The four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Not exactly popular topics of conversation, but during Advent the Church calls us to take a deep look at these four realities, and to look within our own souls. Are we ready for death? Are we prepared to be judged by God after death? Where will our life choices leave us after our judgment?
In a recent homily we were reminded that on our tombstone will be two dates: our date of birth and our date of death, and between those dates will be a dash (-), indicating our life. It’s just a short line, but it’s what matters the most, because what we do in that dash determines where we spend eternity.
As a community we are reading Sacred Story, by Fr. William Watson, SJ. He calls it “an Ignatian examen for the third millenium.” Hearing that little description of our life as a dash reminded me of something I read in Sacred Story, that we live a very compartmentalized life, easily forgetting that what we do in the here and now impacts where we will be in the after life:
It may be true that Christians today affirm an afterlife as part of the creedal inheritance of their faith. Yet the concept that the journey of life is but a step to an eternity with God in the Kingdom of the righteous – an operative and vital belief capable of shaping attitudes and values for daily living – has lost ground. Replacing it are more powerful market-driven, self-help forms of Christian spirituality that compel us to focus on instantaneous success.
[Charles]Taylor [in A Secular Age] offers an explanation for this loss of transcendence in modern culture and specifically in Christianity. Very few act on the belief that the actions in the here-and-now link to an eternal and transcendent realm. The consciousness of life events grounded in “higher time” has given way to viewing events in “vertical time-slices.” The assorted unrelated incidents of daily living cohere only in one-dimensional perspectives of “profane time.”
…Along with a flattened time-consciousness, comes the “innovation” to conceptualize the business of daily life as exclusively intra-human. All aspects of daily commerce, labor and exchange can be “disengaged” from any reference to God.
This hermeneutic allows human imagination to unchain itself not only from God-consciousness but all meaning making that relies on God as source and end. This imagination revolution opens the way for exclusive humanism and atheism. For the non-believer, this “disengaged” stance is associated with rationality and freedom from the confining and odious aspects of religiosity. It grants dignity, meaning, and prestige to its adherents. This disengaged stance once confined to cultural elites is now the principal hermeneutic for whole societies in the world today.
The majority of religious believers easily adopt this temporal/secular world-view. We can all consciously or unconsciously operate on its terms in the business of daily life. To varying degrees all of us are “buffered” from both the transcendent and the world of “higher time.” It is not that Christians do not believe in God or an afterlife. Rather, what generates passion, energy, interest, and meaning is skewed in favor of the visible, material world, not the Kingdom-to-come. In this anthropocentric shift, persons easily lose sight of the relational dimension of faith. What is lost is the awareness that intercommunion with the Divine is not only possible but also transformative in this life.
…Sacred Story follows the advice of Ignatius and uses through-the-day awareness disciplines and the Examen periods of contemplative rest to attune our hearts to both God and “higher time.” This is what [Josef] Pieper and [CS] Lewis invite: step into the contemplative stream where the present touches the eternal, the place where the personal God can be encountered and the place where the world as a whole can be glimpsed. Sacred Story is framed as a consciousness-altering activity that grants its practitioners a higher perspective by offering disciplines that ground them firmly in this “present-eternal” realm of the God who is yesterday, today and forever.
-from Sacred Story: An Ignatian Examen for the Third Millenium
The Church wisely gives us this time of Advent to wake us up, to shake us out of our stupor so that we can prepare for Christ’s second coming by preparing also for His first coming, when “the present touches the eternal.” This is a time to check our souls, to see where we’re at, and make changes that will help us in our journey toward heaven, which begins, not after we die, but here and now. The Ignatian method is one great way to do that. If you’re interested in reading more please check out Fr. Watson’s books, Sacred Story and Forty Weeks. You can also visit the website of his Sacred Story Institute.