Once there was a rich man who always had this question fixed in his mind : "Will I go to heaven or to hell?" This became so much of an obsession that he decided to approach a preacher. "Father, will you please ask God whether I am going to heaven or to hell?" "Well, dear, how can I possibly know? I do not have a direct line with heaven." "Come on, Father! Try hard. Do not worry, I will compensate you well for all your efforts. I will pay off all the debts of the Church..." With that kind of an offer, the preacher could not refuse. "Come and see me in three days time," he reassured him. And sure enough, three days later, the rich man was knocking at the door of the preacher. "Well, Father, any news from God?" "Yes, man! I have good news and bad news." "Give me the good news first." "The good news is that you are going to heaven!" "Great! Wonderful!" exclaimed in jubilation the rich man. "And the bad news?" "Well, the bad news is that you are going to heaven ... today!!!"
A Spiritual diet
This joke illustrates a paradox many of us live. We all would like to go to heaven but many would prefer to wait a little bit here before we go.
In the Gospel of Luke chapter 13, we find a man approaching Jesus with a similar question : "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" Jesus Christ does not answer him. He came to guide men's consciences, not to gratify their curiosity. But he turns to the crowd and makes a very powerful statement: "Strive to enter through the narrow door," he says. To strive means to contend, to struggle, to work hard . The word "strive" in the Greek is "agonizomai" from whence our word 'agonize' comes. Jesus is telling us to put in all our energy to enter through the narrow gate of salvation. Only a change of the whole man can do it!
Apparently the door of the kingdom is narrow. Anyone can pass through a wide door; only skinny guys can pass through a narrow door. Jesus Christ is telling us to get rid of all the spiritual fat, the chubby, corpulent fat which we have accumulated. The door of the kingdom is so narrow that we cannot take our sins, our lust, our worldly pleasures, our worldliness with us. We have to start a spiritual diet. Do some spiritual jogging! Get ourselves in shape.
And Jesus immediately adds that this has to be done NOW! There will be a time when the Master will rise and close the door. The time of opportunity will pass by; even here on earth, the heart may harden so much that it will be impossible to stir it to repentance. Once the door is shut, even agonizing will be of no avail. The Early Fathers of the Church used to speak of the 'kairos' - the opportune time, the moment of grace, the 'now'. We have to take advantage NOW!
The disciple approached the Abba and asked when is the best time to convert. The Abba nonchalantly remarked, "The best time to convert is just one day before your death!" The disciple went away gleefully thinking that then he had ample time to take life seriously when he suddenly realized that there was a catch in this answer. So he retraced quickly his steps and asked the Abba again : "But, Abba, when am I going to die?" The Abba smiled at him ... and left.
The message of Abba was clear : "Convert now!" The door may be closed on us! For ever!
Someone in the crowd retorted. 'But Lord, we were near you. We ate at your table, we heard your word, we even preached your word.' We came to so many masses, heard so many sermons, baptized our children in Church, had a beautiful wedding in front of your priest. And Jesus will answer : "I do not know you!" External contact with Jesus will be of no use on the great day. It is not the external proximity which will save us but the internal relationship. One can be physically near someone and yet within be miles away from him. One can even have relations with someone without being internally in communion with that person!
Jesus finishes this interactive conversation with the crowd with the enigmatic phrase : "Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last." In other words, he says, do not presume - the fact that you are so much famed in religious circles does not mean anything - you may finish last. And do not despair : even if you think you are the least, the worst, the lowest, you may well finish up first - closest to the Lord. That's a consolation...for me, anyway.
Jesus is being very simple and very basic. "The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." (Marcel Proust) He wants to awaken us from our lethargy and challenge us with a simple fundamental question. What are we doing here on earth? Really! What are our goals? What are we working for? Our goals determine all our actions. It is important to make our objectives clear and conscious.
Let us be simple about it. Our goal is heaven. Anyway, that is what the goal should be for any sensible, down-to-earth, smart person! But are there many smart persons around?
A few years ago, a Gallup poll showed that 78 percent of Americans expect to go to heaven when they die. However, many of them hardly ever pray, read the Bible, or attend church. They admit they are scarcely interested in the Gospel values and they live to please themselves. On TV, this woman was confessing how she is married and has three children and how now she has fallen in love with this other woman (being bisexual is the latest dumb fad!) and she was asking why should be asked to quit this relationship with this girl. "Why should I dump her? My husband should be reasonable and should admit her into our household!!!" Pathetic! This woman obviously has not understood one basic law in love - that love means choosing. A divided heart is no heart.
The simple truth is that we can miss heaven. And if we miss heaven, we miss everything. I can miss heaven. I have no guarantee that I shall be saved.
Life is like one of these action-packed computer games where the player is to reach a goal and there are various traps and obstacles on his way. He has to be smart enough to recognize these traps and agile enough to avoid them. "Then they will come to their senses and escape from the Devil's trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants." (2 Timothy 2:26) When I was a small boy, we used to play at home a board-game called Snakes And Ladders. The game consisted in trying to reach the end of the journey first. We threw a dice. If we came to the mouth of the serpent we slid down, if we came at the foot of the ladder we went up!
This is life. We have a snake, an exterminator, who is vicious and deceitful. He fills our mind with lies. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 2:11 tells us that we are not to be "ignorant of Satan's devises." How many times he told me to enjoy a little bit of pleasure and then to try to hide my sin and then .... makes me pay a very high price for my sin. Even presidents know this! Sin is terribly expensive, the price you pay is really stiff!
Hence Jesus Christ is telling us : be smart! "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." We are on a journey towards heaven. Take advantage now. Get rid of the extra luggage. The extra luggage is sin. Use the perks which are available. One of the perks which unfortunately many have neglected is prayer life in the family. Praying all together. These moments of prayers in the family, the effort to have the family all together ... away from TV, away from baseball, away from the computer, away from friends... to be with Him .. mark the life of our kids for ever.
Just today someone wrote to me : "I remember when staying at my maternal grandparents how much they also loved Our Lord and Our Lady. My grandfather had a big picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary over his bed, and I remember one night going up to his room to tell him something and when I opened the door here he was kneeling beside his bed facing the pictures and praying the Rosary. He turned and smiled at me then turned back and looked up again at the pictures and kept on praying. That made a big impression on me as a child as I have never forgot it. It was a kind of a holy moment."
There is an old legend of a swan and a crane. A beautiful swan alighted by the banks of the water in which a crane was wading about seeking snails. For a few moments the crane viewed the swan in stupid wonder and then inquired: "Where do you come from?" "I come from heaven!" replied the swan. "And where is heaven?" asked the crane. "Heaven!" said the swan, "Heaven! have you never heard of heaven?" And the beautiful bird went on to describe the grandeur of the Eternal City. She told of streets of gold, and the gates and walls made of precious stones; of the river of life, pure as crystal, upon whose banks is the tree whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations. In eloquent terms the swan sought to describe the hosts who live in the other world, but without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the crane. Finally the crane asked: "Are there any snails there?" "Snails!" repeated the swan, "no! Of course there are not." "Then," said the crane, as it continued its search along the slimy banks of the pool, "you can have your heaven. I want snails!"
Swan or crane? Heaven or snails?
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.