Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Necessary Price Of Freedom

Our Thursday trip through the Mass has brought us now to this part of the Eucharistic Prayer:

Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

I will pass over the part of the prayer asking that our oblation be accepted—this theme has come up repeatedly in the Mass and I have covered it more than once already in this commentary.

This prayer brings in a dimension of our faith that I don’t think I have written about much at all, but which perhaps I should, at least from time to time. It is not the central focus of our faith, but it is part of our spiritual and moral landscape, and we are foolish to ignore it.

That is the whole matter of ‘eternal damnation’. Hell, to be blunt. That there is such a thing, that we can go there, and that in fact we need God’s mercy and grace if we do not wish to go there for all eternity—this is our Catholic faith, the faith of the Bible, the faith of all the fathers and doctors and saints of the Church.

Hell is not, and cannot be, a comfortable subject to think about. I don’t really think it is meant to be. Uncomfortable to think about, and less comfortable by far to end up there, no? But we have to think about it some time.

It is true that in an earlier era there was far too much preaching about Hell, to the point that it really does look like fear mongering. As one of our wise (and funny) MH elders says of his childhood, “It wasn’t so much a matter of going to heaven, as of backing away from Hell, and at some point the pearly gates would slam shut with us on the right side of them.”

Well, that’s not right. Our eyes, our minds, our hearts are to be fixed on the Lord Jesus and His tender, merciful love. The whole attention of our faith is to be on the Gospel, the Good News of salvation, and the path of life and goodness it opens for us. The positive aspect of our religion—healing, forgiveness, salvation, hope—is far bigger and far more central than the negative—sin, brokenness, damnation.

But… these are real things. And we cannot (and if we understand them rightly, should not) wish them away. The reality of Hell is a necessary corollary to the reality of human freedom. God made us to be free. God made us to be creatures capable of knowing and loving Him, and entering into an eternal communion with Him. But knowledge and love cannot, by their very nature, be forced. Love that is forced is not love at all; it is rape.

But if love and knowledge must be freely given and received by us human beings, this means we can, indeed, refuse them. And this is the sum total of what Hell is, what eternal damnation is—we can refuse the gift of God, refuse to enter the eternal communion of love that is the whole substance of our created being, that for which we are made. Hell is a place of eternal frustration, eternal thwarting of the divine purpose in making us.

Now, where we do have to ponder deeply and think of things that make us rather uncomfortable is that our Catholic understanding is that we can say ‘no’ to God under our own freedom and power, but we cannot say ‘yes’ to Him without His grace to assist us. In other words, we can fall (like any dull heavy body) by the power of gravity and our own innate leadenness, but we cannot fly unless our Father in heaven picks us up and tosses us up, up, and away into the celestial heights.

So we not only need to know that there is indeed a Hell and that we can, indeed, go there if such is our choice in life,[1] but that in fact we need to humbly beseech the grace of God, as we do in this prayer, to be spared such a disastrous consummation of our earthly affairs. The good news of course is that Our Father in Heaven loves us very much, wants with His whole divine wanting to deliver us from this sad fate, and in fact sent His Son to die for us so as to make this grace available to all mortal flesh.

So that’s what I have to say on what I admit is a topic I have neglected and probably won’t frequently return to on this blog. I have now, officially, given you all Hell; let us turn our eyes and minds and hearts to heaven and to the mercy and love that streams forth continually from that happy place.

[1] Now, this is a mere single blog post, so I am not going into all the reality of what that choice is, and exactly how to get to Hell and how to avoid it. I recommend reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, if you want a clear and concise elaboration, highly readable and (best yet!) brief, on that point.

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