Leap To The Stars

L

In my previous musings I considered why no one will get to heaven, precisely because heaven is not a place to get but rather a person to obtain; more specifically, God himself. Our difficulty as fallen creatures is that our desires are usually so half-hearted and tepid that we flit from love to love with no solidity of desire nor constancy of will, carried along by the gusts of our cravings and the gales of our emotional vicissitude.

God and God alone is to be our one desire if we are to obtain him, we who are expressly created by him and for him, to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

In light of these considerations, we must with the disciples throw back our hands in despair and declare:

“Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26)

We are perhaps duller and dumber than camels, and not many have the dexterity to squeeze themselves through the eyes of needles. If it is so hard to enter the kingdom of heaven, and if the way is truly as narrow as Jesus declares, then what hope might any of us have? How can we escape the wrath to come, when our desire is rarely able to affix itself to one thing, let alone retain the gaze of unlimited light and love for an eternity?

The more I have delved into my own motivations and desires, dredging through intents with an introspective squint, I have come to realize that my childhood fear of eternity became more nuanced. Yes, I realized I did not always desire God and God alone, and I came to discover that this purity of will and of love was the description of the Beatific Vision. And yes, in my moments of potential saintliness I might desire that with all my heart and being.

But the reality is that when the desire fades and the days wear on, I find my loves and longings searching for greener pastures, leaving behind the father in search of pigs and mud. The terrifying prospect is that I am more than competent at justifying every turn in the road, every injudicious use of the inheritance for whatever I want. In the darkest moments of my existential blasphemy I might even deem to call these deviations the path to holiness, or subsume them under the pieties of justice or goodness or the platitudes of rights and entitlements. But whatever the case, I seem to never cease in conscripting God for my own desires, using him as a cover for all the things I ever wanted, be it providing rationalization or playing the role of overbearing stick-in-the-mud.

The nagging of that question transmogrified over the years, from being a question of whether I could actually be content with God and God alone, to this:

How would I ever be content with only God?

In Rigoletto there is the famous line from the Duke: “Woman, thou art caprice!,” an obviously ironic line, as the Duke exudes capriciousness in every act, moving from woman to woman like a bee from flower to flower without a thought or a care except his own pleasure and desire. If I were to be honest, I am myself caprice, latching on to this and to that as the moment demands, giving little care for how my desires should be ordered or to which object my will should affix.

And this is what bothers me the most: I desire to know God and to desire him alone, but my desires seem so disordered all of the time. In a moment of exceptional effort I might leap over that wall of myself, running home like the prodigal towards his father, but after the embers of desire die their inevitable death I am back in the mud with the pigs trying to cool off. If I find even a few moments of this purity of will to be an insurmountable obstacle, how am I to ever come to know and love and desire God in this manner for eternity?

This thus becomes the unnerving question that nags at every fiber of my being, this moment prodding on to greater things, the next accusing my every failure. How could I, a being full of caprice who still seems to be mired in his sins, ever hope to see God face to face?

Somewhere in the back of my mind I have always wondered how exactly I am supposed to get from who and what I am now to what I am supposed to be. We believe that Jesus is the way to the Father, that he has come to save us from our sins, that if we believe in him and follow him we will be saved. We are baptized and given new life, having the old life buried and washed away. We are being sanctified, and God is willing and eager to forgive us and welcome us prodigals home.

But then we seem to turn around to be right back where we were. And in my honest moments, when I think about the Beatific Vision, I wonder how this sanctification could possibly prepare me for such terrible union with God. It’s not that I don’t think God can do it, it’s more that I know that I can barely summon the will to love God even in my best of times.

And so that haunting question comes to the fore, and I can only see one way that I can possibly see God face to face and know him as I known: God has to change me completely. He has to bring my will into alignment with his, to transform my heart and my desires so that he alone is the object of my affection and adoration. Those little idols that I cling to in the sty must be trampled in the dust and left behind forever, each seemingly a piece of me I am unwilling to give up.

For a long time I never thought too deeply about this. After all, it sounds like a great deal; I pray and believe in God, follow him as best I can, ask forgiveness for my sins when I mess up, and then when I die he does the equivalent of a supernatural magic trick so that suddenly I am not the wretched creature I have been for my entire life, with all that half-heartedness and duplicity eradicated in an instant of time.

Who wouldn’t want that?

I know I probably would.

And that is the very reason why I could never attain the Beatific Vision, and why I could never enter into that unimaginable union with God.

Because in the end I want a sanctification without effort, a union with God that costs me nothing. I am willing to take the deal, and by doing so I prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I actually would not and could not desire God for eternity, because ultimately I would try to storm heaven on my own terms and claiming my own rights and entitlements. This is the logic of Hell, and thus that is where I belong and where- let’s be honest- I would desperately seek when faced with having to give up myself.

I do that every time I sin, after all.

If I am ever to see God, there is no deal to take. Rather, it’s an ultimatum, the one that Jesus gave to every potential follower: take up the cross and follow him.

Nothing about that appeals to my fallen self; in fact, I am more likely than not to complain about how it’s not fair or how God has no right to demand unequivocal love from me or any number of rationalizations that I have to set myself up as the one for whom all being exists. To love God means that suffering is inevitable, for I must suffer the loss of myself if I am ever to attain God.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

But in my moments of introspection I have to wonder: am I really willing to suffer this kind of loss? Am I even capable of it? Try as I might, will I ever attain to the complete death of myself so that God is all in all in me? Is that not what he created me for, and is that exactly what I am incapable of obtaining? In most of my life it sure seems that way.

And thus I face a looming death, either far off or sooner than I know, in which all the double-mindedness of my life must be brought to account and in which the hidden motivations of my life will be made plain. And to be honest, that kind of terrifies me, for I know that I am a weak and miserable creature, longing for holiness but so often failing to even come close to attaining it. This time we have is so brief; how is God ever to make a saint of me?

On the shores of the mountain of Purgatory Dante stands, as a man he has known in life sings Dante’s poetry in death. The beauty of the refrain fills Dante with joy, a sweetness that he says still fills him every time he brings it to mind. After his journey through Hell Dante is grateful for this reprieve, for after seeing the horrors of those forever mangled in their self-will he now hears the rejoicing of those who are ascending the mountain on their journey towards perfection. In such a setting the music of his own work could hardly be less than bliss.

But this moment is shattered by the bluntness of Cato, who disperses the revelry. How, he asks, can those who are being brought unto perfection tarry even an instant for lesser things? Divine Love itself is waiting; why are you standing around taking joy from anything less than Joy itself!

“What negligence and what delay is this?
Race to the mountain and strip off the slough
Which won’t let God be manifest in you!”
(Purgatory II, 121-123)

The mountain of Purgatory, of course, has terraces each corresponding to various vices. Unlike Hell, the sufferings of the penitent on Mount Purgatory are filled with joy for they know that these sufferings are preparing them to meet God. The “slough” is all that remains in man which clings to the former life, the final remnants of self-will which much be cast off. On the mount the penitent learn to despise their sins and self-will and to desire only God, for each suffering leads them further up and further in, growing in love. Each vice is replaced with virtue; thus, the gluttonous now hunger after righteousness and justice:

And I heard uttered: “Blessed are they whom grace
Enlightens so, the love of taste enkindles
No overindulgent longings in their breasts,

“Hungering always only after justice!”
(Purgatory XXIV, 151-154)

After emerging from Purgatory Dante finds himself a new man with a new life, having cast off the love of self and the double-mindedness which clings to our race, and in one of the most glorious phrases in all of literature declares:

From out those holiest waves I now returned,
Refashioned, just as new trees are renewed
With their new foliage, for I came back

Pure and prepared to leap up to the stars.
(Purgatory XXXIII, 142-145)

In the purifying fires the lessons of loving God are learned, and suffering forms the crucible for the new life. We are not beings who can be magically transformed into something that we are not, but rather our natures as beings marked by becoming entails that the transformation comes about by purification, as the dross of our sins is cleansed away, allowing God’s grace to make us new. It is tempting to think we can bring this about on our own, for we are creatures who think more highly of ourselves than we ought. But the suffering that brings about our sanctification is not our own doing but is the graciousness of God towards us, no matter how much we may protest under its weight. Indeed, this is surely why the scriptures say:

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. (Hebrews 12:5-7 NIV)

In my old self I chafe at suffering as a threat, an imposition on my autonomy or a contender for my delusional sense of primacy. If I am actually a child of God, my desire must begin to shift, for while I am excellent at creating suffering for myself, either intentionally or not, only God can provide the suffering and discipline that will lead to my sanctification. I must begin to see all my suffering not as a moment to assert my rights or to shake my fist at the injustice of the universe, but rather to discover the grace of God at work in me, for in every moment of suffering is another opportunity for me to learn to love God more and myself less.

In the midst of suffering it is the greatest temptation to focus only on myself and my disappointed desires, but it is because of this that it is precisely a moment for me to be able to leap over that wall of self.

For in those moments I can perhaps finally recognize my own inadequacy, how every desire which arises from my own will can only end in nothingness and frustration. The paradox that finds itself at work is that while my desire for God must be absolute for me to see him face to face, that desire is not actually of my own creation but is revealed to be from God. As every layer of self-will and self-directed desire is peeled away and turned to ash, so God’s will and desire is revealed in me and in my new life. This unfolding is desperately fought inch by inch and day by day, each minute a battle ground in which those wounds can fester and turn gangrenous or give birth to a new self which is refashioned in God’s image.

In this suffering there is hope, because though we are saddened by God, it is a sadness mingled with longing:

“We are souls who died by violence,
all sinners to our final hour, in which
the lamp of Heaven shed its radiance

into our hearts. Thus from the brink of death,
repenting all our sins, forgiving those
who sinned against us, with our final breath

we offered up our souls at peace with Him
who saddens us with longing to behold
His glory on the throne of Seraphim.”
(Purgatory V, 52-60)

And thus the question that has always gnawed at my soul finally comes into clarity, where the terror of eternity and the despair at my own failings crystallize. I cannot attain the Beatific Vision- God himself- unless I return from those holy waves refashioned, as Dante was. My leap to the stars is forever futile while I am still chained to the earth. Those chains will not be removed effortlessly; their release cost the blood of God’s only Son, and, if I am to follow him, will apparently require mine as well.

Taking up a cross, after all, implies an eventual execution.

In the end we all believe in purgatory in one way or another, at least if we want to attain God, for an eternity in perfect communion with God simply cannot occur with us as we are now. Some especially graced may shake off this mortal coil with their desires cleansed of the dross of hell, and we rightfully call them saints. And while I plead for the grace to be counted in their blessed company, I know that right now I am still standing on the shores of the mountain, content with petty and pretty tunes while the Desire of all Desiring beckons me in dulcet tones to ascend without delay.

The fires of purgatory are not only reserved for death, but are offered graciously in the here and now, if only we will submit to them. The air from the summit rushes down as a fresh and fragrant breeze on these twilight shores, calling us to die now and so find our life in him who is Life itself, who summons us to leap up to the stars.

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Jason Watson

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