…a reader asks: Dear Father John, I know that the Church rejects the doctrine of reincarnation, but sometimes I think that reincarnation seems to be a much more merciful approach than just having one chance to live well and go to heaven or to live badly and go to hell. I mean, so many human beings have had to live in such miserable conditions throughout the thousands and thousands of years of human existence. Wouldn’t it make sense to give them a second and a third chance to get it right, by reincarnating them in better conditions, more favorable situations? Is it possible that we start as “baby souls” and live different lifetimes and different incarnations in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? The more we are willing to endure, suffer and sacrifice, the more Christ-like we become and the better our chances of a blissful eternity. Wouldn’t this explain the “old souls” of the world, victim souls (like Little Audrey Santo) and the heroic saints? It sounds like Heaven would be a WEE bit better populated if the system worked this way.
In our first post, we looked at the different standards of living that the God and the saints have vis-à-vis the world’s standards. Today, we will examine the essential core of meaning of our human life, where we will ultimately find fulfillment and how time is on our side.
The Meaning-full Core
Growth to spiritual maturity happens primarily in the invisible center of each human heart, where we respond either generously or peevishly to God’s ceaseless, respectful, quiet (sometimes not-so-quiet), loving invitations. God is so loving, so wise, and so powerful, that he can and does make his invitations heard to anyone who is human, whether the most primitive and uneducated and hardship-ridden cave man, or the most advanced and educated and privileged prima donna. The quality of our earthly human experience certainly includes external categories, and this is why Jesus and his Church always call us to every form of mercy and charity and justice towards our neighbors. But the essential core of that quality is moral and spiritual, it has to do with the choices we make in response to God’s interior nudging and invitations, choices often visible only to our conscience and to God. That’s where we determine what kind of people we will be, the kind of people who are open to authentic love, and thus able to enjoy heaven, or the kind of people who close in on themselves in a self-centered rebellion against authentic love, and thus are unable to enjoy heaven.
The Place of Fulfillment
Another important point to keep in mind is that the fullness of human happiness, as Christ has revealed to us, can never be achieved on earth in any case, since it requires a continual and unmediated union with God. That can’t happen in a fallen world. It belongs to heaven and to the new heaven and earth that will come at the end of history. So, as we grow spiritually here on earth, we enjoy more and more growth in wisdom, love, meaning, joy – but we are never completely satisfied. And the sufferings that inevitably accompany any journey through a fallen world are permitted by God as opportunities to grow spiritually, to grow in living the Beatitudes, growth that will lead us to greater intimacy with God now and forever. This too is why a life full of suffering is not necessarily a life less full of meaning and purpose and interior, spiritual fulfillment.
Time Is On Our Side
But what about needing more time (or more lives) to grow spiritually? The first thing to keep in mind in this regard is that we can never “make ourselves worthy of heaven” all on our own. We actually need God’s grace every step of the way. In other words, because of our fallen nature, our wounded human nature, with so many built-in self-centered tendencies, we need God’s grace to help us make the right decisions and respond generously to his interior invitations. And he will always make his grace available to us. But he will never force anyone to accept it. This is the drama of human freedom.
And God, the creator of human nature and the creator of every human being, is infinitely wise, loving, and powerful. So he gives every person an abundance of opportunities to make those choices that determine what kind of person they will be. In his mercy, he gives us way more opportunities than we actually deserve according to strict justice. This is why we have such an ancient tradition of praying for even the most hardened sinners, even at the very hour of their death: God’s grace can still work even in such unpropitious situations, and with the help of that grace human freedom can still repent and open itself to love. In other words, God’s providence assures that no one is cheated of enough time or opportunity to enter and follow the path of true spiritual maturity, of a truly fulfilled and meaningful life here on earth, and eternal life in union with God forever in heaven. In still other words, no one who comes to the Father’s house after death will be able to say: “If you had just given me more time, more education, more prosperity, then I would have been able to become spiritually mature!” No. In the light of God’s limitless wisdom and love, each one of us will see that we were given an abundance of mercy and grace, as much as we needed and more.
In Part III, we will examine why pagan religions often adopted various forms of reincarnational doctrines and how reincarnation subtly denies and obliterates our capacity to love, thus denying our human dignity.
Art: ”The Ladder of Divine Ascent’‘ or ”The Ladder of Paradise” icon described by John Climacus. Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai; PD-US-old-100, Wikimedia Commons.