44 Man is by nature and vocation a religious being. Coming from God, going toward God, man lives a fully human life only if he freely lives by his bond with God. Source
Some time ago I came across an internet Q and A site where someone—possibly facetious—asked if the people living in the Middle Ages knew they were living in the Middle Ages. The answer, surprisingly, is yes, in that Christians of that era identified themselves as living in the mid-times between the first and second comings of Christ. This self-identification created one of the great existential crises of the Middle Ages: a keen sense of termination, personal judgment as well as a sense of universal damnation, particularly in light of wars and plagues that afflicted the later period.
Paragraph 44, a summary statement of previous paragraphs, serves as something of a religious positioning instrument for a believer. There is a note of Vatican II’s definition of the Church as a Pilgrim People in this paragraph, in that our origin and destination are both clearly defined and we—individually and collectively—are hoofing it toward a well-defined destiny. The paragraph goes on to define a full human existence as freely embracing the existing bond with God, embracing the journey, if you will, by the markers God has placed along the way.
Consciousness of the future is a unique quality of the human species. I learned that very early in my own life when my family would vacation in Pennsylvania with my paternal grandparents. You might remember the famous remark of the political strategist James Carville describing Pennsylvania: “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, separated by Alabama.” Well, my paternal roots are in the Alabama part, to the extent that when I was very young my grandpa owned his own coal mine. To this day I am bemused by this aspect of my historical make-up; I guess I picked up too many “evil big city ways” somewhere along the line. My family was red state before the term came into existence—but I have no memories of my grandfather refusing his black lung checks from the federal government, either.
Anyway, I remember talking to my grandmother on the porch one day about the end of the world. That was a very common Catholic conversation in the 1950’s. She told me that she believed the end of the world would occur in 2000. I did some arithmetic and calculated that I would be 52 at that time— “old” by my outlook, and thus a safe distance away. The event of judgment was hashed over many times in my own household, too. Each of us would stand before all the people in the world who ever lived, and our personal sins would be exposed to all—something like a giant theater screen. At age 8 I found this a bit disturbing and worthy of at least a little attention in terms of daily conduct.
Of course eventually I would move to the big city—inside the DC beltway, no less—where I learned two lasting impressions in school about the end times. Our pictures of the end times come in equal parts from apocalyptic portions of the Bible and the literature of Dante. (Dante, incidentally, began writing the Inferno at age 35, which he understood to be the halfway point of a human life. As I am 68, I find his observation disturbing.) My professors would gave agreed with para. 44 that we are moving toward God, but that the moment of summation of the journey is unknown in detail except for the realities of judgment and encounter with God.
The second important insight about the end times and its attendant judgment came from my own readings during my years as a theology student. I so regret that I cannot name the source—I believe it was the great European theologian Karl Rahner, but I can’t nail it down—but I recall reading intensely about the act of death. The theological author stated the hypothesis that at the moment of death a man gets to see his life in its totality, in truth, and without gloss, and that this vision is in some fashion self-explaining: the person will know if his totality of life merits his unity with God for all eternity. This final retrospective is “judgment.” I do recall Rahner writing in several places that the act of death begins early in life (which is a biological fact, too) with every one of our actions, deeds, and thoughts contributing to a culminating statement at the moment of death.
There is much truth in this vision of death and judgment. I no longer think much about the “end of the world” as a whole because my end is counting down in very realistic numbers, with only the precise quantity of days still unknown to me. Somewhere the end of time stopped being a concept and became a finite number. And with that sense of imminence comes a more intense memory. I do believe that we get wiser as we age, but that wisdom sometimes seems like a curse as I return to various junctures of my life where I chose poorly, acted badly, or did nothing.
There are good professionals in theology and mental health who would say that mitigation of guilt is a treatment goal, and Pope Francis’ emphasis upon mercy almost makes one feel guilty about feeling guilty. I certainly don’t repudiate the hopeful elements of forgiveness of sin, but I cannot ignore, either, the experiences of those such as Francis of Assisi, who spent the last years of his life in a cave, lying face down, praying “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.” Or consider St. Thomas Aquinas, who in beholding all of his written works, said to his assistant, “It’s all straw.”
Para. 44 is a terse reminder of the journey’s end, but it does not say that it is ever too late to begin a true human experience, to freely embrace a life bonded to God. Might be a good thing to start sooner than later, though.