This is the third talk on the theme that "the Truth will set you free." I ended the last talk by telling you how my mother and father's lives were destroyed by the insane cultural pressures that surrounded them. Because they had allowed their lives to be dictated and defined by others, each failed, at least in this life, to experience the "fullness of life" that God meant them to have and to discover the person that they were really meant to be. However, I ended on a note of hope by telling you how I am certain that they both were saved by God: my mother because she entered eternity with a heart full of repentance and humility and my father because I chose to forgive him for his inadequacies as a father.
The point that I was trying to make is that God, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, throws nobody into hell, rather, we choose it and cause it ourselves. This might surprise you because I know that it surprised me when I first read it. Many of us have grown up with the concept that God is a vindictive tyrant who has imposed laws of behavior on us that seem to be at war with our basic instincts and desires. He keeps demanding that we don't do what we want to do and insists, rather, that we should do what we don't want to do. Thus we often feel like St. Paul when he writes beginning in Romans 7:14
"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do... For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
And how does Jesus save us from our sins. Have we ever considered that Jesus came to lift us to a higher level rather than to condemn us to a lower level? In other words, life was already hellish when he arrived and He was simply trying to warn us that unless we repented of our hellish ways, it would never become any better.
Most of us when we think of heaven and hell think of reward and punishment rather then the logical consequences that flow from our behavior. Yet the scriptures are full of references to the illimitable mercy of God. For example, one scriptural reference says, His mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Now you can't be more merciful than that. Then what is heaven and what is hell? Our flesh, because it is rooted in sensation, imagines heaven to be a place of eternal pleasure and hell to be a place of eternal pain. The Muslim's description is full of beautiful women, delicious foods, and sumptuous surroundings; everything that our flesh or physical selves could desire. Yet, according to the Church, heaven is the Beatific Vision, which means to be in the presence of God, and hell is to turn your back on Him and to ignore or reject His presence. But that doesn't sound so heavenly or hellish until you realize that the qualities of God are love, patience, justice wisdom, faithfulness, etc. Therefore, hell, which is the absence of the Beatific Vision or God must be just the opposite. It could be described as a place where hate, impatience, injustice, stupidity, unfaithfulness etc. are the ruling qualities of those who are there.
Did you ever compare your agenda with God's agenda? God says "honor your father and mother, don't kill each other, be faithful in your sexual relations, don't take what doesn't belong to you, don't covet your neighbors spouse or goods, and don't testify falsely against another person. In fact, in a nutshell, don't do to other people what you wouldn't want done to you or to someone that you loved.
Now the opposite of this is a world in which every body, dishonors their mother and father, kills each other, is unfaithful in his or her sexual relationships, steals everything that isn't tied down, covets each other's spouses or goods, and are always testifying falsely against each other. Are we insane? Do we really want to live in a world based on principles that violate the laws of God?
Haven't you ever seen sections of the city where a large number of people are congregated who consistently violate these laws? The housing is crumbling, the streets are dirty, vacant lots dot each block where beautiful homes used to stand, and the homes that remain have bars on their windows. The people live in constant fear of being robbed, beaten or killed and domestic violence is rampant, where woman and their children are subjected to abusive boyfriends who have replaced the fathers of their children. Every day they never know whether the car they parked overnight will be there in the morning or whether the house they left during the day will be secure when they return. Mothers are afraid to allow their children out to play for fear of molesters, warring gangs, and drug pushers.
I know these areas very well because I have taught for over thirty years in the inner city of Philadelphia and I have known first hand the horror stories of the children who live there. Just let me mention a few horror stories from hell to impress upon you the consequences of sin.
One young girl told me of her cousin, whose father was a notorious fornicator. For years he had roamed about North Philadelphia leaving deserted women with his children to raise. The girl's mother, who was one of his victims, found solace in the Church and did her best to raise her as a dedicated Christian. The young girl grew up and yearned to have the stability of a marriage relationship based on the principles of her church. She met a nice young man, fell in love, became engaged, and sent out wedding invitations. On the day of the wedding, her father made one of his rare appearances, took one look at the groom, and informed her that he was her half brother. The young bride-to-be was so devastated, that she rejected all males and became a lesbian.
I once had a student, whom I will call Yvonne, who made my day as a teacher. She was the type of attentive student who energized you with her provocative questions and total involvement in the lesson. However, when she returned from the Christmas break, I became very disturbed and, even angry, when my prized student became listless and inattentive. Finally, my disappointment and anger reached a point where I had to say something. I called her to my desk and said, "Yvonne, what's going on? You used to be such a good student but ever since you returned from the Christmas break I get the feeling that you're not even here. She looked at me through tired eyes and said, "Well, Mr. Reilly, a lot of things have happened with my family recently. During the Christmas holidays, my nineteen-year-old brother was out joyriding with some friend in Fairmount Park. He was sitting in the front passenger seat when the driver lost control of the car. It hit a tree and the car split in half, killing my brother. My mother, who always had a drinking problem, began to drink even more. Then in January, my mother told my eleven-year-old brother to go to the corner store to get her a pack of cigarettes. It was nearly eleven o'clock at night and he didn't want to go but she threatened to beat him if he didn't. On the way back, he was stabbed to death by a gang of boys. Now my mother is drunk all of the time and, at night, she paces in her bedroom talking to and shouting at imaginary people. My eight-year-old sister and I are afraid to sleep because she is smoking and we are afraid that she will burn the house down. Every morning, I have to get myself and my sister ready for school." "Where's your father?" I asked. "We have different fathers, but none of them ever come around." Curious, I asked if her mother had any other children. "Yes", she said. "I had another little sister who was born with a heart defect. My mother used to take her to Temple Hospital for treatment. We didn't own a car, so she had to take her on the subway. One day, when the baby was only three months old, she died in my mother's arms while riding the subway."
Who among us feels qualified to judge any of the people involved in this situation? Only God knows their story well enough to make a fair judgment? Who wants to demand that God should pour more fire on their heads or add more confusion to their lives? Haven't their own sins and the sins of those around them punished them enough? I don't want to judge them and I am more than glad to drop my stone and leave them to the mercy of God. And, if I were God, my driving passion would be to save them from their sins. In fact, the responsorial response in today's Mass was "I, (God) do not desire the destruction of sinners but rather their salvation." Or do we think, like the people in my story about the Last Judgment, they should be punished more for having such a good time.
Erroneously, some of us think that we are looking at the effects of poverty but that would be wrong. It didn't take me long when I began to teach in the inner city to realize that physical poverty was not the problem facing most of the kids that I taught. Many of them had more money at their disposal than some of the center class kids in the suburbs. It was nothing to see some of these so-called poor kids carrying anywhere from fifty to a hundred dollars in their wallet. I wish I had five dollars for every time I was asked if I could change a fifty or hundred dollar bill.
Some of them were involved in rather lucrative unlawful activities, while others had absent fathers who fulfilled their fatherly responsibilities by giving the kid exorbitant allowances to substitute and make up for the lack of their presence in the child's life. Inner confusion, rather than outer poverty was the real problem in their lives.
Therefore, we are looking at the effects of sin, which causes the chaos, disorder, and disharmony that results when we "miss the target." Within the same community, there exists blocks of beautiful, well kept homes, with awnings, storm doors, and flower boxes. Often there are pennants strung across the street announcing that this has won a "Most Beautiful Block" award from the City. If you investigated, you would probably find that there isn't much difference in the income level between these people and the one's that live in the disorganized areas. In fact, you might even find that their income is much lower than some of those who are involved in criminal activities. However, you will discover that there is a great deal of difference in their lifestyle and family stability and the way that they spend their money. It doesn't go for alcohol, flashy cars, gambling, or drugs. Rather, it is invested in the lives of the people. Often, you will find, that there is a local church whose values unite them into a cooperative community and, just like us, although they sometimes fail to fully live up to God's high standards, they are trying their best to follow them. Some of the most moral and Christian people I ever met came from these neighborhoods and many of them overcame obstacles that the average center class person never had to face.
I remember marveling years ago when Sixty Minutes or one of the magazines of the air presented the story of a poor, black Southern, sharecropper who, with his wife, had raised thirteen children, who had all graduated from college. They struggled to put the first one through college and he in turn helped to get the second one through, who in turn, helped with the third and so on. It just goes to prove that when people are united through love in a shared effort that they can transform any situation, even a hell, into a heavenly experience.
This point was made by a priest over thirty years ago when I was attending the funeral of my cousin's husband who had died as a firefighter while fighting a fire downtown. The priest gave a homily on heaven and hell. He said, "Hell was a great big banquets room full of starving people who had one hand tied behind their back and a six foot long fork in the other hand. Throughout the room there were tables full of the most luscious food. The people were yelling, screaming and fighting each other to get to the tables. When one succeeded, he took his six-foot long fork and stabbed a juicy steak. However, when he tried to turn the fork around to eat the steak, he found that the fork was too long to place it in his mouth. As he tried, the other people jostled him and the steak fell to the ground and it was consumed by someone else. He began to curse God and the people around him and declared that only a sadistic God could have created a world designed to torture and frustrate us so much." As the priest spoke, I shuddered at his vivid description of hell. Then he began again. "On the other hand," he said, "heaven was a great big banquets room full of starving people who had one hand tied behind their back and a six foot long fork in the other hand. Throughout the room there were tables full of the most luscious food." At this point, I began to become embarrassed for the young priest because it was obvious that he had forgotten the punch line to his story and was describing hell again. Then he went on. "The people looked at each other and then one man said, `Excuse me brothers and sisters, but I would like to get to the table where the food is. ` They nodded and separated to make an open aisle to the table. He approached the table and spied a juicy steak that he stabbed with his six-foot long fork. Then he looked up at a person standing on the other side of the table and, reaching across with his fork, fed him, who, in turn, stabbed another juicy steak with his six-foot long fork, and returned the favor. The moral of the story is that heaven and hell are the same place; the only difference is the attitude of the people who are there.
Thus we make a big mistake when we think that physical poverty is responsible for the moral confusion in the world. Poverty might be physically devastating but some of the poorest people in the world are morally rich while some of the richest people in the world are morally bankrupt. If you doubt me, just watch some of the many biographies that are currently being shown on Cable TV on famous entertainers and millionaires. They may have been rich and famous by the world's standard, but many of them were morally bankrupt in God's eyes.
Whenever we come face to face with the consequences of moral confusion in any social environment, we avoid theses areas like the plague and the good people trapped within them are fighting to get themselves and their children out. Yet, others have come to accept this insanity as the only possible choice and in some warped way, they keep on repeating the behavior patterns that are responsible for the hell that they live in. It's the only world they know or that they can imagine. If you've never seen anything but insanity, then how would you know that it is insane?
Sometimes, to make this point, I would ask my students "If you were born at - and then I would name a location in Philadelphia that everyone accepted as being the worst example of deterioration and crime- and grew up there, and live your whole there and then you died, where would you ask God to send you? Almost unanimously, the students responded by saying that you would ask for the same location where you had spent all of your life. Then some of them would mention a movie called "The Shawshank Redemption" to illustrate the point. This movie, which involves men in prison, tells of one man who had spent most of his life there. As he entered his senior years, he was paroled but was unable to adjust to the life outside. He yearned to return to his cell, the only world that he knew, and eventually, he committed suicide because he could not accept freedom, even though, objectively speaking, it was a preferable environment to prison. And this, perhaps, is how people end up in hell.
According to the Church, God's mercy and His justice are the same thing. But how could that be? Isn't justice one thing and mercy another? Well, God, in His mercy, gives us the world to which we have become attached, which, unfortunately, is often hellish compared to the world that He wants to give us. Therefore, it is only just that we should end up in a world based on our own premises. As the Scriptures say, "As you measure, so shall it be measured unto you."
To illustrate this point, I sometimes describe the Last Judgment in the following way. Jesus is standing at the Gates of Heaven as each of us approach Him in a single file. When we get to Him, He looks at us and, just like the host in a restaurant, asks, "Smoking or non-Smoking?" Only, that's not the question. Rather, it is a series of question, which define the premises of the soul being judged. What He really asks is, "Faithfulness or Adultery"? "Marriage or Fornication?"; "Love or Hate?"; " Mercy or Vengeance?"; " Honesty or Dishonesty?"; "Respect for Civil Rights or Torture?"; "Peace or Violence?" ;"Drugs or No Drugs?"; "Growth or Stagnation?"; "Life or Death?"; "Beauty or Ugliness?"; "Freedom or Slavery?"; "Responsibility or Irresponsibility?"; "Order or Chaos" etc...
As each of us answer these questions, we peel off with other souls who shared with us the same answers. Thus, those souls, who because of their life styles, chose faithfulness, marriage, love, mercy, truth, honesty, respect for civil rights, peace, no drugs, growth, life, beauty, freedom and order etc. were allowed to create a spiritual world based on their premises while those who chose adultery, fornication, hate, vengeance, lying, dishonesty, torture, violence, drugs, stagnation, death, ugliness, slavery, and chaos because of their lifestyles, were allowed to create a spiritual world based upon their agreed upon premises. And that was the heaven and the hell of it. Everybody got what they wanted and, at the same time, what they deserved. For you see God's mercy and justice are the same thing. It's just one of the many paradoxes of God, who is Himself the greatest paradox, being Three Persons in One God. It would be so like Him to judge without judging.
As strange as it may seems, many of us fall in love or at least become emotionally attached to situations and places, which by any objective standards, are living hells. Abused women, for example, often can't leave their abusers because in some strange way they become attached to them. And some of them, even if they do finally decide to break the relationship, often gravitate towards the same type of man who abused them. They keep on repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. So long as the don't discover the root of the problem, -which many psychologist called codependency because their self esteem is so low that they become dependent on others to validate their existence-, they will never break the destructive pattern. In some sick sense, the abuser and the abused were made for each other. He needs someone to dominate and abuse to establish his self worth and she needs to be dominated and abused by him because of her lack of self worth. As Jesus would say, "Only the truth can set them free."
And what is the Truth? The Truth is that all of us were made by God to be of inestimable value because we were made in His own image and likeness. We were so valuable, that His own Son paid the price for our salvation by dying of the cross. Once we accept this by faith, we are released from the hells of self negation and are set free to discover our "hidden self" who is the real person God meant us to be. It is this "hidden self", which St. Paul speaks of when he says, "Why do I believe in Christ, Jesus? So that my hidden self may be revealed." This "hidden self" is our hidden potential that can be actualized only when we become open to the grace of God. Once we are willing to die to our old unfulfilled self and to follow the Truth that sets us free, we will discover who we really are. I know because it happened to me.
In previous talks, I described the Irish Catholic neighborhood in which I was born and how my mother and father were both caught in the "Irish Plague" of alcoholism and how it affected their lives. Now, I would like to return to the story of what happened to me.
Although I had always been a good student, I was having trouble in high school. It was difficult to concentrate on my studies when I didn't know where my mother was for the past two days. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I began hookying from school. After three months, the authorities caught me and returned me to West Catholic High School. I was given a warning but, when I began hookying again, I was expelled at the age of sixteen. After working a year in a factory, I joined the Navy during the Korean conflict mostly to get away from the insanity at home. As unbelievable as it might sound, I began to drink and carouse myself and was probably headed down the same paths that my parents had followed, when the Lord entered my life.
As with many people, He came at a time of great personal crisis. I was in the Persian Gulf, twelve thousand miles from home, and I received a "Dear John" letter from a girl that I planned to marry. Stripped of all human consolation; feeling myself unloved by my mother, my father, and now by my fianc'e, I turned my eyes skyward and, with tears streaming down my face, I said to God, "I've gone to nine years of Catholic schools and they told me that You are there and that You care. To tell the truth, up to now, I really didn't care. But now my heart is breaking and I need someone who cares. Please help me?" Psalm 15:17 says, "A broken, humble heart God will not scorn," and I found that to be true that day.
I had what our Protestant brothers call a "born again" experience. My life changed in every significant area. I stopped smoking, drinking, carousing, and began to read and study everything that I could about God. When I returned to the United States, I boarded a Baptist Church's bus in Norfolk, Virginia and attended one of their services. When the minister asked if anyone wanted to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, I went up to the altar. When they discovered that I was a Roman Catholic, a cheer went up because, from their point of view, they had landed a big fish. After the service, they took all those who had made the "altar call" into a back room and assigned one of their members to each of us. The man assigned to me asked me to renounce the Catholic Church and I refused. I told him that I had come forward to accept Jesus, not to renounce the Church.
However, this experience put me on the path of questioning my faith in the Church. In my childhood, I had seen too many people who attended Church who seemed to lack that conversion of life that the acceptance of Jesus should bring. And now, for the first time, I began to read the Bible. It began to raise many questions in my mind that I needed to resolve if I was going to remain in the Church.
My crisis in faith reached its peak while I was visiting my mother, who had remarried and was now living in a resort town in New Jersey. I went to the local parish priest with a list of questions that I needed to resolve. They were the usual ones about Mary, the Pope, the saints, statues, and Purgatory that most Protestants raise about our Catholic faith. I told the priest that if he couldn't answer my questions satisfactorily, that I was going to leave the Catholic Church. After I posed my questions, he admitted, with great embarrassment, that he couldn't answer any of them. As I got up to leave, he apologized for his failure and asked me to wait while he went upstairs to get a book that he thought might help me. The book was "Rebuilding a Lost Faith" by John L. Stoddard. It turned out to be the reason why I remained in the Catholic Church. After that, I began to read every Catholic pamphlet that I could get my hands on.
So you see, in some respects, although I am a "cradle Catholic", I am also a convert to the Church because I had to reaccept it after struggling with a crisis in faith. Because of this, I can understand why converts like Scott Hahn say that the most difficult thing to deal with once you enter the Church is the complacency and lack of enthusiasm of many of the "cradle Catholics" who seem to be totally unaware and/or unexcited by the contents of their faith. They attend Mass as though it is some chore that has to be taken care of, all the time standing in the back of the church, glancing at their watches, leaving after Communion, or rushing out to be the first ones in the parking lot.
As someone who has played guitar at Mass for over thirty years, my greatest complaint is that they don't sing. In fact, I was told that someone even wrote a book entitled "Why Catholics Don't Sing." Music, according to one sage, is "Love in search of a word." It is the poetry of the soul. St. Augustine said, "He who sings, prays twice." One of the songs in the hymnal contains the following line, "Now that I know that God is Love, how can I keep from singing." Don't they know that He is Love? Did someone fail to tell them or is it that they weren't listening? It makes one think of the words of Jesus in the Book of Revelation where He says, "I wish that you were hot or cold but because you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out of my mouth." Those are some pretty strong and frightening words for the apathetic among us. Sometimes it makes me wonder whether it isn't essential for everyone to go through a faith crisis or some crisis in order to really investigate and commit to what they believe.
Anyway, I stayed in the Church and, at the age of nineteen, I began a faith walk that took me through most of the renewal movements within the Church, such as the Corrsea, Marriage Encounter, and the Charismatic Renewal. Each one caused me to grow in my faith and Catholicity. Each one is a story too long to tell here. Suffice it to say that the Lord took charge of my life and through a series of interventions led me along a path that took a ninth grade dropout and turned him into a high school teacher with a Master's Degree.
As I look back on that confused and lost nineteen year old sailor in the Persian Gulf, I find it hard to believe that lying beneath the surface of the failure and confusion in his life was hidden the person that I now am. Next June, my wife and I will celebrate 44 years of happy marriage. We have produced three children and four grandchildren thus far and my life has been full in ways that I never could have imagined, and like St. Paul, I too can say, "Why do I believe in Christ, Jesus. So that my 'hidden self ' may be revealed.'
This, in a thumbnail, is who I am and how I became it. I am a still a work in progress, and so are you, and the Lord is not finished with us yet because what He promised us was the "fullness of life" and we have barely scratched the surface of what God's creation has to offer us.
Now that you know something about me, I would like to share with you in future programs some of the concepts from my course entitled "The Sane Society."
This concludes a three talk series on "The Truth Will Set You Free"