Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Promise of Heaven

Homily, 5th Sunday Easter A, 2011

On the Feast of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, the reading for that day is the famous passage from St. Augustine's "Confessions", written in the 5th century, the beautiful passage where he talks about his mother's death. Well, as she was approaching the end of her life, they were having a discussion about heaven, and he says they wondered what it would be like, as he says, to "share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man." And he goes on, "We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of [the Lord's] heavenly fountain, the fountain of life." And his mother said, "Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world..." And as she is dying, she makes one request of her son, who is a priest and a bishop, "Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be."

Jesus offers us a great consolation in today's Gospel, “I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I shall come back to take you with me, that where I am you also may be.” The promise of Heaven.

So as I was preparing for today’s homily, I wanted to talk about heaven, and I searched through my favorite saints to see if I could find a moving description of this place the Lord has prepared for us. I went first to one of my favorites, St. Teresa of Avila, the great mystic, and her autobiography. Her writings are full of beautiful imaginative descriptions of heavenly things, so I thought she’d be perfect. But as I opened up the book, one of the chapters immediately came to my attention. In chapter 32, she describes not the place that the Lord had prepared for her in heaven, but the place the devils had prepared for her in hell.

And that kind of threw me for a loop, but then I realized that it might be a good thing for us to think about the reality of hell if we are going to then appreciate the great gift of heaven. St. Teresa describes her experience in hell this way (Life, p.300ff): “I was at prayer one day when suddenly, without knowing how, I found myself plunged straight into hell. I realized that it was the Lord’s will that I should see the place which the devils had prepared for me there and which I had merited for my sins… The entrance resembled a very long, narrow passage, like a furnace, very low, dark and closely confined; the ground seemed to be full of water which looked like filthy, evil-smelling mud, and in it were many wicked-looking reptiles. At the end there was a hollow place scooped out of a wall, like a cupboard, and it was here that I found myself in close confinement. But the sight of all this was pleasant by comparison with what I felt there… I felt a fire within my soul the nature of which I am utterly incapable of describing. My bodily sufferings were so intolerable that, though in my life I have endured the severest sufferings of this kind – the worst it is possible to endure – none of them is of the smallest account by comparison with what I felt then, to say nothing of the knowledge that they would be endless and never-ceasing. And even these are nothing by comparison with the agony of my soul, an oppression, a suffocation and an affliction so deeply felt, and accompanied by such hopeless and distressing misery, that I cannot too forcibly describe it.”

Well, she goes on with her description (as you can see, it’s not a pleasant place), but she ends by saying, “I realize quite clearly that it was a great favor and that it was the Lord’s will that I should see with my own eyes the place from which His mercy had delivered me… I repeat, this vision was one of the most signal favors which the Lord has bestowed on me: it has been of the greatest benefit to me, both in taking from me all fear of the tribulations and disappointments of this life and also in strengthening me to suffer them and to give thanks to the Lord, Who, as I now believe, has delivered me from such terrible and never-ending torments.”

St. Teresa learned from her vision that fear of eternal punishment, fear of God’s justice, fear of the Lord, can be a gift. In his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”, the Pope says pretty much the same. He was asked if we should be afraid of the God of Jesus Christ. And he replies simply (p226ff), “The Holy Scriptures contain an insistent exhortation to cultivate the fear of God… which is a gift of the Holy Spirit… as the Psalmist says, ‘The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ … Christ wants us to have fear of all that is an offense against God…” In other words, it’s not fear of God, but fear of offending God, who is deserving of all our love. The Pope goes on, “It is a constructive, never destructive, fear. It creates people who allow themselves to be led by responsibility, by responsible love.”

And I think that is an important point to realize when we think about heaven and hell. Saint Paul could only describe heaven by saying, (1 Cor. 2:9) “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.” The key is this: Jesus has gone to prepare that place – for those who love him. How do we show our love for him? He said it himself, (John 14:15) “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And Saint John would say, (2 John 1:6) “For this is love, that we walk according to his commandments.” If we keep his commandments and have faith in him, then Jesus Christ will be our cornerstone, our strength, our hope. But if we do not, as St. Peter said, He will be “an obstacle and a stumbling stone… [For] those who stumble and fall are dis-believers in God’s word.”

Many people often ask, “why would a good and loving God send people to hell?” But the better question is this, “why would anyone reject a good and loving God?” Because God does not send people to hell, people choose to go there, having rejected God. And we need only look at the daily news...

You know, there is this common myth out there that the God of the Old Testament is a God of Justice, harsh and stern, while the God of the New Testament is a God of Mercy, lenient and compassionate. But what did Jesus say in today’s Gospel? “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” There should be no difference between the two if you read the whole of Scripture. Certainly, in the Old Testament, there are some beautiful images of the tender mercy of God, especially in the Psalms. But also, in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus himself, there are some very vivid descriptions of hell and the consequences of not following God’s commandments. (Mt. 13:36-43) Jesus makes it very clear what will happen at the end of time, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” And that’s just one example among many, in Matthew’s Gospel alone, he uses the description “wailing and grinding of teeth” to describe hell at least six times. [As Frederick Marks said] “Anyone who reads five minutes of Scripture can see that our Lord was both loving and stern, rich in understanding yet at the same time demanding” – he had a clear understanding of the reality of heaven and hell.

Well, my search through Saint Teresa was not fruitless, for later in her book, I did indeed find a description, such as it is, of heaven. She says, (p361ff) “One night, [while in prayer], I thought I was being carried up to heaven… What I saw [there] was so great that the smallest part of it was sufficient to leave my soul amazed… I wish I could give a description of the smallest part of what I learned … but I find it impossible; for, while the light we see here and the light there are both light, there is no comparison between the two, and the brightness of the sun seems quite dull if compared with [that of heaven]… When the Lord had shown me [these] wonderful things… He said to me, ‘See, daughter, what those who are against Me lose: do not fail to tell them of it.’” She goes on to describe how these visions effected her, “[it taught me] where our true home is and [showed me] that on earth we are but pilgrims; it is a great thing to see what is awaiting us there and to know where we are going to live.”

And I think that’s part of the problem in today’s culture: few people, especially our young people, live with the hope of heaven in their lives. Many people live as if this is all there is, and so work for treasures on earth, while neglecting to store up treasure in their true home, heaven.

I believe it is a good thing that there are few descriptions of what heaven is like. Perhaps it is best that heaven remain a mystery, something beyond our greatest hopes and desires. Then, the words of Jesus ought to be enough, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and faith in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you. I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I shall come back to take you with me, that where I am you also may be.”

Saint Teresa knew the truth of those words well. When she was dying, her last words were these, “Oh my Lord and my spouse, the hour that I have so desired has come. It is time for us to meet face to face.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Good Shepherd

Homily 4th Sunday of Easter A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

Jesus used the image of himself as the good shepherd, for the image that he used in today’s Gospel would have been intimately familiar to the Jewish people. Perhaps not so much to us today, but the meaning is still very powerful.

The life of a shepherd was very hard. He was never off duty, for the sheep were never left to graze on their own. The desert climate was brutally hot during the day and very cold at night. There was little grass, so the sheep tended to wander and had to be constantly watched. There were no fences or protection from ravines and cliffs. The shepherd also had to guard the flock against wild animals, especially against wolves, and there were always thieves and robbers ready to steal the sheep. As he led the sheep from pasture to pasture, he would go first, searching for any dangers and leading them down the right path. “He walks in front of them and the sheep follow him.” The shepherd, whose image was used throughout scripture, was a model of constant vigilance, fearless courage, and patient self-sacrifice.

When Jesus referred to himself as the “gate”, he as referring to a common practice of shepherds at the time. “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be safe.” On some evenings, he would gather them into an enclosure with just one exit and he would lay down across the entrance. If the sheep tried to get out, they would literally have to walk over the shepherd sleeping at the entrance as the gate; the same for the wolf that tried to get in. He literally “laid down his life for his sheep.” But perhaps the most beautiful thing about shepherds was that they literally knew each of their sheep by name. “The sheep hear his voice as he calls his own by name.” Usually, he would give them a descriptive name, like “brown-leg” or “black-ear.” But each sheep was unique to him and would come when he called its unique name, so much so that if two shepherds, each with a hundred or more sheep, met in a field and their flock mingled, they could separate them again simply by calling out his unique call.

The Jews had a lovely legend to explain why God chose Moses to be the leader of his people. When Moses was feeding the sheep of his father-in-law in the wilderness, a young kid ran away. Moses followed it until it reached a ravine, where it found a well to drink from. When Moses got up to it he said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be weary.” He took the kid on his shoulders and carried it back. Then God said, “Because you have shown pity in leading back one of a flock belonging to a man, you shall lead my flock Israel.” (Barclay on John 10.)

So, when Jesus used the example of the shepherd to refer to himself, the Jewish people knew immediately what that meant: that he was someone who knew each of them by name, cared for them intimately, guided them on the right path, and was willing to lay down his life for them.

That is why we need good shepherds today. Too often today, children are left to “graze on their own,” to find their own way in the midst of a hostile culture. They are given little guidance or advice about which pastures to graze in, nor are the protected much from the “thieves and marauders” who come only to “steal and slaughter and destroy.” Because they have not been nurtured from their youth with a gentle shepherd’s guidance, they follow whatever voice happens to speak the loudest or tells them what they want to hear.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge has an interesting anecdote which may illustrate this. He told this story: “I showed a friend my garden and told him it was my botanical garden. ‘How so?’ said he, ‘it is covered with weeds.’ - ‘Oh,’ I replied, ‘that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.’” So, the nurturing, guiding, shepherding hand of a parent is necessary for the proper moral formation of our children.

But for parents to be effective shepherds of their children, they must have a shepherd themselves. And that shepherd is our Lord, Jesus Christ, who knows each of us by name, cares for us intimately, guides us on the right path, and laid down his life for us. He says, “I came that they might have life and have it to the full.” Following our Lord means that we will experience the fullness of life, as God intended it, and if we follow he, allow him to be our shepherd, then we will be a good shepherds to our children, who in turn will have life and have it to the full.