Saints, Souls, and the Last Things

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
Crop Lighting Candles

November is coming.  So are the Last Things:  Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  November 1st is All Saints’ Day, a Holy Day of Obligation.  We’ll honor those who endured time’s “great trial” (Revelation 7:14).  They are forever a “new creation.”  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17)!  “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5)!  The saints see the fresh new world of Heaven.   November 2nd is All Souls Day, beginning a month of prayers for souls in Purgatory.  They’re being purified for Heaven, taking care of unfinished business.  Like putting the finale on an unfinished symphony, purgatory polishes up for Heaven. 


During the week from November 1-8, you can obtain what is known as a “plenary indulgence” – or, to put it glibly, a “Get out of Purgatory Early” card – for a deceased person if you make a good Confession, receive Holy Communion, say some prayers for the Pope’s intentions and some prayers at a cemetery. 


Also, November recalls the End of Time, the Last Judgment and the Second Coming of Christ, as we approach Christ the King Sunday (November 24).  Christ the King Sunday is prelude to Advent, beginning a new liturgical year.  From the First Sunday of Advent until December 17, the readings at Mass will continue to anticipate Christ’s Second Coming.


Death is our most important act.  It’s not just something that happens to us.  It’s  something we “do.”  It’s a defining choice.  We stand before the “tribunal of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10), and our secret “thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12) are disclosed without varnish.  When soul and body separate (temporarily),  excuses vanish.  Death dissolves press releases.  We’re exposed before Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, who “hands all things over to the Father” (1 Corinthians 15:24).  We must prepare.  St. Augustine said, we live well in order to die well.  We live each day on the cliff of judgment, standing before the prospect of Eternity.  Judgment is more imminent than we think.  Life is shorter than it seems.  Even the longest life is short.  Upon life’s brief flash of time – life on earth – our judgment is made.  


What’s “judgment?”  Some people don’t like the word “judgment” because they see it in light of “human” judgment.  Human judgments can inflame our “superego,” that is, our psychological policeman, our inner-tyrant.  Others don’t like the word “judgment” because they’re in denial about something sinful that bothers their conscience, or about something in their life that they don’t want to face.  This too can be maddening, though healed by the grace of a good Confession.   Christ’s judgment is His revelation of us to ourselves.  It’s the glance of Truth  before which nothing is hidden.


The “tribunal of Christ” is not like a courtroom.  There will be no “cross examinations” or presentations of “evidence,” though there may be witnesses.  The truth need not be proven because nothing is told other than truth.  It’s a moment of complete honesty.  Nor do I suppose that there will be a battery of questions.  There will be no facts to ascertain.  No narratives.  The open truth about our lives will be its own testimony.  To be sure, this is not a revelation of our psychological or emotional condition.  It’s deeper.  It reveals the moral truth about ourselves – the hidden secrets and motives of the heart.  On this occasion, there are two possibilities: humility or pride.  We can either acknowledge the truth and accept Christ’s mercy, or deny the truth and reject his mercy. There are two possible outcomes:  (1) The bliss of the Beatific Vision, that is, seeing God face-to-face, living in the joy of Paradise, in the good company of the saints; or (2) what C. S. Lewis calls the “Miserific Vision,” that is, the cold loneliness of a selfish world where each soul is turned in on itself.  In the End, there’s no middle-ground.  There’s no happy “beer garden” somewhere between bliss and misery.  Joy or loneliness are the only possible outcomes.   


Many people ask:  Why would a loving God either send people to Hell, or even allow them to go there?  The fact that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) answers the question.   In heaven, love is perfect.  But love cannot be forced.  It’s a free act, by definition.  Before it’s perfectly free, it must be “tested” and purified.  That’s what time is for.  Time is love’s bootcamp.  This “testing” and “training” period – which is challenging and painful – proposes the option to choose loneliness or love.  The prospect of suffering in order to perfect love poses this question to us: “What’s it worth to you?”  That’s the test.  


The essence of hell is loneliness.  The essence of Heaven is love.  Therefore, preparing for Heaven involves training in the use of freedom because love, by definition, cannot be forced.   It can only be invited.  It’s mutual.  When a person loves another, he or she is vulnerable to rejection.  No one – not even God – can make another person love them.  Though God is All-Powerful, He cannot force us to love Him.  Love, you might say, puts limits on the omnipotent God.  Therefore, in order to save us and bring us to Heaven, God’s grace maneuvers within the bounds of love and, therefore, human freedom.  Hence, the “test.”   God gives us the dignity of screwing up and repenting, or the dignity of screwing up and not repenting.  Hence, our options: Heaven or Hell.  In either case, these options reveal the greatness of God.  Heaven reveals the splendor of his mercy.   Hell reveals the splendor of his justice.  While love and mercy cannot be forced, justice can.  


What’s hell like?  I don’t know.  I hope to never find out.  Nor do I recommend dwelling too much on the subject.  But some sober reflection can be therapeutic if it motivates us to reject sin, go to Confession, amend our ways and love God and neighbor as the Gospels propose.  I suppose  we can get an idea of what Hell is like if we observe how some people seem to prepare for it.  To be sure, I am not talking about people who suffer from “weaknesses” that we often confuse for “sins” or the trials of a grave illness or tragedy. Rather, I am talking about willfulness.  And I’m talking about obstinate repudiation of the Commandments, Church teachings, human decency and the moral law.  


I suppose there might be some natural pleasures in Hell.  I recall stopping at a Starbucks with a friend near Manassas, overlooking a vast parking lot full of cars on a blistering July afternoon.  Heat vapors rose from the asphalt.  The coffee and pastries were OK.   I told my friend, “This is what hell would be like if you couldn’t ever leave.”  The coffee might be good, but it’s dismal and confining.  That’s the difference between “hell on earth” and “hell after death.”  On earth, you can leave.  It’s called repentance.  But when the soul (temporarily) leaves the body, the decision for either Heaven or hell is permanent.


Why would someone choose hell?  I can sum it all up in God’s words to St. Catherine of Siena:  “In his ignorance, man treats himself very cruelly.  My care is constant, but he turns my life-giving power into a source of death.” The choice of hell completes our perversions of God’s gifts.  At death, it’s an irrevocable decision, no turning back.  Therefore, death involves the most significant and important act of freedom that you’ll ever make: to choose “forever” without God, or to choose “eternity” with God.  As St. Augustine says, we must prepare for that decision.  Time is our dress rehearsal for death – and life after death.   


What is Heaven like?  It’s beyond words and images.  But we know that there’s a perfect Beauty and Peace beyond time.  But time gives hints – sometimes subtle hints.  We might say that all Beauty, Truth and Goodness on earth is a sneak preview of something much greater, beyond death.  St. John the Apostle saw this Beauty and described it in the Book of Revelation:


“I saw a new Heaven and new Earth.  The former heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with men…  He will dwell with them and they will be his people…..He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death, sorrow, wailing and pain shall be no more, for the old order has passed away.  The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new… They are accomplished.  I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end’” (Revelation 21:1-6).  An angel showed St. John a river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from God’s throne, with many “trees of life” on either side.  “Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).


About Joseph he said: “May the Lord bless his land with the precious dew from heaven above and with the deep waters that lie below; with the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield; with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills; with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush” (Deuteronomy 33: 13-16.)