“As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts are above your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)
There often seems to be a subliminal attitude, which originates in Protestant circles but pervades many Catholic parishes. Because Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have already brought us full assurance of salvation, we can rejoice in having gained God as a “best friend forever”. As long as we can avoid committing a murder, robbing a bank, or joining a Satanic cult, we need only concern ourselves with the business of everyday life. In the event of any major slip-up, our primary concern should be patching things up with our loved ones and perhaps navigating the criminal justice system. Our souls will always have the sacrament of reconciliation to fall back on.
What is usually not mentioned is that the dire situation of humanity, the reason for which Jesus suffered and died, is one and the same with the situation faced by every soul that remains in this world. By virtue of the very fact that we are alive, we are still pilgrims on a journey, which obviously means that we have not yet reached our destination. How can we justify our confidence that we will not fall away between now and the time we are summoned?
The goodness of God in which we rightly rejoice is the same goodness that tolerates no evil in His presence. Any response of ours to God’s great love for us that falls short of a complete giving of ourselves to Him renders us ungrateful at best. His admonition to us is beyond our natural reach: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) We suppose that He will give us what we need to meet this requirement – unconditionally – but is that what He really said? Among the greatest offenses of this world is the squandering of His mercy, bought at so high a price, for the sake of worldly pleasures. What unimaginable shame will we feel and reproach will we experience when we bring even the slightest offense of ours into His presence? What sort of confession will we be able to make under those conditions?
The great seraphic enemy of God is the lord of the earth and will remain so until the great day of judgment. As such, he is never far removed from the Zeitgeist. The true limit of His envy is unfathomable because he sees God’s glory in a light that our fallen human nature does not allow. He commands legions of demons to devise and carry out insidious deceptions intended to lead even the most well-intentioned souls into offenses against God. The greatest of these come at the hour of death.
A device may be found in the spirituality of many of the greatest saints that serves as the prerequisite and foundation of a life of holiness. It can be found in the Marian spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and the “Introduction to the Devout Life” of St. Francis de Sales, as well as countless others. It is the contemplation of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Through each one of these, we will see the lives in which we are presently immersed as they truly appear before God.
It is true, a relationship with God based on love is greater than one based on fear. But a truly meaningful love for God seeks an ever-better comprehension of our standing in relation to Him. So while there is admittedly no fun to be had in pondering such deep and weighty considerations, there is much benefit to be gained for the sake of our souls. The messages that promote the greatest spiritual growth are often those that make us the most uneasy about ourselves. There is no mutual exclusion between trusting in God’s love, mercy, and providence and holding ourselves in awareness of the reality of our situation. Many souls, after living their lives presuming upon God’s mercy, have despaired of that mercy at the very last moment when being forced to confront what God’s mercy for them would really entail. It would be far better to confront this with the means we have in the present moment.
In the writings of the saints, and particularly the doctors of the Church, the greatest emphasis seems to be placed on the four last things. In addition to the resources mentioned above, one of the greatest I’ve come across is the Sermons of St. Alphonsus Liguori, where each sermon is a half-hour read that always seems to put the trifles of the day into perspective.
There is indeed no substitute for a worthy spiritual director when it comes to spiritual growth. But for those of us whose circumstances do not allow, and for anyone willing to look beyond the shallow charade of worldly affairs, meditation on the four last things is a good place to start.
“… work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12)