Converting to Catholicism was like being wooed. It was like a courtship, and I fell in love.
Among other delights during that courtship, I especially enjoyed learning about (and committing to memory) various Catholic lists – like the seven sacraments, the seven cardinal sins, the seven virtues, stuff like that.
In a previous post, I zeroed in on two such lists and compared them to a solid 4x4 catechetical post that provides pivotal stability in a wobbly world. There’s the Four Marks of the Church – one, holy, catholic, apostolic – that establish where we’ve been in the past as God’s family and where we are today. They identify the distinguishing features of the Church militant – us! – to assist those who might be looking for her, but also to remind us who we are as we march along in faith.
But where we’re going? That’s where the other list of four comes in: the Four Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell.
Actually, that list should read heaven or hell, because you don’t get to go to both (more on that later). And it’s actually 4+ last things, as we’ll see.
But let’s not quibble about details. Regardless of how they’re enumerated, the Last Things sketch out for us our journey’s end. If the Four Marks represent the Church militant in motion here on earth, then the Last Things bring us to our common destiny: the threshold of eternity and beyond – the Church suffering (purgatory) for some of us and, eventually (God willing), the Church triumphant (heaven) for all of us. The Last Things provide a framework in which we can understand our whole lives now and what we can look forward to later.
By “framework,” I especially want to emphasize the “frame” part of that word. A frame represents the limits of a picture or painting – it’s the outer confines of whatever it is we’ve chosen to highlight, the dividing line between the art we’re gazing at and the wall on which it is hanging.
So it is with our lives. Our temporal, physical lives are framed by a beginning (birth) and an ending (death). Yet Christians have the hope of a continued life beyond physical life – like a frame beyond a frame. This latter meta-frame provides context and meaning to the complex picture of our temporal stories within lifespan frames, and it’s the Last Things that tie together all the strands of this multilayered framework. So, let’s take a look at them one by one – a bit out of the traditional order, but we’ll get to them all.
First things first: We’re all going to die. We all know that, and we heard it confirmed on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We experience the death of relations and loved ones, and the more often we grieve such losses, the more real our own eventual death becomes. It’s something inescapable – like taxes, as the saying goes, but with far more reaching consequences.
To help us get at those consequences, let’s consult a familiar hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” It’s a Mass standard, and you’re probably already humming the tune in your head – maybe even voicing an alleluia or two. The text, as you might know, is a paraphrase of a 13th-century prayer-poem by St. Francis of Assisi, “The Canticle of the Sun.” It’s the one which refers to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and the hymn version captures well the saint’s exuberant joie de vivre.
What the hymn skips, however, is the poem’s last canto in which the saint applies that same exuberant joy to the end of life. What’s more, it provides us with a superb mini-catechesis on the topic.
1. Praised be my Lord for our sister, the bodily death, from the which no living man can flee. Here, Francis affirms what we’ve already stated – that everyone will die – but he does so with flair and insight. To begin with, he praises God for physical death, which strikes us as odd – especially since, as St. Paul teaches, it constitutes the “wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). But, seriously, given the effects of entropy and old age, would we want to indefinitely put off our physical demise, even if fleeing it were really a possibility?
While we are forbidden from doing anything to hasten our deaths, we do well to follow Francis’s lead and consider death a beloved sister who helps us keep our focus. The inevitability of death “lends urgency to our lives,” the Catechism teaches, and “helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring out lives to fulfillment” (CCC 1007). That fulfillment has a positive connotation and a negative one, which follow.
2. Woe to them who die in mortal sin. Here’s the negative side of anticipating death: the avoidance of sin, especially (and ironically) mortal or “deadly” sin – that is, any deliberate, conscientious choice to cut ourselves off from God and his grace. Since we cannot possibly know when we’ll die, we must be vigilant at all times and in every season in resisting temptation. And when we do fall, then we are motivated to seek reconciliation with God and the Church through the sacrament of penance as soon as possible. “For those who die in Christ’s grace [participate] in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share his Resurrection” (CCC 1006).
3. Blessed those who shall find themselves in Thy most holy will. Here’s the positive dimension of preparing for death, and it’s much more than just the flipside of avoiding sin. It’s rather the mystical union with Christ that constitutes the essence of the Faith – that we’re to become Christ. “Sanctity does not consist merely in doing the will of God,” writes Thomas Merton. “It consists in willing the will of God,” which means striving daily for an ever greater identification with the person of Jesus – both figuratively and literally. “By the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become ‘children of God,’ ‘partakers of the divine nature.’ Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life ‘worthy of the gospel of Christ’” (CCC 1694).
4. For the second death shall do them no ill. By “second death,” St. Francis alludes here to the book of Revelation where St. John describes the final destination of those who reject God as a “lake that burns with fire and brimstone” (21:8). If we avoid sin, stay close to the Church and the sacraments, and endeavor to live as Christ in the world, then our future physical death (no matter when it comes) and what comes next will not haunt us. Our firm hope in God’s mercy will mitigate our fear of hell, and we’ll be able to say with St. Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1.21).
What we hope to gain, of course, is heaven. But, before we get there, we’ll have to be judged – the next in our line of Last Things.
“Don’t judge me.” It’s a crack my kids regularly make (to me, to each other) as shorthand for “give me a break” or “lighten up.” Yet, like death, judgment is serious business and something we all will undergo: a divine reckoning of how well we navigated our earthy existence and made use of the time (and grace) God granted us on earth. And it will take place in two distinct stages with an earth-shattering, momentous event in between.
5. PARTICULAR JUDGMENT. Our dying will coincide with a divine evaluation in which our very lives – our faith as well as our thoughts, words and actions (both of omission and commission) – will be weighed as to our ultimate allegiance: either to Christ or against him. It’s a judgment focused on us as individuals, and there’ll be no delay with regards to its consequences: “either entrance into the blessedness of heaven… or immediate and everlasting damnation” (CCC 1022). It’s a stark divide, to be sure, but we lean on the hope that Christ will someday tell us what he told the good thief on Calvary: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
6. LAST JUDGMENT. This will be a collective summing up at the end of time of humanity’s track record within the context of Providence: a revelatory weaving of everybody’s individual stories into an intricate account of world history as superintended by the Lord of history. All our best moments and worst moments, that is, will be on display for the cosmos to take in, and the meaning of it all will be made clear.
The Last Judgment will also include a ratification of our particular judgments, and it will be preceded by the resurrection of our bodies which will share in our soul’s experience of eternal reward, one way or another. Our bodily resurrection will have a cosmic parallel in the rebirth of all creation – a “new heavens” and a “new earth” in the words of St. Peter, the commencement of God’s Kingdom in its completeness.
7. RESURRECTION OF THE BODY. We recite this belief in the Nicene Creed every week – “I believe in the resurrection of the body” – but do we think about it? Anyone who’s been around corpses and dead bodies can’t help thinking that this is one bizarre tenet of faith. How’s it supposed to work? It’s one thing to affirm the resurrection of the man-god, Jesus; quite another to think that’ll happen to us.
Yet, it’s in the creed and so we know it’s essential – as it always has been, despite opposition and ridicule from the beginning. Just as Christ rose from the dead – bodily, not just spiritually – we, too, will know resurrection, as will all the dead. But this won’t be some kind of zombie apocalypse, for our bodies, like Christ’s, will undergo a transformation. Even for those long deceased, there will be some kind of real continuity between our temporal and resurrected bodies – similar to how there’s continuity between sown seeds and the plants they grow into. And, although we have a pretty good idea how seeds grow into plants, the “how” of our own bodily transformations “exceeds our imagination and understanding [and] is accessible only to faith” (CCC 1000).
Now we’ve finally arrived at the crossroads of forever – a cosmic drama that can’t be geographically located despite what Dante described in The Divine Comedy. As already mentioned, our ultimate direction within this drama was already determined at the moment of our death and particular judgment, but now we’ll explore a little what those destinations are all about. As you remember from your English classes, Dante’s Comedy had three acts – hell, purgatory and heaven – but really there’s only two. And they’re concurrent, with a slight intermission that heralds the one we’re all shooting for.
8. HELL. But let’s get the one we’re hoping to avoid out of the way, and the first thing to make clear is that God doesn’t send anyone there. Hell is a state of self-imposed exile from the beatific vision. It’s something the damned choose by refusing to ultimately and decisively choose God – a decision manifest in obstinate clinging to mortal sin when we die.
What’s it like? “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1035). Our imaginations conjure up flames and devils and torment in part because the Bible uses that imagery (as does Dante), but it’s also because it’s hard for us to imagine what eternal separation from God would be like – and, frankly, to ward us off from lives that would put us there. Burning is terrifying, but I like Dante’s lowest level of hell in his Inferno. It’s icy and cold – frozen, still and boring. An eternal polar vortex with no cozy comforter and hot chocolate and DVDs to watch with the fam.
But how can believe in a God that allows hell, even if he doesn’t send souls there? How can we love him? Strangely enough, the fact that hell exists is in fact a profound indication of God’s love for us. Free will is impossible unless there is a hell, and, although God desires heaven for all his creatures, he won’t save us against our final choice at the end of our lives. “He respects our decisions” (CCC 213).
9. PURGATORY. Despite popular conceptions of purgatory as a mini hell, it’s rather a suburb of heaven. “Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven” (CCC 210). There is definitely suffering in purgatory, but it’s the suffering of those who know that they’ll finally reach their heavenly destination – more like a pining for paradise than some kind of hell-light. Think of it as waiting in a celestial TSA line, but with the knowledge that your plane won’t take off without you.
We have the opportunity – actually, the solemn responsibility – to assist those in purgatory with our prayers (especially at Mass), good works and sacrifices. Hence the longstanding practice of “offering up” our incidental inconveniences, pains and irritations for the “suffering souls” – a practice that should be habitual for it’s a spiritual work of mercy that will redound to our own sanctification.
10. HEAVEN. Finally we’ve arrived at the transcendent human hope: the happy ending anticipated by Dante’s Comedy, the last great adventure! And I do mean adventure, for heaven will not be a static state of being in which the be-winged blessed are just sitting around, strumming harps, and looking serenely bored. Dismiss from your thoughts anything resembling the lilting Talking Heads song, “Heaven.” It portrays eternal bliss as a bar where they “play my favorite song… all night long,” and where “there is a party; everyone is there; everyone will leave at exactly the same time.” Frankly, that describes the kind of hell that Dante stuck on his lowest level – boring and same and interminably dull.
Heaven is definitely not like that, but rather “fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” (CCC 1024). We’ll get to see God face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12), and we’ll join that vast crowd of saints – like a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) – who get to commune with the Blessed Trinity forever. Less like a dull party, it’ll be like an eternal journey into the mystery of the Trinity – an infinite beatific vision, and there’ll always be more to discover.
I can’t think of a better image of heaven than the last paragraph of The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. He tells of those who’d completed their adventures in Narnia as entering into something even grander. “Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read,” Lewis writes, “in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
So that’s what’s on the agenda – what’s “coming up” for all of us eventually. It’s Lent, so it’s a great time to be thinking about all this – and sharing it, especially with our kids. That goes especially for death – a subject that still taboo for too many of us, despite our firm hope of a blessed afterlife. Allow your children to observe that you commandeer every day as if it were your last – not abandoning responsibilities and ordinary activities, but embracing them with intentionality and love. Orient your every choice, word, action to heaven, and your particular judgment will be a mere formality. Pray regularly; get to know God; be honest with him; get used to him. He’s your destination if you truly live the Christian life. Why not begin now?