Sunday, January 3, 2016

Hard Sayings, Part III: "I am in anguish in this flame"

"The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom.  The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment...he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus [the poor man] to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.'"
                                                                                                                                        Luke 16: 22-23

I have a great deal of affection for the late Fr. Hugh Thwaites SJ.  Though I never met him, he used to lull me to sleep every night as I laid listening to his audio recordings.  He artfully explained the faith, and he taught me to mix-in a dollop of honey whenever discussing the more challenging teachings of Christ.  In this, he was a great follower of St. Frances de Sales, though he always remained a Jesuit.  In fact, he was the "poor man" among the British Jesuits, an antique or embarrassment to most of his peers, blithely recalcitrant and unwilling to get with the times.  For all that, conversions followed him wherever he went (even in rough and tumble Brixton), and many who knew him thought he was a saint. When he passed in 2012, he was graced with a final jewel in his crown: his order refused to honor his request for a traditional Latin requiem mass. Many observers saw it an an outrage, a petty settling of scores, but to God it was one more glory for the "poor man", the good and faithful servant.  Read this story here for a delightful example of his humility.

Fr. Thwaites SJ, ora pro nobis.
I was delighted when Fr. John Boyle of St. Stephens'
told me that he used to serve as Fr. Thwaites's altar boy!

By contrast, a famous, influential catholic died some years back, and his funeral was attended by an impressive cross-section of politicians, sports heroes and music and movie stars.  His funeral mass was even presided over by a cardinal of the Church--an extraordinary honor.  There was only one problem: the deceased had spent his public and private life ushering in what St. John Paul II described as "the culture of death".  He was a key player in all of the excesses of the sexual revolution, and few contemporary men have done more to build up St. Augustine's "City of Man", a worldly order marked by the love of self, even to the contempt of God.

Young girls all over the globe want to be like these "rich women"
At the time of the funeral I was still young in the faith, one of Jesus' "little ones" (Luke 17:2), and so especially sensitive to scandal and confusion.  That day was the first and only time my faith began to totter and sway, nearing to despair, and I know that I wasn't the only one.  Perhaps that's why our Lord warned against the man who "relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so", for he "shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:18-19)

Up to that time, God had given me the gift of faith (as a wise woman once told me), but in a moment of anguish I began to question.  I remember standing in the kitchen, thinking, "Sure there's God and demons, but what's the point of it all?  Nobody acts like any of this stuff matters anymore--even this cardinal.  Who am I to resist it all and insist that I've got it right?"  Then I was instantly and briefly absorbed by an interior vision.  The face of the the deceased, the "rich man", was alone in a great black cloud.  His eyes and mouth fixed in horror and despair.  He was frozen in shock, like a parent who had just witnessed their child run over by a car.  It was a face I will never forget.  It also seemed to sag, as though it was melting from heat.  Afterwards I couldn't wait to tell somebody.  My poor wife listened to my animated story, and when I declared that so-and-so was in hell, I was given a strong spiritual rebuke.  Perhaps my guardian angel had sternly interrupted my tale since it was not my place to make an assumption about his eternal salvation.  The point of the vision was that those who stubbornly live according to their own law--and teach others to do the same--will face the pains of divine justice.  St. Bernadette Soubirous knew this and greatly feared for "bad catholics" (as Monsignor Pope tells us).  It's especially fearful when the obstinate sinner presumes to receive holy communion and the other sacraments, thus piling guilt upon guilt. We should also fear for the clergy who are abetting such mockery and sacrilege, their zeal grown cold.

Even leaving aside the prospect of hell, in purgatory the first pains of purification can be horrifying as the person loses all of his self-protections under the gaze of divine love.  The soul is naked before God, and the fire of divine love then "burns up" all excuses, honors, comforts and conceits.  In short, whatever is not of God.  I once experienced something like this four years ago after blowing up at my in-laws (my dear father-in law likes to mock religion).  Afterwards, I laid face down on the bed trying to pray the rosary, sobbing, seeing my bare soul under the still gaze of Christ.  The sorrow was agonizing, and it took me two hours to pray a single rosary.  Jesus was not pleased at my mis-guided jealousy for his honor, a crusade with so little love.  Like I said, there are no conceits before God.

The only banner we should carry

If the "rich man" of our story was mercifully delivered to purgatory, it was doubtless because of his innumerable small acts of charity.  After his death, many people came forward and described how he took a personal interest in their plight, and used his influence to aid them.  This was done without fanfare and publicity.  As the saints have told us, many "big sinners" have been saved by one small act of love, even those who carried the banner of the devil.  In the first throes of purgatory, the rich man's little kindnesses are small consolation, but as he is purified, as he moves closer to the source of the divine flames, they will become a great consolation.  He will delight in them, because they are of God, and God is now his great desire.  For those who'd like to read more about purgatory, please check out Hungry Souls by Gerard Van Den Ardweg.  It is a spiritually deep and detailed book, and gives the reader a sense of the different stages of purgation.

Shake Off The Illusion

"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
                                                                                                 Gospel of John 3:12

St. John the Baptist plainly states the inevitable fate of us all, for good or ill, but is any one listening anymore?  So much of the Church seems asleep, content with the comforts of modern life.  It takes a Herculean effort to resist the heavy dew of complacency.  The dew is nearly palpable.  The world, the flesh and the devil combine to lure us to shrug off everything into God's hands, and just get along with the world.  But the world is sick and needs it's Savior, and the Savior is looking to us.  So just take up the banner and walk, and you will win your crown and many will come with you.

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