On Golf and God. A Meditation on the One Thing Necessary

I have lamented with you before on this blog that few speak much of heaven today but focus more on earthly creature comforts as the goal and measure of their happiness. Further, even when heaven is discussed, the description contains everything but the “one thing necessary.” Often when describing heaven one will hear of happiness that that never ends, mansions, gold streets, “purly” gates, and being able to “play all the golf I want.” Others will describe being reunited with loved ones or of being free of suffering. All this is fine and largely true. But what is striking, is the omission of any mention of God. God after all is the “one thing necessary” to make heaven be heaven.

Martha, Martha: This expression, “the one thing necessary” comes from Luke 10:42 where Jesus gently rebukes Martha for missing the main point of life: which is union with God. Martha busies herself with many things, even things that will serve the Lord, but in the end she misses the Lord! To put it in the terms of a modern euphemism: “Fail!”

The “obedient son” in the Prodigal Son story also got it wrong when he angrily tells his father, “You never even gave me a kid goat to celebrate with my friends!” (Lk 15:29).  But of course the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. It is to celebrate with the Father, God the Father. Hence the Father stands outside and pleads for him to enter the feast and celebrate with him.

The people at the lakeside also missed the one thing necessary. In John 6, Jesus had multiplied the loaves. And later, when they came looking for more free bread, Jesus warned them that getting their bellies filled with worldly food was not the point. They should seek the food the which the Son of Man would given them. When Jesus went on to describe that he himself was that bread, they left him. Thus they would no longer follow in his company and forfeited the one thing necessary.

Well you get the point, namely that God is the point. To consider heaven without including God is a remarkable oversight. It is like describing the ocean without mentioning water. An old song says, God and God alone, will be the joy of our eternal home. He will be our one desire, Our hearts will never tire, of God and God alone!

This leads me to a remarkable description of Hell that I recently rediscovered when reading Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Book: Three to Get Married. We often think of the sufferings of Hell as terrible things like fire, where the worm dies not, wrath, and wailing and grinding of teeth. None of these are per se wrong, they are mentioned in Scripture! But Hell’s deepest suffering is the lack of “the one thing necessary.” Sheen repeats the following joke in his Book:

There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said: “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry….we have no balls. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).

Wow! Ouch!  That IS the hell of it! To have all that, and lack the one thing necessary! Nothing else really works, or matters much, without the one thing necessary. In the joke everything is in place and wonderfully set forth on the golf course, except the one thing necessary, the ball!  The golf course becomes a golf curse.

In my last parish I lived in a rectory with a long hall. I used to putt a golf ball up and down the hall. I had an executive putt-putt set with obstacles, and golf goals with automatic returns, etc. But in the end, all I really needed was a ball to have fun. I didn’t even need a club, I could use a long umbrella if I had to, or even just kick the ball. My cat would also love to chase the ball up the hall and pounce. But all the other gizmos and gadgets I had meant nothing without the ball, they were useless.  Without the ball even the cat wouldn’t show up.

The heart of Heaven is to be with God. Scripture says, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

The heart of Hell is to lack God, to lack the one thing necessary. God is the sine qua non, the absolute requirement for every other joy or pleasure to make any sense or be operative. The heart of Hell is to have rejected God permanently, and to discover that the absolute and final rejection of Him is to experience the withdrawal of every other pleasure. Only in God will my soul be at rest! (Ps 62:5)

In fact, like the golf course in Hell, those pleasures look back at the denizens of  Hell and mock them, make the suffering more intense. Because, though the pleasures are near at hand, they may as well be ten thousand miles away. They are useless and their nearness only intensifies the pain and the frustration. This is possibly worse than any hell-fire and may well explain the wailing and grinding of teeth by the hell-bound described in Scripture.

In life, don’t miss the one thing necessary, which is not a thing at all, but is God himself. The Father, in the prodigal son parable came out and begged his second son to enter the feast and celebrate with him. The Heavenly Father does the same now….What is your answer?

19 Replies to “On Golf and God. A Meditation on the One Thing Necessary”

  1. This is a most necessary meditation. I need to write the words “God Alone” and tape it in the kitchen. I confess I am very much like Martha, that sometimes I forget the most necessary thing. I try very hard to keep the priorities right but I fail, it seems, on a daily basis. It is so much more easier to be holy when one is alone, and can pray in peace, and yet when we’re all laughing together, and everything’s a mess, there is holiness there too.

    Father, when Bender told me some time back that when there is a final choice and one chooses not to be with God, that nothing can reverse it, I felt very, very sorry for the people who have made that choice and are in hell. Do they make it knowingly? Using your golf-course analogy, would they choose to go without the balls? In the story of the rich man and Lazarus — it seems to me the rich man repents, but God does not take him into his arms. Why is that? Is God’s mercy not boundless? Do we only have this life here to make a choice? What happens when we cannot reach even the ones we love who do not believe, let alone all the Hindus, Muslims and atheists in the world? There’s got to be hope for them them after death — most of them are good people.

    Also, when we pray for our beloved dead, since we have no idea where they actually are (I always envison them in heaven, so they don’t really need our prayers, rather we need theirs), do our prayers apply to any who have died?

    I’m sorry about all the questions. It’s so hard for me to imagine that someone would reject God for all eternity. I have felt separated from God in this life … and it only brought regret. And of course, it was me turning away, not the other way round, but even so, God was still watching over me, because I am his beloved child. When do we stop being beloved?

    1. I would re-read the story of Lazarus. The rich man hardly repents – he still thinks of poor Lazarus as a nothing and a nobody, fit only to serve him and his needs. He has neglected Lazarus for years, ignoring the poor man dying at his gates, and then not only does he not apologize and seek the forgiveness of Lazarus but has the gall to insist that Lazarus be sent to serve him.

      Vijaya, there is hope for those who have not been introduced to Christ. Go ahead and read 1 Peter 3:18-20. There it speaks of Christ going down to rescue souls who had died in the flood, offering them the opportunity to repent and follow Him. I can imagine the same will be done for all those who die not having had the chance to hear of Christ.

      1. Brandy, thank you. I went back and reread the story … but still feeling unsettled. Peter’s letter is good.
        I was reading Matthew’s story about Jesus judging at the end, and feeding the poor, clothing the hungry and I feel as though I’m never going to get to heaven. It’s not that I do good things in order to get to heaven. I do them because I am moved to, and sometimes when I don’t even want to. But still, it will never be enough. I am like the rich man. Oh, Jesus, have mercy.

    2. Do they make it knowingly?

      Knowingly enough. Although our judgment and capacity to know truth and discern right from wrong are impaired as a result of Original Sin, as exacerbated by our own sin and even non-sinful attachment to the world, a person still retains the capacity to know whether or not he or she desires good (i.e. love and truth), whatever it might be, even if we cannot always know it and even if we sometimes get it exactly backward.

      1. It will never be enough.

        You’re right; it will never be enough. Heaven is always a gift. On our faith we build hope, confident expectation, that the Lord will be merciful. In the meantime, what can we do to thank Him for His love? We can love Him in return and do everything for Him, to give Him glory, to please Him as best we can. It is helpful to remember God’s desire to have us with Him in Heaven is infinite, much greater than our desire to spend eternity with Him. In addition, we have a cheering section in the angels and saints.

  2. At first my apologies for straying briefly into the vernacular and to any woman who feels excluded but, the part which leaps out to me is “…we have no balls.” This is sometimes used to indicate a lack of courage. The early martyrs had courage when executed in the coliseum (so the stories go) and when forced to stand on the ice of a frozen lake looking at warm baths where they could seek comfort if they denounced their Christian faith.
    But what about the courage to face the modern and very destructive attack of patronistic and derisive laughter. Earlier today I slipped away from my worksite during a break to pray briefly. Well, maybe ok so far, but what about when I glanced around to make sure that no one would see me make the sign of the cross at the beginning of my prayer?
    Would I have the courage to loudly proclaim my faith when confronted with a very hungry lion which would be turned loose unless I recanted my faith? I don’t know but the blatant courage and inherent nobility of standing firm in spite of fear. would be obvious. Yet, the fear of possible (not inevitable) sneers, smirks, etc. blocked me as firmly as a sound proof gag.
    I can loudly and joyously proclaim my love of God in church or a special interest ‘blog or other safe venue but, if I’m so afraid of letting people know who I am and where I stand on the intangeable seeking of comfort that doesn’t assault my sensations to make them SEEM more enjoyable through some chemical, electronic or fashion seeking way….how long will these venues be safe and how long will God be patient with me as I continue to hide my light under a bushel. Infinite patience He has along with other virtues but how much longer will they be available to me.
    And if I made the appropriate committment to don a clergy collar and attire would I be doing it for the sake of doing His work or … to replace harsh derision with curt dismissal like “easy work since the callouses on his hands faded”
    What a potent weapon our enemy seems to have revealed to his followers.

    1. I, too, am afraid. Our Lord tells us He will deny us if we deny Him, and know I’m capable of denying Him. To prevent myself from denying Him, I wear a noticeable cross or sometimes a miraculous medal on a chain around my neck.
      Our DRE told us something encouraging. When we think of a possible challenging situation and of our weaknesses, God doesn’t give us the graces to meet the situation until we need them. In other words, you may sense you don’t have the graces now that you would need then. However, if you ask, God will give these graces when the situation arises, not before.
      You might practice making the sign of the cross in a public place other than work, in a restaurant for example. Another possibility is to find a prayer partner at work to pray with. The enemy loves to make us feel isolated. Rejoice if someone laughs at you for from humiliation we learn humility, a necessary virtue.
      As regards becoming a priest or a deacon, there is only one motivation, because it is His will.

      1. Excellent point on “someone laughs” but there’s more. As they deride us … aren’t they helping us to access the blessing of the eighth Beatitude?

  3. When I visited Alcatraz, years ago, I commented on the view of San Francisco that some of the prisoners had through their prison bars. The prison guide said that that was the worst punishment of all – to see the beauty of the city and to be so close and yet so far away – knowing they were in for life and would never get there.

    Part of the reason I think many people leave God out of the heaven equation is that they do not know God as the fulfillment of everything good – as Love – as infinite joy. For hell to really be hell, I guess that one is finally able to see God as the loving Trinity for which we were made – and know one rejected “the one thing necessary”.

    Somehow, we all have to do a better job at evangelizing to those who do not yet know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – for the better we come to know God, the better we love Him- and want to be happy with Him forever!

  4. I believe the addictive pursuit of entertainment, human respect, worldly achievement and material possessions are inversely proportional to our belief that God alone suffices. Thank you Msgr. Pope for another great post.

  5. Most of us need so much purgation that the idea of seeing God face to face is distinctly unsettling, not at all like the idea of seeing Uncle Mitchell again. “For our God is a consuming fire.” “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” (NKJV)

  6. Thank you for your efforts in being an instrument to help explain God’s Word in concrete ways. I find your efforts to be very helpful.

  7. Msgr Pope, I have a question but I think it got lost let me try again: QUESTION: MUch of the teachings of the Church are Christ centered , which is good, along with teaching about the power of the Holy Spirit that helps us live out our Faith and our devotion to Mary. My question is I don’t hear a lot of teaching about ‘God the Father’. Isn’t all that we do supposed to lead us to the ‘father’? Does the Church teach this? Am I off base here? God and God alone?

    1. Most of the prayers at Mass, if not all, are addressed to the God the Father. Christ did everything to please the Father. Christ leads us to the Father. Wherever Christ is, there also is the Father (and the Holy Spirit).

  8. A favorite joke among us HR professionals – here’s one variant I found online:

    There once was a helicopter pilot who lived his whole life without ever taking advantage of any of the people he worked for. In fact, he made sure that every job he did resulted in a win-win situation for somone. One day while walking down the street he was tragically hit by a bus and he died.

    His soul arrived up in heaven where he was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter himself. “Welcome to Heaven,” said St.Peter. “Before you get settled in though it seems we have a problem. You see, strangely enough, we’ve never once had a helicopter pilot make it this far and we’re not really sure what to do with you.”

    “No problem, just let me in.” said the master of all things with a rotorhead.

    “Well, I’d like to, but I have higher orders. What we’re going to do is let you have a day in Hell and a day in Heaven and then you can choose whichever one you want to spend an eternity in.”

    “Actually, I think I’ve made up my mind…I prefer to stay in Heaven” said the pilot. “Sorry, we have rules…” And with that St. Peter put our hero in an elevator and it went down-down-down to hell. The doors opened and our aviator friend found himself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was a country club and standing in front of him were all his friends – guys, that he had worked with and they were all dressed in party suits, and blue jeans, wearing cowboy hats, and looking like a very non-standard, but happy group, and cheering for him. They ran up and shook his hand, and they talked about old times. They played an excellent round of golf and at night went to the country club where he enjoyed an excellent steak and lobster dinner. Our wizzard of rotorwinged flight met the Devil who was actually a really nice guy, and not at all like a senior officer. He had a great time drinking, telling jokes, drinking, and telling war stories, drinking, and dancing. Oh, and there was some drinking.

    Our aviator was having such a good time that before he knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook his hand and waved good-bye as he got on the elevator. The elevator went up-up-up and opened back up at the Pearly Gates and found St. Peter waiting for him. “Now it’s time to spend a day in heaven.” So our faithful pilot spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds and playing the harp and singing. He had a great time and before he knew it his 24 hours were up and St.Peter came and got him. “So, you’ve spent a day in hell and you’ve spent a day in heaven. Now you must choose your eternity. “The master of all that has rotorblades paused for a second and then replied, “Well, I never thought I’d say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in Hell.” So St. Peter escorted him to the elevator and again the pilot went down-down-down back to Hell. When the doors of the elevator opened he found himself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. He saw his friends were dressed in rags and were picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil came up to her and put his arm around him. “I don’t understand,” stammered the (seldom) confused helicopter pilot , “yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster And we danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.”

    The Devil looked at him and smiled, “That’s because yesterday we were recruiting you, but today you’re staff.”

  9. I will admit I have not read many of your blogs. When I read them they remind me of Bishop Fulton Sheen. I am a big fan of Bishop Fulton Sheen and I feel like I am reading from some of his writtings. I have his entire collection that is offered on another website and listen to his talks regularly. When you quoted him I can see how he has influenced your spirituality. I also enjoy reading John Henry Newman. I have found your insights profound, a breath of fresh air rarely found elsewhere. I look forward to many others in the future. I am sorry my post is not as insightful as the other posts. I just wanted to express my appreciation and to ensure you that I will revisit to read other blogs and share my thoughts. God Bless!!

  10. Many years ago I made a decision that deprived me of receiving the Sacraments.No one has to tell me what hell is like because I think I went through it.The Church has forgiven and re-instated me in Good Grace. I pray I never make any decision like that again.

  11. Msgr. Pope, it seems we laypeople concentrate on rooms in mansions, tears being wiped away, etc., but why would Christ tell us about these things? He knew we would want them. Was He leading us into temptation?

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