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Thursday, 17 November 2011

The eternal truths and the threefold remorse of the damned

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CZAS UCIEKA WIECZNOŚĆ CZEKA (Time flies. Eternity waits.) Left footer reports on this text on a sign near the sanctuary where he attended Mass. (H/T Mundabor) The photo above is from the Cathedral at Trier - the inscription says "You do not know at what hour the Lord will come" and applies both to the second coming and to our own death. St Alphonsus Liguori used to quote St Augustine "God promises us His grace, He does not promise us tomorrow."

At this time of year I devote four Sunday sermons to the four last things. It is easy to gloss over the eternal truths even though they are an obviously major part of the teaching of Jesus Christ in the gospels. St Alphonsus, in his Sermons for every Sunday of the year focussed mainly on the four last things. His sermons were what we would today call "talks" or "conferences" - they were not given during Mass but at a separate devotional service. His aim was to bring people back to the practice of the faith by reminding them of the eternal truths and of the great mercy of God which allows us the opportunity for conversion in this life. He stressed the urgency and vital importance of such conversion.

Speaking about the last things has become unfashionable in recent decades. It is supposed to be psychologically unhealthy because so many clerics cling to the personalist "I'm OK, You're OK." psychology that was fashionable in the 70s and 80s. (For more information on this, see this Interview with a repentant psychologist. If anyone has more links to stuff by William Coulson, please drop links in the combox. I'd like to feature his work in another post.)

Surely the point is - are the eternal truths actually true? If they are, it is supremely important that people know about them, and negligent for a priest to ignore them in his preaching. Unless the Lord returns first, we are all going to die within a few decades - that we know. If we believe Our Lord's teaching in the Gospels, there is going to be a judgement and we are all going either to heaven or to hell. Most of us should hope that we will be given the merciful provision of purgatory to make us fit for heaven.

In fact meditating on the eternal truths, the four last things, is consoling, not a psychologically damaging threat. Take for example the sermon of St Alphonsus on the threefold remorse of the damned. In summary, the soul in hell is aware of
  1. The little he required to save his soul
  2. The trifles for which he lost his soul
  3. The great good which he has lost through his own fault
This rather stark reminder of the anguish of the soul in hell teaches us that we should do that little that we require to save our souls - pray each day, keep the commandments, receive the sacraments, especially the sacrament of penance, and carry out works of charity. We are also drawn to see that the things which might cause the loss of our soul are trifles compared with the eternal bliss of heaven.

All of the things that we need to do to save our souls make us better people here on earth so this is not an attack on the priority of social justice: in the time of St Alphonsus and indeed until relatively recently, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy were seen as necessary, not occasions to pat ourselves on the back.

If you don't hear about the four last things at this time of year, you could make them a part of your own meditation. If you can get a copy of the sermons of St Alphonsus they are great - but the kindly and gentle St Francis of Sales also has meditations on them in his Introduction to the Devout Life.
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