We Are Children of Our Own Deeds

What we are is a result of what we have done.

Hans Memling, “The Last Judgment,” ca. 1470
Hans Memling, “The Last Judgment,” ca. 1470 (photo: Public Domain)

Two of my children were in an argument once. Actually, they have been in arguments much, much more than once, but I am recollecting one argument in particular. I don’t remember their exact ages, but they were under 6. My son was getting the better side of the fight, not because he was more correct or convincing, but because he was more infuriating to his sister. Her final reply was this, “Someday, I’m going to be a monster, and I’m going to come to your house!”

That is a frightening proposition, but it is more frightening for the person who has become a monster than for the person who is visited by a monster. St. Anthony was visited by monsters in the desert, and he became a saint who now dwells in eternal glory. A monster, on the other hand, has become monstrous on the inescapable inside. A monster must always remain on the outside of everyone else except himself.

One of my college housemates was a night owl, and another housemate decided to stay up with him one night to find out what he did. The morning report came back: it was a bizarre experience. The night owl commented, “Imagine what it’s like for me. I’m stuck with myself every night.”

And what we are is a result of what we have done. Miguel de Cervantes wrote that we are children of our own deeds. Humans are unique in many ways, and freedom of will implies that we have the unique ability to play a role in who and what we become. To a certain degree, we are self-determining. We participate in our own becoming. We cannot be whatever we want, but we become more or less human as our actions align with the God-given, common essential nature we all share or as our actions contradict that nature.

In The Boy Knight of Reims by Eloise Lownsbery, young Jean avoids sins by his fear of becoming one of the gargoyles that he sees on the outside of his cathedral. He understands that he will become what he does.

Each year I take my students through an exercise where we discuss why they should cheat. They hear a lot about why they shouldn’t cheat, but I want to make sure that they understand the one really good reason they should cheat. After asking them why they should cheat, they cite peer pressure, parental pressure, grades, competition, college, laziness and a host of other reasons. We discuss how all of those factors have other, better solutions than cheating. But there is only one thing that cannot be accomplished any other way. The only good reason one ought to cheat is to become a cheater. If someone wants to turn himself into the kind of person who thinks about, sees, and experiences the world as a cheater, there is only one thing to do: cheat.

But that is a lot about monstrosities. The other side of this consideration is the destiny God wants for us, and I think it is well expressed by C.S. Lewis in his golden sermon Weight of Glory:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

If this sounds overwhelming and impossible, you would be right. On our own, we would be doomed to corruption. Praise be to our good and gracious God who assists us with his grace and forgives us in his mercy.

One last Lewis quote to finish off this meditation:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

The actions we choose and what we become does not happen in a vacuum. We are made for God and for each other. Life is a team effort, and we are all working together, helping each other and ourselves, to Heaven or Hell.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)