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Finding Time To Prepare For Eternity

November 9, 2018 Frontpage No Comments


Each year the month of November stands as a milepost along our earthly pilgrimage, reminding us of our mortality by the two liturgical commemorations with which it begins, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, with the theme of the latter, prayer for the faithful departed, pervading the rest of the month. The Scripture readings for Mass during November, which largely direct our gaze toward the end of time, likewise summon us to prepare for eternity.
In the 1554 Spanish missal of Placencia there appears at the end of the book a “Mass for one celebrating his exequies before death” — a Mass for a dying priest to offer on his own behalf (Missale secundum consuetudinem almae ecclesiae Placentinae, Venice, Andrea and Giacomo Spinelli, 1554, fols. 394r-395r).
The Old Testament reading assigned to this serves as an unflinching admission of what it is to approach the end of one’s days on Earth:
“Remember that death will not delay. . . . All living beings become old like a garment, for the decree from of old is, ‘You must surely die!’ Like flourishing leaves on a spreading tree which sheds some and puts forth others, so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies and another is born” (Sirach 14:12, 17-18).
As a man who from his youth had kept the reality of death ever in mind and who spent the final fourteen months of his life as a prisoner face-to-face with the prospect of execution for his faith, St. Thomas More (1478-1535) knew how to put into words what it is to measure our steps in the light of the “transitus” from time into eternity that we will all have to make:
“To have the last thing in remembrance; / To have ever afore mine eye my death that is ever at hand; / To make death no stranger to me. . . . To buy the time again that I before have lost” (“A Godly Meditation,” in The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght, sometyme Lorde Chauncellour of England, wrytten by Him in the Englysh Tonge, ed. William Rastell, London, 1557, pp. 1416-1417).
The lesson to be drawn from all this is to spend our time well. As the English Jesuit Fr. Bernard Vaughan observed, “Give God time, and He will give you eternity” (Loaves and Fishes: Extracts From Father Bernard Vaughan’s Notebooks, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1932, p. 105).
Spending our time well means spending it most of all for the love of God and the salvation of souls. St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), who spent so well the short span of twenty-four years given to her by God, says of this, “There is but one only thing to do during the brief day, or rather night, of this life: it is to love, to love Jesus with all the strength of our heart, and to save souls for him, that so he may be loved” (letter of July 14, 1889 to Celine Martin, quoted in Carmelites of Lisieux, eds., The Spirit of Saint Therese de l’Enfant Jesus, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1925, p. 11).
Similarly, in a letter written to her sister Celine on New Year’s Eve of 1889, she writes, “Another year has passed!. . . Celine, it is gone, and it will never return, and just as this year has passed so also will our life pass. . . . Let us not waste our time, soon eternity will shine for us!…let us convert souls” (Saint Therese of Lisieux: General Correspondence: Volume I: 1877-1890, trans. John Clarke, OCD, Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1982, letter 101, December 31, 1889, p. 602).
The Irish maiden Venerable Edel Quinn (1907-1944), who was deeply influenced by the spirituality of St. Therese, echoes these sentiments in notes she penned during a retreat: “Work for the day. The saints never lost time. Live for the day. Life is made up of days. Why lose a moment on the way during a brief journey? Our Eternity is built on time. Never waste time. If one has given all to Jesus and Mary, one has no right to waste time” (Leon-Joseph Cardinal Suenens, Edel Quinn: Envoy of the Legion of Mary to Africa, Dublin, C.J. Fallon, 1955, p. 216).
The specifics of how we spend our time for the greater glory of God and the good of souls are spelled out over time in the particular vocation that God has given to each one of us, as Fr. Vaughan explains:
“I am created to do something, to be something for which no one else is created. I have a place in God’s heart, in God’s plans which no one else has. He knows what I can’t do, what I can do, and he has deputed me to a very definite work, has charged me with a mission for him. . . . Use then, thy life in doing all thou canst to love God, and make him loved by others” (Loaves and Fishes, p. 28).
In an article about the saints, the twentieth-century Franciscan martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) writes, “God has assigned each person a specific mission in this world”; after reviewing the varieties of missions among the saints, he notes that they all share a common purpose: “Their only purpose was God and His holy love” (“Divine Grace and Gifts of Nature in the Saints,” June 1922, in The Writings of Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, ed. Antonella Di Piazza, FKMI, Lugano, Italy: Nerbini International, 2016, volume 2, n. 1010, pp. 1808-1811).
The priest and missionary preacher St. Louis-Marie de Montfort (1673-1716) similarly finds a common, shared objective for everything God asks of us: “Your sure vocation is the acquisition of the holiness of God; and unless all your thoughts and words and actions, all the sufferings and movements of your life conduce to that end, you are resisting God by not doing that for which he has created you and is now preserving you” (The Secret of Mary, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1926, p. 4).
The times in which we live — and indeed, this very time in which we are all now living, a time of deep darkness — may prompt us to ask, “But how, O Lord? Why have you asked me to live my vocation in such a time as this?”
This question is memorably addressed in a classic of twentieth-century Catholic literature, J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Much has been written and said about the Catholic themes that run as an undercurrent through this work. While many of these are subtle and almost hidden in the trilogy’s complex mythological plot, there is one that is not.
The “theological identity” of the unutterably evil being Sauron is unmistakable, with even his name closely corresponding to his all too real counterpart — Satan. Tolkien masterfully draws his readers into experiencing just how deeply the good and the innocent in his story fear the power of this diabolical being of Mordor, a depiction that must have been inspired at least in part by St. Paul’s warning:
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
St. John’s description in his Book of Revelation of a great red dragon whose tail swept down a third of the stars (Rev. 12:3-4) likewise comes to mind.
The character Gandalf’s chilling account of Sauron becoming active anew prompts one of the most memorable exchanges in the novel as the young Hobbit Frodo reacts to the elder’s words:
“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (The Fellowship of the Ring, being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings, New York, Ballantine Books, 1983, p. 82).

The Greatest Shared Joy

Looking toward the horizon of our passage from time into eternity, all of us wonder what Heaven will be like — we know by faith that it will be a joy incomparably beyond anything we have ever known on Earth. Yet there are things we do in this life that are foreshadowings of it — I find this particularly to be so in the act of visiting the Blessed Sacrament.
This idea may tempt us to wince, because for most of us, prayer in this life is so often a struggle, with our weak, fallen nature often rebelling with distractions and its whining complaints that prayer is “wearisome” or “boring.”
But in those moments before the Tabernacle when we see more clearly, when we know the joy of Mary the sister of Martha resting at the feet of Christ, when we experience that union with our Lord so aptly described by Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) as an “I-Thou” communion, it is not difficult to understand that we shall find endless joy in contemplating God face-to-face forever.
And in Heaven we will find as well that other great joy that begins in this life — communion with our family and friends. Imagine, if you will, in visiting the Blessed Sacrament all the empty pews around you filled with all the people you have known and loved in this world, all contemplating our Lord with you. Could there be any higher communion of persons than this? In this life we find joy in a shared conversation or shared meal with family and friends, but can there be any greater shared joy than that of sharing Christ?
In this life God calls each of us to a distinctive path, a unique vocation all our own in His service. In this pilgrimage we may be separated for a time from family and friends, but in the end all our paths will converge at the gate of Heaven. And when we cross that threshold, we will all be together forever, sharing the one indescribable bliss of seeing God forever.

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