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Placing Life in the Proper Context: Reflecting on the Last Judgment and Eternity

August 2, 2012

Another powerful spiritual aid for cultivating good thoughts is reflecting on the last judgment and eternity. It’s intimately related to the subject of our last blog topic, self-reproach and likewise requires a thoroughly ancient Christian worldview.  I mention the word ancient because many modern Christians—who struggle with bad thoughts while neglecting to cultivate good thoughts—don’t think or act as if judgment and eternal life are around the corner in the life of each and every human being, although signs of mortality surround us. For those in the modern world who do still believe in eternal life, in heaven and in hell, the calculation of “where” they’ll spend eternity often relies heavily if not exclusively on moral judgments.  Yet, the ancients understood heaven and hell in rich, vibrant ontological terms rather than the shallow moralistic notion of places for good boys and girls versus bad boys and girls to go, to use Fr. John Romanides’s tongue-in-cheek expression. The ancients viewed the human predicament as one of estrangement from God, a soul sickness that if left untreated necessarily would lead to a hellish eternity, in which even God’s love would be felt as a burning fire instead of a comforting light.  In contrast to the Western understanding of two places for the good and bad, the ancient fathers viewed eternity as a state of being in God’s presence for eternity, a presence that would be experienced as light, grace, and joy for those who were spiritually healed after seeking that presence in life, whereas it would be an experience of darkness, emptiness, and sorrow for those who never strove to gain eyes to see by walking faithfully on the path of repentance for the sake of illumination and union with God.

Reflection upon an eternity as seen by the fathers is particularly beneficial for those who struggle with sinful behavior, bad thoughts, and spiritual sloth.  When one places this earthly, transitory life in the context of eternity, beneficial thoughts are necessarily born and rooted in the nous.  In chapter nine, “The Garden of the Heart”, I offer a few examples of how such a reflection can be put into practice.

“In other words, the faithful are to re-frame their interpretation of their situation in eschatological terms.  This interpretative framework recasts almsgiving and chastity, so that the balance is tipped from greed and lust.  In the struggle against temptations, the saint suggests that believers picture the judgment seat and repeat to themselves, ‘There is a resurrection, a judgment, and a scrutiny for our deeds.’”

The ultimate goal of the Christian life is deification, not a reward for external compliance with the Commandments. Clearly, obeying the Commandments (and here we don’t mean only the Ten Commandments, but all the commandments of Christ) and cultivating the virtues is part of the process of purification and illumination, it is only a step in the process.  The goal remains deification so that in eternity we abide in God’s presence and perceive Him as all-encompassing Love. In keeping judgment and eternity foremost in our thoughts, we are reminded that our daily lives are filled with opportunities, and not obstacles, to choose union with God in our hearts now and thereby take another step towards the ultimate goal of union with God for all eternity

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