A Handful of Sand Thrown into the Sea

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I am back from vacation and ready to rumble!  I will be posting several new blog posts in the coming week(s) but need a few days to clear the decks of things that have piled up in my absence.  However, I do have a treat for my subscribers…. Linked below is a guest blog by Father Isaac Slater.  I have been pestering him for a while to send me an essay and he did not disappoint.  I think this is simply wonderful and well worth everyone’s time to read.

Here is some brief biographical information:  Originally from Toronto, Canada, Isaac (John) Slater has lived since 2000 as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of the Genesee in New York. He is the author of a few collections of poetry (including Lean) and most recently, Beyond Measure: the Poetics of the Image in Bernard of Clairvaux

Lean:  https://monksbread.com/collections/books/products/lean

Beyond Measure: https://monksbread.com/collections/books/products/beyond-measure-the-poetics-of-the-image-in-bernard-of-clairvaux

A Handful of Sand Thrown into the Sea

By Father Isaac Slater

Once the Japanese poet (and Zen holy fool) Ryokan (1758-1831) was approached by his brother. The man’s teenaged son, Ryokan’s nephew, was getting into all kinds of trouble and he was unable to make him change. Maybe the reproaches of a great hermit would get through where a father’s entreaties had failed. Ryokan invited father and son to his cottage in the wilderness. They spent a delightful weekend camping out, fishing, and exploring the countryside. The father kept expecting Ryokan to challenge his son but throughout the whole time he never said a word. As the two were departing the young man kneeled over to fasten Ryokan’s sandals. He felt something wet coursing down his neck and when he looked up, here was his uncle weeping over him silently. He was struck to the heart and resolved to change his life.

St. Bernard taught that the threat of punishment or promise of gain could prompt us to make a superficial change in our lives, for a brief time, but only the experience of being loved, unconditionally, just as we are, could motivate us to change from within, in a way that would last: Sponte afficit, spontaneum fecit, “Love moves us freely and it makes us free.” There’s no guarantee that even the most genuine expression of unconditional love will provoke such change, and really it’s not meant to, has no ulterior motive. As St Bernard writes in another place: “Love is sufficient for itself; it gives pleasure to itself, and for its own sake. It is its own merit and own reward. Love needs no cause beyond itself, nor does it demand fruits; it is its own purpose. I love because I love; I love that I may love.” Ryokan loves his nephew just as he is, in his folly and suffering. There are no strings attached, and it’s precisely the freedom and sincerity of this love that makes the nephew realize his fault and want to change.

This is the kind of love God reveals in going to the Cross: unconditional, not-judging, completely gratuitous. It hopes only to awaken a like response—not fearful or self-interested but gratuitous and free. Contemplative monastic life is one way to experience and express that gratuitous love, a way that, because it does not carry out an active ministry, gives it a particular focus. While it is love in response to love, without ulterior motive, precisely because of this, it spills over and brings life to the entire body. As St. Therese of Lisieux understood, it is like the woman in John who shatters the jar of precious nard at the feet of Jesus, “and the fragrance filled the entire house.”

As love gives rise to (gratuitous) love, the unfailing fidelity of God is the wellspring of the monk’s own fidelity. Personally, I came to see this in a powerful way as I approached the time for my own final vows (2005). I had been thinking that the ceremony might be a bit of an anti-climax. In my heart I had already given myself over to God and the ritual profession of vows at some level seemed like a formality. Yet in the weeklong retreat beforehand and in a particular way, during the rite itself, I had the sense of God vowing himself to me, committing himself to support me in this way of life, promising to make it fruitful. On my own, how could I solemnly vow to walk on water every day of my life, to carry out something completely beyond my strength? But God had never shown me anything but mercy and absolute faithfulness, he had never let me down, and when I saw my own promise of fidelity as nothing more than the extension and overflow of his own, I was filled with confidence, ready to promise the impossible.

Monastic life blends something wild, reckless and erotic with the measured and methodical, the shattering of the jar with the daily, detailed repetition of a simple, obscure and laborious way of life. In this it is very much like running, and monks have often used the image of the monk as runner. Just as the runner wills the boundless but races on a measured, artificially limited course, the monk expresses a boundless love in the deliberate concrete “track” of the monastic day. The more he internalizes the rhythms and practices of the life the easier it becomes to express the infinite in and through the everyday, as the runner, with training, can more effectively actualize his boundless desire for self-transcendence. St. Benedict speaks in his Rule of how monastic practice feels narrow at the outset but that if one perseveres with faith his heart will expand and overflow with “the inexpressible delight of love.” External constraint yields interior expansion.

Stop Judging!

To love as we have been loved in Jesus Crucified means to love unconditionally, without judging, to align ourselves with the Advocate and not the Accuser. Jesus willingly took our sin on himself and suffered violence without responding in kind, asking the Father to forgive his killers. The gospel challenges us to “Accept one another, as Christ has accepted you (Rom 15:7).” The first monks took this to heart and placed a particular stress on not judging, not comparing oneself to others, and even taking the sins of another on oneself: “Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’ He replied, ‘If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say, Who am I? and do not judge anyone.’” Not judging is considered the quintessence of what it means to be a monk, not some incidental extra. The sense of self (Who am I?) that would form the basis of judgment over against another is relinquished.

Another story tells of two monks who went into the city to sell their wares. They separate for a time and when they rejoin one another to return to the desert the one confesses in great shame that he has ‘fallen into fornication’ and cannot bear to return to the monastery. His brother eventually persuades him, promising to say that he too fell into sin and to share the penance. They return, confess, are both reprimanded and given heavy penances. In a few days an angel reveals to the elders the truth of the matter and that the one monk’s sin has been forgiven because of the other’s mercy.

In his masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski prophetically depicts a particular expression of this desert path of not judging as the antidote to the murderous rivalry and isolation consuming the modern world. The elder Zosima teaches that we are guilty (or “responsible”) to all for everything, and to realize this, to take it all on oneself is paradise. Only Jesus, who ‘became sin’ has taken the place of one guilty to all for everything so perhaps part of what the elder has in view is precisely a kind of union with Jesus in taking on the sin and suffering of others. At a certain point in the story the proud, intellectual Ivan abruptly cuts ties with his family and sets off alone for Moscow. Instead of taking on another’s sin, he passes his desire to murder his father on to his half-brother who carries out Ivan’s unspoken wish. Alyosha, the book’s hero, by contrast, is sent away from the monastery by his elder and by obedience plunged into the tortuous entanglements of his brothers and friends. Instead of Ivan’s clean break, the modernist dream of autonomy, he sets to work as a peacemaker in the midst of rivalrous conflicts that nearly devour him. He actively takes responsibility for the failings of his brothers and their complex implications.

People will sometimes ask, Your monastic life is so simple and austere, what could you possibly have to do penance for? Of course, a man doesn’t become a monk because of his many sins but because he’s been forgiven (“The one who’s been forgiven much, loves much”). Monastic life is a way to make of one’s life a continual song of gratitude. But in this matter of judging others, one discovers over time both how destructive it is and how very deep down it goes: to the foundation of one’s very sense of self. We reject and exclude in others what we’ve failed to accept in ourselves: selves, like groups, built on the persecution of scapegoats. In the hothouse environment of cloistered monastic life it’s only a matter of time before the shadow-play starts, all kinds of subliminal tension. Sometimes we can’t accept something in another until we’ve come to accept it in ourselves, but often it seems to work the other way, and the struggle to get along with a brother who gets under our skin leads to a deeper acceptance of something in ourselves we couldn’t have otherwise acknowledged. There’s no escape hatch in the cloister. You can’t go to the bar after work with friends and let off steam about an annoying co-worker. He’s across from you in choir, at the sink next to you, brushing his teeth… Such micro-frictions are invaluable aids to humility and self-knowledge. It’s harder to fool yourself into imagining you’ve arrived when you’re ready to throttle Brother X for his whiny off-pitch chanting in choir! You have to live with other people and find a way to get along rather than simply change external circumstances. What is it about this person that I find so difficult and why? How can I adjust my stance to respond more freely?

In his recent book That All Shall Be Saved David Bentley Hart makes a persuasive case for universal salvation. It’s a (sometimes amusingly) pugnacious and belligerent book but the reviews have consistently failed to meet or even address its central argument about the nature of a God who could allow the eternal torture and exclusion of his creatures. In any case, one thing that struck me in reflecting on the book was how one’s perspective on others here and now changes the moment we imagine that all shall be saved. As long as we’re imagining some ultimate separation of Us and Them our addiction to conflict remains safely grounded. If ultimately ALL will be together, after suitable stints in Purgatory, gazing on the face of God forever… it’s harder to lose sight of the redeemable kernel in even our most deplorable adversary. Each person expresses a unique, irreplaceable facet of the divine, however disfigured—and can’t be dismissed, or reduced to their worst opinions.

Us Against Them

I’m not at all suggesting some kind of relativistic both-siderism. In conflicts, it matters if one side’s account is more accurate than the other’s. However, what so often happens is that the truth in the arguments of each side is lost sight of while the opposing rival becomes the target of vengeful fascination. As usual in such mimetic entanglements the more the two sides contrast themselves the more they resemble one another. Suspicion, slander and insinuation, a fierce attachment to one’s storyline and continuous ‘doubling down’ on one’s position characterize both combatants. One can hold the right thing in the wrong way, use the truth of one’s position as a club to attack and expose another. In any case, the truth is not some objectified storyline but a reality that emerges of itself when we step out of the way, strip off our armor and release our attachment to limited articulations of a reality always larger than our concepts: “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish opinions (Verses on the Faith-Mind, Seng-ts’an).”

The difference between the way of the world and the way of the gospel is not so much the difference between two competing accounts as two ways of being together—either building up a sense of oneself over and against an excluded other or standing with the victim, sharing the place of the stone rejected by the builders. The Christian community is one that gives greatest honor to the least honorable part and where the greatest wash the feet of the least. It defends those on whose exclusion ‘the world’ is constructed. ALL those so excluded. This is crucial because as we see so clearly today one can righteously advocate for a vulnerable population and make hatred of the offending party the very pillar of one’s identity! The Church defends the dignity of every human being, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done— the unborn child threatened by abortion, the serial killer on death-row—both are fashioned in the image of God and possess a basic dignity that can never be extinguished. [hyperlink to https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-culture-of-death-and-a-new-plague-of-cafeteria-consequentialism/ ]

“Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood.” In Dostoevski’s vision, we become the brother of all by taking the lowest place, the place of the scapegoat. We take the blame on ourselves and seek pardon. Jesus portrays this attitude in the figure of the father in the story of the prodigal son. It’s possible to read the two sons as two sides of ourselves in tension: the reckless and sensual against the stingy accuser. Often these two chase each another in circles—within us, or often, when one side is projected onto another person or group. While as readers of the parable we tend to identify with one or another son, arguably, the challenge is to become the father. Immature and undeveloped, both sons caricature different sides of their father, a father who is both lavishly generous and balanced, stable. The father drastically humbles himself, and willingly takes on the shame and dishonor his sons incur, in order to bring about their reconciliation. Only when we experience such love, in encountering the Crucified, can we begin to reconcile the warring “brothers” in our hearts, and in our communities. Coming “to know and believe,” and to live from such love more and more is the lifelong work of conversion of heart to which the monk commits himself.

The Grand Inquisitor

The Brothers Karamazov can be read as a kind of extended parody-meditation on the parable of the prodigal son. This is suggested for instance by the early chapter heading “The First Son Sent Packing.” Instead of the younger son being entrusted with his complete inheritance even before the death of the father, the older son (Dimitri) is “sent packing” by his stingy, lascivious father, Fyodor, having been deceived and shortchanged of the money due him. Here Dimitri is akin to the reckless, hedonistic prodigal and the next son Ivan, with his lofty moral indignation, the son who stays at home. The elder Zosima models the true father. He contains in himself the vitality of Dimitri and moral passion of Ivan but in a spiritual and integrated form. The youngest brother Alyosha, Zosima’s spiritual heir, is challenged over the course of the book to himself become a ‘father’ like Zosima and to reconcile his two brothers, both in fact and, within himself, the energies they represent.

Before launching into his famous ‘poem of the Grand Inquisitor’ Ivan details a disturbing array of ‘true crime’ accounts of children suffering ghastly torture. He concludes with his decision to “return his ticket” to a universe in which the good of the many is built upon the destruction of the innocent. Though marked by a certain proud indignation, and a love that is more abstract than concrete (like several other characters in the book he loves ‘mankind’ but strains to love particular men) the account so far attests genuine compassion and concern for victims, a just outrage at human cruelty. But Ivan blames God and the metaphysical rather than human order for such violence. The “solution” he proposes in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor (a stand-in at some level for the emerging elite of secular revolutionary social engineers) works precisely by the exclusion and replacement of the innocent Christ and the freedom to which he calls human beings. The terrible violence against the innocent (the accounts of tortured children) are the result of human, not divine violence, and the gesture of “returning the ticket” simply masks the disowning and cloaking of this responsibility. In this it is the antithesis of Zosima’s ideal of the willingness to be “guilty to all for everything,” to stand in the place of the persecuted and excluded and to suffer with them.

Very broadly, it’s not hard to see both dimensions of this outlook in various secular ideologies today: a genuine, sometimes heroic concern for victims, one that is often far ahead of the Church in decrying injustice and standing with the marginal, and a despotic social engineering eager to lift from humanity’s shoulders the heavy burden of authentic freedom. The state positions itself as sole protector of individual freedom (“rights”) over against mediating communities like families, unions, churches, which it portrays as backward and controlling. Of course by systematically weakening such institutions and moving individuals to rely more and more on the state alone, the effective freedom of individuals is subtly, gradually, diminished.

In their attitude towards ‘the world’ Christians replicate the division: some stress the genuine concern for victims among secular movements and emphasize the ways they are more Christian than the Church in their prophetic solidarity with those at the margin; while others focus exclusively on the despotic, social engineering maneuvers of secular political elites, unwilling to admit even a grain of real concern for victims. The first tend to replace anything recognizably Christian with social commitments, while the second fail to heed, and often react defensively against, the valuable challenge and critique offered by many secular movements where “seeds of the Logos” are clearly germinating. 

Alyosha’s response to Ivan’s magnificent, feverish diatribe is twofold. Immediately, and to Ivan’s delight, Alyosha kisses him on the lips, as Christ does the Grand Inquisitor in the legend. Part of the sense of this mysterious and provocative sign would seem to be that Alyosha validates the goodness present in Ivan and his real concern for victims, as Christ does, even for the Grand Inquisitor. At numerous points in the story Alyosha embodies the willingness of God to accept even the most meager good deed and to forgive enormous sins in return, as in Grushenka’s folk tale of the onion given by a sinner to a poor woman. Next, Alyosha spends the rest of the book putting into practice the way of active love advocated by the elder Zosima. He serves as a peacemaker and voice of conscience who brings out the best in others, even his father Fyodor, precisely by his refusal to judge them. In obedience to Zosima, he becomes a “monk in the world” demonstrating what it means to take on himself the guilt of others. Alyosha willingly becomes entangled in the concrete particulars, the pettiness and banality of real people and works to alleviate their misery. Ivan by contrast, as we have seen, breaks all ties with his family at the critical moment, paving the way for the murder of his father which he secretly desires. So, with spontaneous admiration, without any trace of condescension, Alyosha first honors the nobility of Ivan’s soul as revealed in his passionate concern for innocent victims of cruelty. Then he refutes the social engineering inquisition not by posturing, not with a competing storyline, but by the witness of a gentle but relentless active love. This twofold approach seems to me to be a promising, intensely challenging, way forward for Christians today.

At Vatican II, John 23rd famously declared, regarding non-Catholic Christians that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.” With his latest encyclical, Pope Francis extends that perspective to include all humanity. The experience of birth, suffering and death, work, hope and struggle, shared by all human beings forms the basis of a common humanity. He repeats as a refrain through the letter, “No one is saved alone; we can only be saved together (Fratelli Tutti 32).” While the immediate context for this remark is the covid pandemic, it at least raises the question of what this might mean with regard to eternal salvation. That is, if we can only be saved together from something like a pandemic, where our complex interdependence is evident at every step, can it really be so different with our ultimate destiny?

A Handful of Sand

In the trial scene at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Dimitri’s defense lawyer argues that overwhelming the defendant with mercy will move him to change his life while a vengeful punishment will only reinforce his resentment and alienation. “Justice” is far better satisfied when the guilty see the harm caused by their action and repent with deep remorse than when a harsh punishment is imposed and the perpetrator reacts defensively with still greater angst. The more restorative or rehabilitative approach to justice must be grounded in a truly universal respect for the dignity of each and every person regardless of their crime. At the level of conscience, the awareness of being loved in one’s sin, at one’s very worst, is simultaneously consoling and excruciatingly painful, more exacting than any prison sentence. Ultimately there is no comparison between even the worst atrocities we commit and the boundless love of God. St Isaac of Syria wrote: “As a handful of sand thrown into the sea, so are the sins of all humanity in the ocean of divine mercy.” We tend to fixate on the few grains of sand that belong to us, or those of our rival, to the point that we lose sight of the ocean. Conversion works a Copernican shift where we let go of that fixation and lift our gaze to God, turn from our miseria to his misericordia as the first Cistercians liked to say. Only then can we see our own sins and those of others in right perspective. Just as when driving a car one needs to “look well ahead” to see their immediate surroundings so we can only see sin accurately when gazing toward the far horizon of divine mercy. We only know our sin in the moment we know it’s forgiven.

Contemplative prayer, which everything in the monk’s day springs from and returns to, is the way of drawing near to God, of letting God be God, all-merciful. It’s the cultivation of a stillness, an inner spaciousness in which the ‘rival brothers,’ all the disparate, wounded, sinful, banal, magnificent and noble aspects of ourselves are allowed into the open and accepted. The very stone we rejected as builders of our personal Babel becomes the cornerstone of a new way of being in which the weakest member holds the place of honor.

 “Keep your heart at peace and a multitude around you will be saved” (St. Seraphim of Sarov). If we fail at the work of interior reconciliation we inevitably foist our own conflicts on others. A “monk” it has been said, “is anyone for whom the work of the heart comes first.” St. Isaac of Syria, who makes more than one mysterious appearance in The Brothers Karamazov, warns of monks who work wonders then fall calamitously, “For they were still sickly in soul, and instead of caring for their soul’s health, they cast themselves into the sea of this world in order to heal the souls of others, but being yet in ill health…they lost their souls and fell away from their hope in God.” The monk is weaker than others and needs the support of seclusion and austerity to heal his soul and stay close to God. At the same time, in terms of his calling, in the kingdom where the last shall be first, the monk has a singular role. St. Isaac stresses the preeminence of the inner work for all of us:

The man who is conscious of his sins is greater than someone who profits the whole world by the sight of his countenance. The man who sighs over his soul for but one hour is greater than someone who raises the dead by his prayer while dwelling amid many men. The man who is deemed worthy to see himself is greater than someone who is deemed worthy to see the angels, for the latter has communion through his bodily eyes, but the former through the eyes of his soul. The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than someone who praises God in the congregation of men.

43 comments

  1. Yes, I agree with most of what was said here. I only feel the need to add one point: love may love in spite of all stains and imperfections, but precisely because it loves, because it cannot stop seeking the very best for the beloved, love can never stop trying to get rid of them. Hence my faith that one day even the greatest sinners will sincerely and completely repent and join the ranks of the redeemed.

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    1. I’m hoping that this “never stop trying to get rid of” the sins and faults of others is not meant as a primary endeavor. For indeed the carnal mind sees the faults and sins of other people (whether real or fancied) much more vividly than it sees its own. We have seen great cruelties inflicted on “sinners” to attempt to reform them “for their own good.”

      To shift into a Zen story for a moment, a seeker asked a master: “I have heard that even the grass and trees will become enlightened, and I ask how this can happen.” The master said, “the real question is how you may yourself become enlightened. This is where your attention should be focused.”

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      1. “I’m hoping that this “never stop trying to get rid of” the sins and faults of others is not meant as a primary endeavor.”

        For us humans? No. Remove the beam from your own eye and all. The one who will never stop in this image of mine is God, who obviously neither misjudges nor is cruel or vengeful.

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  2. “As long as we’re imagining some ultimate separation of Us and Them our addiction to conflict remains safely grounded. If ultimately ALL will be together, after suitable stints in Purgatory, gazing on the face of God forever…”

    Do we have an addiction to conflict? and is it grounded in imagining some ultimate separation of Us and Them. The first question is difficult to answer. Of course the nations are armed, but except for a few madmen they want to avoid conflict. They arm themselves largely out of fear, but also because there is a powerful industry that promotes arms sales. Most individuals seem to avoid conflict with anyone they actually have to face- our society is drenched in politeness. You wouldn’t find too many citizens who would call someone they had to work with a white-washed tomb. Fr Slater might be on to something if he means that we like to watch conflict in comfort, on the screen, in blog comments, or on the sports field. I’m not sure if “addiction to conflict” is a realistic attribution except to a small minority. Question – do universalists lose their interest in watching Lethal Weapon, Apocalypse Now, and other conflict laden entertainments? I have no interest in those entertainments, but I am not a universalist.

    Second part – is conflict grounded in imagining some ultimate separation of Us and Them? The historical record seems to refute the idea, because clear ideas of Heaven and Hell only emerged late in history after thousands of years of conflict. In fact Vikings seem to have fought and killed each other with the idea that they were all going to the same place – so long as you both died bravely you and your opponent would be feasting together in Valhalla. Similarly with the ancient Greeks, who had a vague idea of an afterlife where everyone would be in Hades – but they had lots of conflict. Buddhism doesn’t seem to have any idea of an ultimate separation, but the wars in the 1700s between Buddhist Thai (Siam) and Buddhist Burma were as vicious as anything between Christian nations.

    So I think this idea doesn’t stand scrutiny – those who think eternal loss is Christian dogma are not more conflict prone because of this, and humans who lack this conceptual apparatus completely are capable of conflict, and have demonstrated this repeatedly.

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    1. I think you’re misunderstanding the argument being made here. It is not that humans need the idea of eternal loss to reach a state of Us vs. Them conflict (even the most cursory glance at history would affirm that), but rather that that very idea legitimizes, fortifies, and ultimately renders such a state eternal. If I am saved and my neighbor damned (or vice versa) there really is an Us vs. Them that persists for all eternity, with no reconciliation possible. Thus it is legitimate to conceive of earthly relations in those terms, because such a state as a final end is in fact the divine will.

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      1. I understood that argument – I am arguing that it is false. In the same vein we read: “…it’s harder to lose sight of the redeemable kernel in even our most deplorable adversary. Each person expresses a unique, irreplaceable facet of the divine, however disfigured—and can’t be dismissed, or reduced to their worst opinions.” I assume this should not be read too literally, as if Fr Slater thinks that there is an irreplaceable aspect of God (the divine) in each person, so that if that person was not to be in God’s kingdom God himself would be diminished.

        So I will read the word “irreplaceable” as simply adding emphasis to the word “unique”. The claim is that contemplation of the idea of universal salvation makes one more aware of the human dignity of even great sinners. But hope for their salvation is adequate to bring about this awareness. Among the Catholic saints there were those who ministered to the worst of the condemned criminals, hoping to rescue their souls for Christ. There are stories of Catholic priests going up onto the scaffold with the condemned, begging them to confess their sins and be reconciled to God. I read the story of the Vicar General of New South Wales, William Bernard Ullathorne, appointed in the 1830s to look after Catholics in the colony at a time when there was no bishop. He learned of prisoners sentenced to death for murder on Norfolk Island, nearly 1700 kilometres from Sydney; he sailed there and spent several days ministering to them before their execution. Did Father Ullathorne find it harder to keep sight of the redeemable kernel in each human being, because he believed they could be eternally damned?

        The flip side of Fr Slater’s view (his “harder to lose sight of”) is that those who believe in the possibility of eternal damnation more easily lose sight of human dignity? Human dignity is (or should be) immense – to lose your soul is a massive and terrible loss. The worst thing possible. The stakes are high and part of our dignity is that we make choices which have eternal consequences.

        It might help to spend meditation time imagining them as our neighbours in a future we can only glimpse “through a glass darkly”, but in fact you don’t have to be a universalist to do this. You only have to hope that the neighbour you can see will be saved.

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      2. “I assume this should not be read too literally, as if Fr Slater thinks that there is an irreplaceable aspect of God (the divine) in each person, so that if that person was not to be in God’s kingdom God himself would be diminished.”

        If a person meant for the kingdom didn’t end up there the kingdom would certainly be diminished, I don’t think anyone can argue that. Otherwise it would mean nothing if everyone without exception was damned. But, of course, we must recall that each individual soul was gratuitously called into being by God and thrust into a fallen world without their consent. If God knowingly fashioned such a being knowing that infinite evil would be the result of doing so, then he himself positively willed this evil into being. I would certainly say that him willing evil would diminish him, if it were possible that he did so.

        “Did Father Ullathorne find it harder to keep sight of the redeemable kernel in each human being, because he believed they could be eternally damned?”

        No, in fact he seems to have been considerably more merciful than the God he served. The river rose above its source – bravo, and I say that with a completely straight face.

        “The flip side of Fr Slater’s view (his “harder to lose sight of”) is that those who believe in the possibility of eternal damnation more easily lose sight of human dignity? Human dignity is (or should be) immense – to lose your soul is a massive and terrible loss. The worst thing possible.”

        Indeed, to lose a soul would be a massive loss. An infinite one, actually, considering that it would be an unending source of moral and natural evil. However, you overlook that this same line of reasoning is what lead Augustine to propose that heretics should be persecuted and Aquinas to unambiguously argue that they should be put to death – they’re a danger to the souls of those around them. How both of them squared that with their predestinarian beliefs entailing that anyone damned was doomed to be damned from the beginning, besides not thinking about it, is beyond me. The point is that such reasoning can be, and has been, easily used to justify persecuting anyone outside the religious establishment up to the point of death. If you put a man to death to save another’s body, why not to save another’s soul?

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  3. Forget about Hell for the moment. I think many of us struggle with the understanding of eternity. We consider it like so many Groundhog Days, over and over, forever and forever. Here we go again. But such a conception of eternity has to be a projection of our experience of time. If eternity meant getting up and experiencing whatever again, over and over, even Heaven would suck. I don’t care how wonderful that day was, and the next and the next. After a billion years (or far less), you’d want lights out on that day. Your favorite food can only be your favorite for so long.

    Eternity is an eternally present NOW. One’s will is fixed forever for God or against God. Souls in Hell don’t want Heaven; they don’t want God and never will. Their eternal NOW is forever a doubling down on their own rebellion. To force them out of their eternal NO! to God and set them in Purgatory, which is already a place of graced repentance, would be a violation of their will and a violation of Purgatory. This would be even more the case should God attempt to force someone into Heaven.

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    1. I love this guest post even if I have some questions about it. Your comment reminds me of CS Lewis when he said the doors of hell are locked on the inside. Also William F Buckley once asked in a debate on the death penalty “what did we plan to do to the nazis after rounding them up? Rehabilitate them ? No” I am not at all for the death penalty in most cases but there are exceptions.

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      1. Yes, I got some of my reasoning from an article on this topic from Trent Horn of Catholic Answers. He said the same thing about Hell being locked on the inside. It doesn’t matter, he goes on, b/c souls in Hell don’t want to unlock that door. Here’s the article: https://www.catholic.com/audio/cot/dialogue-is-hell-forever

        I’m not a fan of the death penalty, though — unless there really isn’t a way to keep people safe without snuffing the perpetrator out. In such a case, the death penalty is more or less self-defense.

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    2. “Souls in Hell don’t want Heaven; they don’t want God and never will.”

      In point of fact they do, indeed neither they nor anyone else could ever want anything else at the deepest level of their being. All rational creatures are fundamentally oriented to the good as such, no desire for any particular good is possible except that the good itself is first desired. Even to reject “God” is motivated by the desire for good as such. Consequently no decision against it could ever be motivated by anything but ignorance of precisely what one is rejecting or a binding that weakens the will’s ability to choose, both of which can be fixed.

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      1. “Even to reject “God” is motivated by the desire for good as such.” True, but the next sentence doesn’t follow or there would be no such thing as deadly sin at all. Gasing innocent Jews would not be evil (or a mere venial sin if the will is so weakened) if we couldn’t make a distinction beyond what you categorize.

        Sin involves the willful turning from the real good for an apparent good (or lesser good) within a particular set of circumstances that renders the act evil because it is contrary to what is due. The difference between these isn’t simply “ignorance,” nor some kind of outward binding or addiction. Sin is a willful, all the way, willful, rejection of the real good for some apparent good which is not due, not just. So, a soul in Hell, wishing to assert his incommunicability, his self (a definite good), over against his Creator, the true and perfect Good, commits radical evil. He does this willingly, freely, knowingly, and all the while as a creature oriented to the good as such.

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      2. “All rational creatures” is a category that includes Satan. Angels are pure spirit. They don’t have physical appetites to lead them astray, nor do they need to think step by step about what is true or false or right or wrong. They perceive whatever God has made them to perceive directly and immediately, not through fallible senses. Their intellects are far greater than ours. It is unclear how Satan could have been ignorant of precisely what he was rejecting, or that any impediment could have weakened his will’s ability to choose.
        Given your views, how do you explain that Lucifer fell? I assume you include Satan (Lucifer) in those who will be saved.

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      3. intracatholicforum:

        “True, but the next sentence doesn’t follow or there would be no such thing as deadly sin at all. Gasing innocent Jews would not be evil (or a mere venial sin if the will is so weakened) if we couldn’t make a distinction beyond what you categorize.”

        If by “deadly sin” you mean a sin which leads to literal, physical death, then I would have to disagree. I believe our current state of fallen mortality to be precisely the result of sin. If by “deadly sin” you mean sin which leads to an eternity of moral evil and torment, then I would agree that there is not such a thing as that, precisely because evil will not be allowed to have the last word. The man who gasses the innocent Jews will come to realize what an appalling crime he has committed, repent, perform whatever restitution is needed in this world or the next, and at the end of it will be forgiven, now the sort of man who would prefer to be gassed himself than do such a thing any longer. That is a victory worth having. By contrast. transferring the commandant of an earthly death camp into an infinitely worse celestial one achieves nothing but the perpetuation of evil for all eternity.

        “So, a soul in Hell, wishing to assert his incommunicability, his self (a definite good), over against his Creator, the true and perfect Good, commits radical evil. He does this willingly, freely, knowingly, and all the while as a creature oriented to the good as such.”

        “Freely”? What does it mean to be free? Is it sheer randomness? Because no coherent rational will could or would reject the good as such while being truly aware of what it is, because every possible motive to do so would find its source and end in the good as such. There can be no motive to reject the good with unclouded eyes, because every possible motive is already unfolded within the good and evil has no substance to which one could cling. Every attempt to satisfy one’s nature with a purely finite good will fail, but the underlying orientation to the good as such, the primordial pull towards God, will never go away. I don’t deny that our sinful soul can go on trying to grasp for ashes for quite a long time – but not forever. As with any addict, he will eventually hit rock bottom, with nowhere to go but up. His attempt to assert incommunicability will eventually lose all its luster by its very nature, and the hunger that drove him to seek to do so in the first place will drive him to seek something better.

        Michael Cashman:

        “Given your views, how do you explain that Lucifer fell? I assume you include Satan (Lucifer) in those who will be saved.”

        I don’t know the specifics. I’m not especially inclined towards speculation on topics for which I have precious little frame of reference – I’m not even completely sure if angels should be defined as purely spiritual beings or what such a mode of existence would even look like. Still, the above points regarding rational natures would be equally applicable to him. It would not be possible for him to turn away from God without some degree of either weakness or misjudgment of precisely what he was doing. How that would be possible for an angel I don’t know, but as finite creatures I must assume they have some limits somewhere. Jesus confirmed that there is at least one thing they don’t currently know – when the end of our present world will come. So obviously ignorance, to a degree, is possible for an angelic nature.

        And I do include Satan among those who will eventually be saved, for the same reason I include everyone else. The devil may be the very last to repent for all I know, but he too is a creation of God, inescapably oriented to the good as such, and brought unnecessarily into being by God. I trust God does not want an infinity of evil and suffering hanging around forever, knows what he is doing, and lacks neither the will nor the power to bring things to the best possible end. I don’t know how exactly it will work in all cases. It may be that the devil will need to spend eons alone in the outer darkness gnawing fruitlessly at himself before his malice exhausts itself, but eventually his knee too will bow before Jesus Christ and confess him. Not forcefully (for insincerity is worthless to God), but willingly, joyfully. Perhaps the first rebel will be the last penitent, the final capstone on the divine plan for creation – it has a certain dramatic fittingness.

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      4. It’s hard to believe that you can’t make a case for sin. Of course, sin exists in this world. Of course, people commit evil knowingly and freely. You and I have done it many times, let alone all the ax murderers of the world.

        By deadly sin I mean mortal sin, sin that breaks one’s covenant relationship with God, sin that deals spiritual death. “If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (John 1:5:16-17). One can repent of mortal sin in this life, of course, but dying in mortal sin fixes the human (and the demonic) will for all eternity in Hell, just as all the saints and angels have fixed their wills forever in Heaven by their respective “yeses” to God (by dying in sanctifying grace as opposed to mortal sin) and never have to concern themselves again with offending Him in any way.

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      5. “It’s hard to believe that you can’t make a case for sin. Of course, sin exists in this world. Of course, people commit evil knowingly and freely. You and I have done it many times, let alone all the ax murderers of the world.”

        Sin is not a thing as such. It is a deprivation, a twisting, a warping, it has no positive existence. And I’ll ask again, what do you mean by freely? What makes an act free or unfree? Is a serial killer just as free as a saint? How about madman who is unaware of his insanity, is he free? The conditions of our freedom are far more limited than you seem to think.

        “By deadly sin I mean mortal sin, sin that breaks one’s covenant relationship with God, sin that deals spiritual death.”

        I don’t believe mortal sin as Catholicism conceives it is a logically possible phenomenon. The conditions required to fall short also necessarily limit culpability for doing so.

        “One can repent of mortal sin in this life, of course, but dying in mortal sin fixes the human (and the demonic) will for all eternity in Hell, just as all the saints and angels have fixed their wills forever in Heaven by their respective “yeses” to God (by dying in sanctifying grace as opposed to mortal sin) and never have to concern themselves again with offending Him in any way.”

        Why the arbitrary time limit placed on men and God? To say that men after death cannot change is simply a naked assertion bereft of any supporting evidence. And even if they couldn’t because… because, we know from the Gospels that God can bring back the dead. Was Lazarus’ will “fixed” once he died and then “unfixed” once Jesus brought him back into our oh so mutable mortal world?

        And further, this certainly does away with any notion of grace that much more abounding where sin abounds. Sin has the last laugh after all, and that promise that one day every knee would bow turns out to be so much hot air.

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      6. It’s difficult making sense with you, Calvin, b/c you don’t have any authority beyond yourself. You’re your own pope. You accept outlandish premises and dismiss commonly held ones with no impunity and little to no logical coherence. I often wonder if you’re just here to “win” arguments like a Sophist, rather than really attempt to understand why the Church (and with her 99.99% of her fathers, doctors, and saints) hold to a particular interpretation of divine revelation or philosophical realism.

        Do you believe in free choice? I.e., the ability to choose one thing over another, not b/c you’re compelled by some exterior force or b/c you’re so addicted you can’t help yourself but b/c you simply desire to? You have the choice to reply to this post in kind, not reply, or reply with calumny. The latter would be sinful. You’re free, in this sense, to sin. That’s what I mean by freely in the context of this argument.

        It’s not an arbitrary time limit. Heaven and Hell are by definition eternal. It’s been divinely revealed. Yes, God can reach down to Sheol (the abode of the dead) and pull someone out of it, He can also give “tours” as it were to mystics of Heaven and Hell, but to force someone out of their willed eternal judgment is not befitting of a loving God. There are, to my knowledge, zero examples of it in public or private revelation.

        It doesn’t follow in the least that what I’m saying does away with the sense in which where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. That statement is made in reference to those who repent, not some metaphysical splashdown of grace every time someone sins. Souls in Hell don’t repent. They can’t and they don’t want to. Note, in this respect, Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man doesn’t beg for a do-over; he doesn’t apologize; he just wants relief. Even his request that his brothers be spared of his place of torment is reasonably seen as an attempt to relieve his own suffering, for the rich man’s suffering is compounded by all those he has influenced for evil.

        Jesus is very clear: “[B]etween us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” He continues: “‘f they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” He’s saying that they don’t want to be convinced. If they reject Moses and the prophets and the risen Jesus, they will go to the place of torment of their own volition.

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      7. “It’s difficult making sense with you, Calvin, b/c you don’t have any authority beyond yourself. You’re your own pope. You accept outlandish premises and dismiss commonly held ones with no impunity and little to no logical coherence. I often wonder if you’re just here to “win” arguments like a Sophist, rather than really attempt to understand why the Church (and with her 99.99% of her fathers, doctors, and saints) hold to a particular interpretation of divine revelation or philosophical realism.”

        Do you find it difficult to debate with anyone who is not a Catholic? Because I do not accept a spiritual dictatorship that decided it was infallible all of century and a half ago, you cannot debate me? And you find my premises outlandish? Then, frankly, demonstrate a flaw in them. Appeal to more than than authority to be accepted on the circular base of its own authority.

        “Do you believe in free choice? I.e., the ability to choose one thing over another, not b/c you’re compelled by some exterior force or b/c you’re so addicted you can’t help yourself but b/c you simply desire to? You have the choice to reply to this post in kind, not reply, or reply with calumny. The latter would be sinful. You’re free, in this sense, to sin. That’s what I mean by freely in the context of this argument.”

        What makes a choice free? Is it merely the fact that it is a choice, and nothing more? Are the choices of a drug addict or a madman equally free as a sane man’s then? Are the choices of a toddler equally free as those of an adult? Since you’re a Catholic, were the choices of the Virgin Mary equally free as those of a schizophrenic in a asylum? As to what I believe makes a choice free, it is no secret. He who sins is a slave to sin, but the truth will make you free. A perfectly free will is one that never chooses to sin, because it sees clearly what it is, what sin is, and where it’s nature can come to its correct end. A soul completely liberated from the bondage, delusion, and weakness that characterize our fallen world is the only completely free one, but such a soul would only have one option.

        “It’s not an arbitrary time limit. Heaven and Hell are by definition eternal. It’s been divinely revealed.”

        Yes, it is an arbitrary time limit, and in fact one that varies greatly from Individual to individual. Some get eighty years, some fifteen. A rather silly decision, particularly when we know that the earth itself has taken billions of years to reach it’s current state. God was apparently alright with waiting countless eons for the earth to be habitable for man and then decided that a paltry handful of years was all that was to be allocated for the single most important decision anyone could ever make.

        In fact I disagree that such a thing is what is revealed.

        “Yes, God can reach down to Sheol (the abode of the dead) and pull someone out of it, He can also give “tours” as it were to mystics of Heaven and Hell, but to force someone out of their willed eternal judgment is not befitting of a loving God. There are, to my knowledge, zero examples of it in public or private revelation.”

        Do you think through the consequences of your own beliefs? Serious question here. Because unless you hold that the Lazarus that was raised by Jesus was arbitrarily not in his “willed eternal judgement” but somewhere else while he was dead (which in turn would open the door for other people to be in this intermediate state), then forcing him out of it and back onto the earth is exactly what Jesus did. That’s public revelation.

        “Souls in Hell don’t repent. They can’t and they don’t want to. Note, in this respect, Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man doesn’t beg for a do-over; he doesn’t apologize; he just wants relief.”

        Again, this is arbitrary speculation apropos of nothing. Declaring that the dead cannot change their minds about anything, much less that they can somehow fix their wills on some finite object and keep them that way endlessly out of some infinite reserve of willpower, is merely baseless guesswork. And besides that it is both arbitrary and cruel. I fully agree with George MacDonald here:

        “[T]that the notion that a creature born imperfect, nay, born with impulses to evil not of his own generating, and which he could not help having, a creature to whom the true face of God was never presented, and by whom it never could have been seen, should be thus condemned, is as loathsome a lie against God as could find place in heart too undeveloped to understand what justice is, and too low to look up into the face of Jesus. It never in truth found place in any heart, though in many a pettifogging brain. There is but one thing lower than deliberately to believe such a lie, and that is to worship the God of whom it is believed.”

        “Even his request that his brothers be spared of his place of torment is reasonably seen as an attempt to relieve his own suffering, for the rich man’s suffering is compounded by all those he has influenced for evil.”

        That is a reasonable interpretation of anyone with any sense of empathy at all – they suffer when another suffers, and when they relieve others of their suffering their own is relieved. Any decent person will feel bad themselves when another is hurting, and will be motivated to relieve that suffering in part by their own sense of it. Also, wanting to relieve your own suffering is not a bad thing. Not wanting to do so would be a sign that something is wrong with you. Even Jesus wanted to avoid the cross, if it had been possible without violating the Father’s will.

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      8. Calvin, I’ve demonstrated flaws in your premises and reasoning numerous times. You just go on to make more assertions or double down on what you’ve already said as if the reasoning made no difference whatever. If you’re serious about understanding instead of debating, as you yourself admit, you would acknowledge what’s true in my arguments but then show where exactly, logically speaking, my argument fails or what you don’t understand. We’re not close on a whole host of issues (premises), and you’re not willing to give on any of them, so the arguments just go round and round ad nauseum.

        What we speak of as freedom in the context of the power to sin is freedom as liberty. It’s the basic power to choose between one thing and another. It’s the ability to pinch your sister or not, quite apart from external forces or addiction. I don’t believe you’re so ignorant as not to have a conception of this freedom. Is this freedom limited by addiction, by madness? Of course. But not so much as to negate entirely culpability. An abortionist may be addicted to cocaine… but that addiction doesn’t compel him to show up at the office 5 days a week to kill innocent babies. A person is often responsible for his/her addiction and madness too, so the excuse limps.

        The Catholic Church’s understanding of infallibility didn’t originate at Vatican I; it was there already from the beginning of the Church and prefigured in the old covenant. As an example, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation” (John 11:51; see also Jn 16:13, Mt 16, etc.).

        On the Lazarus point — I mentioned that he was in Sheol, the abode of the dead. This state was temporary for the just. Jesus freed the just from Sheol on Holy Saturday — but not those in Gehenna so-called. Not those in Hell as we know it.

        It’s not arbitrary speculation when it’s documented in Scripture, in the words of Jesus (as I pointed out), and then confirmed for 2000 years by the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). No one gets just 80 or 15 years; they get eternity.

        I didn’t say the dead can’t change their minds about anything, only that their wills were fixed for or against God, depending on the judgment of Jesus (alluded to multiple times in Scripture). See Matthew 25:31-46. Please read again the scriptures I post and ask yourself what the plain meaning of the text is. (If it’s the opposite of what I think, then I can’t help you.)

        What I meant regarding the last passage is that the rich man, being in his place of torment by the just decision of God, was merely self-seeking and not expressing empathy toward his brothers. We can reasonably deduce this b/c it is not likely for one so steadfastly against God and His goodness (love of God and neighbor) to be empathetic.

        As with the last go around, I’m going to stop now. Those who wish can read my arguments above.

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      9. “What we speak of as freedom in the context of the power to sin is freedom as liberty. It’s the basic power to choose between one thing and another. It’s the ability to pinch your sister or not, quite apart from external forces or addiction. I don’t believe you’re so ignorant as not to have a conception of this freedom. Is this freedom limited by addiction, by madness? Of course. But not so much as to negate entirely culpability.”

        So we agree that freedom is more than the bare fact of making a choice, then? That freedom and attendant culpability can be, at least in principle, limited by external or internal factors?

        “The Catholic Church’s understanding of infallibility didn’t originate at Vatican I; it was there already from the beginning of the Church and prefigured in the old covenant. As an example, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation” (John 11:51; see also Jn 16:13, Mt 16, etc.).”

        In point of fact it was not, even the likes of Benedict XVI admitted that church governance for a thousand years looked radically different than the RCC’s current model. Papal infallibility is an incredibly recent innovation made in an attempt to assert the continuing power of the papacy as the burgeoning secular powers of Europe tore down its temporal authority. One is just supposed to believe that the pope was infallible all along and only recently happened to notice, and not think about why the ancient councils would be called in the first place if there had been some infallible oracle they could have consulted all along.

        “On the Lazarus point — I mentioned that he was in Sheol, the abode of the dead. This state was temporary for the just. Jesus freed the just from Sheol on Holy Saturday — but not those in Gehenna so-called. Not those in Hell as we know it.”

        Apparently you’re not getting it: his will was either fixed after his death or it was not. If it was, Jesus ripped him out of the fixed state by bringing him back to life. If it was not, then it follows that death does not irreparably fix the will.

        “It’s not arbitrary speculation when it’s documented in Scripture, in the words of Jesus (as I pointed out), and then confirmed for 2000 years by the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). No one gets just 80 or 15 years; they get eternity.”

        …What? I genuinely have no idea what the hell you’re even trying to say with that last comment. It is an empirical fact that some people die after 15 years of life, and if your theory were correct than 15 years was all they had to make the most important decision possible. There is no avoiding this.

        “I didn’t say the dead can’t change their minds about anything, only that their wills were fixed for or against God, depending on the judgment of Jesus (alluded to multiple times in Scripture). See Matthew 25:31-46. Please read again the scriptures I post and ask yourself what the plain meaning of the text is. (If it’s the opposite of what I think, then I can’t help you.)”

        So the dead can change their minds about everything except the thing that matters the most? Do you even listen to yourself?

        I thought we’ve established before that prooftexting is not a useful form of debate. But if that’s the game you want to play, ask yourself what the plain meaning of, say, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Colossian 1:19-20, or Romans 15:18.

        “What I meant regarding the last passage is that the rich man, being in his place of torment by the just decision of God, was merely self-seeking and not expressing empathy toward his brothers. We can reasonably deduce this b/c it is not likely for one so steadfastly against God and His goodness (love of God and neighbor) to be empathetic.”

        In point of fact unless you propose that God is in fact actively torturing the rich man and will “turn up” the temperature somehow if his brothers should arrive there (in which case you must ditch the idea that it isn’t an active and planned torture dungeon set up and maintained by God), then the only basis on which he could be concerned was empathy. A rock being there would not bother him. His family being there would – that is a fairly normal human reaction. If he had no concern for others in any of themselves he would have no reason to be bothered.

        “As with the last go around, I’m going to stop now. Those who wish can read my arguments above.”
        As you wish.

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  4. Apparently, Fyodor Dostoevsky didn’t hold any opinions or make any judgements or employ an “us vs. them” dynamic in his beliefs about Roman Catholicism which he stated was “worse than atheism” (The Idiot).

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  5. There is lots of material in this article that (for me) just leads to more questions.
    E.g. the last para re St Isaac’s view that “.. stresses the preeminence of the inner work for all of us”. Then follow four sentences in which a man doing something interior “is greater than” a man doing something exterior. Of course, we don’t know that either man does not do both at different times, but suppose there is a significant difference in activity, why “greater than”? My initial thought is that some are called to one way of life, some to another.
    E.g. There always seems to be a tension between this “loving someone just as they are”, as in the story of Ryokan and his nephew, and seeking the good of the other. If Ryokan loves his nephew “in all his folly” then why is he crying? I would think, because he loves him despite all his folly. What makes more sense to me is the idea that God loves us too much to leave as us we are.
    I thought there was a tale about two monks talking about enlightenment when I first read it, but now there’s nothing like it in the passage. Has it been changed since first posted? or am I getting confused with something else?

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  6. Thank you, Fr. Slater, for writing this. It reminded me of a challenging bit of preaching I once encountered regarding 1 Timothy 2:1-4 (verses which I’m sure all readers of this blog know by heart at this point). The message was not on the grand themes of God’s will, or the possibility of universal salvation, but on the more practical question of why St. Paul saw a need to write to St. Timothy and implore that the Church pray for everyone. The logical conclusion is that St. Paul was concerned that the Church was not praying for some. In particular, he fears that the Church is neglecting to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for the civil rulers persecuting the Church.

    Why is St. Paul concerned about this? Because those of us in the Church all too easily understand resistance to Her mission as an “Us Against Them” dynamic: we are the Church and they are the wicked. But this is false. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why in ST III, q. 8, a. 3: the Church is Christ’s Mystical Body, and Christ’s Mystical Body contains all who can be members, not just those who are. This is a paradigm shift that cannot be stressed enough. Anyone who could potentially repent and believe is already a member of the Mystical Body. You will never meet another person who is not.

    I find this reading of St. Paul to reinforce not just Fr. Slater’s OP, but also the teachings of the reigning Holy Father (cf. Fratelli Tutti). It is a challenging reading, far more challenging than the debate about universalism. Because ultimately universalism is a debate over what actions God will take, which is not really any of our business. Treating every person we meet as members of Christ’s Mystical Body is our business, and it is so extraordinarily difficult that I’m guessing most of us would rather argue theology until we’re blue in the face before we take even the first step toward thinking through what this should mean for our attitudes and actions toward others.

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    1. I agree that we are to treat everyone with utmost dignity as befitting of being made in the image and likeness of God and as members of the Mystical Body, even if only potentially. I would only want to highlight that those who are not in sanctifying grace are not actually in the Mystical Body, the Church, “except, perhaps, imperfectly, by formless faith,” according to St. Thomas, and will not be in the Mystical Body in any sense after death.

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      1. intracatholicforum:

        “those who are not in sanctifying grace are not actually in the Mystical Body, the Church”

        Not actually, but potentially. And potentiality is enough for inclusion in Christ’s Mystical Body. This is the crucial point that St. Thomas hammers home – while every other corporate body we deal with in our lives includes only those who are actual members, Christ’s Mystical Body includes all those who could be members. No one is a member of the U.S. Navy just because he could enlist, but everyone is a member of the Mystical Body, the Church, if he could repent and believe.

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      2. Charlie, I think the point St. Thomas is hammering home is that Jesus Christ is the head of all men (the disputed question), even those outside of God’s family. Those who are potential members of the Church are not actually members, St. Thomas says. In other words, they don’t possess sanctifying grace, they can’t receive the Eucharist, and they’re on the road to perdition. Even still, such potential members are under Christ’s lordship and deserve to be treated with requisite dignity.

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      3. intracatholicforum:

        “This is the difference between the natural body of man and the Church’s mystical body… of those who are at any one time, some there are who are without grace, yet will afterwards obtain it, and some have it already.” – St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III, q. 8, a. 3

        I understand St. Thomas to mean that those who are not at this time in a state of sanctifying grace, but who will be, are still members of the Church’s mystical body at all times even when at specific moments that membership is not actualized.

        Then further on we read:

        “….of those who are united to Him in potentiality, which will never be reduced to act; such are those men existing in the world, who… on their departure from this world, wholly cease to be members of Christ, as being no longer in potentiality to be united to Christ.”

        Here I understand St. Thomas to mean that those who are not in a state of sanctifying grace, and never will be, are still members of Christ’s mystical body while alive by virtual of their potentiality (“those who are united to Him in potentiality”) but “wholly cease to be members of Christ” after death, once the potentiality is no longer present.

        Therefore it is not quite enough to treat people who are at present actually outside the Church with “requisite dignity” unless requisite dignity is understood to mean treating them as members of Christ’s mystical body, since all living men are united to Him in potentiality.

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      4. Perhaps we can say that those in potentiality retain their ordination to Christ which gives them dignity over and above those who cease to have this ordination upon death in mortal sin. But we would also want to maintain that being members in potency and members in act are radically distinct states with radically distinct privileges.

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    2. Charlie Estridsen writes: “Because ultimately universalism is a debate over what actions God will take, which is not really any of our business.” Universalists claim to know something and want to convince others of it, which is when universalism becomes our business.
      I think your reading of Saint Thomas overstates what he means by “potential”. Potential is something that could be, but may never be. All living persons could be members of Christ’s mystical body, but Thomas says clearly enough that some will never be. Someone who is potentially a member is not actually a member, but might be tomorrow. For those who are lost, their potency is never reduced to act.

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      1. Yes, potentiality is an ability to be at a later time. One could argue that there is no such thing as a potentiality that remains unactualized over the whole of time, therefore St. Thomas’s fifth class of people (“fifthly, of those who are united to Him in potentiality, which will never be reduced to act…”) do not exist. But if this is true then it would seem to create only two possible conclusions, a) Christ is not the Head of all men, or b) Christ is the Head of all men, therefore all men will actualize their potentiality at some point over the whole of time (i.e. universalism). For reasons stated above and in other threads the universalism debate does not interest me nearly as much as the day-to-day implications of St. Thomas’s claim that all are members of the Mystical Body under the headship of Christ.

        I don’t think I am overstating him. For example, I wouldn’t expect St. Thomas to argue that Queen Elizabeth is my head of state by virtue of the fact that I could potentially emigrate to the UK. But St. Thomas does clearly teach that Christ is the Head of all men who could repent and believe.

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      2. An acorn is potentially an acorn tree, but not actually a tree. One could say it is within the family of acorn trees, at least potentially. But, of course, not all acorns become acorn trees. Trees and acorns remain radically distinct.

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      3. intracatholicforum:

        I am not interpreting St. Thomas to mean that there are no distinctions between members of Christ’s Mystical Body – in fact, St. Thomas makes five such distinctions in the passage we’re discussing. But as he tells it they are still distinctions among members of the Christ’s Body. This seems in keeping with, among other things, the universal supremacy of Christ’s headship described by St. Paul in Colossians 1:15-20.

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    1. A slight modification of Calvin’s syllogism:
      1. God knows the middle from the beginning.
      2. But in the middle creatures suffer evil.
      3. But none of these creatures asked to be created, and God had the power and foreknowledge to spare them this evil by not creating them.
      4. So God is the cause of this evil. God must be a monster.
      Hmmm, Calvin will say that the evil “in the middle” is not an infinite evil. Still, evils are evils, so it works just as well for me. Or just as poorly.

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      1. I still don’t quite understand the assumption that the damned (assuming, for the sake of argument, that some actually are damned) would *want* to not have been, or to be annihilated. The rich man does not repent – in fact, he has the audacity to order Lazarus around like a slave while he reclines in the bosom of Abraham, while refusing him the dignity of even addressing him directly. But he does not say he wishes he was never born. He doesn’t even ask to leave, though he is clearly miserable there. None of us have ever been damned, and we have never spoken with a damned soul. Why do we presume that if someone were to end up in that state, he would desire God to somehow violently alter his will or eliminate him, or wish that he had never made us to begin with? What if the damned would *not* desire that God had never made them so they never experience damnation? God clearly foresees whether the damned soul would rather not have been born, or would rather remain in its damned state. Perhaps God indeed never creates those that he foresees would not want it – I have no idea, and the waters are getting too murky here for me to dare to press that idea any further. But the rest may, in a twisted sense, desire it.

        Calvin will claim that God should do to such a soul what any of us would do to a madman – restrain him lest he harm himself more, forcibly rehabilitate him if possible, etc. But here I think the analogy between sin and madness is being stretched too far. The demons were capable of grave evil without anything like concupiscence. How? I don’t know, anymore than I can scientifically demonstrate why I, as a young man, decided to repent from atheism and accept Christ, rather than deny Him (as I had done several times before). Freedom and evil are mysteries, as Gabriel Marcel put it, because we are inextricably wound up in them, and cannot subject them to neat, objective analysis.

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      2. I totally agree that there are mysteries here that we’re not going to fully comprehend on this side of the veil. The argument that the souls in Hell are fixed against God is not a magisterially certain pronouncement of mine (I got it from Trent Horn), it just seems fitting given that souls in Heaven are fixed for God, the punishments of Hell are eternal, and a just and merciful God would not likely leave souls to eternal abandonment if they were actually repentant. I’ve also never encountered a repentant soul in Hell through my reading of private revelation and the Lazarus parable.

        As to how sin arises, perhaps this passage from The Poem of the Man-God (my favorite private revelation) can help: “[E]vil is a force that originated by itself like certain monstrous diseases in the most wholesome body…. Lucifer was an angel, the most beautiful of all the angels, a perfect spirit, inferior only to God, and yet in his bright essence a vapor of pride arose and he did not scatter it. On the contrary, he condensed it by brooding over it. And Evil was born of this incubation. It existed before man. God had hurled him out of Paradise, the cursed incubator of Evil, who had desecrated Paradise. But he is the eternal incubator of Evil and as he can no longer soil Paradise, he has soiled the Earth” (Jesus to Maria Valtorta, Vol. 1, p. 83).

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      3. One last time, I guess. It is logically coherent to suggest that an infinite good may be derived from a state necessitating at the least the possibility of temporary evils. It is logically incoherent to suggest that any good can be derived from an infinite and needless moral and physical evil. Moreover any attempt to safeguard the innocence of God via the distinction between will and permission collapses when one moves from time to eternity as a final state of all things.

        If you can’t understand that, I give up. One can only go around in circles for so long without compromising one’s tranquility.

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  7. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). The meaning of “all” in this context is clarified in the very next statement: “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (15:23). The focal point of “in Christ shall all” is “in Christ.” All those “in Christ” shall be made alive. Those outside of Christ (outside of sanctifying grace) shall not be made alive.

    “For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (1 Col 1:19-20). Yes, He reconciles everything to Himself — it’s what we call “objective redemption.” Christ opens the gates of Heaven for all things. All things, especially persons, find their fulfillment in Him. But it does not follow that all things take up the invitation or necessarily go to Heaven. That’s adding a term in the conclusion which is not present in the premises.

    “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed” (Romans 15:18). Yes, St. Paul was sent to the Gentiles to win obedience from them and help them gain Heaven. This passage does not suggest that all Gentiles are, in fact, obedient. That would be to add a term in the conclusion which is not present in the premises.

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  8. We are indeed all saved together, for in Christ we are one, and only in Christ can we be saved. Nevertheless souls are damned, and this is Christ’s greatest sacrifice for us, his greatest act of love, because nothing causes him as much suffering as this: every lost soul is a part of Christ himself that is lost; he still bears the wounds of his passion after the resurrection. The Trinity is eternally wounded by Christ’s passion, because some souls are eternally lost.

    God accepts to suffer eternally (hell is the suffering of God) rather than destroy a soul’s own will, for God does not destroy what He creates, and He created the entire universe in order to create our soul’s will.

    If you reject eternal damnation you have not yet understood what love is

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    1. “If you reject eternal damnation you have not yet understood what love is”

      Pointless, unnecessary torture and the eternal establishment of evil?

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