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Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Final Perseverance - Deep Insights into the Mystery of Death by Dr. Gary Knight
Gary D. Knight
As catechist for the RCIA (rite of Christian initiation for adults) ministry, I see resources and materials produced by various publishers, pedagogues and ‘magisterial’ groups. These can be helpful, to structure if not flesh-out the many sessions that a catechumen attends eagerly and assiduously from Advent to Easter.
The involved personal presence of catechists is important, rather than the dead letter of texts in any process of discernment on matters of faith and Christian practice. Personhood is key even to what we are teaching, and our human face stands for the whole community that will be welcoming the new adult member with open arms.
If we are faithful, experienced in facing questions and doubts about the Church and its teachings, a further key in our personal engagement is that we not forget what it feels like for a searcher to encounter and, with hopeful help, overcome stumbling blocks to a full-hearted life of faith. That human sympathy goes a very long way.
The saying “love covers many faults” declaims not only the mantle laid over one who shudders to think what shame may be due; it applies equally to the Church as a whole. Its many painful faults are ameliorated by love.
A principal one of these faults is the visible failing of Church members and even presbyters in response to a divine call. It helps to frankly admit “the Church, though perfectly holy, is woefully imperfect”. This Augustinian anti-parallelism makes people to think and perhaps to savour the greater thing: vastly abounding grace.
I will venture: “the Church, if not divine, is in this world as close as can be with a divine foundation: the person of Jesus - Word and Lamb of God.” This is a deep truth available to be plumbed for the treasures it contains. The ‘mystical body’ of Christ, the vine, is what follows Him as its head and breathes in and out the grace-life of the Holy Spirit. This makes it the fullness of help to salvation.
Quiet in disorders
Besides scandals and pastoral faults, devilish injuries inflicted as much from within as from without, there are further obstacles to progress in faith that deserve attention, because they continue to be experienced and shared by most at some stage in life. The ‘problem of evil’ is clearly one, which we often try to sideline as mystery; but a there’s a related one let’s call the problem of entropy.
With training in physics I am more familiar with the word entropy as disorder or even ‘noise’ as in a source of experimental errors or cause of lost information. But it has been recognized as a valuable concept even in psychology, including the psychology of prayer - which has much more importance to catechetics than we credit.
Cardinal Sarah [The Power of Silence] is warmly pastoral in calling the faithful to interiority and the prayer of quiet. The goal is serenity or measured tranquility in contrast to the increasing din of invading messages; but the effort to assert calm in a storm is daunting. On water we might dare to tread tremulously with Peter, but losing sight of our help in the name of the Lord, trust blanches out.
A bracing elixir of trust is the sheer effort to try again, even with rehearsed exercises: like the prayer beneath images of the Divine Mercy as received by sister St. Faustina: “Jesus, I trust you.” The translated “Jesus, I trust in you” is a tad less personal, more transactional; but the Lord does not want us to stand off even at arm’s length: “I am closer to you than hands and feet.”
What does the Word of God say to us - if we’re beginning to harken - about developing quiet and interior life? “Be still, and know that I am God.” In short, “go deeper yet”, because “in stillness and confidence lies your strength.”
A non-Christian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, coined ’psychological entropy’ to denote the occasion of anxiety driven by chaos or uncertainty. Feeling at sea in the welter of tumult, people fill their emptiness not with silence but with everything that drowns it out. The irony is to lose all buoyancy in quicksand by way of thrashing panic.
Entropy in this frantic sense has its parallel in the noise that warps messages or undermines gene transcription, mutating into cancer. Indeed that’s how disruptive turmoil can be. As Jesus put it: “as you cannot have two masters, see to it that you do not worry.” In other words, to fret with mental anxiety is to be unquiet and a slave of the wrong master. It means not being owner of one’s spirit; for then “how will you receive what is your own?”
Enduring vexations patiently (which means with ‘passion’ or dolour) relates to the topic of purgatory. The duress of interior purgation in turn ties closely to mortification. In life we are helped in feeling and enduring it, in the divine liturgy, but also in prayerfully suffering weighty injustices beyond our control. We can do that for the sake of making up for failings, as Job did in bearing the taunts of his own friends. It can be quite heroic, with some victory over self.
Separated brothers in faith have sometimes set aside the tradition (even observed by Jews) of prayer for souls departed; but we do agree to pray in that way for each other while alive, striving to make good on ‘works (or fruits) meet for repentance’. Without presuming to earn heaven by works, we observe James and Paul’s and Matthew’s advice to let faith bring forth the fruit - for it shows our hope, as well as humble contrition for injustices or omissions we may have committed.
As Catholics we do add a further gesture. Our prayers continue for souls who (we trust) meet with a merciful judgment and who by remnant justice God requires to be purified of all trace of attachment to actions by which hurts and wrongs were perpetrated. This we are moved to do even for the forgiven, in the pled blood of Christ. After all, we also believe that the confessed living are forgiven, and still we all need each other’s prayerful help.
The help we seek here and in the condition of purgation, is primarily the help of perseverance. Protestants are right to say that a blessed soul after death is destined to heaven whether they ‘persevere' or not. There is no question of persevering in the temporal sense, for the justified elect after death. We have no dispute on that reality.
Where we differ is to believe that our daily perseverance pertains not only to the lifelong battle against “he who is able to cast your soul into Hell”, but also to a sure hope for the dead. The sure hope for them, with prayer, is that having been saved and justified, all justice will have been made up on their account as they enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Justice, one of God’s perfect attributes (well, all His attributes are perfection itself), is important both scripturally (nothing defiled shall enter) and morally. There lies an answer to the scandal felt by seekers, when they are stunned to learn that perhaps even a Josef Stalin or Pol Pot could escape Hell in their last moments. The answer is, God’s perfect justice is by His mercy satisfied. The mercy after death is a sure path, not an empty instant.
We understand mercy not as a mere nullifying of justice. It includes (a) the payment of ransom for sin by Jesus himself (so that a soul no matter how amended may not be lost as “the world is already condemned”, but saved) (b) the power, by grace, for the soul to repent, to embrace the cross, and to do justice, and (c) to make up in our persons the sufferings for justice that the limited human strength of the divine redeemer could not endure. Finally, it includes participating in God’s means of purifying a soul that even itself would shrink from the shame of entering Heaven without the whitened robe.
These, and especially the latter point, extend to a willing endurance of anticipation, after death, to be dressed for heaven. Marriage is usually timed to include much patient gown-fitting, and a whiter than snow signifies the behest of mercy and satisfaction of justice. As Jesus portrayed in the story of the heavenly banquet, he who would (if he could) enter without one can only be cast out.
When Paul says ‘whom Jesus calls He also justifies and saves’, he connotes no mechanistic cause-effect sequence; for not all who are called or respond “Lord, Lord” will enter. What’s being said is: upon a true response to the call, made sufficient by repentant perseverance in mercy, an elect soul will go through its justification. That’s code for purification, and (happily) it already begins in the days of our lives. Divine provision is made for it to continue after death, where all who undergo it are ‘the holy souls’. Few are so perfected at death as to go straight to heaven.
No lasting dwelling
So far apologetics, to disparate brothers and sisters who might agree that prayer for the dead can do no harm. The main thrust of our undertakings to offer the divine liturgy for them is to recognize that, whether in this life or the transition after death (guaranteed for the justified to end in Heaven), we have ‘not here a lasting dwelling’.
Those words are often said in a consolation of sorts to persons lamenting the unfairness of life and all the vexatious fortunes and outrages to be suffered. Slings and arrows are hard projectiles, and we are walking targets of the enemies of souls. Oppressed but not crushed; beaten down but not destroyed: we bear the sign of hope.
Much of what befalls us on the rocky road of life is an utter blindsiding. Not always an enemy or even our own perversity is the cause of a crossing and contradiction, or arrest and impediment of career and health. Just as often, these in themselves are cause of our travail and threatened perseverance in faith, hope, even love. Providence permits them, for the world is fallen.
The fall of man radically transformed the world and its underpinnings - not just morally and spiritually but even psychologically and biologically. How could life forces be unaffected, where the preternatural beatific life was lost? The effrontery of disobedience was extreme: we only have to realize that our first parents had clarity of mind, strength of will and proclivity to goodness that we can barely imagine. Wonderful saints like mother Theresa would hardly lay claim to such a boon, so great is the scandal that venerable parents should turn from it.
The punishment, warned of by God as sheathed behind the lure of knowing evil, was simply just. The sentence reduced life to limitations in its ability to vitiate the effects of entropy. Generational continuance was mercifully allowed for an indefinite future, evidently for a gleaning. But even that is shadowed by the prospect that each soul will, if not saved, die the ‘second death’ of eternity.
There was after all, more disobedience than plucking a fruit, but savouring and sharing it. In Eden, entropy was as much received as warmth and light as it ever has been, and life was able to process it and be healed of all damages. But what died was moral innocence, sullying the limpid mind, sound will and undefiled appetite. The physical sign of the curse was then not mere mortality, but the chaotic vexations by which a soul could be tempted to curse life and its God. Childbirth would be in pain, desire unfulfilled, and the environment most harsh.
To curse God was indeed the goal of the one who sought to destroy Job with his troubles: not a destruction in flesh only (for Job died), but especially a destruction of his persevering love and trust in God. Really under attack in Job’s trials was not health and worldly status, but his perseverance. Even his wife lost that, saying “curse God and die”. Fortunately for her, God commissioned Job to pray for those exacerbating his overwrought patience.
In an RCIA course, at about the time we discuss the last things (death, judgment, Hell and Heaven; with Purgatory and Resurrection put in for full fleshing), the topic of perseverance becomes highly relevant. A useful question for the catechumen (sometimes asked by them) is “what above all is to be overcome” in this life? .. and of course the answer is despair. Its corollary is, “what above all is to be nurtured and kept” .. and the answer turns is perseverance in faith. It means perseverance to the end.
Perseverance to the end is a crowning gift. It fulfils the counsel of Jesus to “remain in me”. It satisfies prophetic wisdom to turn not aside from the right way, and be lost. If “you remain in me and my words abide in you”, says the Lord, “whatever you ask will be done.” That first of all is a promise that “you will be saved” - since this is the first request of any soul wanting to abide in Christ. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all will be added unto you.
So the difficulty for most people, boils down to seeking or finding the kingdom of God in the midst of every possible contra-indication, in hardship and turmoil, perhaps prison and torture, family disownment and divorces. Job endured the loss of honour, acclaim, personal wellness and hygiene, friends and family - some of them lost by tragic death. Matthew (willingly) endured the loss of employment, and worse has happened to many not so consoled as to walk in Jesus’ visible presence. Life in this world is generally far from fair, despite its attractive moments of promise, and yet we are taught by the Lord to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Although this prayer was taught before Jesus’ death, being the Lord of time he makes it apply in a fuller sense afterwards. “In Christ, Thy kingdom has come”, and so “may Thy will be done throughout the fallen world as it already is in the heavens.” Jesus rose up before the apostles, taken out of their longest vision into the sky. So accomplished is God’s celestial will - in heavens both physical and spiritual - that whatever will befall the earth is already in motion. Our personal ‘endorsement’ of the will of God unfolding is a way of “remaining in Him.”
The persevering endorsement of God’s will is quite opposite to the temptation of resignation to fatalism. Que see sera is unfortunately a very common cop-out from the special call to be one with God’s will and providence. We fail to recognize that He, the only necessary Being, is so over and above all contingencies that He does not contradict His power by altering the threatened course of disasters.
He expects us to participate in His providence by actively praying for better outcomes, at least spiritually better ones, and rejoicing in a trust of largely hidden answers and fine interventions, which He is constantly making. There is no pressing need for Him to alter the details of the world’s evolution to the final cataclysm and apocalypse, because the outcome of a harvest of souls is already in His hand and known to Him. But however, He has shown a pressing interest in the picayune details of each person’s inner life and spiritual destiny.
Nineveh was spared a foreboding disaster due to start forty days after Jonas began his proclamation, already much delayed while he prevaricated - never particularly wanting to see Nineveh saved. It must have been a very obnoxious place. Scripture uses the parlance that “God changed His mind”, meaning: the condition He always held forth (in the event of repentance) was realized, selecting the other choice, looking for all the world like a change of mind. God who is unchanging doesn’t mind - and isn’t threatened by - making a very personal action that we would call a ‘change in mind’ - which means an alternate resolution. What it was, is a change of outcome that God already provided-for, by sending Jonas.
Jonas’ own temptation to fatalism even left him dismayed at the lifting of punishment, for we can be fairly sure that even with sackcloth and ashes, many of people’s faults remained. The mind can easily be afflicted with the rather superior sense, adopted whole-heartedly by the accuser of saints, that complete justice be done, or it is not done at all. But the parable of the wheat and the thorns (tares) was given to remind us how God will work with the imperfect, to bring out what is perfected. As St. Paul puts it, gold is tried and perfected in fire - and it need not be the fire of sulphur and conflagration (though it sometimes is).
The people of Nazareth and Caphernaum Jesus warned to change their hardness of mind, because in the day of judgment some even from Sodom and Gomorrah could condemn them, because they repented even as they were facing the fiery outcome of acknowledged sins. One thief on a cross beside Jesus condemned the other, equally guilty of robbery and probably murder, by virtue of his embrace of the dying Lord of Life.
The constant call of the cross is to change one’s mind, a mind of complaint or resentment, of despair and self-loathing, of cursing outrageous fortune and its God; and not to change once, but always to do so through life’s endless galling travesties.
“You have not here a lasting dwelling” bears repeating over and over, to dissolve attachments which inevitably enmesh the soul in the shackles of a heartless master. In some sense we are better off than in Eden, where a lack of the vicious may lull the soul into satisfaction with something less than Heaven (like knowledge of evil). To paraphrase St. Augustine, “For yourself You have created us O Lord, and restless we be until we rest in You”.
Untiring perseverance gains quietude for the unquiet soul, noisy distraction being its opposite. Persevering in prayer does seem furtive and even annoying when the busy mind balks at a regularity of ritual words. This inner battle is another manifestation of entropic spiritual disorder, where the order of Heaven (its first rule) can prevail to bring calm. Contrary as it feels to the words of our idle speech, the repeated words of simple prayer are pure sanity.
In an episode of my own restless search for meaning, I happened upon the open bible of a colleague, left for the call of nature in a dorm during a conference. There, succinctly recorded, was “you will be accountable for every idle word.” This arrested me: here I thought Jesus was supposed to be meek and mild.
Where is the mercy in holding people to trifling words? Doesn’t ‘idleness’ count to mitigate culpability? Who is really vested in words they spout idly? Banter, even if self-preening with cleverness or show, is harmless, surely? Not, as I read these piercing words in Matthew. Their candid directness convinced me (I never liked the word ‘convicted’) that they were quite meant by their Author.
“You had not yet set a guard on my mouth, posted a sentry before my lips that my heart might not turn towards evil, to cover sins with smooth names and take part with wrongdoers” [St. Augustine]. Suddenly for me a guard was being set, producing an unaccustomed visceral disinclination for euphemisms like ‘family planning'.
The injunctive power went further, leading me that very day to a conversion moment on the top of a mountain in Banff: one that changed me more than any Ninevite (if I was more lost than they). I cannot now overstate the attending that God visits on our words, which on the positive side means prayers heard. A cursing expletive (of which I am regretfully still prone) even directed at entropy, or pernicious slings and arrows, goes far amiss.
One day, wondering whether I’d ever get mastery of myself, I was stunned by a buddy at a ski club who suddenly piped up, with real feeling, “I truly despise you !” It was quite striking; but the speaker was not so close in friendship for me to give a second thought to “well #!$@ you .. so much do I care”. But with equal heat I blurted out “the feeling, my friend, isn’t mutual”. We both stood there in awkward silence: I surprised at my lack of vendetta, he at missing his mark. Then we both laughed.
An end to entropy
A favourite chuckle for me is the appearance in my email Inbox of a browser pop-up: “Something’s not right”. No kidding, when you mine some of the news coming at you today! Something really is not right with the world, and it is tempting to curse the darkness. Lighting a candle may seem like a futile hackneyed witticism - though to be fair, how many people take it to heart and look for matches? Devout people do sometimes light votives and pray.
Physical entropy - to speak of darkness - usually has to do with radiant energy, albeit more as degraded heat (the net background microwave radiation is absolutely massive). It can be so locally intense as to cascade out from a black hole at the gravitating centre of a galaxy (like ours), and there is plenty of brightness in that effluvience.
That of course has been going on for millions or billions of years, so it’s not as if one can suppose that entropy got out of hand when a mere couple sinned down here on middle earth. But what was lost, it is reasonable to speculate, was life’s ability to prevail over it in the long run. One thing that cruel, mindless ‘natural selection’ does get right (and not much else in my opinion) is how entropy grinds down on entelechy.
If order is the first rule of heaven, then beatitude is the end of entropy. Certainly being outside the physical limits of this world, there’s no question of physical entropy playing a troublesome role. But it also means the end of all laborious and checked efforts, vexatious angst, clamour or any other correlate of spiritual hazard. There’s no ‘hazard’ or game of loss of any kind, in the end to travails that is the peace of Christ. And yes, in quiet we can taste a hint like saffron of that endless day.