Putting Last Things First

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I remember hearing the story of a priest who, when asked for advice on how to avoid future sin, encouraged his listeners to dig a ditch and lie in it for a few hours while contemplating eternity. Whenever I tell this little tale, the response it provokes is more often a fit of laughter than a trip to the tool shed in search of a shovel. And rightfully so, the story is meant as a joke. (Although, I understand that at least one man was given the ditch-digging exercise as a penance). That aside, while lying in a ditch may seem impractical and excessive, it does at least point to a valuable lesson: Keeping eternity in view can be a helpful aid to maintaining a proper perspective toward life on earth.

In The Four Last Things, St. Thomas More argues that nothing is more useful for the Christian this side of heaven than the daily consideration of four final things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell. St. Thomas likens the regular contemplation of these final four things to the taking of a medicine that helps preserve the soul from sickness in this life, while on the pursuit of eternal glory. The ‘Man for All Seasons’ suggests to his readers that keeping the four last things in mind will help stave off the spiritual illnesses of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony and sloth.

While this advice might be a little unsettling at first (and perhaps even a little macabre), this needn’t be the case. The verses drawn from the First Letter of St. Peter in today’s epistle quote from Isaiah 40:6-8, reminding us that, like grass and the flowers of the field, the flesh and glory of this life withers and wilts, but “the word of the Lord remains forever.”

St. Thomas More and St. Peter encourage us to keep in perspective both the pain and the pleasure of this present life. There is perhaps no better means for doing so than considering the contrast of life on earth with the life of eternal glory in the world to come. One withers and fades, while the other is everlasting.

If we fail to treat this time on earth as preparation for the world to come, the contemplation of eternity can be—and indeed should be—a terrifying thought. However, recourse to the word of the Lord can remind us of the possibility of future glory that lies beyond the grave.

This is the word that has been proclaimed to us. This is the word that is to permeate all of our thoughts and our deeds. This is the word that points forward to our destiny with God in eternal life. Only in the light of this ultimate end do our actions here and now reveal their true significance.

Image: Stefan Lochner, The Last Judgment (ca. 1435)