Remember the explanation you received as a child about the Last Judgment? For readers unfamiliar, I offer this. Your mother, or your baby-sitter, or your teacher…any adult in charge of you knew just what to say to get your obedient attention. “Mary Ann, when you appear before God, all this terrible behavior will be disclosed, in front of everyone who ever knew you! So you better be good!” Enough said. You went off in terrors and, unfortunately, these may have lingered long into adulthood. It is known as Catholic guilt. So, picture this in your childhood imagination: You are standing alone in front of God. All your family and friends are safely distanced in a circle surrounding you. God leans forward and says, “Remember when you kept the change from the grocery store errand so you could buy a candy bar?” And there is a collective gasp! Busted! All the people cover their mouths and whisper something to each other, most likely more wrong things you did that they know of. Now you’re getting your comeuppance and you are hanging your head in shame, ready to cry. And you can’t say, “I won’t do it again.” Nope. This is the end of the line! God quiets the mumbling, disturbed group of judges. But – aha! God leans forward and says, “Remember when you shared your lunch with that poor little boy who forgot his one day?” Now there is a collective, “Ooooooo,” and all the people smile big, toothy grins and nod yes to each other, chattering away about how generous you were. They are excited for you. Yes, you have made it!
This past week I took a phone call from a lifelong friend, now residing in a nursing home. A stroke has put her there and she relies on a nephew for her legal issues. During our conversation, she brought up some of her past and, being a devoted Catholic, she hoped she was forgiven enough to meet God. I thought of her and so many other people who have been facing death due to Covid and some who are burying loved ones without the comfort of traditional goodbyes and the presence of loving mourners and the comfort of spiritual discussion. My friend survived Covid but she has been brought to death’s door and knows there is more beyond this life. I thought of the poet Emily Dickinson’s line, “This world is not conclusion.”
Let’s take stock in the story of mercy, not judgment, for these days. My favorite, theologian Karl Rahner has so much to say about facing judgment. His theology is so encouraging but to reduce it to a few thoughts? I’ll try. All our lives we are reaching, says Rahner. We want more for our life, our children, our loved ones. Maybe, even our selfish selves. We are constantly reaching. This reaching is the magnet of God. We keep reaching for happiness and suddenly we face death. Our reaching, is our soul’s effort to find God who is in our soul’s central core, and yet we keep reaching. When you die, says Rahner, you agree to go on, to keep reaching for Him because you feel a tremendous drive toward Him. And when you reach down into your soul at the time of dying, you become aware of when you have destroyed the lives of others, snuffed out the spirit of God within them, deprived them of life, personal growth, that is where the judgment comes in. You judge yourself.
Yes, we will judge ourselves because God is not binary; God does not say it’s either or – good or bad. God has not kept a list of our transgressions because God knows that by recognizing them ourselves, we will be sorrowful and in need of God’s embrace. We will make ourselves whole at that moment acknowledging what we have done and falling into God’s arms of forgiveness and love. That is the judgment our loving God wants to experience with us.
When we pray for the people who have left us, we are praying that they recognize how they gave and received love in this world. The same goes for us. It is a good idea to reflect daily on where you may have brought less of love into the lives of others and ask forgiveness. But move on. God is merciful. Trust God’s mercy and live God’s love. It’s a lot more joyful than thinking you will be standing alone hearing your sins blasted all over heaven some day. Especially if you never returned to your mother the money you took for that candy bar!