A couple of years ago, I accompanied a priest on a sick call. Since it was my first time visiting someone with a terminal illness, I was not quite sure what to expect or what to say. We entered the room and saw a thin old man lying in his hospital bed. After being greeted, he looked at us sadly, and with a raspy, gasping voice said, “Well…it’s all over!” I will never forget the priest’s reply: with a big smile, he looked at him and responded, “No. It’s all about to begin!”
As we tried to converse with the patient, I was having trouble thinking of what to say. The TV was on and a coach was being interviewed about the World Series, so I considered chatting about the championship, but it occurred to me how pointless that would be. This man was about to pass on to something greater: he was on the threshold of eternity – everything else was just fading background noise.
En route to Eternity
I really enjoy traveling, which is good because as a missionary I do it a lot. It has always struck me as interesting how life takes on a very different tone right before a big trip. As the departure approaches, everything else becomes less and less important; all thoughts and energy go towards preparing for the journey, and it becomes hard to focus on anything else. The life of a Christian is likewise an ongoing preparation for the final voyage – as we get closer and closer to embarking, everything else fades away in light of the ultimate destination.
Lent is about preparing for Heaven. It is not about making ourselves suffer with fasting and abstinence. Our Lenten sacrifices are motivated by something very profound: the expectation of eternal happiness. Through personal asceticism, we distance ourselves from certain goods because we want to be more centered on The Ultimate Good for which we are striving.
The Lenten exercise of self-denial is necessary for staying focused. If we do not periodically abstain from earthly pleasures, we run the risk of forgetting the heavenly ones for which we were made. In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:
…earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our longing for Heaven], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.
I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.
Expectation of Heaven does not mean that we should go through life withholding from ourselves all that it has to offer. On the contrary, we should enjoy life, but we must do so realizing that each good thing is but a small foretaste of what is yet to come. Paradoxically, when we live this way, life becomes all the more enjoyable and fulfilling. Conversely, if we refuse to seek what is above and neglect to live for the joy of Heaven, we confine ourselves to the misery of shallow pleasures. As C.S. Lewis puts it elsewhere, when we limit ourselves to earthly happiness, “we are half-hearted creatures…like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.”
An Eternal Weight of Glory
I love this quote from St. Paul:
Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
This verse resonates so much with me because not long ago I accompanied my mother on the final stretch of her earthly journey. Anyone who has accompanied a family member through a terminal illness knows that there are few sufferings as emotionally acute as watching a loved one physically “wasting away.” However, for Christians, this gradual debilitation is offset by what is at the other end. The illness and death, as painful as they are, are only “momentary light affliction” in comparison with the glory to come.
What can make terminal sickness seem like a “momentary light affliction”? Heaven.
We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this world foreshadows it. When we encounter beauty, like that of a gorgeous sunrise or a moving symphony, we are touched and our hearts are tugged; a desire for something more is aroused. Again, C.S. Lewis says it perfectly:
We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.
This is what Lent is all about: it is a time for reawakening in our souls the yearning that we have for the boundless joy that awaits us. It is a time to embrace a simpler lifestyle in order to enjoy the peace that comes with simplicity. It is a time for preparing to put on the “greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch”; for receiving the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”; it is a time to prepare for Heaven.