Dear Dan, why would the Church recommend that we meditate on such horrible things as hell and the last judgment (aren’t there four things.)? Anyway, if there is a benefit to doing such a thing, what would that look like?
“The Last Things”, or “Eschatology” is the subject that deals with the ultimate truths of our existence. Often called “The Four Last Things,” the number can vary. They are death, judgment, heaven, and hell, but we can also include purgatory and the final judgment. Some add the resurrection of the body and the end of the present world to complete the picture.
Your comment that they are horrible would apply to hell (at least inasmuch as it is the greatest definitive disaster that could befall man), but I would not qualify the others with the same adjective. Death is not humanly attractive – and our nature shies from it – but it is a necessary step in order to get to heaven. The same can be said of judgment and purgatory. For those in friendship with God, these are not to be feared. Although awe-inspiring and even painful they lead to eternal bliss, and we can consider them as purification for our sins.
I think many avoid these themes because they make us feel our limitedness and our necessary dependence on God. They prick our conscience and shake us out of our comfort zone. Most of all, however, they make us suffer because we often lack faith and trust in God’s love and mercy. We contemplate only our sinfulness and misery and realize that we cannot cause our own salvation. It is a scary thought. We are totally in the hands of God and his compassion. Nothing we can ever do can make us worthy of heaven. It is his gift, his grace (albeit, a grace he offers to all and, once accepted in faith, a grace that we can expand upon and gain merit with).
Contemplation of this nature, based on fear and without faith, is never recommendable. It will do little good; it will only make us agitated and worrisome.
If, on the other hand, we meditate on these realities based on the sureness of God’s love for us, the panorama changes. Death becomes a sacrifice I can present to God just like Jesus did… my last and most profound offering: my life.
The judgment may reveal my sins, but more importantly it will reveal God’s loving care and constant presence in my life – the almost infinite graces he has showered on me and the glories he has worked through me.
Purgatory becomes a place to grow in ardent love for him. I find myself not quite ready, with too many imperfections. I want to cleanse myself and enjoy God fully with no limitations. I “purge” myself; I sacrifice myself as fast as I can so that I can enjoy that final embrace.
Heaven is indescribable. Think of it as the sum of the most intense desires of your heart, all of them, all together. Multiply that by infinity and then grasp it in one act of love that will never pass. It is too hard to find the words.
Hell… definitely not a good subject. But the thought of it can lead us to wake up and shed our spiritual sloth. The children of Fatima were granted a vision of hell from our Lady, and it turned them into ardent apostles of prayer. Christ himself mentions it in the Gospel for those who would rather not take the narrow path but instead choose the wide and easy one. He mentions the fire that is never extinguished and the worm that dies not. This is not just a scare tactic to get us to worry, but as the Catechism says, “a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny… and at the same time, an urgent call to conversion” (CCC, 1036). I think that is the reason we should contemplate the eternal truths: they give meaning to our lives. They get us to pull our heads out of the sand and realize what life is really about and where we are heading. They turn us back to God and teach us to value him and his things above all else. God is not a bookkeeper, keeping track of our faults and sins and waiting for the proper moment to cut us down and cut us off. He is a loving God who loved us so much that he sent us his only Son to show us the way to him. Meditating on the last things enables us to grow in love for him and his mercy.
Finally, it is good to remember that the Fathers of the Church and the Popes have always recommended the awareness of (or the contemplation of) these Last Things. A couple of quotes from John Paul II and Benedict XVI can give us ulterior reasons for this contemplation.
To preach a version of Christianity which benignly ignores, when it does not explicitly deny, that our ultimate hope is the ‘resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ (Symbolum Apostolorum) runs counter to Revelation and the whole of Catholic tradition. More vigorous preaching and catechesis on eschatological themes is needed in order to eliminate confusion regarding the true nature of Christian life and of the Church’s unfailing hope in her Lord who is ‘the resurrection and the life…’
While many prefer to avoid these ultimate questions and some are tempted to think of salvation as a right and as a foregone conclusion, the Church must continue to remind people of the awesome reality of human freedom, the price of salvation (cf. 1Cor. 7: 23) and the riches of divine mercy (cf. Eph. 2: 4). In doing so the Church is defending the worth and dignity of every individual against all efforts to trivialize human existence” (John Paul II to the bishops of the United States on May 28, 1993).
“Unless we take (the eternal truths) into account, we cannot work well for the earth… When one does not know the judgment of God one does not know the possibility of Hell, of the radical and definitive failure of life; one does not know the possibility of and need for purification. Man then fails to work well for the earth because he ultimately loses his criteria, he no longer knows himself – through not knowing God – and destroys the earth” (Benedict XVI to parish priests of Rome on February 7, 2008).