“Real prayer is union with God, a union as vital as that of the vine to the branch.” -Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (courtesy of Quoting Catholic Blog)
Today is the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. The liturgical readings can be found here. The Gospel starts with an interesting question about how many people can be “saved”:
“Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” — Lk 13:22-24a
Translated into today’s individualistic culture, the question becomes “How can I get to heaven?” Sections 1024-1025 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describe heaven not as a place but as an eternal state of union with God and others:
“This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed—is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness. To live in heaven is “to be with Christ.” The elect live “in Christ, but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name.”
Conversely, Section 1033 of the Catechism defines “hell” as a perpetual state of isolation; the absence of union with God and others:
“We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.'”
Process Approach to Union With God and Others
OK, so we have defined the goal of “heaven” as eternal union with God and others. Definitions are good and everything, but what do they mean for our daily lives? It is noteworthy that Jesus did not answer the question of how many people are saved. Instead, he replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In other words, do not focus on the end goal of “getting to heaven.” It merely distracts us from the real task at hand; the process that it takes to achieve union with God. Fr. Robert Barron describes the dangers of focusing on heaven in his podcast this week, including the dangers of both a “fire and brimstone” view of the afterlife and a blasé approach to universalism.
As a contemporary cultural analogy, next weekend is the opening season of college football in the U.S. (yes, I am a big college football fan). The winningest coach in the last decade is Nick Saban of Alabama, who won four of the last ten national championships (I’m a Big Ten fan so my personal views of Nick Saban are probably closer to those of Auburn Tiger fans, but I admire Saban’s success:-). Saban echos Jesus in that he emphasizes focusing on those activities that cause success is more important than the end goal of winning. Focusing on winning will paradoxically will actually hinder your ability to win. As set forth in this Forbes article from last year:
“The secret to Saban’s success isn’t finding the latest and greatest blocking offensive and defensive schemes. Quite the contrary. What Saban preaches day in and day out to his players and staff is the tested and true fundamental known as process focus. Saban teaches his players to stop actually thinking about winning and losing and instead focus on those daily activities that cause success.
He encourages his players to adopt a definition of success defined not by results, but rather by effort. Instead of emphasizing scoring touchdowns, he asks players to define themselves with such things as completing each set in the weight room or completing practices with 100% intensity. Saban states: “Everybody wants to be a success. Not everybody is willing to do what they have to do to achieve it.”
According to Saban, process guarantees success. A good process produces good results. Likewise, if the process is off, the results will suffer. Focusing on the outcome is paradoxical. The more one emphasizes winning, the less he or she is able to concentrate on what actually causes success.” (emphasis added)
So, if Christians should not focus on getting heaven, what is the “process approach”. As the Catechism states above, it is union with God through a deep prayer life and love of neighbor. This is easy to say, but hard to do in practice. Developing a relationship with God involves stepping outside yourself and into a relationship with the other. Anyone who has been married or in a long-term committed relationship knows that it is not always easy to surrender your ego for the greater good of union with your spouse or partner.
Adult Relationship with God
Having a relationship with God is even harder as God, the Creator of the universe, transcends our limited human understanding. God invites us into a relationship with Him. However, he grants us the freedom to either enter into that union or not. As a result of this freedom and the infinite gap between our human limitations and God’s power, we often tend to project ourselves on God, which turns into narcissism (especially in contemporary Western culture). It is up to us to grow into an adult relationship with God. As James Predmore, S.J. states
God wants you to act like an adult. God can coddle, coax, and give you invitations as often as possible, but God wants you to enter this relationship as maturely as possible. Some of us see God as a stern, uncaring, harshly judging being who is remote from us while others will only develop a childlike image of an always sweet, always accepting, always permissive being who lets me selfishly do whatever I want because I’ve declared that I am essentially a good person. Both images are fantastic illusions and we have to come to get to know the real God. God is not an extension of myself, but a completely separate ‘Other.’ It could be that God is waiting for us to listen to him and converse with him like healthy adults do. In the long run, it is unsafe for us to hold an image of God that allows us to use our strong will to remain unchanged.
This adult relationship involves focusing on the process of what it takes to have a deep union with God: a deep prayer life and a deep commitment to loving and serving neighbor. Mother Teresa is an outstanding modern-day example of this, which is why I selected her quote above. As James Foley, S.J. says that we need to focus on developing the relationship with God in our daily activities, and not put it off:
“The parable for this Sunday instead shows people outside who are not friends with the master at all. Apparently they have no relationship to the man in the house and know about him only from hearing him teach in the streets! Their knocking comes at midnight only because they were too busy, or whatever else, to get there earlier.
Are you and I friends to Jesus, or just somewhat interested parties? God will open the door to us if we are there not merely for the sake of curiosity or tourist attraction, but rather for the loving relationship to God that underlies our needs. If we are not open to being friends with God, we have made a decision that he will reluctantly respect:, and the door we have not knocked on will remain closed.
The message? Get to know God now. Do not delay till you get to heaven’s gate and have no prior relationship to show for yourself.”
For further reading and listening: