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Reflections on Confession and Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

An excellent reflection by a good friend on one of my favorite paintings of all time.


By Fr Jason Smith

A few weeks back I was hearing confessions in an old, cold, and rather uncomfortable confessional, the kind that our forefathers once used with a screen and two wooden doors, one on either side, so that the priest can slide them closed and the person on the right can’t hear what the person on the left is saying, or vice versa.

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2013-02-17 CES_Paseo_Greccio_023A couple of years ago, I accompanied a priest on a sick call. It was my first time visiting a someone with a terminal illness, so 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 greeting him, he looked at us and said, “Well, it’s all over!” I will never forget the priest’s reply: with a big smile, he looked at him and peacefully responded, “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. 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 gradually fading background noise.

I enjoy traveling. One of the things I have noticed is the different tone life takes on 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 is hard to focus on anything else. The life of a Christian is 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.

20140305-143005.jpgA morning view from my room in Rome.

Lent is about preparing for Heaven. It is not just about making ourselves uncomfortable 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 Good for which we are striving.

This 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 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 put it, 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.”

2013-02-17 CES_Paseo_Greccio_164I 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.”

This verse resonates so much with me, especially now as I accompany a very dear loved one 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 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 “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. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “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.”620-667-I-G36

For Christians, the intense pain of losing a loved one is tempered and eventually overcome. Death is but a temporary separation and a necessary condition for putting on that “greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch”; for receiving the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”; for entering Heaven.