Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

When I was a child, I had a vision of hell a a fiery furnace into which people who died with very serious sins on their soul were thrown, Satan guarding the door with a pitchfork. In college, I read Dante’s Inferno, giving me even more ghastly visions of various circles of hell. For many, heaven is a place where angels serenada the souls of the faithful departed with harps and lyres.

Do you believe in hell? What does your faith tradition teach about the existence and nature of hell and who inhabits it? What about purgatory? Is there a heaven? What’s it like?

All Christian denominations accept that there is life after death. But Christian denominations are not monolithic in how they talk about what that means.

Today, we had a Mid-Day Dialogue at UST Law School the explored the views of several faith traditions on heaven, hell and purgatory. In addition to myself, presenting a Catholic perspective, Chato Hazelbaker talked about the issue from an Evangelical perspective, and Mark Osler spoke from his anabaptist-turned-Episcopal standpoint. As is always the case at these events, the subsequent discussion with the audience (which included a Catholic priest, an Episcopal minister and laypeople of various ages and faith traditions) was both lively and informative. Mark, Chato and I came away from the dialogue feeling as though we had each learned something and I’m confident all of the attendees felt the same way.

You can access a recording of my, Chato, and Mark’s remarks here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:48.)

Two Statues

I just finished reading Brian Kennelly’s Two Statutes, sent to me for review by St. Benedict’s Press. The book is Kennelly’s first novel, and he succeeded in keeping me engaged enough to read the book almost in a single sitting. The problem I often have reviewing novels, however, if figuring out what to say that will be sufficient to entice someone to read the book, but that will not say so much about the content to take away the enjoyment of reading it. But, on the supposition that I need to say more than, “Hey, I liked this book. You should read it,” let me say a few things.

The book weaves two stories. One has to do with the friendship between a retiree named Buck and his violin-playing neighbor, a private man who doesn’t open up about his past easily. The other has to do with a young priest suffering a crisis of faith who is sent as part of an investigative team studying something strange with respect ao a statue of the Virgin Mary. That the two stories ultimately come together is a surprise to no one, but the lack of surprise is no detraction. There is a miracle here – and it has nothing to do with physical manifestations of a statue.

What Kennelly succeeds best at, in my view, is creating real and compelling characters. Buck is described late in the book as someone whose heart is “made only for kindness.” And that he is; a good man. But not a plastic one – he pushes too hard, butts in when he is not invited, doesn’t always say quite the right thing. In short, human like the rest of us. Peter, the young priest questioning his faith and his vocation carries a lot of pain, and you can feel it in everything he says. We don’t always agree with everything he says and does, but we feel for him as we follow his story.

I was grabbed by Walt – the violin player – from the start. Tentative in offering or accepting friendship, he nonetheless is a man full of love. Then there is Father Paul, the priest who Fr. Peter accompanies to investigate the statue. His desire to help his friend find his way back to a place of God, of peace, is palpable. Then there is Sister Marie. And Donald. And…

Kennelly manages to combine telling a good tale that keeps one reading with a portray of characters that invites our reflection. A good and enjoyable read.

Mary’s Ponders and Wonders

I spent Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon at Christ the King Retreat house in Buffalo, MN, giving an Ignatian retreat for women. I have a passion for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, so it was both a privilege and a delight to lead sixty-two women through a weekend of reflections on this great gift given to us by Ignatius. God’s blessings flowed on all of us.

At one of the Masses, the priest spoke in his homily about Mary. As he told it: Mary is told by an angel that she, a virgin, will give birth by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that her son will be a king. She doesn’t totally understand, but gives her consent. She goes through her very ordinary life wondering what the angel meant. She goes through her pregnancy wondering how and when this son will be king. As he is born in a stable, she wonders how the angel’s prediction of kingship could come to pass. As she raises him, she continues to wonder how this can be. Then he goes off and starts preaching (perhaps with his mother following him), Mary wondering, how and when will my son be king. Finally, she is kneeling at the foot of the cross, still wondering, how will this dying man become king.

There was nothing earthshaking in the priest’s brief retelling of Mary’s life. But, notwithstanding the periodic reminder in the Gospels that Mary “pondered” many things in her heart, I never considered what it must have been like for her to go through her life, wondering over the years what exactly the Gabriel’s message meant. Surely she understood her son was special. But it was powerful to me to realize that as the years went on, she remained in the dark as to the full import of Gabriel’s message and what kind of king her son was meant to be.

The priest suggested in his sermon that it was not until the Resurrection that Mary had a full understanding of the meaning of her son’s life. That is a long time to walk “by faith, and not by sight.”

Mary was already a powerful role model for me. This message makes her even more so.

What Do You Desire?

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, we hear of Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus. Hearing Bartimaeus calling to him from the roadside, Jesus asks his followers to bring Bartimaeus to him. When they do, the first thing Jesus says to him is “What do you want me to do for you?”

What do you want? This is the first thing Jesus so often asked people when he met them. And He asks the same question of us. What do you want? What do you desire from me?

We are often uncomfortable talking about desires. We’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of our desires, to think that living a faithful Christian life means overcoming desires.

But to live vital and passionate lives requires that we pay serious attention to our desires when we discern how we are intended to live and love in this world. Our desires reflect the longings of our heart and point to an incompleteness in us that longs for fulfillment.

If, as Saint Iranaeus said, the glory of God is the human person fully alive, then desires are an incredibly important part of our discernment; getting in touch with our desires helps us discover what is lifegiving to us. Failing to take our desires seriously ignores (in the words of E. Edward Kinerk) “the greatest source of human vitality and passion which God has given us.”

Anthony deMello highlights this in a story he once told: The disciple, a Jewish man, asked, “What good work should I do to be acceptable to God?” The Master answered, “How should I know? Your Bible says that Abraham practiced hospitality and God was with him. Elias loved to pray and God was with him. David ruled a kingdom and God was with him too.” The man persisted, “Is there some way I can find my own allotted work?” The Master responded, “Yes. Search for the deepest inclination or your heart and follow it.”

What do you desire? What is the deepest inclination of your heart?

Transformation, Not Information

I read in a book review in America recently that “the aim of a rigorous liberal arts education is to follow the classical Delphic maxim, know thyself. This goal concerns not merely information, but transformation. From Plato to Heisenberg and from Augustine to Mahler, we are seductively lured to conceptualize not in order to remain in the metaphysical clouds but to return to the concrete self more clarified. We are urged to analyze critically, question pointedly and weigh competing arguments to secure our own humble place with the history of ideas.”

That was certainly my experience as an undergraduate taking a liberal arts curriculum at Georgetown in the 1970s. I took courses in theology, philosophy, literature, psychology, very few of which I took with an eye toward preparing me for law school or a career as a lawyer. Instead, they helped me grow.

There seems to be increasing demands that college be about job training or about (as author of book review put it) “inflat[ion of] accomplishments to please future employers, placate parents and repair fragile egos.”

On the one hand, I understand concerns about the cost of higher education, and the difficulty of college graduates in finding jobs upon graduation. On the other hand, I think there is cause to be concerned by market research I recently read in Forbes finding that 88% of college-bound teens place career prep and future success “over more nebulous goals like personal growth and pursuing their passion.”

If because of financial inability to pay or concerns about securing employment, college is no longer about providing a broad liberal arts education to our young people (or providing it to a narrower and narrower population), we need to ask ourselves how are we replacing that loss. How are we helping our young people get what a liberal arts education has to offer? Helping are we teaching them to understand themselves and their place in the world?. How to understand what it means to live a meaningful life? What are we doing to help transform them from students into adults with an understanding of, and commitment to, what is right….what is just…what is good?

How to do that is our challenge, not theirs. And it is our responsibility.

A Child Is More Important Than Boots

In a reflection I read the other day on Jesus’ comment to his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, Peter Feldmeier, offered a challenge inspired by Peter Singer:

You just bought yourself a new pair os suede boots for $200 and you are walking by a pond where a toddler is drowning. You would not hesitate to dash into the water to save the child, even though this would ruin your boots. A child is more important than boots! Now consider the moment just before buying the boots, knowing that those $200 could feed a starving child. Do you buy the boots or do you give the money to a charity that feeds starving children?

The hypothetical raises a good question for our consideration. Why do we think differently about saving the drowning child than feeding starving children?

To be sure, the drowning child is right there in front of our face and the starving children are not. But we know they exist. We know that children die every day because they lack sufficient food or access to clean water or something as simple as a mosquito net.

There must be reasons we react differently to the two scenarios in the hypothetical. And some of those reasons may or may not be legitimate. But we won’t know that unless we ask ourselves the question. And I suspect we often fail to do even that.

I Got a Letter

I got a letter in the what we used to just call “mail,” but now call “snailmail.” A real letter. Not a bill. Not a solicitation. Not a reminder from my dentist that it is time for my check-up. Not even a card with a quickly-scrawled note under the signature. A real personal letter.

The letter was from my cousin Joe, who is reading Growing in Love and Wisdom and wanted to raise with me some questions it provoked in him. Joe doesn’t have his own e-mail account or an account on facebook. On those rare occasions when he needs to communicate electronically, he borrows the account of his wife or one of his children. Otherwise he uses a telephone (grudgingly; it is hit or miss whether he will pick up a ringing phone) or writes letters.

I used to write letters all of the time. I’d engage in long written correspondance with the boys from debate teams who went to schools in other states that I dated in high school. (The letters we wrote back and forth were so long that they often were received “postage due.”) I wrote long letters to family and friends both when I was away at school and during the three and a half years I lived in Asia. And I received many long letters in return and loved reading every one.

But I can’t remember the last personal letter I received before Joe’s arrived. I’m sure it was years ago.

It is hard to the describe the delight I experienced when I opened the envelope and started reading the handwritten letter inside. It obviously took time to write, and there were no scratchouts, indicating that Joe thought carefully before writing each sentence. It felt like it mattered to him what he said and how.

I write and receive hundreds of e-mails a day. Occasionally I’ll write and/or receive a long e-mail, but most of them are short and whipped out pretty quickly – have a thought that needs to be conveyed, quickly send a two or three line e-mail. Another idea arises 60 seconds later, just send another one.

Now I’m no Luddite. I have a blog (duh), both a Facebook profile and a Facebook page, a Twitter account, etc, etc and so forth.

But I’m thinking that maybe it would be a great gift both to myself and to friends/family who live at a distance if I occasionally took pen to paper and slowly and carefully shared some thoughts with them. I’m guessing the recipient might take as much delight in receiving my letter as I did in receiving Joe’s.

Remembering Vatican II

On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII delivered the opening speech for the Council of Vatican II, considered by many to be the most significant event for the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century. The Council lasted three years and resulted in the issuance of a number of important documents on a range of subject including the theology and role of the Church, liturgy, and the role of the laity.

A number of institutions have been holding events in relation to the 50th Anniversary. On October 11, Fr. Dan Griffith and I offered a Mid-Day Reflection at UST Law School titled Remembering Vatican II. Our goal was to help educate people, especially our students who are too young to have lived through the Council, about what Vatican II did and didn’t do, and to explore why some people view the council as a great step forward for the Church and others as the blame for many of the Church’s struggles today.

Fr. Dan began by talking about the historical context of the Council and then talked about some of the Council’s major themes and what he termed “unfinished business” and challenges arising out of Vatican II. I then spoke about the Vatican II and the Role of the Laity.

You can access a recording of Dan and my remarks here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 43:15.) We ended the session with some time for (a brief) large group discussion.

I Am Not Afraid to Die

My cousin Bobby was a fireman for almost twenty years when he lost his life fighting a house fire on November 23, 2008. Since his death, family and friends have annually held a toy drive for children of the burn center where he had been treated after a previous job-related injury.

The website for this year’s drive, which is going on now, includes two videos, one of pictures of Bobby through the years (which was both sweet and painful for me to watch) and the second of which scrolled through a journal Bobby was required to keep in one of his 8th grade classes.

On June 2 of that 8th grade year, at the age of about 13, Bobby wrote an entry in his journal titled Life and Death! The post begins on a note I suspect resonates for most of us, whether or not we articulate it.

I’ll tell you right now, I don’t plan on dying for another seventy years.

Intellectually, we know we can die any time, but that’s not how we live our lives. We live with an expectation that we can plan for things that will happen next year….when we retire…when our children have children, etc. We don’t plan on dying – and we certainly do not plan on dying young.

Bobby went on to say

I would like to live to be about eighty or eighty-five. A lot of people would rather be dead than alive. I think that they are damn fools… Life is the most precious gift God ever made, and it should not be taken advantage of.

Bobby knew then – and continued to know as he grew to adulthood that life is precious. That it is a gift from God. And he lived that way.

The next line was chilling to me – Bobby’s hope for how he would die.

When I die, I would like to die in my sleep, because it is painless and peaceful.

Bobby didn’t die in his sleep. He was killed when an attic ceiling collapsed on him as he was fighting a house fire, knocking off his helmet and air mask. I’d like to think his death was painless, but it is hard for to me to imagine that possibility given the circumstances. In any event, it certainly wasn’t peaceful.

Even at that young age, Bobby understood that his hope was only just that – a hope. His next journal line reads

But, then again, I can’t control when or how I die.

An important realization, but one we have trouble acknowledging.

How did that lack of control make him feel? The final line – the last thing he felt he needed to add to his journal entry – gives all the answer that is needed. I read it and simultaneously smiled and cried:

There is one other thing too, I am not afraid to die.

The words of an 8th grader. How deep was his theological understanding of resurrection of the dead when he wrote those lines? I don’t know. But I hope as he grew he continued to know that the God who gifted him with life would also be there holding him when he died.

“I am not afraid to die.” May we all have the security of God’s boundless and eternal love, the security that allows us to face death without fear.

The Power to Serve

At Mass yesterday, we listened to the passage from St. Mark’s Gospel in which James and John ask Jesus to “grant that in your glory we may sit at your right and the other at your left.”

Positions of power and glory to be sure. High seats, where everyone may see the brothers, knowing they are great men. Positions form which they presumably may wield authority over others. Ambitious men, these two. The same can probably be said for the other followers of Jesus. We are told that the other apostles “became indignant” at James and John for their request; I’ve always thought their reaction was more about being upset they didn’t think to ask the question before James and John did than anything else.

In reply Jesus asks them, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

In his homily, Fr. Dale described the cup Jesus drinks as the cup of service and suffering. For there is suffering in living a life modeled on Christ’s – in putting the needs of others over the desires of the self. But, he reminded us, there is also tremendous joy in doing so.

Ambition is a very human thing. But today’s Gospel reminds us that discipleship in Christ is not about power and glory in the worldly understanding of those terms. The power of Christ in us is not about sitting up on high chairs where everyone can see us, giving us kudos and respect, kissing our rings and kneeling before us.

In Fr. Dale’s words near the end of his homily: The power of discipleship is the power to serve.

During the offertory at Mass, we sang the beautiful Servant Song: