A Pair of Promissory Notes Signed by Christ

Here, it seems, is the flash point of the crisis we now face; indeed, we’ve been facing it for a very long time.

Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895), “Christ of the Cornfield”
Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895), “Christ of the Cornfield” (photo: Public Domain)

In the Scriptures, there are two stunning pronouncements made by Our Blessed Lord that we need to take special and grateful account of, each set down in anticipation of the great drama of betrayal and death toward which he moves in perfect obedience to the Father.

All our happiness, whether in this world or the next, will depend on the truth of both. In the first instance, he announces that he will soon be going to prepare a place for us, so that where he is we too may be. Here is God’s express invitation to a life of unending joy where, amid the precincts of eternal felicity, all pain and sorrow will have fallen haplessly away.

He then assures us that, even while he is gone, taking physical leave of this world, pending the promised Parousia on the far side of history, we will not be left alone, real provision having been made for us in his absence. Thus the gift of the Paraclete, whose promised descent will fill the space between now and then, history and heaven. 

These two texts, each wonderfully consoling, may be found in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 14 — surely the loftiest expression of hope we have as Christians, as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. The entire chapter, in fact, strikes the most perfect chord of continuity between the two, framing the twin dimensions of time and eternity, that most basic and continuing tension we all experience between already and not yet. How often we are sadly reminded of the fact that, while there is final fulfillment in God, none of us may lay hold of it in this life.

So yes, salvation has most certainly come — indeed, Christ remains the very realization of all that we hope to have, the very Kingdom to which we have long been drawn. But no, the fullness thereof must, alas, await an End — a consummation, beyond any happiness found in this world. Because God has destined us for far greater things, the merely human, the provisional, the timebound, will simply not do.

But what happens when a people, when you and I, have lost all zest for eternity — when the relish for more is no more? When the longing for God has gone, and not even the grace of the Holy Ghost can succeed in scattering the clouds that keep us from seeing the outline of the Mystery? Or that, despite even the clearest glimpse of the promised joys, one does not care to go and find out?

It is as if when grief-stricken parents or spouses are told that their beloved dead are more intensely alive now in the arms of God than ever they were in the flesh, they refuse to believe it, choosing not to hope but to lapse into a kind of despairing resignation that tells us this is all we’ve got. We had a slice or two, maybe three. Wasn’t that enough? We mustn’t be too greedy for a glory that may not exist after all. The sole meaning of life is that it ends. 

And so we run, says Pascal, “heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop our seeing it.” Living on empty, in other words, our lives, as the poet Eliot writes, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” 

Here, it seems, is the flash point of the crisis we now face; indeed, we’ve been facing it for a very long time.

“If I had to sum up the crowds I have talked to on street corners in the last forty years,” Frank Sheed writes, “I would say that practically nobody wants to go to Heaven.” He said that more than 40 years ago, in a conversation in which he tried to give an account for that persisting absence of appetite for God, for the promised bliss awaiting those who love him, which has only deepened, metastasized even, over time.

“All this talk of Beatific Vision,” the usual heckler complains, “sounds like nothing but words! You can hypnotize yourself with them, but they don’t mean anything to me.”

So, what do they mean to us? Are we stirred at all by the heady promises of heavenly peace and joy? Are we like the fellow in the Flannery O’Connor story, whose hunger for heaven “was so great that he could have eaten all the loaves and fishes after they were multiplied?” Or will the spiritual anorexia from which we suffer prove fatal? Would our hearts not have been moved even a tiny little bit while walking with Jesus along the road to Emmaus?

How beautifully St. Augustine puts the matter in his great work The City of God, where the blessed life is described in words of the utmost simplicity: “There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.” 

How could one refuse? What possible impediment could there be to resist so ravishing an outcome? What’s not to like about heaven? And what violence must one do to oneself to stifle a need so natural, so insistent?

“The desire to see God,” Henri de Lubac reminds us in The Mystery of the Supernatural, among the seminal works of 20th-century Catholic theology, “cannot be frustrated without an essential suffering … for is not this, in effect, the definition of the ‘pain of the damned?’” In short, God will not refuse anyone disposed to say yes to his offer. It is only the sinner who can inflict so ultimate a loss.

“The infinite importance of the desire implanted in me by my Creator,” he continues, “is what constitutes the infinite importance of the drama of human existence.” It is the only finality I will ever have, set deep within my being, planted there by God himself, which means that to refuse the journey home to God, to disdain to look upon his face, is to consign myself to hell forever.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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