a humorous oddity.  His mother tells him that they have run out of wine at a wedding banquet.  Our Lord is curt, what has this to do with me— my time has not yet come?  Mary tells the servants to do as he says.  He has water poured into jars.  The stewards are already imagining the disappointment of the gathering when they get water instead of wine.  But miraculously water becomes wine; indeed it is the best wine so far.  Who would have thought such a thing?  Surprise!

If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out!  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! Call no man your father!  You must be born again!  He who loses his life will save it!  He who does not hate mother and father is not worthy of me! Let the dead bury their dead! Hebraic hyperbole gives an emphasis to the demands of Christ, but still they seem crazy to our ears.  If we were to view such matters in a literal way, we would find ourselves set firmly within a Monty Python script.

There are some elements of the Gospel that readily lend themselves to joking.  Even the questions of Jesus can be funny.  A blind man comes up to Jesus and our Lord asks, “What do you want?”  Is it not obvious?  It may be he was hoping that someone would ask for sins to be forgiven, but the given response was more than likely.  He says, “I want to see!”  No surprise in the response here, only in the question.

When a woman is caught in adultery, our Lord tells the crowd, let the one without sin cast the first stone.  The text relates that they all walk away and that our Lord, who could condemn her, forgives her instead.  A contemporary joke version has a stone sailing past Jesus and plunking the woman on the head, knocking her down.  Surprised, Jesus looks around and then says, “Mother, I told you to stay home!” (This is a Catholic joke as we understand Mary to be the sinless or immaculate Virgin Mary.)

Our Lord tells parables that are familiar to us but which were ridiculous to his first listeners.  Which among you would not leave his ninety-nine sheep to go in search of the one lost lamb?  Later, he speaks about the shepherd rejoicing in having found it.  However, in truth, most shepherds would have written it off.  Why risk all the rest to thieves and wolves? And yet, this good shepherd regards the least of his flock as having a value commensurate with all the rest.  This is crazy but it is part of the irony or humor of God.  Then there is the story of the good housewife.  She tears her house apart in search of a lost coin.  When she finds it she has a party with her friends that probably amounted to more than the coin’s value.  Again, his listeners, probably frugal women, would have thought the whole business was crazy or nonsensical.

Take the last place at gatherings.  You must become like little children.  Sell all that you have and follow me.  The one who would be the greatest must become the least servant of all.  Our Lord never lets up.  The absurdity is amplified as the topics become more grave or important.  Thousands have followed him to an isolated location.  When asked to dismiss them so that they might find sustenance, he tells his apostles to feed the crowd themselves.  All they have are a few fish and a little bread.  Nevertheless the multitude are fed and there is food left over.

His humor is so severe that one day most of his followers walk away. He says that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood then we can have no life in us.  Today, the guys in the white suits would be coming to take him away.  And yet, it is precisely this Eucharist that has sustained the Church for two thousand years.  Indeed, these are the rations from the promised shore to which we travel as pilgrims of faith.  We must become a parable people.  We must become fools for Christ.

Everyone likes to receive a gift or reward, so Jesus assures us of a litany of favors. Our Lord gives a series of benedictions, assuring us that we will receive the kingdom, will be comforted, inherit the land, have justice satisfied, know mercy, see God, become God’s children, and one more thing—know persecution, including torture and murder.  It sounded pretty good until that last bit.  But such is the humor of God.  “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).

“For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike. We are fools on Christ’s account, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homeless and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world’s rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment “(1 Corinthians 4:9-13). Our Lord writes his straight lines with our crooked ones.  He shows his greatness, not by calling the best of men but making the least and the weakest into his ministers and messengers.

These are the ones that make up the great saints of heaven.  Yes, the joke is on us, but it is a joke that brings not brief laughter but eternal joy.  The infinite and omnipotent God has filled his house with the likes of thieves, prostitutes and traitors.  Just as he could change water to wine and wine and bread into his flesh and blood, he can transform the weakest of sinners into the greatest of saints.  I suspect, albeit in a spiritual manner, there erupts a celestial guffaw that the children of heaven appreciate and which leaves the devils of hell scratching their heads.  They do not get it and that is why they have cast themselves outside the gates to paradise.

The greatest humor or ironic sign of contradiction is found in the heart of the incarnation.  It is here that we discover the full scope of infinite power, love and humor.  The perfect Spirit, the Creator of this and all dimensions and universes, the one who is truly omnipotent and omniscient, the one that stands outside and yet sustains all that he has made— makes himself almost infinitely small, weak and subject to all the petty jealousies and enmity of humanity.  The devil is the first to distance himself from God in utter disbelief— something ridiculous and impossible happens— the great Unmoved Mover moves… and the Word becomes flesh.

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The Dimensions & Appearance of Heaven

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Where is heaven? How big is heaven? What does it look like? Many past believers imagined heaven in the sky, particularly since Jesus ascended and Mary was assumed into heaven.  There was also the biblical presumption that hell or hades was under the earth.  Artists have imagined heaven with cathedral like buildings, where the streets are paved with gold and everything is illumined with an interior light.  As for how big, we imagine a vastness further than the eye can see.  God would certainly insure enough space for all who would call it home.  While God and the angels as spirits take up no space or extension; Jesus and the Blessed Mother have glorified bodies, just as the saints will possess.  These bodies will have to reside somewhere.  We sometimes speak of a new heaven and a new earth. However, I doubt there will ever be a celestial surveyor who could determine the boundaries of heaven or measure the jurisdiction.  How big is it?  It is big enough.  I have often pondered the question in reference to our final end.  We will live within the Trinity.  Any way we turn, we will see God.

Physicists speak about the relativity of time and space.  It is my supposition that when it comes to heaven, this relativity is taken to another level entirely with a signification hinted in the sacraments.  When we speak of the Eucharist, we assert that Christ is present in his person and in his saving activity.  The entire paschal mystery (our Lord’s betrayal, scourging, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension) is made present in the liturgical action and in the consecrated species.  Just as a taste of heaven can be condensed to the sacrament, we might imagine heaven as a spiritual gravity well, where the providence of God is fully realized and we are offered a share in eternal life.  This new signification or meaning makes the question about size inconsequential.  All of creation and salvation history meets in this singularity of the kingdom.  One might argue that material creation mimics this situation with its initial singularity, the release of energy with the big bang, and then the unfolding of the universe. God sustains both his material and spiritual creation.

Angels are discussed as spiritual creatures without physical bodies.  Stories about full-bodied angels are interpreted as phantasms fashioned so as to relate to men.  Like God, they are perfect spirits that exist outside of time and space.  However, God can give them liberty to become involved with human affairs.  Similarly, God as a perfect spirit can reveal himself to us by entering the human family through the incarnation.  The angels and the souls of the dead know duration but are outside of time.  It has been conjectured that with glorified bodies, the clock might start ticking again as matter and time are partners to each other.  But, having said this we really do not know much about the spiritualized matter or immortality of glorified men and women (where souls and bodies are reconnected).  The risen Christ appears in locked rooms and to men on the road— then just as suddenly he disappears and shows up somewhere else.  What would the space or dimensions of heaven matter if we could all travel at the speed of thought?

 

Much of this reflection is speculation.  What do we know for sure?  We have the promise of Christ.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:2-3).

 

Are the Saints Dressed with More than a Smile?

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Children used to be the only ones to ask the question, “Do the saints in heaven wear clothes?”  However, adults are increasingly asking me the same question.  Dr. Kreeft refers to visions from private revelation:  “They say that it is hard to classify the blessed as either clothed or naked. If clothed, it is as if the clothing were a part of the body, an organic growth, rather than an accidental, foreign covering: it reveals rather than conceals, and it is natural and necessary rather than artificial and accidental. If naked, it is shameless and not arousing erotic desires.”

 

I recall reading a speculative fiction paperback years ago where the people destined for heaven found themselves embodied.  As they went up to heaven their bodies began to change— principally their sexual organs began to shrink and disappear— making them appear as small children but without sexual passion or interest.  Those who went to hell seemed to go through a reverse process and became more unruly and manipulated by their desires and sin.  I really do not think that is the prospect that awaits us after death.  If our Lord could even carry the wounds of his ordeal in his hands, feet and side; then I think it is more likely that we will continue to be who we are, albeit no longer subject to concupiscence or the need to propagate the species.  Indeed, the need for intimacy will no longer require the joining of bodies but will be satisfied with the beatific vision and union with God.  Our souls, if not immediately then at the final consummation, will be rejoined to our bodies glorified and made immortal.  Naked or clothed it will make no difference because there will be no shame, just as it was with Adam and Eve in the primordial garden before the fall.

We will be recognizable and yet different.  Imagine if no one were overweight or starving, weakened by age or handicapped, and no longer anxious about tomorrow or weary from the world’s betrayals and difficulties.  It is no wonder that the women at the tomb did not immediately recognize Jesus.  Remember, they had last seen his scourged and crucified body taken down from the Cross.  Now, suffering and death no longer has any part of him… this is the smiling Jesus… this is the Christ of joy!

There are several instances where the Bible describes the vestiture of heaven as white, indeed when it comes to the Transfiguration (indicative of Christ’s coming victory over sin and death and his resurrection), his clothes are whiter than any bleacher could make them— almost like light itself.  It would make sense that believers would suppose that those who follow our Lord would be similarly attired. “After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him” (Matthew 17:1-3).  Light and truth are interconnected themes.

Clothes are worn in the garden because of a sense of shame or inadequacy.  Clothes are still worn, not only for warmth and comfort, but also to project something about ourselves— an image that may not always be in conformity with the truth.  Some wear tight clothing for reasons of seduction.  Others wear loose or baggy clothing to disguise shape.  Still others wear clothes that inspire or impress others.  Note that the new Adam is virtually stripped when he undergoes his passion and the victory of the Cross.  I suspect any clothing that we may wear or appear to wear in the coming kingdom will not disguise but rather show precisely who we are and what we are about.

A parable is told about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  After his initial guests made excuses so as not to attend, he sends out a general invitation.  “‘Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:9-14). It is important for us to remember that the wedding garments were readily available and given at the door.  This one person entered the feast unconcerned about honoring the king’s son and lacking any gratitude for the invitation.  There is no answer he can make.  He does not belong.  He is thrown out.  Note that he is tied up.  Turning to Jesus, outside the feast there is only bondage and despair— there is only sin and hell.  The wedding garment, these gowns of white for the elect, signify honoring Christ and that we are participants in the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Note that brides still often wear white dresses or gowns.  Those who attend the heavenly banquet are more than guests, they are members of the Church and the Church is the bride of Christ.  White is a precious sign of light, purity and marriage.  Groom and Bride wear white, indeed, the bride’s gown has been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. “Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, ‘Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you are the one who knows.’ He said to me, ‘These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:13-14).

There is an old saying, clothes make the man.  If this is the case, then wearing Christ means embracing the new man.  We are not what we were before and yet, in a sense, we have become our true self— what God has wanted us to become from the very beginning. The saints of heaven will be spiritually clothed in Christ, in whom nothing is hidden and where truth reigns.  “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:12-14).

Treasure for Ourselves in Heaven

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I remember many years ago a man who so loved his car that he made the news by being buried in it.  He literally tried to take it with him.  This stands in stark comparison to a priest I knew who was buried almost naked in a cardboard box.  The only thing he took with him was a fork as a symbol of his readiness for the banquet table of heaven.  The discussion here about possessions is a bit odd because we should all know that we leave this world as we came into it, naked and without earthly belongings.  The only treasure we can take with us into the kingdom after death is the gift of Christ.  If we have God then what more could any of us ever want.  If the question is about stuff in heaven, then it is certainly possible but I doubt there will be ownership as we now experience it.  Stuff will be insignificant.  We give material things value in this world.  But what happens when the only prize that measures is the greatest good, God, himself?

The formation of saints begins on earth, not in heaven.  The rich man lacked charity for the beggar Lazarus at his door.  “Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented’”(Luke 16:25).  The beggar was regarded as a thing of no importance, not a person of infinite value.  He was literally a door mat, walked over each time the rich man entered his home.  Indeed, worse than that, we are told the dogs licked his sores.  He had been reduced to dog food.  The rich man in this story is condemned, not simply because he was rich, but because he had no real or practical love for Lazarus.  We are told that the Lord identifies himself with the poor and the oppressed.  A failure to love the beggar was a failure to love God.  The reward given to Lazarus and the punishment suffered by the rich man is an expression of divine justice.

Scripture tells us that we have a jealous God.  “‘No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon’” (Matthew 6:24).  Jesus encounters a young man who has kept the commandments and desires spiritual perfection. “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:21-23). It appears that the young rich man is invited to be a thirteenth apostle.  But he goes away sad because his possessions are many.  Jews traditional view themselves as blessed by God according to wealth, land and progeny.  The kingdom of Christ turns this reasoning on its head.  The young rich man could keep the rules, but giving everything to the poor is a level of mastery with charity that he has yet to acquire.  It would mean putting aside worldly standing and the personal security that he has come to trust.  It takes faith and courage to live for the kingdom.

The apostles are perplexed by this episode.  They might have been poor or hard working men, but they probably also had dreams about being self-sufficient and knowing earthly security.  The question is asked, is there any hope for the rich man?  “Jesus looked at him [now sad] and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard this said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ And he said, ‘What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.’ Then Peter said, ‘We have given up our possessions and followed you.’ He said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive back an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come’” (Luke 18:24-30).  If we will not readily let go, death itself will force our possessions from our clasped hands.

We will have the Lord and belong to God.  “‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be’” (Matthew 6:19-21).

If we were to put anything before God in the life to come then we would not find ourselves in heaven.  Even the “self” must be given to God so that it may be perfected and made holy. Years ago I watched a television musical based on the story of The Littlest Angel about a shepherd boy who finds himself in heaven.  He loves the things of earth and has a hard time letting go.  It is only when he takes his recently recovered box made from scraps of wood and filled with the treasures of earth (two white stones, three blue eggs, a dry butterfly, a starling’s feather, etc.) and presents it as a gift to the Christ Child that he is ready to take his proper place in heaven.  (As a bit of humor, pockets are sewed into his celestial gown because, since there is detachment from things, no one there has pockets.)  He trades his earthly treasures for the one who will rest in the feedbox of the manger.

 

We may speak of possessing heaven, but in truth heaven will possess us.  God is goodness, beauty, truth, life and grace.  We will not know these attributes as things but as a person.  The Lord will share himself with us but we will never be able to utterly consume him.

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.

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.