Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: "The bill, please"

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Nov. 13, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky While a friend of mine and I were enjoying our meal and light conversation at a local restaurant the other evening we could not help but notice the commotion raised by the party at the booth next to ours. This particular group of businessmen were already there when we arrived. Fully engaged in their meal, they seemed to be having a delightful time. All the “extras’ seemed to come to the table, one after another. After some time, we overheard the request to the waiter – “The bill, please.” With customary politeness, the waiter brought the bill, neatly packaged in its bed of confidentiality.

The customer’s yelp “WHAT?!” could have been heard from the street outside. The alarmed group called for the waiter and began questioning every detail of the bill. Keeping his professional cool, the waiter calmly observed, “Sirs, you merely got what you ordered. The bill is correct.”

Knowing the truth of his statement and realizing that they had no ultimate recourse (except maybe doing the dishes) the men paid the bill – but with much grunting and grumbling.

My friend quipped to me, “I hope they fare better at the Pearly Gates!” …and that led to an interesting conversation between the two of us about accountability for our actions before God. (Yes, you guessed it: my dining companion was a brother priest.)

Jokes abound about the moment of our last stand before the judgment seat of God. St. Peter often is pictured in the role of gatekeeper. Angels guard the doors. (St. Michael, of course!) An element common to the scene is the proverbial Big Black Book in which are recorded all the good and bad we have done during the course of our lives – the final bill, as it were, after feasting at life’s generously spread table. In many jokes the scene moves to a final judgment: heaven for the righteous, hell for the big sinners and maybe a time of purgation for the doubtful.

The great moment of being held accountable. Do we embrace it or dread it?

My priest friend and I mutually bemoaned the fact that we all seem to have lost somewhat a sense of accountability before God. We may sense accountability to employers, the law and perhaps family members, but what about accountability to God? Perhaps we are lulled into thinking that an all-loving God has dismantled the Pearly Gates themselves and put St. Peter to work in another part of the Kingdom.

Whether we like it or not, we do get what we choose. At the proverbial Pearly Gates there will be no surprises – unless we have grown dull to the ramification of our choices and actions. Morally speaking, we can live according to the classical Roman adage, famous for it sense of void: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Like the men who were surprised at the content of their restaurant billing, we can cry out What?! all we want. There is no one else to blame. We merely get what we have ordered. Things add up for good or for bad.

Although images of St. Peter, archangels and pearly gates religiously color our way of describing it, deep within us we do know a sense of accountability. Each of our actions – large or small – carries with it an inherent dimension of accountability. Through our actions and choices we both give expression to who we are and at the same time create the kind of person we are becoming. We bear in our identity (“on our soul”) the menu we have selected. There is a dimension of “blessing” or “punishment” which accompanies all we do.

Morally speaking, we are capable of walking life’s path toward heavenly glory or to a self-centered hell of loneliness and isolation from all that is good, including God. As sons and daughters of God we are created good and know in the depths of our being the vocation to full and everlasting life in God. Heaven isn’t a place; it’s state of being – fully happy, at that. When God creates life, it is forever. Our conscience persistently obliges us to do good and pursue it. It also obliges us to avoid evil. Whenever we submit to evil’s temping delights through sin, we harm our God-given dignity. All sin is sub-human. In any degree of its intensity or manifestation it holds no acceptable place in the course of truly human actions and choices.

The only way we will not spend eternity in that state of everlasting bliss is if we reject God’s invitation to fullness of life. Each of our actions (implicitly or explicitly) reflects our response to that saving and loving grace-full call to holiness. Only a false sense of conscience brags of an independence from being held accountable before the ultimate Source of our being, before God. Sooner or later – and always sooner than we expect – our earthly life ends and we are who we have chosen to become. The bill must be paid.

There are no surprises for us at the Pearly Gates. At any moment we can tell how we stand before God, and how well we are doing. Like the men at the restaurant, we may neglect what we are ordering (choosing) along the way, but in the end, everything adds up – not in quantity, but in the measure of the kind of person we have become as the result of our free choices. In the end, God does not weigh the package and make some calculated decision. At all moments in time, we know that the bill is coming, as it were. It is ours to choose if we will live with heavenly prudence or with the pretence that there is no accountability in the end. For those who strive to make good choices and live according to the light of God’s truth, there need be no fear in asking, “The bill, please.”

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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