The End of the Journey

FATHER ANTONINUS WALL, O.P.

You have just died. A moment ago your soul still animated your body.



CHAPTER TWELVE

The End of the Journey

  • Faced with death we reminisce about life
  • Death destroys our sensible contact with others but not our higher functions like memory and love
  • After death we will become more aware of the Providence of God
  • There is a process of purification after death


You have just died. A moment ago your soul still animated your body. You could see, hear, touch, and feel yourself being touched. Your heart continued to beat. You were still in living contact with the sensible, visible, audible world in which those whom you loved moved about. Then your heart stopped beating. Now your eyes are darkened. Your ears no longer respond to sounds. Your sense of touch is gone. Your contact with the sensible world around you is broken. Your body ceases to be organized and enlivened by your soul. You are dead.

You had known for six months that this would happen. You had learned from your doctor then about the inevitability of your body's death. When you first heard this fateful word, you went numb. This numbness lasted for a time and then turned into depression and fear.

Then you entered an aggressive stage in which you sought out possible remedies to address your illness. Throughout this time you consistently turned to God in prayer, asking Him to heal you. Finally you gave a reluctant acceptance to God's will. With this acceptance a tenuous peace came to you.

While you suffered from physical discomfort, your mind remained clear and alert throughout your terminal illness. The clarity added both to your suffering and to certain consolations that accompanied the pain. Your wife, children, and grandchildren became your primary concern. With laser-like precision you began to focus on your entire life from the earliest stages to the present. You did so at first instinctively.

Later, the reliving of your past became a deliberate, conscious exercise. You had long been an admirer of the Confessions of Saint Augustine [1], and he inspired this spiritual exercise in remembering.

In his middle thirties Augustine awoke to the fact that God's love was at the center of his life from the beginning. That love had been at work from the moment of his conception within the womb of his mother, Monica. It had been the controlling factor in every stage of his development.

Augustine, however, had been blind, deaf, and insensitive to his presence. To correct this failure, Augustine set out deliberately to examine his entire life. His Confessions are a conscious dialogue with God's loving presence in every moment of his existence. This example of Augustine motivated you to dedicate the greater part of your remaining time on earth to a similar spiritual exercise of remembering and reliving.

Reflecting prayerfully, and mindful of God's presence, you came to see that past more and more through God's eyes. It was as if you were living the past for the first time. Conscious that your life on earth would shortly end, you saw as never before that the precious goods you loved were gifts of God. Of course, you had previously affirmed your goods as being from God. Now, however, you actually experienced God's love as the source of every good that daily came into your life. The experience at times overwhelmed you.


Your wife, your children, and your grandchildren become revelations of God's love for you with a degree of clarity that you had not previously experienced. The rose bush in the backyard, the singing of the birds dwelling there, the warmth of the sun light touching your body – all became living miracles and revelations of divine love.

In examining your past, you recognized the classic three stages of growth in the awareness of God's love. From your earliest years you were graced with the sense of God's love and power reflected in nature. The lilies of the field, the birds of the air, and the miracle of little children awakened in you wonder at God's creation. This wonder expressed itself in your fascination with the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. He was the saint with whom you most identified.

The second stage in your spiritual growth emerged gradually out of the first. During the first years of your marriage, you became more conscious of the presence of Christ in the world. The birth of your first child was a reminder of Christ's presence in others. At that time you found Christ's presence in new ways in your spouse, in your children and in the other persons, lay and religious, whose spiritual qualities attracted you.

You always had the sense of Christ's presence in the Church, his Mystical Body. In the second stage of spiritual growth you achieved a heightened awareness of that presence. Your awareness became an explicit consciousness of the Church as Christ himself. From that time on, you became more involved in the prayer life and apostolic activities of the Church.

Attendance at daily Mass became more and more the central event of each day. Participation in the pro-life movement attracted both you and your wife. You learned that your word and example had influenced others to embrace Catholicism. You began to pray more frequently for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. You hoped that, perhaps, one of your children would experience the call of Christ to follow him.

As your spiritual life further developed, you experienced a growing awareness of Christ within you. The movements of your head, heart, emotions, imagination, and memory were affected. Your spiritual director told you that you were growing into the third stage of the journey to God, the Pentecost stage.

You now found yourself acting more and more in a priestly mode, consciously speaking and acting as the instrument of Christ alive in you. Your growing desire was to allow Christ to use your words and actions. You desired that Christ would make you an instrument to give birth to his presence in your family, friends, fellow workers, and even in the strangers you met with daily. From personal experience you understood what St. Paul meant when he said, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." [2]

These memories reflected the good moments of the past. In your exercise of remembering, however, you were even more sensitive to the spiritual negatives of that past.

What came back with new clarity were the many failings. These failings stemmed from your self-centeredness, your pride, your desire to control, your many vanities, your exaggerated attachments to the pleasures of life and to the seductive attraction of your material assets.

As you recalled the weaknesses that infused your past and continued to permeate the present, you understood with clarity St. Paul's confession, "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." [3] As you contemplated these past and present failures, you began to discern how God was using your memory to teach you lessons that you would otherwise have never learned. In a word, you experienced God's love at work using even your failings as occasions of grace in your life. And you understood St. Paul when he proclaimed, "I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." [4]

The classic distinction between mortal and venial sin took on new meaning. [5] A new relevance was attached to the difference between loving someone more than any other and loving a person as fully as that person deserved to be loved. In those final months of existence on earth, you could honestly say that you were not conscious of any mortal sins on your soul that had not been forgiven. You could affirm, therefore, that to your knowledge you did indeed love God more than any other person or good. You also knew, however, that you were still far from loving God as fully as he deserved to be loved.


During those final days God gently forced you to relax your intense grasp on the precious goods of life that he had given to you. He invited you to celebrate them with "open palms" as gifts from him. You began to experience his love in them as you had never quite experienced that love before. His love filled more and more the vacuum created by your "letting go." You ceased clinging to them as ends belonging by right to you, and started to savor them as means – mirrors and revelations of his love.

You ceased trying to find in them a happiness that only he could bestow. You knew that he was not asking you to reject them. He was inviting you to love them in him and him in them. You found yourself falling in love with this life with a quality and intensity that you had not previously experienced. In other words, you recognized that your love of life and your love of God were undergoing a profound purification. Love of God was moving out from the center of your life to possess every aspect of your being, past and present.

Your loving relation with your wife served best to assist you in understanding the purification process that you were going through in your relation to God. From the time you fell in love with her, she had always possessed the first place in your affections. This fidelity to her never wavered in spite of the many human weaknesses that expressed themselves as your love matured. Yet, while loving her more than any other human, you well knew that, after forty-five years of marriage, you still fell short of appreciating and loving her as fully as she deserved to be loved.

During your final days of anxious concern about her and the children in your looming absence, you were constantly surprised by the strength and calm she manifested in dealing with your crisis. You realized that after all those years, you still tended to underestimate her faith and strength.

Your mind is clear, your affections are stronger than ever, and you have total recall of your life. You have a heightened awareness of God's presence holding you in being and inviting your love.

You understood why you had failed to see these qualities in her before. Your exaggerated confidence in your ability to control life had kept you from seeing in her the strength that had always been there. You had to experience your own helplessness and let go of your desire to control in order to experience qualities in her that were always present but to which you had been blind. So it was with other aspects of her life that previously had eluded you.

Through the fresh relation with your wife, you gained insight into your relation with God. A new realization finally came to you. After all these years of living daily with your wife, you were still failing to recognize and experience her lovableness fully. If this were true of the relations with your wife, whom you saw daily, you were scarcely prepared to see and experience fully the infinite lovableness of God, whom you could not see.

You remembered the wise words of your spiritual director that only love in one's heart equips a person to experience the lovableness of others. Since God is perfect love, only perfect love in one's heart will remove the scales that keep one from the face-to-face encounter with God.

You began to understand more clearly the certain need for further purification of the love in your heart before you could experience the pure, infinite love of God. This very thought was on your mind when your heart momentarily skipped a beat and then stopped altogether. Death took possession of your body.

Your body no longer is alive and functioning as the instrument of your soul. Your mind is vigorously active. Your affections are intensely alive and specific. Your memory with wonderful clarity presents your entire life experience before you to contemplate. You are intensely conscious of God's presence, lovingly controlling you.

Nothing has changed in those higher levels of your consciousness. Only, your body is no longer involved. The bodily senses cease to provide data to your mind. The sensible, feeling supports of physical pleasure and pain have disappeared. You can no longer see those you love, speak to them, or hear them speaking to you. You do not enjoy the sensible feelings of pleasure that their presence had previously brought to you. It is as if you are the one who is still alive and all of them have died and departed from you.

Your mind is clear, your affections are stronger than ever, and you have total recall of your life. You have a heightened awareness of God's presence holding you in being and inviting your love. You are equally conscious of the presence of Christ in your heart. Since this presence is as yet not perfect, it does not allow you to see the full radiance of His objective presence in your life. You realize that a further purification of the Christ within must take place before you can see the transfigurating radiance of his love in your entire life. In this encounter you are experiencing the particular judgment.

Since you have no sensible contact with life, you can take no decisions or actions that merit further spiritual growth. It now remains for you to invite God's love to make fully explicit to you the radiance of its working in your life from the beginning. Your cooperation with that love now becomes more passive than active, though fully conscious and free.

Your present state reminds you of reading, while still alive on earth, about an American diplomat who had been kidnapped by an underground group in the Near East. He was held in solitary confinement for over five years. During confinement he was not physically abused. But he was denied all contact with the outside world. He lingered in darkness without books, radio, or conversation with other persons. He found himself all alone for months, with only his memories and the affections in his heart for those he loved.

When released five years later, he emerged a profoundly changed person. Being a religious man, he was conscious of God's presence in his life. He was forced by a kind of self-imposed violence to turn to God as he had never turned to Him before.

Upon his release he described how that experience had impelled him to examine his entire life through God's eyes. In turn, God became his sole consolation. The effect was a profound purification of his love for his wife, family, friends, the world, and himself. He expressed no bitterness about his painful ordeal. On the contrary, he felt nothing but gratitude toward God for having enlightened him. He was grateful that his relations to all whom he loved were elevated to a higher level.

Recalling this story you realized the experience you are going through is not very different from the one this diplomat experienced. You had always thought of Purgatory as a strange, exotic, alien place unlike any thing that you might have experienced while on earth. You now discover that Purgatory is all too familiar to you. You have been here before.

You recall the suffering you experienced with the death of your father. You met with similar pain later with the death of your mother. With their deaths, you lost physical, sensible contact with them. You could no longer see them, hear them, laugh with them, share a cup of coffee with them. The painful vacuum left in their departure lasted for a long time. Because you had always experienced them in their external presence to you, it was as if they had simply disappeared from your world of reality.

Then something emerged out of this painful emptiness. You began to experience your father and mother alive in you in an entirely new way. They were no longer outside, but inside, you. You became conscious of new ways in which they came alive in your memories of them. You recognized their presence influencing your thinking. For the first time you came to fully recognize in your heart how much their external presence had enriched your life and how indispensable they were to your happiness.

When they were no longer externally present to satisfy your self-centered ego needs, you finally began to see them as they existed, in the full richness of their individuality. You began to fall in love with them in a radically new way. You saw them more and more for what they were, wonderful gifts of God, given to you to reveal his personal love for you. You came to the realization for the first time that they were not your parents by some happy accident. God had specifically chosen them for you. You recognized them as mirrors of God, reflecting his personal love for you. So, you began to love them in God, and to love God in them.


You recall the teaching of St. Thomas about love. [6] The perfection of love is attained only when the beloved exists so intensely within, that his or her external presence, sweet as it is, becomes secondary to their internal presence. From your experience of the purification of the love for your parents while still on earth, you made the connection with what was now happening to you in purgatory.

The Journey to God

by Father Antoninus Wall, O.P.

Your sensible separation from all whom you loved on earth was intended by God to set the stage for the same purification of your love for them that had been effected by him relating to your parents. God had not taken them away from you. He was preparing to return them to you in a far more wonderful way, just as he had returned your deceased parents to you while you were still on earth.

In recognition of this loving dynamic, you welcome the suffering accompanying it. It is a small price for you to pay to finally arrive at the deepest possible love of those you left behind – loving them in God, and loving God in them. You recognize in this suffering the dark night of the senses about which St. John of the Cross had so perceptively written. [7] Your pain becomes a sweet pain.

By this time you know that there are only two ways of experiencing God's presence. The ideal way is to see God face to face. Not having this direct encounter, you recognize the second way. That way of seeing and experiencing God's love is in and through reflections of his presence seen in the goodness of his creation. Further, you realize that if you do not recognize the fullness of God's reflected presence in the whole of your life, you are far from prepared for the face-to-face encounter with God himself.

Purgatory purifies our love of all creatures to prepare for the immediate experience of God. It is a continuation of the very same process of purification that had taken place throughout your life on earth. Only now you recognize and welcome this loving process, while on earth you had difficulty seeing the process as meaningful.

You not only recognize God's love at work in your present suffering, you embrace it and actively cooperate with it. You know that the sooner your love for creatures has undergone this radical purification, the sooner you will come to that perfect, direct, intuitive experience of the infinite lovableness of God, and the sooner you will come to the perfect repossession of all whom you love.

As your love for these gifts of God is purified, the splendor of his reflected presence radiates more intensely from them. This intensified experience of God's love at work in the entirety of your life brings a new form of suffering. It reveals with painful clarity the mediocrity of your life. It discloses the small-mindedness and selfishness that dominated your actions. It unveils the lack of compassion and generosity in your dealings with others. Finally, it reveals the excesses in the pursuit of life's pleasures and the other failings that haunted your human existence and which still exercise a hold on you.

You experience a humbling pain such as St. Peter felt. When he once again found himself in the presence of the resurrected Lord, he was painfully reminded of his denial of him. You feel utterly unworthy to be in God's presence. Yet God's love keeps coming to you in spite of your sinfulness. You come to realize the experience of your defects is the necessary condition for you to fully concede that God's love is not earned but freely given.

You recall the powerful analogy by Saint Teresa of Avila between a human soul and a glass of water. Saint Teresa tells us to examine a glass of water in the ordinary light of day. It will appear to be pure and transparent. Then hold the glass of water up to the bright rays of the sun and you will see all kinds of impurities that went undetected in ordinary light. So also, when the soul becomes transparent in the direct light of divine love, its many impurities become clearly visible.

The pain of this purification comes from self-awareness. You accept the pain as inseparable from the ongoing preparation for the direct encounter with God. In the experience of profound unworthiness you are going through, you recognize the dark night of the soul described by St. John of the Cross. So you do not despair. Rather, your hope is intensified.

You recall listening to the music of Beethoven as a child. At first it had no effect on you. You experienced it as meaningless, chaotic noise. After several sessions, bits and pieces of his music began to resonate in you. You came to recognize the connectedness between the seemingly unrelated parts.

In later years, after much listening, you were able to experience the genius of Beethoven in each and every note. You came alive to the power, beauty, and coherency of his compositions. Each note related to every other note. There were no meaningless intervals or sounds involved. A splendid unity radiated from the multiplicity of sounds. The Beethoven incarnated in his music awakened the sleeping Beethoven dormant in you.

Something similar is now happening to you. You contemplate all of your life in the context of God's illuminating, loving presence. You begin to recognize, in what at first seemed bits and pieces, the unifying work of divine love.

You recall the teaching of Jesus that your life is a masterpiece of divine art and love: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered." [8] You see more and more clearly through God's love the inter-relatedness of every part of your life – the victories and failures, the virtues and vices, the shadows and highlights. The splendor of God's love shines through like a purifying fire that burns away the impurities of your ego and illusions.

As you continue to release your hold on the good things of life that you loved with too great an intensity, your loving interaction with God intensifies. You experience with ever-growing clarity the radiance of his love in every aspect of your life. A kind of Transfiguration of your entire life takes place in which the infinite love of Christ shines through with greater and greater intensity. Like Peter, James and John on the mountain of the original Transfiguration, you prostrate yourself in the presence of Ultimate Mystery.

Saint Thomas tells us that love makes us identify with the beloved and that love seeks union with the beloved. Separation from the beloved or ill fortune on the part of the beloved produces pain. Saint Thomas points out God is perfect and he is always present to us. Therefore, such suffering can never come from perfect love of God. From such love can only come peace and joy, which Saint Thomas identifies as the immediate fruits of the love of God. [9]

In Purgatory you know that God is perfect love and that you will in the end come to possess him and all you love. So, great joy and peace comes to you from this knowledge. At the same time, you know that he is present to you, which adds to your peace and joy. In this sense Purgatory is a sublimely peaceful and joy-filled state.

Yet, while God on His part is present to you, the impurities of the love in your heart still keep you from seeing Him face to face. While you long for this immediate vision, you know the separation does not come from him. So you beg him to continue the work of purification. You embrace the process wholeheartedly.

Oddly enough, the more you desire union with him, the greater is the pain of separation. You find yourself like a person returning home after years of separation from loved ones. The closer he gets to home and to those he loves, the more intense becomes the desire for reunion. Therefore, the more intense becomes the pain of separation.

God's love shines through to you more and more out of the whole of your life. You experience a release of pain as his love begins to possess every aspect of your existence. You are coming closer to the face-to-face encounter.

You finally reach that perfection of love that allows you to surrender every good back to him: father, mother, family, friends, and your life itself. With this act of surrender everything in you cries out for union with God. Yet the face-to-face encounter still does not come. You cry out again, "Now! Now!" And it still does not take place. Then you realize that your will is still seeking to orchestrate this union with God. You realize you are still playing at being God. With this realization you turn to God and say to Him, "Whenever you will it." At that very instant, you SEE.

Endnotes

[1]  His Confessions was written by St. Augustine between 397 and 401 AD.

[2]  Gal. 2:20.

[3]  Rom. 7:19.

[4] 2 Cor. 12:9.

[5] Cf. CCC 1855-1856. “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

[6] St. Thomas makes the point that our very ability to act depends on the internal operation of love since love is what moves the will. Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, Chap 19. He makes this point clear in regard to Christ’s love by quoting St. Paul in 2 Cor. 5:14: “the love of Christ controls us.”

[7] St. John of the Cross was born in 1542 and died in 1591. He founded the Discalced Carmelites. He combined the imagination of a mystic and a poet with the precision of a theologian and philosopher trained in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. His poems deal with the purification of the soul in its mystical journey to God.

[8] Matt. 10:29-30.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Q 70, A3.


The Journey to God

Chapter 1 - The Journey
Chapter 2 - The Presence
Chapter 3 - The Awakening
Chapter 4 - The Way of Love
Chapter 5 - The Three Stages of Awakening
Chapter 6 - The Mirror of Nature
Chapter 7 - The Mirror of Christ Outside
Chapter 8 - The Catholic Way
Chapter 9 - The Mirror of Christ Within
Chapter 10 - The Coming of the Holy Spirit
Chapter 11 - The Door
Chapter 12 - The End of the Journey
Chapter 13 - The Face to Face Encounter

 

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Antoninus Wall, O.P. "The End of the Journey." Chapter 12 in The Journey to God (Antioch, CA: Solas Press, 1999): 115-131.

Reprinted by permission of Father Antoninus Wall and Solas Press.

THE AUTHOR

Father Antoninus Wall, O.P., a native of San Francisco, is the son of Irish-born parents, and the brother of the late Fr. Kevin Wall, O.P. Fr. Wall attended St. Ignatius prep in the Bay City and St. Mary's College of California. Entering the Dominican Order, he pursued his sacred studies at St. Albert's College in Oakland and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1950.

Fr. Wall has had a career rich in pastoral and academic experiences. He has served as associate pastor in Seattle and as Professor of Theology at Immaculate Heart and Dominican College. He negotiated the entry of the Dominicans into the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and served two terms there as President of the Dominican School. He currently resides at St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California. Father Wall is the author of The Journey to God. Father Wall may be reached by phone at 510-596-1800 or by email at antwall@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2010 Solas Press




Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.