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The Catholic Church has always reminded her spiritual children to reflect often, even daily, on "The Four Last Things": Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. For there is nothing better conceived than this
powerful meditation to bring forcefully before our minds the essential purpose of life, namely, to save our souls and avoid Hell. The saints have recommended it most highly, especially the great Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1689-1787).
The Catholic Church has always reminded her spiritual children to reflect often, even daily, on "The Four Last Things": Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. For there is nothing better conceived than this powerful meditation to bring forcefully before our minds the essential purpose of life, namely, to save our souls and avoid Hell. The saints have recommended it most highly, especially the great Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1689-1787).
POPE JOHN PAUL II - ON THE AFTERLIFE
In a series of talks at his Wednesday general audiences, (July and August, 1999) Pope John Paul II has been offering listeners brief commentaries on the options that will face humans after death: heaven, hell and purgatory.
Heaven, "is not an abstraction nor a physical place amid the clouds, but a living and personal relationship with the Holy Trinity," the Pope said July 21. "When this world has passed away, those who accepted God in their lives and were sincerely open to His love, at least at the moment of death, will enjoy that fullness of communion with God, which is the goal of human existence"
A week later, he told his audience that damnation, the "tragic situation" of eternal separation from God, is not God's initiative, but a self-imposed punishment of those who refuse His love and mercy.
He cautioned against a too literal interpretation of biblical imagery about hell. The "inextinguishable fire" and "burning oven" of which Scripture speaks "indicate the complete frustration and vacuity of a life without God," he pointed out.
Whether or not any human beings are in hell "is not something we can know," the Pope said, but damnation "remains a real possibility."
In his talk on purgatory Aug. 4, Pope John Paul said that "before we enter into God's kingdom, every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in purgatory."
He called purgatory "the process of purification for those who die in the love of God but are not completely imbued with that love."
Christ intercedes for us with an offer of mercy, the Pope said, but that offer "does not exclude the duty to present ourselves pure and whole before God."
The work touches on many aspects of this famous meditation, and these selections are presented to help with our own meditations when we approach the subject. No one could be expected to dwell upon every aspect of this subject every day, but rather any one aspect of the whole subject is meat enough for a profound daily reflection on our final end. This work is an excellent means to assist us in making this exercise regularly.
We should understand that Father von Cochem is emphasizing God's justice, rather than His mercy. Today, one hears almost exclusively of God's great mercy and of His love for mankind. These qualities of our Creator are indeed true, or, in a sense, is the emphasis on His mercy overdone, for we can never comprehend the great mercy of God nor His infinite love for man that causes Him to extend Himself continually in so many ways (for the most part, of course, only to be rejected by the majority of souls). On the other hand, the complimentary quality of God, His infinite justice, is just as great a reality, and if we would save our souls, we all must satisfy it by repenting of and avoiding mortal sin; and if we wish to avoid Purgatory, by repenting of all sin and making amends for our unexpiated wrong-doing. What we should bear in mind is that the author has purposely concerned himself mainly with God's justice, rather than with His mercy. Obviously, the author is conscious of God's mercy, but that is simply not the subject of this book. However, as a result of this emphasis, the reader should not thereby adopt a lopsided view of the task we have of saving our souls, thinking it to be impossible, just as on the side of divine justice there are many sobering aspects to take into account, not least of which are our own weakness and perversity; nevertheless, on the side of God's mercy, there are equal, if not in fact overwhelming, factors that give us hope of our salvation. In the 20th century alone, Our Lord has appeared to numerous mystic souls, giving messages of His infinite mercy and love---if sinners will only repent and turn to Him. Some of these privileged souls are Sr. Josefa Menendez (d. 1923), Sr. Faustina Kowalska (d. 1938), Sr. Mary of the Trinity (d. 1942), and Sr. Consolata Betrone (d. 1946). But there have been others as well. Further, the Catholic Church possesses the sublime Sacrament of Confession, whereby sinners may unburden their hearts and gain forgiveness of their sins; and she also grants indulgences. Especially worthy of note are plenary indulgences, whereby a person can make expiation for all the temporal punishment due to all his sins in just one act---one plenary indulgence. Indeed, Almighty God has been merciful to an incredible degree to us poor miserable sinners.
This work besides focusing our attention on the principal reason we exist and our principal job in this world, is also excellent for the many somewhat "lesser-known" truths of our holy religion, for example, that at the hour of death the devils intensify their efforts to cause a soul to be damned. For it is then that the person is weakest- physically, mentally, emotionally and even, one might say, spiritually, because he or she could easily be in a state of confusion due to concern about unforgiven or unexpiated sins. During the healthy, mature years of our lives, therefore, it behooves us to contemplate our death and our final end, and to prepare for a happy and holy death in every way possible, realizing that at the hour of death Satan will mount his most powerful attacks and we will be in the greatest danger of losing our souls.
The author says that death is a time of confusion for all, which in one sense is very true, for did not even Our Divine Lord cry out just before He died on the cross, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46). Death is not natural for us, and it is something we all wish to avoid. But if we rely with the help of Our Lady, surely our death will be as peaceful as possible and many good people achieve a peaceful, holy death---yet many of the great canonized saints were terribly concerned for their eternal salvation even on their death beds---a very sobering thought.
Another little-known and almost never-mentioned truth of our religion thar the author brings out is the fact that we do not know for sure if we are truly pleasing to God, i.e., whether we are actually in the state of grace and free from mortal sin, or whether we are in the state of mortal sin and worthy of Hell. And he cites Scripture to reinforce this point. Many today think that most people are in the state of grace and destined for Heaven; whereas, the catechism teaches that most adults commit mortal sins. This realization alone, that we do not know for sure if we are pleasing to God, should make everyone humble, if nothing else will.
The author also touches upon the topic of whether most people are saved or damned. The predominating opinion among the great writers of the Church is that most souls are lost eternally because they do not cooperate with the graces that God makes available to men to save their souls. And they cite several significant passages of Scripture to this effect, especially the famous passage in Matthew (Chapter 7, verses 13 & 14): "Enter by the narrow gate. For wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who enter that way. How narrow the gate, and close the way that leads to life: and few there are that find it!" Also, in Matthew 20:16, Our Divine Savior boldly proclaims in the following manner: "So shall the last be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen." And there are many other passages in Scripture to indicate this same meaning.
There are also several minor aspects of Fr. von Cochem's book that need explanation as well: For example, he speaks about God being "angry" with us because of our sins; in fact, the Bible in many passages speaks of "the wrath of God." However, we know from reason and we are taught by philosophy and theology that God is perfect, and as such is perfectly serene, or impassible, that is, He does not become angry as we understand it or undergo any suffering or change. Speaking as if He does is simply another human way of trying to express His justice with us, which takes the form of some sort of punishment sent our way. It is a symbolic way of speaking and should always be taken as such. There are immature folks who would dispense themselves from taking seriously such a sober study as this book deals with simply because of their own juvenile interpretation of such language. Those who would judge in such a way do so only to the detriment of their own souls.
Fr. von Cochem calls a mortal sin "an infinite evil," and this because it is committed against the infinite goodness of God. This is an aspect of sin we cannot fully comprehend, or even appreciate, while yet in the flesh, but it is one which we shall more fully comprehend when we see God face to face.
Then he quotes Scripture to the effect, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalm 110:10, el al.). Now to many of the uninstructed this passage is monstrous, for they would deny that God wants us to fear Him since Jesus was "good and gentle," "meek and humble of heart," etc. and since this view violates the goodness and mercy of God. On the contrary, the truth is that God is so good and is so holy that when a soul begins to advance in holiness himself, he comes to an appreciation of just how good "perfect" is, as in the passage, "Be ye therefore perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48). And the soul is fearful of not being able to satisfy the justice of God, and fearful as well of "offending" the infinite goodness of God. In any event, the burden here is on the skeptic to explain why the Bible in so many, many places uses this phrase.
Also, the author mentions the famous difficulty of a rich man being saved, as enunciated by Christ: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:25). Here we must understand that the "(eye of the needle" was a low, narrow gate in a town's walls left open at night for entrance to exit from a city after the main gates had been closed. It was so small that armed men would have difficulty going through it, but for a camel to go through would be nigh impossible. At the very least it would have to be unburdened of its load, symbolic of the riches which the rich man would have to shed before he could enter into the kingdom of God. But even then a camel is too tall and too wide to have been easily squeezed through this gate---though the job was not totally impossible. The people of Our Lord's time knew exactly what He meant, and the analogy was perfect.
Finally, the author speaks of the Resurrection of the Body at the End of Time, when all souls will be reunited with their bodies, which will be in a perfect state. In speaking of that event, he says that the soul will address the body and the body will speak back to the soul. Again, this manner of speaking should be taken in the allegorical sense, for obviously bodies do not speak when they are separated from their souls. This device is simply a graphic depiction of the mind of man in dialog with itself. We all speak to ourselves when alone; we do so when we write; this is the way the mind reasons when it figures out its problems. As we are made "in the image and likeness of God" (Gen.1:27), so we have, it would seem, like God, a three-part mental faculty that can speak back and forth to itself and also observe and evaluate the on-going conversation.
In conclusion and to reiterate briefly, the great value of The Four Last Things is to bring before our minds the fact that Hell lasts for eternity, and if we should go there we shall suffer, and suffer indescribably, forever. On the other hand, Heaven also lasts for eternity, and if we go there, we shall never again want for anything our every desire will be fulfilled. Further, the fact is that death can come at any time and after that we shall have our Particular judgment, when our fate will be sealed for eternity. Yet the great consolation from this book is that nothing is settled yet and that we have it completely within our power to opt for God, for Heaven and for happiness---if we will just have the courage to cooperate with God's grace and use the means He has placed at our disposal to save our souls. Burying our spiritual heads in the sand like ostriches will not make the problem of eternal salvation go away nor take it off our own shoulders, where God has placed it. But meditating on the four last things: Death, judgment, Heaven and Hell will give us a realistic and accurate understanding of the job to be accomplished by anyone who would save his soul and, by forewarning and forearming us, will the better prepare us to be successful in the only endeavor that really counts in life.
Thomas A. Nelson, TAN Books and Publishers, INC. October 27,1987
". . . it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this judgment. . ."
1861. "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God. "