"A Taste of Desolation"
A Taste Of Desolation
What comes after death?
Is there an afterlife, or do we end in oblivion? What do you think?
Belief in the former is not purely a matter of faith or guesswork.
Reason tells us if we are only material beings we would be able to respond only to stimuli that our senses can take aboard or which have been programmed into our genes.
Reason also tells us that there is within each of us a principle which enables the human to think about that which has no material dimensions, and that which does not exist. The first is our ability to think about the abstract and about thought (what are the dimensions of thought?) The second is to work with and respond to the negative, as in algebra, or the immaterial and the non-existent, as is the case with the atheist who denies the existence of God, or the philosopher who denies the existence of the soul (and who perhaps gets worked up about it). In fact, much of our progress is related to our ability to deal with that which does not exist excepting in the realm of thought and the abstract.
For us to delve into all this, we need to be endowed with a principle which is necessarily as intangible and immaterial as the ideas and concepts it responds to and builds upon; a principle not composed of parts and therefore which is not subject to the dissolution of the body after death. So, when you react to these words written above, it is proof that you are exercising that principle. You may call it your immortal soul. It is a good idea to take care its well-being, as it will outlive your mortal body, carrying on into the hereafter.
Now what is the hereafter going to be like? Human speculation and the teachings of religions attempt give us answers, or at least, give us leads.
Optimists (and may I respectfully say those who indulge in make-believe) reassure themselves that all will be well. The wise and those who pursue the logic of life to its wonderful end conclude that God is our eternal destiny. The sixtyfour-thousand dollar question is whether our destinycan be frustrated. To what degree depends on our life here and now? Could deliberate refusal to live according to the inner voice which we call conscience, and more importantly to what God has called us to be and become, have anything to do with our life beyond the grave?
Religions teach that where our life has been completely at variance with God’s love and purpose for us, the frustration of our destiny is also likely to be complete, unless we undergo a change of heart and commitment (which is also called conversion and repentance). Where this variance is only partial we’d have to be cleansed and re-focused before we are able to enter into the presence of the One who is Holy and Perfect and to accept and reciprocate His love. The Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory consists in this purification, preparation and growth for the bliss which is our inheritance, in Heaven.
Some would dispense with the idea of purgation and punishment, and suggest that all the purification we need takes place at the moment of death, and regardless of our past we melt in contrition and love in the light of God’s mercy, and enter Heaven. So, what we do in this life is of little lasting relevance to our future happiness. Are you prepared to recklessly gamble your eternity on this?
A taste of desolation
Religious teaching and speculation aside, I’d like to place before you, for what it is worth, an experience, which may put things into clearer perspective for you. Mine was the bitter taste of utter desolation, which left me anguished and sapped for weeks, even though within me I was at peace, despite what I went through.
It happened in September 1989, when I least expected it, and the next day I recorded it in my diary.
That spring evening, had been a particularly happy one. Several members of the Catholic parish community of Armidale (in New South Wales), including our Bishop, had come to our home to pray the Rosary, particularly for the renewal of our world, the Church and of ourselves and our families. A pilgrim statue of Our Lady, as the Rosa Mystica, the Mystical Rose, Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ and Mother of the Church, had graced the room where we were gathered.
We had asked Mary, the perfect human ‘Amen’ to God’s call, to pray with us and to lead us to her Son. After a shared supper and when the last of the little gathering had dispersed, my wife and I retired for the night, filled with quiet joy and gratitude to God.
An hour or two later, or so it seemed, I found myself awake. Within me there was a mounting sense of unease and tension. I turned and looked at my wife who was sleeping peacefully. But for me, sleep would not come. I lay staring into the darkness. The tension within me intensified. Shortly, I found myself as in a void, helpless, unable to move, see or hear anything, completely and utterly alone. A terrible mounting loneliness, against which I had no defence, seized me. There was no place in my heart or mind for anything or anyone else.
I realised that I was locked into my self and its emptiness. I had become my destiny, my future. I was to be my light, my comfort for ever. And from this predicament, there was no way in which I could extricate myself. This became a torment, impossible to bear, impossible to alleviate. There was no room for anything or anyone but self. And what absolute misery, horror and desolation this was!
Yet, at the back of my mind I knew that God was present, in his mercy, loving me. A love that has no end. All I had to do was to reach out to God and I would be safe and free. But I would not and could not as I was impaled upon my self in all its hollowness. There was no place in my dungeon for God or for any other, only for self.
I was acutely, agonisingly conscious of what I was enduring and tried to break free. Finally, I succeeded in getting out of bed, went to the kitchen and made myself a mug of cocoa. The clock stood at 2.30 am. I went back to bed to try to get some sleep. Sleep would not come, but the experience did. All over again!
After a what seemed a long, long time, I got out of bed once again. I went to the living room, sat beside the wood-heater with its glowing embers warming the room, and faced the statue of Our Lady, the Rosa Mystica, still there on the table where we had placed it the previous evening. I was tired, completely spent, wordless, prayerless, devoid of feeling, yet trusting and knowing that God was there.
I then realised very clearly that the experience I had been through was something God had wanted me to go through and to share with others. I quietly praised and thanked God and went to bed once again. It was close to 4.30, and dawn was near. Sleep came this time.
When I awoke I felt refreshed, but my wife said that I looked pale and ill. I did not tell her what I had been through. I did not want to upset her in any way, and I needed time to think and pray about what had happened.
In the evening, we attended Mass in the chapel of St.Albert’s College, at the University of New England, Armidale. The resident priest, who was Master of the College, always took time to reflect on the day’s readings and to give sensitive, spirit-filled homilies on them, even on weekdays.
He dwelt on something he had never spoken about before when we were present. He told us how God sometimes speaks to people in the night, sometimes in dreams, and how he does so with power. He went on to say that when this happens it may be terrifying and make one want to dismiss the experience as unreality and nonsense. He insisted that if the message was for people, it was a duty to pass it on. I was amazed at what he said. I had certainly not expected a homily on these lines, nor such advice!
After Mass, I told my wife what had taken place the night previous, and she agreed with what the priest had said. We prayed about it and about what we should do. I was not sure how to, or even whether to interpret my experience.
Many thoughts came to mind.
I believe I that I had blessed with an (allegorical?) insight into what the option for self and the rejection of God (themselves very insidious processes) could culminate in, and the concomitant of that preference which left no room for turning back to and accepting God. I realised that were a person to die in a state of profound selfishness there could be a total frustration of the purpose of that person’s existence.
Purification would be necessary for those not totally closed to God by grave sin. The ‘unfinished’ person, immature in love, would need to shed, and to die to self, and thus become able to accept the holy, infinite, loving God as the centre of his or her being. This would have to be accomplished through a process that judges, purifies, enlightens, heals, liberates and completes the human person, and renders union with God possible. Is not such a process that which we refer to as Purgatory?
Prayer for the dead could assist the departed in obtaining release from their sins, as we are told in the second book of Macabees (2 Mac. 12:45), but conversion while on earth is far preferable. For each one of us, that movement towards conversion and the growth it affords is not be put off.
Nor are Hell and Purgatory are to be dismissed or denied, even though so many do that so lightly and glibly today.
The Church’s Teaching
The Church is unambiguous on this difficult subject: “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbour or against ourselves… ….To die in spiritual death-dealing (or mortal) sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994, section 1033.)
God does not not consign anyone to hell. Nor can any one else. Not even the Evil one. We have to do it to ourselves.
We remember that God, who is Goodness and Love, never wills the death of the sinner. Christ as the visible sign of the invisible God, shows that God is always mercy and forgiveness. In him justice and mercy embrace. The Divine invitation, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6:4) continues to stand out in its incomparable wisdom, and in the beauty of its promise.
So does the continual call to reorientation, fuller conversion and abundant life, to seek, as Christ Jesus asks us, God and his Kingdom, and to pray that the Divine Will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. St. Paul advises, that in each one of us Christ must increase and ‘I’ must decrease. In the Prayer of the Church we read the re-presentation of Psalm 16: “O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup; it is you yourself who are my prize” (Psalm 16: 5-6).
Until we meet again, may God bless us. By God’s grace may we rejoice in Him and in seeking and doing His Will.