What Keeps Me Catholic: The church invites us to risk heaven
Driving home this past weekend from visiting my in-laws, the highway had grown increasingly flat and monotonous. Even with the window down and radio on, I was starting to tire. What I needed was a caffeine boost to get me through the last hour and a half of the drive home. Instead I got something even better.
In the midst of farmlands, right at the edge of a field, was a billboard that read: “IF YOU DIED TODAY DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’D SPEND ETERNITY?” I have to admit it woke me up a bit. Several hundred feet down the road, I passed another one that said in even more stark terms: “HELL IS REAL!”
In the midst of this hellfire haze, I was reminded of a sign I had recently driven by several weeks in a row. Posted outside a small Baptist church, it had the ambiguous warning (or invitation): “Prepare to Meet thy God.” The questions which have remained with me ever since are: “Who’s my God?” and “Where does God want to send me?”
If Christian art and literature are any indication, it looks like God is an angry judge who’s set on convicting me to hell. Notable artistically is the “Last Judgment” painted by Michelangelo and found in the Sistine Chapel. Here the damned, as their loss of relationship with God would attest, are pictured as pathetic and depraved figures. Fictionally, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (the Inferno) introduced generations to the physical horrors of hell. Interestingly, in hell’s innermost circle, Satan is encased in ice; alone and isolated, contracting into non-being.
I’m reminded of a story about a man who prayed to the Lord. He wanted to know what heaven and hell were like. “Come, I will show you hell,” said the Lord. They entered a room with a huge pot of stew in the middle. Surrounding it were angry, desperate and starving people. Each held a spoon that reached the pot, but each spoon had a handle so much longer than their own arm that it could not be used to get the stew into their own mouths. The frustration and suffering were terrible.
“Now I will show you heaven,” the Lord said. Surprisingly, the other room was identical to the first — the pot of stew, the group of people, and the same long-handled spoons. But here everyone was happy and well-nourished. “I don’t understand,” said the man. “Why are they happy here when they were miserable in the other room? Everything’s the same isn’t it?
“Here they have learned to feed each other,” the Lord replied.
In a world mired in fear, despair and cynicism, the church invites us to risk heaven; to offer ourselves in vulnerable relationship to one another and God in this life in anticipation of the next. Yes, hell exists and it is eternal. But the more important truth of faith is that heaven exists. It too is eternal and the God of Jesus the Christ wants us there. The church says as much through the canonization process whereby it declares that said person is in heaven experiencing the fullness of relationship with God. It has never definitively said the same thing about someone being in hell.
Experience tells us, however, that there is power in fear, judgment, and condemnation. Following the ministry of Jesus, though, at its best, the church extends compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. This is Gospel. Salvifically, in this story, sin and hell are not the end, but grace and heaven. Like the church, both as a parent and teacher, I know that fear can stop or start behavior, but only love — heaven — can transform it.
This is what continues to keep me Catholic — risking heaven.
Daley is a freelance writer and religion teacher at St. Xavier High School.