Where the Tree Falls, There It Will Lie – A Meditation on the Finality of Judgment

March 16 blogSome engage in the wishful thinking that humans can suddenly and dramatically become converted and wholly different. To be sure, there are what are sometimes called “sudden conversions” of individuals. But what this usually means is that the person’s disposition against God and/or the faith is transformed into an openness to the truth and grace of God. It does not usually mean (barring a miracle) that the person is instantly possessed of all virtue and is suddenly free of all sinful inclinations. In order for fundamental change to take deep and lasting root in a person, he or she must work hard at it and must cooperate with God’s grace.

People change and grow slowly, incrementally, often in fits and starts. What we call our character is formed gradually over time. Thoughts and decisions produce deeds; deeds produce habits; habits produce character; and character ushers in our destiny. It is the steady march and repetition of virtue (or vice) that produces our character. True and lasting conversion takes time. It takes repeated good decisions to yield the fruit of a good character.

There are seldom any shortcuts. Expecting there to be a shortcut to good character would be like expecting a person with a newfound interest in classical piano, merely on account of this new interest, to be able to play Mozart Sonatas or Chopin Etudes immediately; it just doesn’t work that way. Rather, he must begin with scales and arpeggios, practice every day, master simple pieces, and then gradually progress to the full vision of classical piano.

The moral life is this way, too. A virtue is defined as a good habit. But habits are not acquired by doing something once. Habits, by definition, are repeated actions. Repeated (good) actions are the basis for virtue. Even if grace comes from God and can spur and enable virtue, virtue does not fall out of the sky. Grace builds on and cooperates with our nature, which is to grow and change slowly by habitual, repeated actions in response to grace. Over time, accumulated good actions become the good habits we call virtues and help to form the more lasting aspect of us that we call our character.

Sadly, the opposite is also true. Vices also build strongholds in our life and our character. Repeated sinful acts engender vice, which has a negative effect on our character. Character is rightly defined as the collection of moral qualities that define a person. And while qualities may change over time, it is wishful thinking to presume they can change quickly, dramatically, or substantially. Our character is largely the summation of our repeated decisions.

Among the more dangerous versions of this wishful thinking (that people can easily and fundamentally change in a moment) is the notion that upon death, those who have stubbornly indulged in sin and/or values opposed to God and His Kingdom will suddenly have a change of heart at the judgment seat of Christ. It is fancifully imagined that they will suddenly want what (until now) they had resisted, disliked, or outright rejected. The human heart seldom, if ever, changes on a dime. This is true even when we suddenly discover that we were wrong about something. We human beings are not even swayed by clear facts if we don’t want to accept certain truths. Instead, we will often grow angry and defensive rather than make a wholehearted change. And in those cases in which we do change our view, it is usually done slowly and in fits and starts, especially when it comes to deep-seated views such as those related to politics or religion.

Imagine a person who has, throughout his life, opposed or resisted essential aspects of the Kingdom of God such as forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, chastity, generosity, and the worship that is due to God. Values such as these are not simply hoops to jump through on the way to a magical kingdom or a personal resort of one’s own design. These are actual parameters of the Kingdom of God and the perfection of that Kingdom we call Heaven.

And herein lies the crucial point: by our repeated choices in life, we are either deepening our desire for God and His Kingdom or eroding it. Our character is either being configured to God and what He is offering through virtue, or disfigured and disinclined to what God is offering through vice.

It is foolish to think that a person who scoffed at chastity and God’s teaching on sexuality will suddenly esteem them when he dies, or that one who did not want to forgive his enemy will suddenly wish to do so. It is unlikely that one who spurned going to Mass and worshiping God in the Holy Liturgy will suddenly want to enter the great liturgy of Heaven, which is described consistently as featuring hymns (Rev 4:8-11; 5:8-14; 7:9-12), candles (Rev 4:5), priests in robes and miters (Rev 4:4), delight in the proclaimed words of a book (Rev 5:1-5), praise of the Lamb on the altar (Rev 5:8ff), incense (Rev 8:3ff), and so forth. How likely is it that one will go from considering these things boring, pointless, unnecessary, and not worthy of attendance, to suddenly considering them glorious and heavenly? How attractive will one find the worship and praise of a heavenly multitude of saints in Heaven if he was never attracted to worship with God’s people on Earth?

God will not force us to want what He offers or to obey His vision for us as portrayed in His Law. Heaven is the fulfillment of all that He offers; it is not our personally designed paradise.

The greatest tragedy of all is that the souls in Hell would be even less happy in Heaven, where the things that they rejected in this life are esteemed and are fully and perfectly present, where many whom they did not care for in this life are honored and in the highest places.

It is wishful thinking, therefore, to think that many who are disinclined to God or are outright hostile to Him and/or what He teaches and offers will experience a sudden conversion as they are escorted to judgment. Scripture says, Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie (Eccles 11:3). In other words, when we die, our character will be forever fixed. It is like a piece of pottery which, having been molded into any number of shapes while on the potter’s wheel, has its shape forever fixed when it is placed in the fire of the kiln. It is like the rich man in the parable of Lazarus who, though lamenting his awful state, shows no desire for Heaven and does not ask to be brought there. Rather, he asks to have Lazarus bring water to him in Hell.

Yes, it is a dangerously wishful thinking and presumption to think that an unrepentant sinner will suddenly want to repent, or that one averse to significant aspects of God’s Kingdom will suddenly wish to seek entrance or will suddenly rejoice in what moments before he found irrelevant or even odious. Instances of such sudden “changing of stripes” are exceedingly rare.

In this life there are certainly wonderful moments of conversion. But they must be followed by perseverance and reparative grace to undue the many lingering effects of years of bad choices. In the case of authentic deathbed conversions, purgatory seems a strong necessity.

A proper antidote to this wishful thinking is to have a sober urgency to summon sinners away from those things that deepen their aversion to the Kingdom. Repeated and unrepented sin hardens the heart and darkens the intellect. A sober reverence for this truth is both necessary and salutary. Wishful thinking is not only unhelpful, it is harmful; it detracts from the urgency that motivates us to work for the salvation of souls, beginning with our own.

Judgment day is but the final recognition and solidification of what has been a long series of decisions. Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.

Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie (Eccles 11:3).

18 Replies to “Where the Tree Falls, There It Will Lie – A Meditation on the Finality of Judgment”

  1. This also confirms the detrimental notion that all souls go to Heaven upon death.

  2. So, confession on one’s death bed is useless? I agree with your ardent desire for all of us to work tirelessly for our salvation and that of others and to live lives free of corruption. However, I don’t share your pessimism. What is impossible for us is possible for Jesus. I have always held close to my heart something that reportedly was said by Jesus to Faustina Kowalska. In her biography Jesus is said to have told her that he visits every soul at least three times at the moment of their death. He was intending that he wanted to save every soul and that if they would let him in, he would do the rest. I know we don’t need to believe revelations made to saints but this one struck me as so very like the Jesus I know and love. He is forgiving and merciful. When I am dealing with a person in danger of death who appears intransigent in their rejection of God, I try to persuade them to at the very least leave the door to their soul open a little bit. I think Jesus will take it from there. There is a well know painting that depicts Jesus standing outside of a closed door. The door has no external knob or means of opening it. This door represents the door to our soul. Only we can open it and that is from inside us. I tell the deathbed person that if they are right and there is no God or that God has abandoned us then it doesn’t matter what they do. However, if God exists and is merciful without limits, I beg the person to at least leave themselves open to Jesus. From there, it is up to that person and Jesus.

    Again, I completely agree and love the symbolism of the fallen tree. You make excellent points. However, after I read your article twice, I came away with the thought that you would give up on terrible sinners at the time of their death. Please tell me that is not true. We are living until we die and can turn to Jesus at any moment with the help of the Holy Spirit. I think we will pay for every last evil we had done (purgatory?) but that Jesus mercy can and will triumph if we sincerely ask for it.

    Footnote: I read recently that Joseph Mengele received confession shortly before he died. This challenges me to see how limitless Jesus’ mercy might be but if he were sincerely repentant and renounced his sins in confession, we are taught that he would be forgiven. What he experiences in the after life is unknown but I doubt that it would be hell.

    I pray often for the gift of hope and think that this is all we can give some people for their salvation. But maybe with Jesus that will be enough. We cannot limit Jesus.

    1. Of course a deathbed confession is not “useless.” Why do you absolutize the point being made here? I think I am clear that last minute conversions can happen, just that they are less likely than most imagine. I use terms like “many” not “all” or “not any” I use terms like “seldom” not “never” Further, I mention that if they (sudden an/or deathbed conversions) do happen, it would seem to follow that purgation etc. would need to follow, either here or in purgatory. We don’t usually just start liking what we are averse to etc. So even upon conversion, growth in desire is necessary.

      So Again I ask you why you absolutize what I specify and distinguish? You are not fair in your assessment of the tone of my article at all. I set a tone which is sober about our tendencies but admitting of exceptions. The “Wishful thinking” I describe here pertains to presuming as common what is more likely rare. But rare does not mean “never” as I DO set forth.

      If I were to take your absolutizing notion to your own commentary I would ask (rhetorically) “So are you saying that J. Mengele went straight to heaven?” I might also wish to absolutize your secondary assertion regarding him that what he experiences in the afterlife is unknown to us: “So are you rejecting the Church teaching on Purgatory? Are you saying we know nothing at all?”

      But of course if I were to speak like this I would be assuming you mean your points absolutely and that you have no distinctions in mind. That would not be fair to you. I thus ask the same fairness from you, that you not absolutize what I have specified.

      1. In what concerns forgiveness of one’s enemies, I hope I’m not mistaken in saying that it’s infinitely more important that God forgives them. It’s His mercy they need, not mine. For what does it profit a man if he has my forgiveness, but not God’s?

        1. Michael – read the Our Father. The deal is we are forgiven in the same measure we forgive others.

    2. Saint Faustina also writes in her diary that souls are only damned because they want to be. While that sounds absurd to any right thinking person, it is sadly the truth. And Monsignor Pope gives an excellent explanation of why that might be the case. If one desires to repent then Jesus will give all the grace necessary, even to the point of coming to the soul three times as it is exiting the body. But sadly there are those who even there won’t listen to Him.

      I hope that Joseph Mengele did make a good Confession before he died and was sincere in his repentance. There is no deed of man’s that cannot be repaired by God’s Mercy. But we have to ask for that Mercy. In any case I will end this discussion as I end all discussions on this subject: it isn’t for us to decide who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell or how many people go to Heaven or how many people go to Hell or anything of that nature, and that is not what the Monsignor was doing here.

      “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds.

      1. vitriol? are you kidding me?
        his response correctly called out the commenter’s misinterpretation, for which the commenter is is responsible. the good monsignor’s reply was nothing compared to some of the reproofs that jesus handed out.

  3. I like this article Msgr., because I DO see how over my life, it’s the daily rather mundane decisions to do right, and reject the temptation to wrong (to tell a small lie, to “borrow” something and never return it, react with impatience instead of holding the tongue) that has made me the person others can rely on.

    And I do imagine that though God’s grace, as someone nears death and faces the fact life on earth is soon to end for them, may begin to feel remorse and repent. One can never know what is going on in the depths of the human heart: only God knows that.

    But your article has given me a confidence that if I continue daily on the path to virtue, it is unlikely that at some point I would do an about face and turn to hell. Regardless, I pray nightly for the grace of “final perseverance.” It has helped me tremendously in my daily walk toward God.

  4. I understood Msgr’s article to be one of needed counsel for all: those refusing God; those presuming on God; and those who fight the good fight but have yet to win the race let they boast / presume (paraphrase St. Paul).

    Msgr. Pope devotes considerable time to pointing out that, in all normal order, we die as we live. I need not repeat his portion on sow a thought, reap a deed, virtue or vice, character. When we die, we are the amalgamations of our choices to love or not to love. Sin is inordinate self-love over or at the expense of God and/or neighbour and the Mystical Body of Christ.

    He also notes the truth that grace builds on nature. If we’ve led such a un-Christian life, we risk despair in the hour of death when the devil comes, as well as Christ. Our character (life of deeds) will dispose us one way or other, and saints have been scared their goodness as not been good enough (not sufficiently using graces given).

    The effort you appear to make in helping souls who may not have lived a worthy life is dearly commendable. We “pray for US SINNERS now and at the hour of our death.” Any real Christian knows God wants us to save our neighbour, even at death. And God is love and mercy itself, manifest in Christ, such that all heaven praises his Glory! God wishes not one to perish.

    Unfortunately, when people live a long life of rationalizing away God, not wanting to live by the command he gives us for our benefit, when it’s time to die, they’re less disposed to the grace of a sudden conversion: they still have free will. There’s recently the case of a well known atheist who died for some minutes, claimed he may have experienced hell, and then summarily, perhaps under peer pressure, renounced his experience. Then promptly died. Did Jesuss come at his death? I would think so. Was this person disposed to accepting grace and repenting? I cannot judge his heart, but I can his actions, and they may suggest he was not. But that says nothing: the truth is between him and God of which none of us knows yet.

  5. Msgr. Pope, I read this blog post yesterday, right after my mother died. She was not a Christian.

    Although it saddens me to accept that my mother will probably spend eternity separated from God, your words ring true. As painful as the truth may be sometimes, to not tell people the truth (as you have done) would be ultimately doing them a great misservice.

    I personally want to thank you for having the courage and moral character to tell it like it is.

    May our Saviour richly bless you in everything you do, and may we someday meet at the great wedding feast of the Lamb.

    1. I am sorry for your loss. Let us also remember that man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart. Perhaps now prayer for your Mother will still avail if God saw in her some obstacles that were not reasonably overcome with may be exculpatory. If per chance she is in purgatory, our prayers can still help! Oremus! That God calls us to be sober about the reality of our hearts, may we neither despair even if, from our view the evidence seems poor. Again, let us continue to pray for your mother’s repose even as we never make light of God’s warnings.

      1. What a beautiful consolation to offer a heartbroken son, who acknowledges the truth of the criterea for salvation. Thank you Msgr., because both aspects are true: what you wrote in your article, and what you wrote in response to Justin. Our view must be a balance: knowing God judges rightly those who do not want Him, and knowing we cannot always or maybe ever tell what occurred in the depths of a person’s heart.

        My own mother, a faithful Catholic all her life, who loved God so much, and sacrificed so much all her life to stay faithful to Him, asked me , in her 97th year, a year or so before she died, “do you think it’s all true?: that there really is a God, and that there really is a heaven?” I assured her I believed it was all true, and that Jesus never lied. And since He never lied, then when He said “He who believes in Me shall have eternal life.” that is also true.

        Someone I knew who died in her 60’s in her sleep, appeared to have no religious beliefs or faith in God. When she died, I felt funny about praying for her soul. Yet, after I said I few prayers for her, I felt I should mention her always along with those other souls I pray for who have passed away, who I know believed in Christ. So, I leave it to God, since I do not know.

        Justin, my condolences on the loss of your mother. May God have mercy on her soul.

  6. Msgr,

    As someone who has struggled with feeling hopeless and wondering why I cannot change as quickly as I would like to–and why can I not simply “flip the switch” on change– I find myself appropriately corrected by this blog. With the difficulty of change, it is easy to fall into a lip-service “just love Jesus and everything will be ok” mentality, while my actions are showing lukewarmness at best.
    It is sobering to see the recognition of habits as they impact our desires and character both here and forever.

    It was like a puzzle piece clicked into place answering the question: “why would anyone choose hell? Surely I wouldn’t…” But of course I would–if I didn’t desire heaven or heavenly things because my years of habits have dictated my tastes.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    1. James: I recently came to a horrifying realization (after confession one day) that given my sins that never seem to be gone (like a garden full of weeds: I keep weeding, and the next week there are just as many sprouting as before!) I understood I must keep trying, but without God’s mercy, all would be hopeless and lost. It’s not my virtue that will save me. It’s His mercy. And I cannot presume on that Mercy, but keep asking for it, over and over, (like weeding the garden) and knowing it is only His loving mercy that saves me. It’s humbling. It’s our only hope.

  7. Msgr Pope,

    Another thoughtful article. On target as usual.

    You are a gift. Thank you.

    God bless

  8. Monsignor Pope, I have followed your columns for quite a while now. You always edify and and instruct clearly, and this column is no exception. Thank you!

  9. Such a good article, Mgsr Pope. It was intense frustration over my intractable bad character, and the lack of much evident change in that area in others around me, that opened my heart to search elsewhere than the Pentecostal / Evangelical church circles I’d been in for nearly 40 years and to let God woo me into the beautiful, holy, grace filled Catholic Church. Her sacraments are balm to my troubled soul, and are so powerful for infusing grace that now my small acts of obedience do, in their turn, seem to be effecting a real change of heart. Above all, the grace I’m particularly grateful for is experiencing the active mercy and love of God for me which so far exceeds my sinfulness and faults. I greatly treasure the sacrament of confession and absolution. Good habits in that area are gradually taking root, together with regular examination of conscience. Why all this so late in life? Well, there can be no doubt about how much I appreciate it! He knows me best, and I accept this was the best way He chose.

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