“Betwixt the stirrup and the ground”

At a time of the year when sacrifice, death, recollection and resurrection are in the minds of many, diocesan priest Fr John Woods offers a very personal reflection on ‘the last things’.

Three years ago, completely out of the blue, I had a ‘turn’ which left me partly paralysed for some minutes. A rush to Scone hospital, examination and scans all followed quickly: my memory is somewhat blurred. For the first time in many years, I was not able to be in any church for any part of Holy Week! It is, in Catholic eyes, the climax of the year. After eighteen years in the parish, I left in an ambulance and could bid goodbye only with a wave, seen by no one! Surgery took place on Easter Tuesday and then, as radiation and chemotherapy began, the prognosis was that I might live for a year. Some suggested, “This should not happen to you.” I could but ask, “Why not me? I have no right to exemption from such things.” I am still here, well past my use-by date! There must be something I am meant to do: what is it? Give a little more thought to ‘the last things’? They are certainly to the fore in this season of Lent-Easter.

Recently I reread CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce. He rejected “the disastrous error (which in 1946 he could see being promoted) that development or adjustment will somehow turn evil into good…. I do not think that all who choose the wrong roads perish; their rescue is in being put back on the right road. Evil can be undone but it cannot ‘develop’ into good; it is still ‘either or’...”

He describes a bus ride to the foothills of Heaven. Not all are ready to alight and take the few steps to enter God’s presence, as some still retain a hankering for earthly delights, even inordinate attachments. Not having opted to choose God, without any ifs or buts, they need help “to be put on the right road” before they can approach God, up close and personal.

So who is worthy to “see God, face to face”?  Will I be? I am certain that both Heaven and Hell are for real, but we can describe them only metaphorically. The Church canonises Saints; that is, she adds names to the list of those we can be certain have gone, redeemed, to what scripture calls the “Banquet of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). When we use that phrase at Mass, it’s a reminder that the Sacrament is a foretaste of heaven’s banquet.  It is the metaphor of many of Jesus’ parables. The Church names Saints as examples for us to imitate, though not even the greatest saint was perfect in every way. We have no corresponding list, even of one, surely condemned to Hell. A new image for Hell could be seen in Kerry Packer’s famous dream after his heart attack, suffered while playing polo. It’s often been repeated; “There’s nothing there,” he said.  Was it a vision of eternal solitary confinement?

There are those of us who, at death, have not fully accepted the grace God offers to all and which alone can make us fit for heaven. Purgatory is our name, inadequate surely, for the God-given means to remedy that with grace, to redeem any remaining unworthiness. It is not a punishment, nor a ‘half-way house’; eternity is free from the restrictions of space and time. It’s a process, a bit like using a doormat to clean shoes on the way into the house, or, better, having someone (in this case, the Holy Spirit) cleaning away the dirt for us. The prayer of our fellows in the ‘communion of saints’ – the Church – can help us be more receptive to that grace. Once baptised, whether we are here on earth, already in Heaven or between the two, we are, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, in communion with each other in the Body of Christ. We ought support one another, by prayer and other good works; such prayer is a constant in the Mass. That time constraints do not apply in eternity means that it is never too late, or out of season for any of us – including me – “to pray for the dead: that they be released from their sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46).

I imagine myself, with others, on Lewis’ bus, seeing into heaven. I should expect to see St Mary MacKillop, St John XXIII, Bl Franz Jägerstätter, Dorothy Day… What if I also see there, Joe Stalin? Mao Tse-tung? Ivan Milat? Should I be pleased, or disappointed, even outraged? If either of the last two, I would have to stay on the bus until I could be cleansed and rejoice in the power of the goodness of God. It offends our Lord’s ‘new commandment’ for anyone to presume to judge another as deserving damnation.  God is perfectly just. Authentic justice is not about ‘them getting the punishment they deserve’; such lust for retribution is alien to Catholic faith and practice. God’s justice seeks healing contrition and reconciliation.

I am reminded of an intriguing verse on the tombstone of an Englishman not seen as very virtuous in life, who was killed when thrown from his horse:     

Judge not thou me, as I judge not thee; betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I sought, and mercy I found.

More than anything, I believe in, and hope to experience, God’s merciful loving kindness.

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