Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Gravity of the Situation

Recently someone showed me a snapshot of myself taken at a family gathering. I glanced at it, glanced again, then snatched the picture from her and began scratching at the print with my fingernail. There seemed to be some kind of blobby spooge located just beneath my chin. To my astonishment, the picking and scratching didn’t remove anything. The offending spooge beneath my chin was ... another chin! Was I starting to look old?

To tell you the truth, this business of aging hasn’t ever cost me a moment’s sleep. I’m from the Alfred E. Neuman, "What me worry" generation. Let’s face it - we’re born, we grow older, and, if we co-operate with God’s grace we will grow in wisdom and holiness. Then, please God, we slip the surly bonds of earth to enter into our real lives (after the necessary purgatorial picking and scratching at the remaining spooge on our souls).

I’d always felt aging was a beautiful natural process, a part of God’s wise plan, so we’d best embrace this process with a bit of grace and dignity. That is, until the matter of the saggy chin. Why had I not noticed it before? I examined myself in the mirror and couldn’t find any evidence of extra chinnage, but, then again, our mirror check-ups are usually tucked-in, straightened-up, perky little poses. I concluded the best way to deal with this was to sneak up on myself and glance in the mirror when I least expected it. Lo and behold, there it was in all its droopy glory - the chin that no longer had the will to resist gravity. And adding to this angst, my daughter reminds me I’m shrinking. I laugh and blame gravity, but, I suppose in the end gravity does have the last laugh. It slowly creeps up on us until it makes it final claim, sucking us right into the earth, $5000. coffin and all. Ah, it might snatch my saggy corpus but I defy gravity to claim my soul.

I admit I had an inordinate fear of death until a number of years ago when I reluctantly became involved in starting up a funeral choir. Since then, I've had the privilege to sing at hundreds of funerals. Not only did choir members become more comfortable with death, we experienced the wonderful blessings of this ministry. In the process we saw and heard much. We sang at funerals where, sadly, we outnumbered the mourners; and, on more occasions than one would expect, we were the only ones who knew the Mass responses. And, blessedly, we sang at joyful celebrations of a long life lived for God, where family members didn’t grieve as much as give thanks for the special blessing of having known their beloved.

As for the funeral homilies, over the years I witnessed a shift in tone. Where once the grieving were reminded of their own mortality in sermons crafted to encourage the listeners to greater faith, I’ve seen doctrinal shifts which are troubling. In some parishes, at many funerals, those assembled are being told outright their loved one is already in heaven, and they are not to grieve too much, for one day they will all be re-united in heaven.

While our faith does speak of a firm hope of heaven for the faithful, Church teaching reminds us that nothing imperfect can enter heaven, and who of us, if we died tomorrow, has attained the necessary level of wholehearted freewill surrender to God? Surely not I. There’s too much of me I’m still hanging onto. We call that lack of surrender, sin, and there’s no room for sin in the Beatific Vision. After all, haven't we had enough of that in one lifetime? Who wants a heaven where we’re still bouncing our sins off each other as we shed our wormy selves? Hence, the Catholic purgatory; yet, it is rare to hear the "p" word in funeral homilies. Certainly, we all wish that every one who died went straight to heaven, but formed Catholics know that’s not so. I expect even Mother Teresa may have needed a teensy brush-up in areas of her life where she still retained some blindness.

Few seem to be troubled by these homilies. They suggest it is just the priest’s way of comforting the family. But if we examine Catholic family dynamics today, we realize many families have members who live outside faith. And some - hey, even ourselves - may be in serious sin that we used to label "mortal". And now there are funeral homilists out there who are telling us authoritatively we may carry on as usual and we'll all be joining join the deceased in heaven on the day of our deaths. Houston, we have a problem --- a problem that can leave pewdwellers shaken and confused:

"There ya go, Thelma, did you hear him - we're all goin' to heaven."

"Shhhh, Burt, Father's still giving the homily."

"But, didn't you hear him? We're on our way."

"According to him, it would seem so."

"Cheat on your taxes, cheat on your wife, abuse your kids ..."

"Please, Burt."

"Mass murderers, garden variety killers, abortionists, pornographers, thieves, corporate rip-off artists, greedy dictators and their flunkies leaving their citizens in abject poverty - they're all in!"

"Shhh ... people will hear you."

"Well, isn't that what he implied?"

"Obviously that's what Fr. Harricy seems to believe. Please, hon, can we talk about this later?"



"Burt, it's almost time for Communion."

"But Thel, I can't stop thinking about it. He told us everyone is going to heaven. What if someone didn't want to go to heaven? What if they didn't believe in God? What if they hated God and worshipped other things - you know, the devil, the Dow Jones Index, their fleet of cars, their online porn sites?"

"Can we talk about this later?"

"No, Thel, this is serious. Really, what if someone absolutely hated the idea of God and church and faith. If Fr. Harricy says everyone goes to heaven, would they be forced into heaven? Listen, you know the faith better than I do. Would they be forced into heaven?"

"No, hon, they wouldn't be forced into heaven."


"Because God gave us free will."


"Free will. It means we can choose Him or not choose Him. He seeks us out. He knocks on the doors of our hearts. We can choose to open them and invite Him in - or we can choose to bolt the door."

"But ..."

"Hon, hell quite simply is the absence of God. If we choose to deny Him, then He will not force Himself upon us. That's the great gift of free will. What kind of God would He be if He forced Himself upon us - forced us to love Him?"

"I don't know; maybe we should talk about this more at home."

"Sounds like a plan."

I felt such concern, I wrote a bishop. He kindly wrote back, stating, "I of course do not intend to sit on judgement as to how many people would be in serious sin at a funeral and would leave believing they will attain heaven no matter what their situation or relationship with God, but to state we are assured of heaven is obviously not the teaching of the Church."

The answer? As always -- prayer -- and, the short charitable note to the local bishop is needed whenever we run across instances of problematic funeral homilies. If he doesn't know about it, how can he correct? If he does know, and does not correct, at least we have responded to our duty. That's all we can do.

As for me, I’ve grown rather fond of my saggy baggy chin. It’s just one more landmark to remind me I’m inching closer to death, the door from the rehearsal that is life on earth to stepping on the real life stage of eternity - evereverland. I pray I shall stay the course for, as they say, the rewards are "out of this world".