Best to Give God the Last Word

Ultimate human fulfillment cannot simply be our acceptance of one another. Only God, who loves us for ourselves alone, can give us such happiness.

“Dante and Beatrice Gaze Upon the Highest Heaven”
“Dante and Beatrice Gaze Upon the Highest Heaven” (photo: Gustave Doré / Illustrations to the Divine Comedy, Paradiso Canto 28, line 16–39)

Among the wise men of the ancient world, it was commonly understood that one should never pronounce another man happy until he was safely dead. Herodotus, for example, tells us that when Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, visited the palace of King Croesus, reputedly the richest man in the world, he told him exactly that; but the king was not happy to hear it, having just made so copious a show of his wealth. But when, not long after, he lost it all to King Cyrus, who chained him to a stake and was about to pluck out his eyes, poor Croesus was heard to murmur: “Solon… Solon…”

Mother Church, in her wisdom, would agree, which is why her canonizations occur only to those who have died. Because it implies the highest possible level of happiness, sainthood, is not recognizable until all the evidence is in, the careful sifting of which takes place only after death. When the poet Hopkins lay dying, he blurted out, “I am so happy!” But that is no proof of sanctity. Only the judgment of holy Church can vindicate such a claim, whose pronouncements are not based upon the subjective state of even the most exultant soul in extremis

Doesn’t it all, after all, depend on divine judgment? Isn’t there something God needs to say, indeed, something we long to hear him say, more than anything else? What about the words, “Well done thou good and faithful servant?” Will that pretty much do it for us? Isn’t that the best possible answer to the question of where, at the deepest possible level, human fulfilment may be found? And the answer can only be at that moment and in that place where the soul is accepted and affirmed in an absolutely unconditional and definitive way by God himself.

Which is really another name for heaven, isn’t it? Nothing less, writes Joseph Ratzinger, “than the certainty that God is great enough to have room even for us paltry insignificant mortals.” It is the supreme accolade, the one we all long for God to confer. But, as always, it is one which only the childlike can survive. No one gets into heaven except as a child. And, to be sure, nothing is ever so wonderful to a child as when, all at once, they become the beneficiary of the praise and approval of someone they love.

How beautifully C.S. Lewis has expressed this in that magnificent sermon of his, “The Weight of Divine Glory,” preached during the darkest days of the Battle of Britain when final victory was, like the rain of bombs falling from the sky, still very much up in the air. “What may, happen,” he exclaims,

when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at the last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it was her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval, she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be.

Perfect humility will, by then, have dispensed with all pretense of modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, then the work may be satisfied with itself. 

All that having been said, however, it follows that ultimate human fulfillment cannot simply be our acceptance of one another. “Have a nice day!” is simply not going to cut it. No mere mortal can possibly bestow a love so complete or comprehensive. Only God can love us for ourselves alone. That is very consoling, by the way, because otherwise the best we can hope for or aspire to experience is a love whose expression derives not from who we are but from what we have, from doing as opposed to being. An instrumentalization of love, in other words, leaving the soul finally bereft and unsatisfied. I am reminded of a colleague who, when putting her late demented father to bed night after night, would hear him say, “Thank you for looking after me.” That gave her pleasure, she told me. But what will really give pleasure is when God himself tells her on the other side: “Thank you for looking after him.” 

We must have no illusions about this. No one, without grace, is capable of pure disinterested love, of a love animated not by what you have or can do for me, but simply in virtue of who you are. Not eros, which is driven by need, but caritas, which is the pure overflow of what you do not need, but nevertheless are moved to give.

The poet Yeats in a charming little thing called “For Lady Gregory,” has parsed the difference very well. “Never shall a young man,” it begins, 

Thrown into despair. 
By those great honey-coloured 
Ramparts at your ear,   
Love you for yourself alone    
And not your yellow hair.

This will not do, of course, for Lady Gregory insists that she can easily “get a hair-dye / And set such colour there, / Brown, or black, or carrot, / That young men in despair / May love me for myself alone / And not my yellow air.”

Ah, but Yeats will have the last word, reminding her that “I heard an old religious man

But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
Best to give God the last word.