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)

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851
Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851 (photo: Public Domain)

Throughout many years of teaching and parish ministry, I have conversed often with teens and young adults in the waning weeks of the school year. I notice that students are quite tense and full of stress. Many of them realize and admit that they may not have learned all the necessary material in order to pass exams or courses. They begin to wonder if they have procrastinated a bit longer than they should have, which elicits extra anxiety. I recall one young man saying to me, “I’ve learned how to re-learn an entire semester’s material in a single afternoon so that I can pass the exam.”

As I listen, I recall my own studies. I freely admit that I did plenty of procrastinating and last-minute cramming during my high-school and college career. I am Case Study No. 1 that procrastination and last-minute cramming are not the best way to go about learning and preparing for the future.

While this is true in regards to education and career goals, it is infinitely truer about religious and spiritual things. Again, I recall my own experience. Before a deep conversion to Jesus that began toward the end of college, I told myself and others that religion was something I wanted “someday, after I’m finished having fun, and when it’s convenient.” In my religious and spiritual life, I was a lot like a college sophomore who hoped to get to finals week and perform just well enough on the final exam to pass the class, with the little bit of information I picked up during the semester. Indeed, I was a college sophomore who hoped I could live as a practical agnostic and get into Heaven on the merits of my parents taking me to church during childhood, and by having been “saved” when I was a pre-teen.

The reality, though, is that I would have failed this ultimate final exam, the judgment of my life by Jesus Christ, even if I managed to pass the college final exams.

Yes, each of us will die and arrive at “the moment of truth” in which it is “no longer possible to repress or conceal anything.” God will see us exactly as we are (YouCat 157). In seeing us exactly as we are, he will know how much we love him and how radically we have pursued a relationship with him above all else. Whether or not we pass this ultimate final exam depends solely on our “union with the incarnate love that is Christ” and nothing else (YouCat 342). We will not be asked our GPA, how many sports competitions we won, the state of the world economy or the latest election results. We will only be asked if we have preferred intimacy with God to lesser things, and if we have served others out of that preference.

In this proclamation, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that intimate union with Jesus is the only path to everlasting happiness, and it is a wide path available to anyone who seeks and asks (see Luke 11:9). A person needs to do nothing other than ask for the Lord to change his heart and life. The bad news is that no amount of effort, no number of Masses attended, dollars donated, or charities served, takes the place of the disposition of a person’s heart. This is where religion and spirituality differ from school work: a student cannot simply ask for a passing grade whereas a disciple of Christ needs only ask for grace. In actuality, he can only ask for grace since it is a free and undeserved help (see CCC 1996).

But what happens after the infusion of that grace? How do we move forward toward our goal? Like the student who chooses to walk the disciplined path of good learning habits, the disciple of Jesus must also choose to walk by a disciplined path of holy habits. Once again, I attest to the different trajectory of both my studies and my spiritual life after these crucial decisions and conversions occurred.  Ask anyone who knew me before and after.

Despite the best intentions of the student with newfound zeal, and despite the presence of divine favors, humans still falter. Even the best students will not receive perfect marks and even the holiest humans will sin. In our journey of faith, the good news is that Reconciliation is available. Instead of dropping out of the proverbial race toward Heaven because of imperfection, the faithful can “accept our frailty but keep going, not giving up but moving forward and becoming converted ever anew through the sacrament of Reconciliation for a new start ...” (Pope Benedict, 2007). Moreover, there is an effervescent joy that issues forth from those who have received this new life and “take seriously their decision to follow Jesus” (YouCat 235). We can exclaim with St. Paul, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7), even if we have had to start again many, many times.

In education, there are people we call perpetual learners, just as there are individuals who are perpetually trying to fulfill their deepest desires by growing ever closer to Our Blessed Lord. They attend Mass more than just on Sundays; they engage in spiritual reading throughout their week; they pray with their families; they cut out television shows and radio stations that prevent them from hearing God’s voice. Regardless of one’s state in life, every person is “called upon to engage in an ongoing process of conversion” so that the Gospel can be advanced into every place and time (YouCat328). The saints, in perpetual pursuit of holiness, show us that it is possible to always remain focused on our final goal, despite the obstacles.

Finally, every learner eventually realizes that the best way to learn something is to teach it. A person will become a better student of history or biology or art if she has to explain those realities to others, and the same is true in the pursuit of holiness. The best way to become holy is to realize that each of us is entrusted with helping others become holy. We are tutors and trainers on the path to God for every person we encounter in our lives — spouses, sons and daughters, co-workers, parents of soccer teammates and college fraternity brothers. Everyone else needs help preparing for their final exams, too. In the process of assisting others, each of us will receive more grace from God. And, because of God’s abundant grace, we won’t be disappointed in the results.

So, we see that there are many parallels between cramming for finals in our school work (or perhaps cramming to meet a major deadline in a career) and preparing for the judgment that each of us will face after death. We ought to take lessons from the Divine Teacher and from the star pupils who have “studied” before us. Procrastinating until the final moments is no way to find hope for eternal life. Instead, we must rely on God’s grace, made effective in Jesus and accessible in the Church. Then, our diligent efforts will become fruitful, even in this world. This is the only way we are able to be formed into champions of faith who will celebrate a never-ending victory!