Thursday, June 16, 2005

Do We Really Want to Know?

The Scriptures and the Church teach us about "the life of the world to come," but I wonder if we think about that very much. I think many people take a more or less unarticulated "heaven can wait" attitude, as they go about their busy lives. But what if it's all true? What if this life is but a brief preface to the infinite story of our everlasting existence? That is precisely what the Scriptures do teach us, so maybe we ought to investigate it a little more closely.

But people are afraid to know, partly because of a generalized fear of the unknown, but also because that knowledge might make it imperative that we change our lives. And we seem to be not ready to do that just yet. Charles Williams captures that mentality well in his novel, Descent into Hell, in which he dares to speak what we leave unspoken: "'Grant to them eternal rest, O Lord. And let light eternal shine upon them.' Let them rest in their own places of light; far, far from us be their discipline and endeavour. The phrases of the prayers of intercession throb with something other than charity for the departed; there is a fear for the living. Grant them, grant them rest; compel them to their rest. Enlighten them, perpetually enlighten them. And let us still enjoy our refuge from their intolerable knowledge" (italics mine).

But we won't be able to enjoy it for long. Williams continues: "Men were beginning to know, they were being compelled to know; at last the living world was shaken by the millions of spirits who endured that further permanent revelation." The lively awareness of eternity, of immortal souls, of heaven and hell, cannot fail to mark our earthly lives profoundly.

Someone recently sent me a little booklet with a quite uninteresting title: An Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory. I had heard of it before, but never had any desire to read it. I assumed it would be full of pious scare-tactics, stories of souls who return from purgatory to burn their handprints onto the walls of their intended intercessors (but souls don't have hands...). Yet it is not that at all (at least halfway through it isn't; that's how much I've read so far). It is about a soul, a nun, who was in purgatory and was permitted to speak to one of her Sisters in religion and to ask for prayers.

What strikes me about it is the lack of scare tactics and pious embellishments. She speaks as do the angels in Scripture: rather tersely and quite to the point, in an utterly no-nonsense style, as if time were presssing and she had to say only what was essential. Her message is clear, serving only to emphasize what the Church has already taught us (if our whole life hasn't been a post-Vatican II one): life is short, eternity is long; if you waste or ignore the graces God is offering you now, you will pay for it later; nothing is more important than loving God and doing his will; all things will quickly pass, except for the life after death; now is the time for detachment, purification, prayer, sacrifice, and charity, for soon it will be too late and you will desperately wish that you had been less selfish and realized that God alone was worth all your love and effort; God is bending over backwards to bless and save you, but you must offer a free response to his love and grace.

You may think that the above summary is rather scary after all, but it is said without drama or intimidation, only as plain and sober fact. Do we really want to know all this? I think we darn well ought to want to know, because in this case ignorance is not bliss, but could result in precisely the opposite. Maybe you don't want to know because after you go to work, take the kids to the soccer game, pay the bills, do the housework and weed the garden, you have no time or energy to think of crossing the threshold of eternity and gaining a vision more vast and profound than you could ever imagine. So start by bringing God into every event of your day, asking Him to help you see all things in their proper perspective. You will begin to recognize superfluous or worthless things or activities as such. You will also realize that you need to make some sacrifices; you will have to make some choices that express your faith that the fullness of life is yet to come and that it wholly depends on God and your present relationship to Him.

Let us not flee or play the agnostic when it comes to the knowledge of things that bear on our salvation. The souls who have left this world now see everything very clearly. We still wear the blinders of our self-centered or narrow-minded perspectives, held fast in this world and afraid to look toward the next. But if a soul came to you, speaking wisdom from the world of God, would you want to know? Can you afford not to know?