The Anatomy of Sin

The first reading from Monday’s Mass (Monday of the 5th Week of Lent) is the story of Susanna, an extraordinary moral tale from the Book of Daniel. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly, it is missing from Protestant bibles, which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel. It is not well-known among Catholics, either, because it is only read once each year, at a weekday Mass.

The story is of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, who is married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden, two older men who have hidden themselves there try to seduce her. When Susanna rebuffs their brazen overture, they threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in the garden if she does not submit to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through with their threat, even demanding that she be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue; through crafty interrogation he exposes their lie. The story is a small masterpiece; if you have never read it, I recommend you do so.

In the course of this engaging tale is a lesson on the anatomy of a sin. In a remarkable description, the story describes three sources from which their sin springs. The text says, They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources in turn.

1. They suppressed their consciences.What is the conscience? The Catechism puts it in this way: Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1776). In effect, the conscience is the voice of God within us. God has written His Law in the heart of every human person.

We have a basic understanding of right and wrong; we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (e.g., the following of certain rituals or feasts days), but in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic, innate grasp of right and wrong. We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity; we also know that things such as the murder of the innocent, promiscuity, and theft are wrong. For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing and we know that we know what we are doing. I have written substantially about conscience here.

Notice that the text says that they “suppressed their consciences.” Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily mind will do is to try to suppress our conscience.

The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies, and distortions to try to reassure ourselves that something is really OK—something that deep down inside we know is not OK.

We also accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:1-3).

Suppressing one’s conscience takes quite a bit of effort, and I would argue that one cannot ever do it completely. In fact, the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is not only a substantial effort, but also very fragile. This helps to explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know that we are right. Often, even the slightest appeal to the conscience awakens its voice, causing an eruption of fear and anger.

So this is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly without facing the deep psychological pain of significant guilt, the men in the story suppress the conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain.

2… they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven … – In order to sustain the rationalizations and sophistry necessary to suppress the conscience, one must distance oneself from the very source of conscience: God Himself.

One way to do this is to drift away from God through neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God, and association with the Church, which speaks for God. As time goes own, this drifting may increase and the refusal to repent become more adamant. Drifting can finally lead to absence, which often manifests as outright hostility to anything religious or biblical.

Another way that some avert their eyes from Heaven is by redefining God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a “designer God,” who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care whether or not I go to church, or if I shack up with my girlfriend.” On being shown Scripture contrary to their distorted notions, they often respond that St. Paul had “hang-ups” or that the Bible was written in primitive times.

Culturally, the refusal to look heavenward is manifest in the increasing hostility to the Catholic Christian faith. Demands that anything even remotely connected to the faith be removed from the public square are becoming increasingly strident. According to radical secularists, prayer in public, nativity sets, Church bells, any reference to Jesus or Scripture, etc. must all be removed; they refuse to turn their eyes heavenward or even have anything around that reminds them to do so.

The cumulative effect is that many people are no longer looking to Heaven or to God. Having suppressed their consciences, they now demand a public square absent any reference to God. Still others reinvent a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is to isolate and insulate the self from God and what He reveals. This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing the conscience.

3… and did not keep in mind just judgment. Finally let’s throw in a little presumption that dismisses the consequences of evil acts. This, of course, is one of the biggest sins of our current age. There are countless people, even among Catholics in the pews and Catholic clergy, who seem to deny that they will ever have to answer to God for what they have done. This is completely contrary to Scripture, which insists that we will indeed answer one day to God for our actions.

This final stage is meant to eliminate the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. At this stage, the sinner has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and in eliminating a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin.

However, even after suppressing the conscience and refusing Heaven’s influence, some fear still remains. Now, an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of His holiness, which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of Hell, which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and thus holds that there is no judgment to be faced. Regardless of how he does it, the sinner must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.

Here, then is the anatomy of a sin. Having suppressed the conscience, having muted the voice of God to the extent possible and removed oneself from Heaven’s influence, and finally having denied that any negative consequences will ensue, one feels freer to sin. It is as though one has taken a number of stiff drinks to anesthetized oneself sufficiently to proceed.

Guess what, though, the pain is still there, deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Despite all the attempts to insulate himself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows that what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing that pricks his conscience causes unease. Increasingly, he resorts to anger, projection, name-calling, and/or ridiculing of anyone or anything that awaken his conscience. Sin is in full bloom now; repentance seems increasingly difficult and unlikely. Only the prayers and fasting of others for his sake will likely spring him loose from his deep moral sleep. Pray for the conversion of sinners!

On Going to Our Own House

The Gospel for Mass this past Saturday contains one line that deserves some attention from us, especially in a time like this. On one level it seems like a mere scene-ender, a line that ends the section and has the dramatis personae (cast of characters) walk off the stage. But as most who are familiar with Scripture know, there is rarely a wasted syllable, particularly in John’s Gospel. There is not one word or syllable that should be dismissed as “filler” when the Holy Spirit is at work inspiring the sacred authors.

The line in question appears in the 7th Chapter of John’s Gospel, at the end of a debate among the temple leaders as to the identity of Jesus. They wrestle with the question of who Jesus is: is the coming Messiah, and whether He or not He is the eternal Son of the Father as He claims.

The majority of the interlocutors reject Jesus out of hand because He comes from Galilee and “no Prophet has ever come from Galilee!” One of their number, Nicodemus, encourages them to be more open to the possibilities and to have greater command of the facts before rendering judgment. The pericope (passage) ends in this way:

Then each went to his own house (John 7:53).

This sentence ought not to be overlooked because it invites great significance. We can distinguish three rather separate understandings of the line: an inward meaning, and outward meaning, and an eternal meaning.

1. Inward – Each one returning to his own house can be understood as describing how we must ultimately enter into the “house” of our soul. We must all go into the inner room of our heart and mind; that place where we are alone with God; where we ponder, reflect, deliberate, and discern. Many of us have more time to do this just now and it is surely more important than ever to do so. 

It is in this place that we must answer for ourselves the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Who is God? What is the meaning of my life? What am I doing and why? Who is the man/woman God made me to be? Yes, this is the inner sanctum, the holy place where we are alone with God.

When we are with others we tend to posture. We seek to conform in response to peer pressure or other social influences. There is often undue influence from persuasion, excessive human respect, group pressure, and group dynamics.

But there comes a moment when we are summoned by the Lord to separate from others, to go into our own house, to enter into that quiet place inside us and listen carefully to voice of God that echoes in our heart (cf Catechism # 1776).

At the point in the Gospel cited above, the temple leaders have had their debate. They have sought to influence one another. Some have experienced pressure and persuasive argumentation. Many of them probably exhibited the human tendency we all have: to try to ingratiate ourselves to others by speaking so that others will think highly of us.

Now that all the posturing is over, it is time for each man to go to his own house and there privately ponder and decide what he really thinks. Yes, it is decision time. The Lord is asking a question: Who do you say that I am? It is time for each man to go to his own house and be face-to-face with God.

Sadly, many today reject this requirement to go to our own “house” and reflect deeply. Most take little time to enter the room of their own soul. In our modern world, with its myriad distractions, most prefer to flip on the television instead.

Ultimately we cannot evade this call from God to decide, in that inner room of our own “house,” who God is and how we will respond to Him. And for those who go on for too long refusing to go to their own house, God has ways of forcing the issue. Maybe it’s one of those sleepless at 3:00 AM. Maybe it’s a time of crisis that provokes soul-searching. But ultimately, at some point, each of us must go to his own house and reflect quietly with God, away from social pressures, away from posturing. There, alone with God, each must face the deepest questions.

2. Outward – There is a different perspective from which one can read this text, and it provides an insight that is almost exactly opposite. For while it is of critical importance to go to that secret place, that house of our own soul and there reflect with God, it is also of vital to stay connected to the reality that is outside our house. Thus, this passage may also be viewed as a commentary on the human tendency to retreat into our own little world, to shrink from any evidence we don’t like, to avoid anything that challenges our worldview.

Jesus had earlier confronted these temple leaders with evidence of His divinity and His identity as Messiah and Lord. He spoke to them of His miracles, of His fulfillment of prophecy, of the testimony of John the Baptist, and of the Father’s voice echoing in their hearts (cf John 5:31-47).

But we all share the human tendency to retreat into our own world, our own house, despite the evidence. In effect, we retreat from reality into our own made-up little world.

There is an old saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” We tend to believe that something is so just because we think it.

There is another saying, “Who is an adviser to himself has a fool for a counselor.” Yet too easily we take only our own counsel. Or, we surround ourselves only with teachers who “tickle our ears.”

Thus, though these temple leaders have been confronted with many facts pointing to the veracity of Jesus’ identity as Lord and Messiah, they choose instead to brush off the evidence and retreat into their own houses, their own little worlds.

Further, they err with the facts: they argue that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem whereas Jesus came from Galilee. But of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

But never mind all that; each just goes off to his own house, to his own little world. And too often many do exactly this.

The challenge for us all is to live in reality, not merely in the confines of our own house, our own little world, our own (sometimes flawed or incomplete) thoughts.

3. Eternal – The third interpretation of the “house” referred to in this line is our ultimate home, the destination to which we all journey. Thus, when the text says they all went each to his own house, it may also refer to that place where they will dwell for all eternity. Where that house is, in Heaven or Hell, depends on each man’s stance regarding Jesus.

Having scoffed at Jesus, each of the temple leaders now heads off to his own home. But no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, and thus their home is somewhere other than the heart of the Father.

There is an old saying, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” You and I must choose where to make our home. Where that home is will depend upon our acceptance or rejection of Jesus.

There will come a day when each of us will have said of us, Then [he] went to his own house. Where will your house be?

Mulier Fortis – A Homily for the Feast of the Annunciation

In preparation for the Feast of the Annunciation I picked up Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 3 (The Infancy Narratives), by Pope Emeritus Benedict. I was very moved by a brief reflection that he made on Mary as the Angel Gabriel left her. His remarks consider her faith in a very touching manner.

I must say that I have always been moved—and intrigued—by the faith of the Blessed Mother. She is mulier fortis (a strong woman) and  “a woman wrapped in silence,” a phrase that forms the title of an excellent book by Fr. John Lynch. The pope’s words capture both her faith and her mystery:

I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke’s Annunciation narrative: “And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38). The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with a task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing around her. She must continue along the path that leads to many dark moments–from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy, to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mark 3:21; John 10:20) right up to the night of the cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” And the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch (Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives, Kindle edition (loc 488-501)).

I am moved by this image of Mary, there all alone, perhaps wondering how it would all unfold and whether what she just experienced had really happened. The angel departs and she is alone (and yet never alone).

As background, I would like to say that I have read some accounts of Mary’s life that placed her in such rarefied air that I could no longer relate to her. I vaguely remember reading some accounts of visionaries saying that Mary did not even have to do housework because the angels swept the house, did the dishes, and so forth. Some other accounts spoke of how she had detailed foreknowledge of everything that would take place in her life as well as in Jesus’ life. I even recall one purported visionary who wrote that Mary had extensive theological discussions with Jesus even while He was still an infant. I do not remember who these alleged visionaries were or if any of them were even approved visionaries. Yet in the early 1980s a large number of books were published containing the observations of various “visionaries.”

Such accounts often left me cold and made me feel distant from our Blessed Mother. They also did not seem to comport with the Scriptures, which present Mother Mary as a woman of great faith, but one who has to walk by faith and not by perfect sight, just as all of us do. She wonders at Gabriel’s greeting, is troubled, and does not understand how it will all work out (cf Luke 1:29).

Yet she presses on and we next see her having made haste to the hill country, rejoicing in ecstatic praise with her cousin: My spirit rejoices in God my savior! She still does not know how it will all work out, but in spite of that she is content to know the One who holds the future; it is enough for now.

Years later, when she finds Jesus teaching in the Temple after days of agonized searching for the “missing” boy, she does not fully understand His explanation (Luke 2:48-50), but ponders these things within her heart (Luke 2:51).

At the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus seems almost to rebuke His mother. Although the text omits many of the details, there must have been something in her look, something of the look that only a mother can give to a son. By now, Mary’s understanding of her son has surely deepened; she has known Him and pondered and reflected in her heart over Him for more than thirty years. She simply looks at Him, and He at her—a look that only the two would have known. Something passed between them, a look of understanding. Whatever it was remains wrapped in silence; it’s none of our business, something that only she and her Son could know. Whatever it was, it prompts her to turn and with confidence, knowing the situation will be well-handled, says to the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

Of the three years to follow we know very little. We know that she is not far away. We see her in Mark 3:31 as she asks after Jesus, seemingly concerned that others are saying “He is beside himself!”

Now we find her gently and supportively present at the foot of the Cross. The sword that Simeon had prophesied (Lk 2:35) is thrust through her heart. More than thirty years earlier she could only wonder what Simeon meant when he said that her child was destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel and that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2:33). In the intervening years her faith had surely deepened; now, here she is at the foot of the Cross. It is her darkest hour, but surely all those years of pondering and reflecting on these things in her heart helps to sustain her.

Yes, Mother Mary is a woman wrapped in silence. We know so little, for she is reflective and quiet. She says little, silently standing by, silently supportive of Jesus in His public ministry. Now, again silently, she is at the foot of the Cross.

Yes, this is the Mary, this is the Mother that I know: a woman of faith but also a human being like you and me. As the Pope Benedict suggested, she is a woman who had to make a journey of faith without knowing how everything would work out, without the omniscience that some visionaries ascribe to her. She knew what the angel had said, but it seems clear that she did not know how it would all come to pass. She, like us, walked by faith and not by earthly sight.

Mary is the perfect disciple, the woman of faith, the one who presses on, not knowing all, but pondering and reflecting everything in her heart.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Woman Wrapped in Silence – A Meditation for the Feast of the Annunciation

Stopping by the First Station of the Cross in Time of National Crisis

We might do well at a moment like this to ponder the First Station of the Cross, in which Jesus is tried before Pilate. At a critical moment Pilate said, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above”(John 19:10-11). Jesus thus acknowledges Pilate’s authority as governor but reminds him of its true origin.

Most of us right now are experiencing increasing restrictions on our movement; policies have been put into place that have changed how we live, work, and even pray. Some people are understanding and supportive of the measures; others are concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. Still others believe that more should have been done. My view on this does not matter; I write as a priest, not an expert in public policy. One thing I would like to say is that you and I have the luxury of “armchair quarterbacking,” whereas those in civil authority must make extremely difficult and complex decisions. I, for one, am glad I don’t have to make them.

Citizens certainly have the right to question their leaders, but right now for my own peace of mind, I need to spend some time accepting the First Station of the Cross. The point of the First Station is not that Pilate is just or good but that his authority was granted to him by God. In Romans we read,

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. Consequently, the one who resists authority is opposing what God has set in place … Therefore, it is necessary to submit to authority, not only to avoid punishment, but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes. For the authorities are God’s servants, who devote themselves to their work. Pay everyone what you owe him: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due(Rom 13:1-7).

This sort of talk shocks most modern Americans. To be sure, St. Paul is giving a general norm, not an absolute one. There are times when a ruler commands obedience to what is evil; in such a case he must be resisted. As a general rule, though, we have a duty to obey just laws and policies. We might also remember that Nero was the emperor when St. Paul wrote this. Hence, St. Paul does not give this norm simply for good leaders or leaders whom we like. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about authority:

Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society. The authority required by the moral order derives from God: [see Romans 13:1-2 above]. The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will. …If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience (CCC 1898–1900,1903).

In our current situations, citizens can and should stay in vigorous discussion with government leaders and officials, but as we do so we must remember the principles set forth above, which are so contrary to the modern, adversarial approach.

When bishops began suspending public Masses, many of us were alarmed. We wondered if less severe methods would have been more appropriate (e.g., limiting the number of people at each Mass). As the maximum number of people permitted in public gatherings has dropped (from 250 to 100 to 25 to 10) even that option became essentially unworkable. The bishops cannot simply defy public authority in this matter. For most of us, the decision has been made: public Masses are suspended for the near future.

As for me, I need to spend time at the First Station of the Cross. Note that I am not comparing our leaders to Pilate. Rather, I am focusing on St. Paul’s astonishing words, The authorities that exist have been appointed by God (Rom 13:1). In writing this, he echoes Jesus’ words to Pilate: You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above. At this astonishing moment of upheaval and fear, unprecedented in my lifetime, I can only pray for our leaders, both civil and ecclesial.

Lord, at this point it is out of my hands. Help me to be at peace with that. I know that ultimately everything is in Your hands; everything will ultimately be all right. But I also know that You have placed difficult matters into the hands of our leaders. I do not envy the difficult choices they must make. I only ask that You guide them, Lord. May they be neither too severe nor too lax, neither too fearful nor too bold. We seem to be heading into some difficult days. Help us. Save us. Have mercy on us, and keep us by Your grace. And because you said, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2), I’ll ask, “How about a miracle cure, Lord?” Meanwhile, grant me the trust in You that is the only source of my peace. Thank you, Jesus.

Here’s another William Byrd classic lamenting the suffering of the Catholic Church in England. Translated the text reads: 

Be not angry, O Lord, enough,
neither remember our iniquity for ever.
Behold, see, we who beseech thee, we are all thy people.
The holy cities are a wilderness.
Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.

 

Five Hard Truths That Will Set You Free

Given our current profound troubles, it occurs to me to republish an article from some years back. Like most, I have been through difficulties in my life: violent storms, an earthquake, and the loss of several loved ones. But I have never seen something quite like what we are experiencing now. It is unclear how long things will last, and the restrictions get more severe by the day. With all that in mind, I think it is important to recall the five hard truths that follow. I hope you won’t think I am trying to pour salt in our collective wounds. The message of this post is this: accepting that life has sufferings and setback is a freeing notion. Acceptance is a middle ground between resignation and approval. To accept something is be willing to pick it up and carry it for now, like a cross. Because we have not had to endure the large-scale suffering of previous eras, we have come to expect that things should be convenient and go smoothly. This actually increases our sorrow and anger when they don’t. Acceptance of the five hard truths described below can provide strange consolation. Following is the reprinted post:

The five truths  that follow are indeed hard. They rock our world and stab at the heart of some of our most cherished modern notions. If they can be accepted for the truth they convey, however, they bring great peace. These truths are not only good medicine for our collective self-absorption but they also help us to have more realistic expectations as we live out our lives in this imperfect and limited world. Study these truths well. If they irritate you a bit, good; they’re supposed to. They are meant to provoke thought and reassessment.

I did not originate the following five principles, but the commentary is my own. So thank the one to whom the Holy Spirit first spoke them and tolerate my meager commentary.

1.  Life is hard. We live in times of comfort and convenience. Medicine has removed a lot of pain and suffering from our lives. Consumer goods are readily available and we have a wide array of choices. Entertainment comes in many varieties and is often inexpensive. Hard labor is something that few of us are familiar with. Obesity is common due to overconsumption and underactivity.

All of these creature comforts have led us to expect that life should always be just peachy. We become outraged at the slightest suffering, inconvenience, or delay.

Our ancestors lived lives that were far more “brutish and short,” to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes. Life was a “vale of tears.” They understood that suffering was a part of life. When we suffer today, we start thinking about lawsuits and who is to blame. Suffering seems obnoxious to us and hard work unreasonable! We are angered and flung into anxiety at the mere threat of suffering.

This principle reminds us that suffering and difficulty are part of life; they should be expected. Accepting suffering does not mean we have to like it. Acceptance of the fact that life will be hard at times means that we get less angry and anxious when it is; we do not lose serenity. In fact, it brings a strange sort of peace. We are freed from unrealistic expectations that merely breed resentment. We also become more grateful for the joys we do experience.

2.  Your life is not about you. If you want to make God chuckle, tell Him your plans. If you really want to give him a belly laugh, tell Him His plans! We often like to think that we should just be able to do what ever pleases us and maximizes our “self-actualization.” However, we do not decide alone what course our life will take.

In this age of “nobody tells me what to do,” it is important to remember that our true happiness comes from getting not what we want, but what God wants. Our destiny is not to follow our star; it is to follow God. True peace comes from careful discernment of God’s will for us.

It is sad how few people today ever really speak ahead of time with God about important things like careers, entering into a marriage, or pondering a large project. We just go off and do what we please, expecting God to bail us out if it doesn’t go well. You and I do not exist merely for our own whims; we have a place in God’s plan. We have greater serenity when we discern that place and humbly seek God’s will. Accepting the fact that we are not the masters of our own destiny, not the captains of our own ship, gives us greater peace. It also usually saves us a lot of mileage.

Humbly accepting that our life is not simply about us and what we want is a freeing truth. We often don’t get what we want; if we can allow life to just unfold and not demand that everything be simply the way we want it, we can be more serene and free.

3.  You are not in control. Control is something of an illusion. We may have plans for tomorrow but there are many things between now and tomorrow over which we have no control. For example, we cannot even control or guarantee the next beat of our heart. I may think I have tomorrow under control, but tomorrow is not promised; it may never come.

Because we think that we control a few things, we think that we can control many things. Not really. Our attempts to control and manipulate outcomes are comical, sometimes even harmful.

Thinking that we can control things leads us to think that we must control them. This in turn leads to great anxiety and often anger as well.

We usually think that if we are in control we will be less anxious. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the more we think we can control, the more we try to control, which increases our burdens and anxiety. We end up getting angry because we discover that there many things and people we cannot control after all. This causes frustration and fear.

We would be freer and less anxious if we would simply accept the fact that there are many things—most things, in fact—over which we have no control. Our expectation of everything being under control is unrealistic. Life comes at you fast. Brooding over unpredictable and uncontrollable things amounts to bondage. Simply accepting that we are often not in control is freeing.

4.  You are not that important. This one hurts. We often think that the whole world should revolve around us. We think it is only our feelings that matter and our well-being that is important. We are loved by God in a very particular way, but that does not change the fact that we must often yield to others who are also loved by God in a very special way.

Sometimes other people are more important than we are. We might even be called upon to give our life so that others may live. We must yield to others whose needs are more crucial than our own. The world doesn’t exist just for us and what we want.

There is great peace and freedom in coming to accept this. We are often made so anxious if we are not recognized while others are, or if our feelings and preferences are not everyone’s priority. Accepting the truth that we are not that important allows us to relax and enjoy caring about other people and celebrating their importance.

5.  You are going to die. We get all worked up about what this world dishes out, but just take a walk in a cemetery. Those folks were all worked up too. Now their struggles are over. If they were faithful, they are with God; they are now experiencing that “trouble don’t last always.”

This truth also helps us to do the most important thing: get ready to meet God. So many people spend their lives clowning around and goofing off, ignoring our most urgent priority. In the end, this is freeing because we are loosed from the many excessive and often conflicting demands of the world; we can concentrate on doing the one thing necessary. Our life simplifies and we don’t take this world too seriously because we understand that it is passing away. There is great peace and freedom in coming to accept this.

So there you have them: five hard truths that will set you free. Think about them. Memorize them. Pull them out when life comes at you fast and hard with its agenda of self-importance and the empty promise of perfect comfort here on earth. A simple, sober, humble, and focused life brings great serenity.

Some Teachings on Hell

Given today’s Gospel on Lazarus and the rich man (Dives), we do well to ponder some of the teachings we have on Hell, most of which come from St. Thomas Aquinas.

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!