We are discouraged to think or speak of heaven and hell today. Those who do are considered crazy, too heavenly minded or judgmental. In sharp contrast, throughout history the Church has reminded the faithful to “… keep death always before your eyes …” as St. Benedict enjoined his brothers. But how? Naturally we might fear the future, and rightfully so because we feel the weight of our sins and see the magnitude of our defects. We know we have not earned heaven. But we must also avoid falling into despair and losing the joy we have obtained by our adoption into the family of God through baptism. St. John Henry Newman, in his sermon, “The State of Grace,” explains how we might maintain humility and hope when we think of this subject.
In any relationship we feel sorry for the ways we have badly treated another. The same goes for our relationship with our heavenly Father. That we should feel sorry for our sins present and past is appropriate. As Newman puts it, “Now no one will fancy, I should trust, that I am saying any thing in disparagement of such feelings; they are very right and true. I only say they should not be the whole of a man’s religion.” Our sorrow, in other words, should not define the state of our relationship with our Lord, or diminish the joy He brings us. Moreover, by dwelling on our faults, we risk acting as if our sin eclipses God’s mercy.
The Scriptures tell us that even a “righteous man falls seven times” – in other words, daily we will fail to live a righteous life, one pleasing to the Lord we love. This fact would be enough to lead many to despair, but we must read the second half of the verse: “and rises up again.” The righteous man chooses to get up and keep going, to believe less in his power of self-destruction and more in God’s power of redemption. In fact, when we refuse to make peace with our faults, but rather choose to keep fighting, we can maintain our hope and joy. Newman puts it this way: “The absence of a vigilant walk, of exact conscientiousness in all things, of an earnest and vigorous warfare against our spiritual enemies, in a word, of strictness, this is what obscures our peace and joy. Strictness is the condition of rejoicing. The Christian is a soldier; he may have many falls; these need not hinder his joy in the Gospel; he must be humbled indeed, but not downcast; it does not prove he is not fighting; he has enemies within and without him; he has the remains of a fallen nature. But wilful sin in any shape proves that he is not an honest soldier of Christ.”
To have this kind of resilience we must remember who we are, Newman says. We must recall that we are children of God and members of the Church with the full privileges these states convey. We have recourse to the sacraments to draw us nearer our savior and strengthen us in our fight, we have the Scriptures to tutor us in the truth and the magisterium to guide us in living it. Before we can act meaningfully we should take the time to dwell in the presence of our Lord. “Fall down in astonishment at the glories which are around thee and in thee, poured to and fro in such a wonderful way that thou art (as it were) dissolved into the kingdom of God, as though thou hadst nought to do but to contemplate and feed upon that great vision.”
This contemplation is much simpler than many of us imagine. The famous Protestant preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was a teenager when one Sunday he walked to church in a snowstorm. Tired of fighting the storm, he turned into a different small country parish along the way. At this time in his life he was in despair about his place in the world and was seeking salvation. The speaker who stood up to preach was a simple man and an elder from the church. Spurgeon left the following description:
The text was, ‘Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: ‘My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says Look. Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just Look. Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, Look unto Me. Ay,’ said he, in broad Essex, ‘many of ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it is no use lookin’ there…Jesus Christ says, Look unto Me. Some of ye say, “We must wait for the Spirit’s working.” You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, Look unto Me.’ Then the good man followed up his text in this way: ‘Look unto Me, I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!’
The Lord addresses these words also to us. Take your eyes off of the storm, off of the waves, off of your weaknesses and failures. Instead, let us look to One who is greater than any storm, whose grace abounds more than our sin and who alone is able to save us. With Him we can acknowledge our sin and not despair, and with our hope fixed on heaven, never quit fighting for it.