There is a rather humorous aspect of the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. You likely know the basic story which begins with the men of that early time saying, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves (Gen 11:4). It was an image of pride, of grandiosity. The humor comes, that when the tower is built, the great tower, with its top reaching to the heavens, the truth is, it is actually so puny that God has to come down from heaven to see it. The text says, And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built (Gen 11:5).
Now, of course, as omniscient, God clearly sees everything, and the humor in the text is not some primitive notion of God. Rather the humor is for our benefit. For in effect it says that our greatest, tallest, most prominent and glorious work that we saw as reaching heaven itself, is in fact so puny that God has to stoop to “see” it. He has to descend to get a glimpse of it. What ultimately DOES alarm God is how colossal our pride is, and he has to humble us, by confusing our language and scattering us about the planet.
I recalled this story as I viewed the video below. It is wonderful footage of earth, taken from the Space Shuttle. There is verbal commentary and explanation by one of the astronauts, explaining some of the features we are seeing, and where on the globe we are looking as the pictures pass by. The view is remarkable. But what is more remarkable is what we do NOT see: us!
It is an astonishing thing that, even though the shuttle is passing over well populated areas, there is no visual evidence that we even exist. No cities or buildings are visible, no planes streaking through the skies, even large scale agricultural features seem lacking. There is only one mention of a color difference across the Great Salt Lake, due to a railroad bridge preventing lake circulation. But the bridge is in no way visible, only its effect.
We think of ourselves as so big, so impressive. And yet even in low earth orbit, we cannot be seen. It is true, at night, our cities light the view, but during the day – next to nothing says we are here. Even the magnified picture on my 30″ iMac screen shows no evidence of us below.
And having viewed the video I think of Psalm 8:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens….When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet, You made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Yes, we are so powerful (by God’s gift), and yet so tiny as to be nearly invisible from a short distance into space. Our mighty buildings rise. But they rise on a speck of space dust called earth, revolving around a fiery point of light, called the sun. Yet our huge sun is but one point of light in the Milky Way Galaxy of over 100 Billion Stars. And the Milky Way Galaxy, so huge to us as to be incomprehensible, is but one Galaxy of an estimated 200 Billion Galaxies.
What is man O Lord that you are mindful of him? Jesus says of us: And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matt 10:30). Yes, God who knows the numbers of the stars and calls them by name also knows the number of the hairs on each of our heads. Nothing escapes him.
And old preacher’s saying goes: “We serve a God who sits high, yet looks low!” Indeed, never forget how tiny you and I are, yet never cease to marvel that God knit you together in your mother’s womb and sustains every fiber of your being. We cannot even be seen from low earth orbit, but God who sees all, looks into our very heart. Do not cease to marvel that, though tiny, you and I are wonderfully, fearfully made (Psalm 139), and that He has put all things under our feet.
God gives many gifts, and one of the great gifts he has given me was the gift of our family dogs.
Scripture says little about dogs and when it does it is never flattering. Most of the references make one think of wild dogs who ran in packs. Psalm 22:16 says, “Many dogs have surrounded me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me. Or again from Philippians 3:2, Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers. No, strangely, I cannot find one Scripture that speaks well of dogs.
And yet, they have been a great gift to me. Such loyalty, such unconditional “love.” There were times in my life when everyone was disgusted with me, even I was disgusted with me. But even on days like that my dog would still run to great me, and curl up next to me; such wonderful, “forgiving” and uncomplicated creatures.
And they have much to teach us. Likely you have seen this list, but it is always worth another read. It’s things: can learn from dogs:
Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride.
Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
Take naps and stretch before rising.
Run, romp, and play daily.
Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout…. run right back and make friends
Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.
All simple but profound lessons, proclaimed without words, and lived with a simple integrity. Yes, dogs are very special.
Prince, our eighty pound Dalmatian was the dog of my youth. (See Picture, upper right). He had the energy and strength of a horse and commanded quite a presence in our back yard as he laid down the law with squirrels and other possible intruders. He loved to go for car rides, and when we took him for a walk, it was really he who walked us, so powerful was his gait. He also ran five miles a day with my father.
A remarkable thing about Prince was that he could smile. When we would return home, he’d run to the door, furiously waging his tail and with the cheeks of his muzzle pulled back and his head shaking back and forth. People who saw it for the first time couldn’t believe it, he was actually smiling. It seems to be a unique gift of some Dalmatians and Collies.
Prince was also quite a dreamer. He’d lay on the floor near the sofa and doze off to sleep. Soon enough his legs started moving, and he’d start huffing and even barking as he dreamed. No doubt he was in a great chase.
In his last two years he began a decline and gave me my first close lesson of age and death. Gradually, the majestic dog grew crippled and struggled to walk. I learned to give him aspirin, and that helped him for a while. But there came the days when his walking grew rare and then his kidneys failed. We knew we had to let him go.
My Father was a gifted poet (if I do say so myself), and some of his finest works were composed at the death of our dogs. It was his way of grieving their loss. Here is what he wrote of Prince as he recalled their long runs together and the sad moment when Prince had to be put down:
We were solitary, old friend, you and I.
In the sun and rain we tramped together
And walked and ran the miles;
A hundred phantoms caught you
In scent and sound;
You raced to ancient summonses
That led the pack across the wild
In joyful bound:
You tried to tell me.
I listened, but could only hear
Your barking in the wind,
And see the eager paws
Trace out your gladness in the ground.
When I returned from being gone,
You greeted me with the abandon of your kind,
In leaps and yelps and wags,
Telling me you loved me
And not knowing why,
Yet knowing that I loved you, too, And had missed you,
Even as I do now
That death’s deep slumberings
Have had their toll,
Since I held you in my arms,
And you looked at me
And said goodbye. (Charles Evans Pope, 1982)
Next came Missy, a stray who adopted us. She had been abused, and so had a timidity that was endearing even as it was troubling. She loved to look out the window of our house, and would loudly announce to any passing dogs that she worked here and that they should get on along. She too, loved car rides and to romp for hours in the yard or in the nearby field. She was a tender little dog who felt trauma when we left the house, and joy when we returned. She loved to snuggle close and really stole my parents hearts. Of her my father wrote at her death:
I thought that I saw you,
But you were gone, dear;
The yard was empty then,
The brown of your fur lost
on the green of May.
In memory’s shade
You snuggle next to me,
My little love, again. (Charles Evans Pope, 1998)
Finally there was Molly, a border collie and a dog who perfectly illustrated that happiness is an inside job. She seemed content with what ever happened. She even seemed happy when she went to the kennel to stay as my parents travelled. She was happy to go, and happy to come home. My father said that her motto was “Whatever happens, is just great for Molly.” She was just always happy, full of energy and never gave a day of trouble; the perfect dog for my parents in their old age. She outlived them both and died about a year after my father passed.
Even in death she was charmed. She had been diagnosed with liver cancer. But she never showed any pain. The day she died, she had romped about in the yard and came in to sleep in her own little bed. She died while she napped. Of her my Father wrote:
You are down,
You are up;
In jumps and traces
In secret places,
You have really
Struck a nerve,
The house with verve,
You are clever
You’re a bounder,
But our very
Favorite hounder. (Charles Evans Pope, 2000)
Thank you Lord, for the gift of our pets, those special animals designated by you to be our close companions. Thank you for the gifts of Prince, and Missy and Molly. In recent years you’ve given me my cats too: Tupac, Gracie-Girl, Ellen Bayne, Jerry McGuire, Benedict, and now Jenny- June and Daniel. I don’t know if animals can love, Lord, but I sure do feel your love through them and I thank you and praise you for the quiet, simple lessons you have taught me through them. May you be praised O Lord.
The pictures in this post are my own.
Here’s a wonderful video of a very smart and helpful Jack Russell Terrier:
I am asked, not infrequently, about the apparent limits of God’s omnipotence. It would seem, on the face of it, that I am freely able to say “no” to God, to overrule Him, to thwart his will for me or others. If this is so, then how can we say God is omnipotent? Further, if God is so powerful, why does evil seem to go unchecked? In many ways, God does not seem powerful at all. From this perspective evil and Satan seem more powerful, more influential and able to rule than God. Is God really omnipotent (all powerful)?
As you likely know, greater minds than I have pondered these questions and I will not likely break new ground here. But in struggling with this question, that I frequently get asked, I would like to approach it from different angles. They are listed below in no particular order. No one point is meant to be a complete answer in itself, just an aspect of the problem and an appreciation of the mystery with which we are dealing.
1. The Aspect of Balance and Mystery. It is a common requirement in both theology and life that we must hold seemingly contradictory truths at the same time and in some balance. For example God is both immanent (profoundly an intimately present here) and yet transcendent (beyond the here and now). God is one, and three. Or, Man is fundamentally good, gifted and powerful, and yet sinful, foolish, weak and dependant. We are free, yet also limited and so forth.
These truths are in fact all true, and must simply be held at the same time and in proper balance. While it may be true that we can resolve some of the conflicting truths about man by simply saying that our excellences are only limited, this sort of solution is not possible with God. God is absolutely powerful, transcendent, immanent, one, three, and all powerful. There is no way of saying that God is “sort of” powerful, one, three, and so forth.
Thus, given the limits of our knowledge and language, we are often called to hold two competing truths in tension. How they are fully resolved and worked out is mysterious. This may at times frustrate us, but ultimately, mysteries are more to be respected and appreciated than solved and overcome. That we are free, and God is omnipotent are two truths in tension. We must hold them both, in tension, with appreciation for the deep mystery of them both.
2. The Aspect of our Limited Vision – We usually like to think we either have things figured out, or that eventually we will figure them out. But the fact is, we are of limited vision and intellect. We see only a small part of the picture. The world in which we live is mysterious.
To the modern mind, the word “mystery” refers to something which must be solved, which we must get to the bottom of. Hence, we tend to reduce everything, including creation, God and ourselves to a “who-dunit” novel.
But from the Christian perspective, “mystery” refers to something which we see, partially, but much more of which lies hidden. For example, our five senses can perceive the physical attributes of other people, and we might even come to know some of the “inner workings” of people we know. But in the end, there is much more of the human person that lies hidden. We do not even know ourselves fully (cf 1 Cor 13:12).
This is mystery. Our lives, the world around us, all of creation, and God are shot through with deep mystery. We see some aspects, but more lies hid that we often imagine.
Admit it – In striving to “solve” the mysterious interplay between God’s omnipotence and our freedom, or the existence of evil, we ought to admit that there is much we do not know, and cannot expect to know. Thus, the contradiction is only apparent. Our limited minds cannot see the whole picture. So, it is wrong for us to simply declare that God’s omnipotence cannot be reconciled with our freedom or the existence of evil. The fact is we do not know that. The most we can say this that there SEEMS to be a contradiction here, and the best we can do is to admit our limitations in seeing the whole picture.
3. The Aspect of the Mystery of Time – The deep mystery of time seems to be an important factor here as well. Part of understanding God’s omnipotence is to recall that he dwells in eternity. God does not live in serial time like we do. For God, past, present and future are all the same. God is not watching creation and human history unfold like a movie that ticks steadily by. He is not up in heaven watching things happen, then pondering what to do in response. God knows us before he makes us (Jer 1:4), he knows everything we will ever do (e.g. Psalm 139:16). Nothing is a surprise to God. God does not react to events, and reformulate his plans, based on unexpected human choices. He is pure act and everything is already accomplished, done. The future is not distant or foggy to God. It is present to him and known by him from all eternity.
Clearly for us, eternity is a mystery. The comprehensive “now” of God, his sweeping knowledge of time as comprehensively present to Him, can be described by us, but not really understood. But the fact is, our “no” to God does not thwart His plans. He has always known who would shake their fist at Him and who would obey. His plans have already incorporated our free choices. He doesn’t have to “go back to the drawing board” based on a stupid or sinful choice by me. He knows the way I go, and will shepherd me rightly.
Why exactly God allows so much static in the system, so much sin and rebellion, is another mysterious thing. But it does not follow that, because he has allowed it, that his power is somehow diminished. He has always known of the static, of the sin, some of it awful, and has already resolved and overcome its apparent power. Jesus said on the Cross (in our serial time), “It is finished.” God’s work is done, it has always been done. The working out of the details in our slices of time is not always easy to see. But the victory has always been won.
So, the mysterious interplay between God’s omnipotence, our freedom and the problem of evil is caught up in the mystery of time.
4. The Aspect of a Correct Understanding of Freedom – The proper understanding of freedom is also a factor in understanding the relationship between God’s omnipotence and our freedom. From our perspective, especially that of our flesh, freedom is the capacity to do whatever I please. But this is not a biblical understanding of freedom. From a biblical perspective, freedom is the capacity, the power, to obey God. Jesus says that “Whoever sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). Scripture also says, Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16). And again, They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity–for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. (2 Peter 2:19).
Hence from this point of view, our sinful choices are not an exercise of our power so as to somehow diminish God’s power. When we sin we do not demonstrate our power, so much as our slavery. True freedom is the capacity to obey God. The catechism teaches: The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC 1733)
So, ultimately Man’s freedom, from this perspective, cannot be pitted against God’s omnipotence. For true freedom is only to obey God and hence respect his power. The sinful use of freedom is ultimately an exercise of a power, but a manifestation of slavery.
5. The Aspect of the Paradox of Power – In this case I am simply going to let the Catechism speak for itself:
Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and Resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. Christ crucified is thus “the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:24-25) It is in Christ’s Resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe”. (Eph 1:19-22) Only faith can embrace the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. This faith glories in its weaknesses in order to draw to itself Christ’s power. (cf. 2 Cor 12:9; Phil 4:13) (CCC 272- 273)
Here then are just some of the aspects, both of the problem and of insight into the mystery of the interplay between God’s Omnipotence, our freedom and the problem of evil.
As usual, the list is incomplete and I invite you to add to it. Further, I know some of you may wish to either dispute or distinguish some of what I have offered. I encourage all this since this is a discussion of what is ultimately a very great mystery and no one post can capture the whole of the issue or exhaust its aspects.
Photo Credit above right (Facebook – Right click for URL)
Here is Fr. Barron’s take on part of the issue in response to a recent movie:
“Name it and claim it” is a common refrain in historically African American churches. It refers to any one the many blessings God has in store for us every day. It also refers to the type of attitude a faithful one must have in order to receive a blessing from the Lord. The Holy Scripture says that, “If any of your lacks wisdom, ask it of the Lord who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly. But, that person must ask in faith. For the person without faith is like the wave, tossed and driven by the wind, erratic in all things. Such a person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” – James 1:3
I have heard this refrain used poorly, especially by a few preachers that appear on television. They have a theology, often referred to as “prosperity gospel” that suggests that this refrain can be used for material gain – Claim a luxury car and God will give it to you. I have never been motivated by the refrain for material reasons. Furthermore, a humble Christian does not order God around. Rather, like Christ taught, we say, “Your will be done.” “Name it and claim it” should help me focus on the spiritual blessings of God such as wisdom, faith, hope and charity. My material needs will take care of themselves – And I don’t NEED a luxury car!
This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
At my school we use this refrain and this scripture to encourage each other and to help one another focus on Christ. For example, when I am dreading a certain meeting or a possible negative encounter, I am tempted to say to myself, “This is going to be a horrible day!”. It is at this moment that I must remember to “Name it, then claim it!” If I name my blessing as “This is a day that the Lord has made” then I can claim it. In other words, God’s blessings are always before us. It is just that sometimes, we cannot see the blessing and thus, we fail to claim it.
Name it and claim it!
As you read this, name and claim a blessing. If nothing more, you have the blessing seeking a relationship with God. Sometimes, that alone is enough!
Consider a five year old child who, though physically the size of a five year old, had not yet learned to talk or walk, who could only lay in his crib and who ate no solid food, only mother’s milk. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy. It would be a case of arrested development. And surely, as he failed to pass expected milestones and make the usual progress in maturity, his parents would consult doctors and experts in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and a cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.
Now, compare the response above to the usual response to arrested development in the spiritual order.
Consider a young adult, say 25, who had gone on to physical maturity, and even earned a college degree. Perhaps he has just landed a job in a cutting edge field and is both technically smart and talented. But, despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested and he has progressed little since second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward since, in second grade, he still knew his Act of Contrition and the Hail Mary.
Now, though thank God, he still goes to Mass, he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows there is a God and has heard about Jesus but does not know for sure if Jesus is God, he thinks so but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible’s existence but cannot name all four Gospels and would not even be sure exactly where to find them in the book. He’d eventually find them but it would take a lot of time. Names like Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Peter, Judas, et al., sound familiar to him, but he cannot tell you much about them, except that they are in the Bible. He has heard the word sacrament but cannot give an example of one and is not sure he’s received them or if that is just something priests and nuns get. Every now and then he thinks to pray but he really does not know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to say it, he gets stuck since there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. He DOES know the Our Father though! We have to give him that.
Now, mind you, this is a smart guy, he has a lot of knowledge in his field which is highly technical. A lot of people seek him for technical advice and he is a real problem solver in the corporation, keeping the computers and other critical peripherals updated and in good functioning order. But spiritually he is an infant.
The interesting question is, why did his parents and parishioners not experience alarm as they noted arrested spiritual development in him? As he began to go from second grade to third and forth, not only did NOT progress, but he actually got worse. Why did his parents not sound an alarm? Why did the pastor and catechists not experience shock that he seemed to show no progress in the Spiritual life? As his age drew him into high school, not only did his knowledge of the faith not increase but his moral life now began to slide. Soon his language grew bad, he resented authority, was looking at porn on the Internet. His parents were irritated by this, but not really alarmed enough to intensify his recourse to the sacraments or augment his spiritual training. Spiritually he was frozen in time. But no one seemed to notice or care.
But, by God, when almost failed a math course his parents went into action and hired a tutor! After all, this might threaten his getting into a good college! But his failure to grow spiritually never much fazed them. When he went to college they drove up with him, looked at the dorms, met a few of his teachers and attended orientation sessions for new students. But they never thought to meet the College Chaplain or ever to ask who would be spiritually teaching or pastoring their son. You know, that sort of stuff doesn’t really occur to you to ask about.
Well, you get the picture:
It starts, really, with low expectations. Most people don’t really expect that they should grow much in their faith. Advanced knowledge and deep prayer are for priests and nuns. Too many lay people just don’t expect much, and thus are not alarmed when they and their kids know next to nothing about the faith.
Further, the faith is sort of a side issue to many. What really matters is that you study hard to get a career that will unlike the American Dream. Never mind that worldly things don’t last, or that it’s pointless and harmful to climb the ladder of success when it is leaning up against the wrong wall. We’ll think about all that tomorrow. For now just keep pursuing your dreams.
Finally the sense that faith really matters at all is muted today when many have an unbiblical view that almost everyone goes to heaven. This removes any motivation to grow in the faith or be serious about living it in a counter-cultural way. To put it in a worldly way: why work hard or seek to develop yourself when the paycheck has already been deposited, and you’ll get paid no matter what, and can never lose your job?
Scripture – So here we are with a lot Christians who have a very bad case of arrested development. Scripture says:
We have much to say….but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14)
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1 Cor 3:1-2)
Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)
My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.” (Jer 4:22)
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (1 Cor 13:11)
It was [the Lord] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Eph 4:11-15)
So then, Scripture is clear that the normal Christian life is
To be constantly growing in our faith.
To go from mother’s milk (of elementary doctrines) to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
To go from being young students to mature teachers.
To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and also a behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
To be able to aptly distinguish false doctrine from true doctrine.
To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and ephemeral fads.
Yes, this is the normal Christian life. Maturity pertains to the human person in general and it certainly ought to pertain to men and women of faith. I pray you who read this blog are well along this path and are seeking to grow. I presume it, in fact.
But many are not Maturing. And I wonder if enough of us in the Church today see this as the horrifically strange and tragic phenomenon that it is. It is really far stranger and far more tragic than a five year old still lying in a crib, speechless and on mother’s milk. It is vastly more serious than the high schooler who is failing math and needs a tutor. To fail math may impact college and a career, but these are passing consequences. To fail in faith impacts eternity, not just for me but others.
Why are we so serious about passing worldly threats and not so about threats that have eternal consequences? In the end arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues. A parent may give their child every good thing, but if they do not ensure the gift of strong and mature faith, they have given their children nothing but sand slipping thorough their fingers.
Only what you do for Christ will last. Pray God we get our priorities straight and make sure we ourselves and everyone grows up in the Lord. It is true that we must accept the Kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter it. But this text refers to our dependance not our ignorance. God made us to know him and to fail in this way is to miss the whole point and dignity of our life.
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?
One of the things that most amazes me about the universe is its order. And its order is even more striking in the face of another force of apparent disorder. Let me explain.
The Source of order. When we look at things we can observe that, left to themselves, things tend to fall apart and and become disorderly. I think that science calls this process entropy and that it is related to the second law of thermodynamics. But consider with me for a moment a house in Detroit. Let’s say that in 1890 human beings assembled basic elements like wood, nails, brick, glass, and so forth and ordered (or assembled) these materials into a complex system known as a house. It has divisions, known as rooms. It has a purpose, known as shelter. Now, as long as humans live in or near the house and maintain it, the house continues to exist as an orderly and purposeful system. But suppose now it is 1985 and, due to the economic factors, the house becomes abandoned. Within a few years the order of the house will begin to decay. Perhaps within fifty years it will have completely collapsed and been reclaimed by the earth. This illustrates the tendency of things to fall apart unless they are acted upon by some force outside themselves to order and sustain them.
The Paradox of order – As we look around we DO see that entropy (the tendency of things to fall apart or revert to less complex states) does exist. And yet we ALSO observe the exact opposite. All around us is order and purpose. Somehow things have sprung up into orderly systems. Explosive disorder (the big bang) swirled into orderly and complex systems known as Galaxies and solar systems. Here on earth from the most basic elements of dust and water, complex life forms have developed. These life forms exhibit order and purpose. A complex ecosystem interacts at multiple levels and exhibits tremendous order and synergy. And all of this exists in world where we also learn that, without some unifying force things tend to fall into disorder. Life is ordered energy and death is disordered energy. Order is a paradox.
What causes the order and directs the purpose and complex interaction and order of all things? To me, creation shouts the existence of one who orders and directs its. We who believe call this someone, “God.” It seems evident to me that without God’s purposeful ordering of things, the tendency of things to fall apart and return to basic, less complex systems (entropy) would envelop all things. Just like the abandoned farmhouse described above, all the complexity and biodiversity we see in the world around us would collapse and be reclaimed by more basic elements. Like the farmhouse, something or someone sustains all this, and orders it. Creation shouts out God.
I suppose I might call this argument for the existence of God, the Argument from the Paradox of Order. But in reality it is rather close to an argument that St. Thomas advanced in the Summa long before my current feeble attempt:
The fifth way [of demonstrating God’s existence] is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. (Summa I, 2.3)
Here is a beautiful video that rejoices with wonder and awe at what God has made:
In downtown Washington, I noticed this sign on the side of a bus stop. It seems that a group of atheists has purchased advertising space throughout the Washington Metro system with this depressing message.
“To spray paint or not to spray paint?”; Thatwas my question.
I had immediate thoughts of how I could possibly blunt this foolish message. Though I would never actually do such as thing, the use of spray paint came to mind. I was outraged to say the least. But, the most comforting part of my reaction was that I was not alone in my anger.
Don’t believe in Atheists? Join the Club!
I do not exactly have a poker face so my disgust was fairly obvious to others at the bus stop. Immediately, another of my fellow Washingtonians shared his disgust. Soon enough, several people at bus stop were praising God by talking about the ridiculousness of such an ad campaign. It should be noted that not one atheist was in sight to defend the sign.
“No weapon formed against you shall prosper!” – Isaiah 54:17
Here is the irony. A sign designed to insult our faith in God and turn others further away from Christ prompted a bunch of strangers to share our testimony of the goodness of God. It was almost like we were having church while waiting for a Metro bus. Now, admittedly, most church services don’t start with a deacon exclaiming, “Can you believe this mess?!” but, it was church nonetheless. This experience was proof to me that God’s prophecy to Isaiah was true – “No weapon formed again you can prosper. Every tongue you shall prove false that launches an accusation against you. This is the lot of the servants of the LORD, their vindication from me, says the LORD.” – Is 54:17.
The weapon in this case was a sign at a bus stop insulting our faith. The result was a group of Christians exclaiming their faith. When something like this happens, how could you NOT believe in God?
“The New Evangelization”
The Archbishop of Washington recently released a letter entitled “The New Evangelization.” As the title suggests, it concerns itself with the need to spread our faith as well as strengthen the faith of those who already call themselves Catholic. The need for evangelization takes on a new urgency when one realizes that the enemy is hard at work doing the exact opposite – just read the signs. And remember, if you don’t believe in God, you are more alone than you think!