No. 41 Accountable?
I am sure you have asked yourself this question. I have too. What follows death? Will we be accountable for our actions and omissions? Atheists and agnostics say that this life is all weíll have. Death is certain. There ís no God. No hereafter. No judgment. No heaven. No hell. No accountability for our performance in this life.
Most religions maintain that we will be held to account for our actions. Some, who believe in a good God and in Christ as Saviour, argue that because God is kind and merciful, and because Christ came to save sinners, all our sins will be wiped away, and heaven will be ours, regardless of the gravity of our sins. However, the Scriptures, Jesus the Christ, and the Catholic Church by virtue of its divine mandate, make it clear that there is life after death, that our souls are immortal, and their permanent loss is possible. Even though God has made us for an eternity of joy with Him, and hell was not prepared for man (it was the choice made by the devil and his angels) we can reject God and His love by sinning grievously and dying unrepentant in mortal sin. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God is “hell,” eternal separation from God, in Whom alone man can possess the abundant life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. God predestines no one to go to hell. God is not punitive or vindictive. He Who is Goodness, Love and Mercy does not consign anyone to hell. Nor can any one else. Not even the Evil one. We have to do it freely to ourselves. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, written in the early 1990s, re-iterates and amplifies these truths. Those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfectly purified at death, are assured of their eternal salvation. However, they need to be cleansed and re-focused (Purgatory) before being able to enter into the presence of the Holy and Perfect One, and to accept and reciprocate His love perfectly. These teachings are an urgent call, especially so in this season of Lent, to choose conversion and love and life eternal, not death.
A Taste of Profound Desolation
I wish to humbly place before you, for what it may illustrate, a personal experience, which put the subject of loss into clearer perspective for me. It was an experience of utter desolation, which left me anguished and sapped for weeks, even though within me I remained interiorly at peace.
That spring evening, in September 1989, had been a particularly happy one. Several members of our Armidale parish community, including our then Bishop, Henry Kennedy, had come to our home to pray the Rosary, for the spiritual renewal of our world, of the Church, and of ourselves and our families. A pilgrim statue of Our Lady, the Rosa Mystica, 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, in 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. I was completely and utterly alone. Against this desolation I had no defence. I was locked into my self and its emptiness. I had become my destiny, my future. I was to be my light, and my comfort for ever. This became a torment, impossible to bear, impossible to alleviate. There was no room for anything or anyone but self. And what misery and horror this was!
At the back of my mind I knew that God was present, in his mercy, loving me. All I had to do was to turn to Him and reach out to him and I would be safe and free. But I would not, could not. 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. Acutely and agonisingly conscious of what I was enduring I tried to break free, but could not. Finally, I succeeded in getting out of bed, went to the kitchen and had a mug of cocoa to drink. The clock stood at 2.30 am. Duly, I went back to bed. Sleep would not come, but the experience did. All over again! After what seemed a long, long time, I got out of bed once more, went to the living room, sat beside the wood-heater with its glowing embers, and faced the statue of Our Lady, the Rosa Mystica, still there on the table where we had placed her the previous evening. I was completely spent, wordless, prayerless, devoid of feeling, yet trusting and knowing that God was there. I then realised, very clearly, that my experience was something God had wanted me to undergo and to share with others. I silently 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, 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, the Master of the College, always took time to reflect on the day’s readings and to give sensitive, spirit-filled homilies on them. He told us how God sometimes speaks to people in the night, sometimes in dreams, and often does so with power; 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. Even so, many thoughts came to mind.
I believe I that I had been given 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 enlightens, purifies, heals, liberates and completes the human person, and renders loving union with God possible. Prayer for the dead could assist the departed in obtaining release from their sins, as the Scriptures tell us (2 Macabees 12:45), but conversion while on earth is far, far preferable. For each one of us, that movement is not be put off. Nor are Hell and Purgatory to be dismissed or denied, even though many do that today, at their peril.
God, who is Goodness and Love, never wills the death of the sinner. Christ as the visible sign of the invisible God, assures us that God is always mercy and forgiveness. In him justice and mercy embrace. The Divine invitation “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 and toil that the Divine Will be done on earth as it is in heaven. As St. Paul advises, in each one of us Christ must increase and ‘I’ must decrease.
In the Prayer of the Church we pray Psalm 16:5-6 re-presented: “O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup; it is you yourself who are my prize.” By God’s grace may we always rejoice in Him and in doing His Will.