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In these anxious times many people are looking at current events such as the crisis in the Catholic Church, or just the increasing societal chaos, with an eye on whether or not we’re approaching the End Times and the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Although Jesus Himself stated that no one knows the day or the hour of His return but His Father (Matt 24:36) that hasn’t stopped various prognosticators, pundits, and would-be prophets from guessing as to whether or not the End Times are near.
Some of you might recall a few years back when a radio evangelist named Harold Camping gained some brief notoriety by predicting that special date of Our Lord's return as May 21st, 2011.
Then there was the December 20th 2012 date for the end for the world based supposedly on the Mayan Calendar. Even today there are a number of internet sites warning of doomsday, keeping tabs on all of the current foibles and fables of Fallen Humanity.
There are also many Jeremiahs, writing in comment boxes on various websites, who feel the Holy Spirit is telling them to warn us all about imminent cataclysmic events, a necessary prelude to the End Times and our Savior’s return.
And yet, can you blame them? Many of us have the feeling of either impending doom or of Something Big on the horizon that will have us all reeling in storm tossed waters much like the disciples in the boat with Jesus before He'd calmed things down (as we read about in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 8:25-26). Is it 1861 all over again? 1929? 1939? Or a mixture of these? No one knows for sure.
And things look threatening these days, indeed! Christ’s church is under assault from the unfolding revelations of church scandals, past and present; as well as from political Correctness, apathy and hostility to Catholicism. Many of the faithful are undergoing a crisis of faith and doubt, given so much clerical malfeasance being exposed. Catholicism and Christianity in general are also undergoing great trials from radical Islamic groups such as ISIS.
The global economy is imperiled by massive debt and banks’ exposure to risky trading options far beyond anyone’s ability to pay if they go bad. World War III seems to be lurking around dark corners at an uncomfortable proximity, given tensions between the nuclear powers over places such as Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Oh, and let’s not forget racial and ethnic tensions; and the threat of our Power Grid being taken down either by an EMP attack or malicious hackers accessing the computers that control it! Such a cataclysmic event would instantaneously send us all back to the '50’s, the 1850’s, with food, water and other basic necessities drying up quickly!
So much of the world seems topsy-turvy these days. There are so many broken families and broken spirits. People seem to be turning away from Christ more than ever, to drugs, sex, the occult, money and power, and stuff and fluff to fill the void in their hearts and souls God was meant to fill.
But what will they do when these ephemeral items are subject, as Jesus suggested, to rust, theft, and decay (Matt 6:19)? He asks us to store up treasure in heaven, after all!
As the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote in his poem titled appropriately enough, The Second Coming, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned". What's bad is good and vice versa. Video games, TV, and movies have grown increasingly violent, desensitizing many people.
Pornography is available in various forms, some quite brutal, all over the internet, and children are being sexualized at younger ages and subject to gender confusion in some cases as well! Satanism is given a respectable hearing in some of our schools, courts, and even pubic venues!
Yep, as Tom Hanks said in the movie Apollo 13, the true story of a crippled spaceship's return to earth "Houston, we have a problem." A BIG one!!
We are in worrisome times indeed, but God did not create us so we would perish. As we read in John 3:17 God did not send His son into the world to condemn it, but that we might be saved. Christ is our port in the stormy weather that lies ahead, whether you live one more year or 100! What He asks of us is our best efforts to live in accordance with His Grace as "citizens in training" for Heaven, while not taking our future residence there as a given.
So in the midst of all this turbulence and unease I felt it would be a good idea to remind our readers of what is known in Catholicism as the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell! Many saints and other holy people felt it wise to reflect on them and keep them in mind.
Sadly, we don’t reflect on them much these days, and yet, despite their foreboding names, these Four Last Things can give us much hope and purpose, believe it or not, in reminding all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, that our existence doesn’t end with our last breath here on earth.
Each of us, besides being made in the image and likeness of God, are meant to be with Him forever in peace and joy. As the old Baltimore Catechism put it so well, we were made to know, love, and serve God in this world so that we may be happy with Him forever in Heaven!
Yet our salvation has not been guaranteed by Jesus’ Passion and death and resurrection. We must be diligent in following Him, letting Him work through and with us in His love and mercy while at the same time being respectful of His justice as well in our battles against our sins.
The journey to salvation is a marathon, not a sprint, and it is important to end well, so that death may not catch any of us "asleep at the wheel" spiritually speaking!
And speaking, as I did earlier, of storing up treasures..
We have preppers who, fearing the worst, are storing up food, water, supplies and ammo in preparation for possible coming disasters. Many also have "bug out" bags, portable kits of emergency supplies to last 72 hours in the event of an evacuation.
But what of Spiritual matters? What of Jesus? I read on one blog not too long ago we have to choose between Christ or chaos. In the box below I have some suggestions for a "spiritual prepper" kit that can provide much more protection where it ultimately counts, in terms of one's soul, on the path towards Eternal Life.
(This is not meant to discount the need for physical protection in the event of an emergency but spiritual protection is also crucial!)
Many people, (including not a few Catholics!) suffer from a lack of supernatural faith. They sadly believe that this life is all there is and one has to grab what one can out of it before death obliterates all our senses and feelings. (Going from emptiness to nothingness, as it were!)
They view Jesus' miracles as quaint symbolism and see Him basically as a kind of philosopher rather than our Creator as part of the Triune God.
Others see Jesus solely as a kind of Marshmallow Man of Mercy who will welcome us all into heaven no matter what we've done, (OK, except maybe for Hitler and some fellow mass- murderers and such.) It is certainly true that our Lord wants us never to doubt His mercy, as he told St. Faustina, the Polish nun whom He Himself called His Secretary of Mercy.
However, we must never take God's mercy as license to sin whenever we wish with no thought of the consequences, either in this life or the next. Two grave sins are Presumption, in which we just assume our salvation and Despair, its opposite, in which we assume our damnation.
There are many people today who think of Hell as just Heck, and some place a good and loving God would never send anyone to! Yet Jesus warns us about Hell numerous times in the Gospels, advising us famously to enter the narrow gate to Eternal Life in heaven (Matt 7:13).
I don't mention this to alarm anyone. Quite the opposite in fact! The idea here is to keep focused on God and His great love for us even in the midst of very turbulent and troubled times. Remembering the Four Last Things is a good way to persevere as our Lord wishes us to do.
Remember also that none of us knows when our number is up. You could be killed just as easily by a careless driver as from some feared catastrophic or mass casualty event. So without being depressed or morbid, let us work out our salvation with a healthy mixture of fear of God's justice and joy from being in His love in following His commandments. And remember this above all, as long as you're breathing you should never feel that it's too late for you to ask our Creator for His help and Mercy.
In tough times like these it's hard to, as politicians say in a more tawdry context, "Keep Hope Alive". But Hope is that great supernatural virtue that accompanies and reinforces the other two supernatural virtues: Faith and Love! Keep your eyes on the prize of Heaven with a firm determination to avoid Hell, and yes they both do exist!
I'll be covering each of the Four Last Things in greater detail in subsequent blog entries, but I'd like to touch on each of them briefly here, first...
On Death: St. Paul proclaimed that Christ conquered death with His Passion, Death and Resurrection (1 Corinthians Ch. 15). Yet, although our Lord thus paved the way for our Eternal Life, each of us must still face our earthly mortality sooner or later first. You might have heard the phrase "nothing is certain but death and taxes".
None of us knows when our number may be up, either from illness or perhaps an accident. We fear death naturally as the great unknown. But for those who have lived a live of love and obedience to our Lord, death seems less scary, as it becomes a gateway to Heaven. Still none of us can assume that our final resting place here on earth will lead us to a place of Eternal rest.
Yet death is a great leveler. All of us whether rich or poor, no matter what our occupation or position have to face it. Sadly, there are far too many people who think that when the body dies, that's it. Lights out. We Catholics, like Christians in general, believe that each of us has an immortal soul that lives on after death. Where we live on is what's so important! Is it in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory?
(I have here a brief summary on Purgatory, the "way station" between Heaven and Earth for those who die in a state of Grace but still have attachments to sins to work through. Many of us are in the number who go there!)
Those who subscribe to the philosophy that "he who dies with the most toys wins" are sadly mistaken. Shrouds don't have pockets and no you can't take it all with you! Living only for the world and its pomp and pleasures is a very risky strategy for ultimate happiness!
On Judgment: As we say in the Nicene Creed "He [Jesus] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His Kingdom will have no end." Keep in mind in this regard that, regardless of when Christ's Second Coming may occur, each of us will face Him at death for what we call our Particular Judgment, which determines, based on how we've lived our lives, whether or not our Eternal destiny is fixed in Heaven or in Hell; or, in Purgatory, mentioned earlier.
Note also that many towering figures in our faith such as Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen have noted that we choose our fate by the way we've lived our lives and based as well as on how we've answered God's call to ask for His mercy for ourselves and show mercy to others.
We also speak of what is known as the General Judgment, the one in the Nicene Creed, which will take place after our Lord's Second Coming. This Judgment ratifies the one we've received after death, and after this our bodies are reunited with our souls either in Eternal happiness and fitness in Heaven, or Eternal misery and pain in Hell! As you can see, the stakes are quite high. Our short period of time on earth determines our eternal destiny!
You want to be with the sheep welcomed by our Good Shepherd, but if you've spent your life trying to run with instead of from the wolves instead, you might very well wind up among the goats cast out of our Lord's presence (Matt:25:31-46). Be devout or be devoured!
Keep in mind that while Jesus said "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is Perfect" (Matt 5:48). He well understands we are all sinners who fall quite often! That's why He instituted the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). Never feel afraid or ashamed to avail yourself of God's Mercy and forgiveness in this important sacrament as often as needed. Along these lines this examination of conscience might be helpful.
Still, while God is always ready with open arms like the father of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) to forgive us our falls and sins in this life, He will be the Just Judge of our souls at the time of our death nonetheless. That's why it behooves us to stay as close as possible to Him and His church in striving for sanctity in this life in order to be happy with Him forever in the next!
On Heaven: This is our Eternal Home, which we all must strive to enter. This is the abode where, as is written in the old Baltimore Catechism we are to be happy with God forever. It is the true Utopian existence, not one brutally forced upon people as in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the last century, or North Korea today.
There is no envy or hatred among souls there. You dwell in perfect security and serenity with your loved ones who have also, God willing, made it there. And you're surrounded by goodness that is never cloying, contrived, or boring. St. Augustine famously said that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. In heaven the heart is no longer hungry or lonely. That restlessness is a thing of the past, never to return.
In heaven, the love you feel with be as pure as your soul, not counterfeit or based on some misplaced agenda. Just being in God's presence alone will be quite awesome! St. Paul spoke of himself in the third person at one point of being taken up into Heaven and was, as he put it, "caught up into paradise" and experienced "the greatness of the revelations" (2 Cor 12:2-7).
No doubt they gave him great strength and motivation to endure the trials and tribulations (some of which are mentioned in 2 Cor 11:23-29) that came his way as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Other Saints, such as St. Theresa of Avila and St. Faustina also tasted this incredible peace and joy in their visions of heaven. There have also been various anecdotal near death experiences recorded of people feeling great peace, joy, light, reunions with loved ones, dazzling beauty and colors, and experiencing the extraordinary serenity and beauty of bring in God's presence in what is known as the Beatific Vision.
As St. Paul himself said of Heaven, quoting a previous line in scripture (Isaiah 64:3) "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9).
And now we come to the possibility most people don't want to face these days. If heaven is the true utopia, its opposite is worse than anything you could possibly imagine.
On Hell: The great poet Dante Alighieri wrote of Hell in his famous poem The Divine Comedy "All hope abandon all ye who enter here." As I mentioned earlier, we must not fall into the trap of thinking hell is not real, or somehow confined to what we experience here on earth.
As bad as Auschwitz was for example, or the gulags of Soviet Russia, Hell makes them look like a Days Inn by comparison, if for no other reason than the incredible misery you experience there will never end. Death can't provide any sort of relief because you've already passed away. The "valley of tears" you might have experienced here on earth is more like a tsunami of tears in hell!
Jesus referred to it numerous times in the Gospels as a place of fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. St. Padre Pio is said to have remarked once that those who didn't believe in Hell would do so when they got there!
St. Teresa of Avila, Sr. Josefa Menendez, and the Fatima visionaries were among those who saw terrifying visions of hell. There have been other such visionaries along with YouTube styled accounts that have varying degrees of credibility.
It is worth noting here as well that the damned souls in hell might indeed experience varying degrees of punishment. But even in its most benign form, hell is a place cut off from God, and His wonderful Beatific Vision, forever.
And if God is love as St. John tells us (1 John 4:8) where there is no God there is no love! I'll go into the issue as to whether a loving God could ever send anyone to a place of such torment in a later post. Suffice it to say here that He does not want any of us to wind up there. That's why Jesus died for us, for our sins!
He is indeed a God of great, infinite mercy, but we need to cooperate with Him in ensuring our salvation by living as good, loving, humble, repentant Christians and avoiding mortal sins as much as possible (but never failing to confess those we commit whenever necessary to be restored to God's graces and friendship.)
Remember above all else that God gave us free will to choose Him, and that we should take neither our salvation nor our damnation for granted, as mentioned earlier. As long as we have a breath in us, we can choose Eternal Life and God's love and Mercy.
Just keep in mind that at the end of your earthly existence it won't matter how much you owned (you can't take it with you after all) but how much you loved God and others, and how you treated them!