Dear Father John: I admit I am fairly new to the spiritual life. But God has been doing amazing things, and I really want to keep growing. But I keep getting stuck on one thing. I just don’t get that, as Catholics, we are meant to spend SO much time focused on suffering! Suffering and guilt…Didn’t Jesus bear the cross so we wouldn’t have to? When I am suffering, of course, I seek God, but in my heart, I still believe that earth is not only a spiritual classroom, but it is also a magnificent gift! Am I wrong to love earth? Can’t I enjoy earth now and experience Heaven later (since eternity is, after all, so long)? I am sure you get my question, but I’ll put it in a nutshell, anyway. Why do Catholics put so much emphasis on guilt, suffering and living only for Heaven?
In part I, we examined this in terms of the truth that sets us free, the need for balance, and the acceptance of reality in its fullness. Today, we will look at this question with regards to living only for heaven and evangelization as teaching the art of living.
Living Only for Heaven?
Your question also mentions heaven – thinking too much about heaven, thinking so much about heaven that we forget about earth. You accuse Catholics of “living only for heaven,” instead of living life to the full here on earth. But “living only for heaven” is an ambiguous phrase. We shouldn’t live only for heaven. We are called to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” Jesus came that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
The ability to discover and enjoy and develop the wonderful potentiality of this created world is precisely one of Catholicism’s most winsome characteristics. It is one of the things that has helped make so many non-Catholic Christians fall in love with the Church and convert (myself included). Just visit the great basilicas, listen to the great Catholic music, follow the liturgical year, so full of Feast Days and celebrations and Sundays (when we are actually COMMANDED to give priority to worship, joy, mercy, and recreation!!!), enjoy all the sacraments… All of this is not simply an add-on to our faith; it is essential to our faith.
Evangelization as Teaching the Art of Living
The Catechism actually affirms that our faith in and longing for heaven, when it is healthy, should spur us on to be better, more engaged citizens of earth:
Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1049)
Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became, as you know, Pope Benedict XVI) once defined evangelization, the primary task of the Church, as “teaching the art of living.” That’s the Catholicism that so many joyful Christians and ebullient saints know and love and enjoy and work to spread. So, I would say, whenever you feel that something about your faith is draining your healthy vitality instead of encouraging it, that would be a yellow light – there may be some hidden distortion either in your perception of what is going on, or in how it is being presented to you.
A sad saint is a bad saint – even when we experience sadness, at a deeper level we can rejoice, because that too is part of the great symphony of this world that God “so loved that he sent his only Son so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Eternal life has already started for us. We don’t wait till heaven to receive it. Eternal life is the adventure of intimacy with God, experienced through the full and proper enjoyment of all his gifts. Sin is evil because it doesn’t appreciate those gifts and their real purpose.
Those are some thoughts. But, again, I feel that there is something underneath this line of questioning, some experiences of yours that I don’t fully grasp, and so I may not be getting to the heart of the matter. Count on my prayers.
God bless you! Fr John
Art for this post on Catholic Focus: Guilt, Suffering and Heaven? (II of II): La Santíssima Trinidad (The Holy Trinity), José Nicolás de la Escalera, 18th century, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.