The windblown rustling of November’s fallen leaves whispers to us like a prophecy. Along with the Preacher, it says: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The end is foretold. What we think important is often but a game we play.
“The young things the spring brings / Snow covers over / And they're only the toys in time's great game / Time gives and time takes away.” (“Toys of Time” sung by Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys)
Fall’s tail-end evokes a sense of foreboding. What was fresh last Spring and lush last Summer – not all that long ago – now gives way to the chills of death. But it’s not a sense of despair. November is not only tinged with the prospect of a forthcoming Spring, but with the hope prophesied in the Church’s liturgy. Advent and Christmas are not far off. But we must prepare, lest we become nothing more than the “toys of time.”
We prepare for many things — careers, job interviews, college, exams, weddings, graduations, vacations, vocations and celebrations. Though important, these things are only about time and its toys. As hard as it may be to wrap our minds around it, Eternity is the most important matter we either prepare or fail to prepare for. Take a hint from the falling leaves: prepare for the moment when the silver cord of life is cut. St. Augustine said, “If you pray well, you will live well; if you live well, you will die well; and if you die well, all will be well.” A good death irrevocably reconciles us with God and neighbor. It fulfills the promise of new life that began at Baptism. Our whole earthly life is confronted and resolved at death. A good death, despite its preceding sufferings and fears, restores peace within the deceased and matures surviving loved ones. Grief commands that we “grow up.”
Since the “fall of man” (per Genesis 3), death has been a mixed blessing. It brings both fear and relief. It brings fear of “what lies beyond this life” and “what we don’t know” and therefore a fear of “letting go.” The afterlife is wholly unknown, save for what we know from Scripture, Tradition and Church teaching – i.e. Faith. On the other hand, death relieves us of life’s burdens. It can bring the families of the deceased together. For many, it invites a return to Faith. Reconciliation and peace are most profoundly given to the dying — and indirectly to loved ones — in the Last Rites. These entail three Sacraments: Reconciliation with Apostolic Pardon (a prayer said by the priest after Absolution), Anointing of the Sick and Last Holy Communion.
Last Holy Communion is called “Viaticum,” which means, “I go with you.” Letting go is deeply personal. No one else can “let go” with you or for you. The aloneness of death’s demand to “let go” often provokes anxiety or fear. But the Last Sacraments console the dying with a confidence in God’s Goodness. The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to the dying person. Jesus takes the dying “by the hand” (so to speak) and guides them through death’s dark tunnel toward Eternal Light. Mercy is experienced as the soul faces personal judgment before the “tribunal of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). The person’s whole life lies open, like a book, before itself and God. Nothing is hidden. This may seem daunting. But the Last Sacraments evoke confidence and peace. One’s willful tendency to resist God is overcome. The soul sees its own transformation, which was always present in the sacraments starting with Baptism, in the ocean of God’s Eternal Light. This disclosure prepares the soul to receive its resurrected body at the Last Judgment. If need be, the soul’s purification is completed.
Death not only happens to us. It’s something we do. What “happens to us” is the temporary separation of soul and body, which will come together again at the General Resurrection. “What we do” is this: we make a definitive decision to either accept or reject God’s Mercy. Accepting Mercy breaks down resistance to grace — or “willfulness” — so the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, whom we received at Baptism, can prepare the soul to receive its risen body at time’s End. For this reason, death involves a definitive decision on how we will live forever: either in the Light of God’s Face and the New Creation, or in everlasting loneliness. Heaven’s essential happiness is the “Vision of God” (Beatific Vision), plus the joys of friendship with the saints in the radiant beauty of the New Creation and the Heavenly City.
To prepare for this, the Christian’s key task is the “purification of the heart.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see God.” It’s about overcoming selfishness, as defined by the seven capital sins: Pride, Envy, Greed, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust and Accidia (Sloth). As we’re purified, the Holy Spirit gets the upper hand on our lives. He sanctifies and enlightens. Purification and sanctification begin with cultivating virtues and end in union with the Trinity. In the process, the Holy Spirit never ceases to “breathe upon us” (Job 33:4) through his Seven Gifts — Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Piety, Courage and Fear of the Lord. Mortal sin entirely derails this process, though all can be restored by sacramental confession. When we’re in a state of grace, our “purified heart” prepares us to make a free and definitive act of love for Christ at death. If this purification is still underway but not complete at death, it’s completed in Purgatory.
The Church’s most ancient catechism says, “There are two ways, the one of life, the other of death; but between the two there is a great difference” (Didache, circa 60 AD). Life or Death. Love or Loneliness. Heaven or Hell. At death’s moment, we definitively choose one or the other, like a fork in the road. The choice for Heaven is a free act of the will, accepting God’s offer of friendship. This choice entails repentance. Moreover, all friendships — with God or with people — must (by definition) be “free” and “mutual.” Friendship cannot be forced. On the other hand, justice can be forced. Human courts of law do it all the time (or at least they try to): they force justice on people who break laws, whether they like it or not.
However, when someone refuses to repent for sins, they cannot be forced to accept God’s friendship. But they can be forced to accept his justice, even if they resist it – like a convict thrown into jail, kicking and screaming. “But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Whatever the case, both the repentant and the unrepentant experience Mercy, though in different ways. The repentant experiences Mercy as friendship. The unrepentant experiences Mercy as justice. “Between the two there is a great difference.”
Heaven and Hell both give glory to God. They reveal his Mercy. Heaven reveals Mercy as love. Hell reveals Mercy as justice. Some people say: “But Mercy triumphs over justice, isn’t that the Good News?” Yes, it is. But only if we want it to. It’s not forced upon us. Our freedom isn’t compromised. That’s why Jesus often asked the question “What can I do for you?” before healing someone (for example, see Mark 10:51). If a person doesn’t want to be healed, God won’t do it. Jesus didn’t work miracles in souls without faith (see Mark 6:5). Grace works through desire.
At death, God forces justice on souls who don’t want friendship. That, in itself, is an act of Mercy. How so? When a person commits a crime, he can’t help but to desire justice. Humans are hardwired to crave justice for sins that we and others commit. Plato understood this (just read “The Republic”). Unrepentant sinners suffer “deep down inside” because they’re unwilling to render the justice they most deeply desire. They’re at war within themselves. Damnation involves betraying one’s own human nature, lying to oneself.
At death, when God imposes justice upon the unrepentant, the inner conflict between the honest “desire for justice” and the prideful “refusal of justice” is resolved. Relief is brought to the hardened sinner. A conflict is healed, and the damned soul feels some peace. But it’s only the “peace of justice” because God cannot force love. Therefore, the essential pain of Hell is isolation or loneliness. At the Last Judgment and General Resurrection, the bodies and souls of the saved and the damned will be reunited. The bodies of the saved will enter the liberating joy and freedom of the New Creation. The bodies of the damned will be a burden.
A saint is a sinner who has surrendered to God’s Mercy. The only things that separate us from God are “hardness of heart” and the illusions that are its offspring. “How blessed the man who fears God always, but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity” (Proverbs 28:14). This November, reflect on the Last Things. Turn to your merciful Savior in confidence that He loves you and wants you to be with Him. Repent, and give Him permission to forgive your sins and to prepare a place for you in the New Creation. Time gives and takes. But God only gives.
“And don't ask why when a close friend dies / Though it feels like a page has been ripped from your life / We run our race in an hourglass in space / And we're only the toys in time's great game / Time gives and time takes away.” (“Toys of Time”)