Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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
Our choices make the difference
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Nov. 13, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
The recent cold bite of fall mornings enhances a sense of things ending. And so it is: the approaching end of another calendar year and, of course, for us liturgy buffs, another liturgical year. In fact, the Church gets the jump on the secular world; our liturgical year ends – and a new one begins – at the end of this very month.
’Tis time to put it all in perspective; ’tis time, in a sense, for accounting. What if this were the end of all ends-of-the-year? If you were to die today, would you find yourself in heaven or in hell? A nonsensical question, you say?
Second only to the payment of those taxes legislatures levy on us, death is a sure bet. The illusions of youth, fame, and fortune notwithstanding, death will one day greet us all. At that point in time, where will you be? Where will I be?
It used to be that one of the hallmarks of Catholic spirituality was its preoccupation with the question of heaven and hell. Things were easy back in those days; we knew what big sins to avoid so death would not catch us off-guard with one of them darkening our soul, should we find ourselves of a sudden at the Judgement Seat of God. Lesser sins were tolerated and even calculated to avoid adding up to a deadly one. Metaphorically, if not literally, we spiritually backed ourselves into heaven, avoiding serious sin and cautiously befriending its distant cousins.
With this spirituality came a fear of the unknown that accompanied death. Despite how hard we tried to follow the straight and narrow, there was always that sense of dread of the Day of Judgement. Coming before the Pearly Gates, even the best-behaved of us still considered the possibility that somehow the record of a long-forgotten past might be presented to us, resulting in our condemnation to the everlasting fires of Satan’s furnace. This fear was intensified by an image of God as an exacting task master who, despite our attempts at contrition and purpose of amendment, still just might throw the letter of the law at us … and send us to hell anyway.
Perhaps that fear still pursues us to a greater or lesser degree even in the spirituality of the contemporary Church, bolstered by contemporary theological insights and vocabulary. Certainly, however, we would not dare presume that heaven and hell, and all that these terms represent, are totally irrelevant for us – as if humankind has succeeded in liberating itself from ultimate responsibility for how we live.
Fear of hell and doubtfulness about heaven may have been psychological or even theological distractions, but ultimate accountability is not. Each of us is responsible before God for who we are and how we reflect God’s goodness and beauty in what we do with our lives. A healthier image of God has indeed freed us from fear. But that same liberation, if anything, has sharpened our awareness of responsible living. There will be no surprises on Judgment Day. God does not sit in dispassionate judgment, merely measuring the record of past events against an equally impersonal law.
Observing the testimony of Scripture and the good tradition of the Church, we have nothing to fear with the summons of death (whenever it may come) if our striving for good has been congruent with the path of sincerity. God does not condemn anyone to hell. Is not our faith based on the premise that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and is called to fullness of life in God? How can there be hidden trickery on God’s part?
If anyone of us ends up in hell – and I suspect that is a possibility, in some instances – it is not because God has sent us there. Hell is a place or state of being of our own choosing. We get to hell, that place of eternal separation from God, through the choices we make in response to the daily invitations of truth, goodness, and beauty that come our way. The choices we make do make a difference – and we are ultimately accountable for them.
Hell bears witness to God’s generous gift of freedom. If we consistently choose self over others, and choose to live for “me” alone, then in the end we receive precisely what we have consistently wanted. Nothing else, for all eternity. Just me. Hell is the ultimate state of selfish isolation.
Wholesome spirituality is not rooted in fear. It is not exercised in reverse gear, backing into happiness. Wholesome spirituality is rooted in making those positive choices for others that bless us with happiness now – and forever. There will be no surprises come Judgment Day. The choices we make today already tell us where we are headed.
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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