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Terrance KleinAugust 21, 2019
Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

“I can’t stay.” That is how the student would begin and end our conversation, and, however long it lasted, the same words were used as a refrain throughout our talk, as though to underscore the fundamental issue.

From a small seminary college to very large Catholic universities, I taught or worked as an administrator in higher education for more than 20 years. In all those places, the same talk would reoccur around this time of year. A newly arrived student was determined to return home. Could I visit with him or her? The summons would invariably arrive in the first week of school, sometimes in the first 24 hours.

Presuming that homesickness was the issue, I was ready to offer my twin bromides: “It’s the worse sickness there is, but missing your home so badly says that you came from a good one.”

But I eventually learned that the problem was not homesickness. Like most illnesses, that takes some time to come down with. These students were overwhelmed. Should I say filled with terror or anxiety? I think only “overwhelmed” works. Terror has an object that it fears; anxiety is a nagging fear without a focus; but being truly overwhelmed is like drowning. When you are drowning, you do not fear it and you’re surely not anxious about drowning. You do not have the luxury of time for thought. You simply thrash about, unable to focus. You are certainly not ready to recognize a lifeline when it’s thrown to you.

Our Scriptures faithfully present the very nature of God. God is an outpouring of love and goodness, one without beginning or end.

Sadly, these conversations had a sole conclusion. The students did need to leave; they could not stay because they were overwhelmed. Incapable of reflective thought, we could not discuss the wonders that this new chapter in their life would bring. I could speak, but the students could not be blamed for not hearing. They really were overwhelmed. Loving concern could not restrain them from leaving. So a great good, their future life in college, had to be forfeited in respect to their personal collapse.

Wherever the students had come from, whatever their backgrounds, some crucial growth, one that would have prepared them for the arrival of a totally new world, had not happened. Who was to blame? Is blame even applicable here? The students might have been incapable of reflective thought, but they had intuitively arrived at the proper conclusion. They could not stay. They just couldn’t.

Our Scriptures faithfully present the very nature of God. God is an outpouring of love and goodness, one without beginning or end. Love is the good that seeks to share itself. That is why we say that God is love, summoning us. Isaiah tells us, “I come to gather nations of every language” (66:18). Jesus said that “people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Lk 13:29).

Primal love created us to be distinct from itself so that we could choose to love. It will not annihilate us, overwhelm who we are.

We exist because love wanted to share its own goodness. Goodness (a noun) simply and always loves (a verb). The goodness that shares itself in love we call “creator.” In contrast, we call ourselves “creatures” because our existence, our share of goodness and love comes from outside ourselves.

From this, fundamental facts fall like dominoes. If the creator does not fashion a creature who can refuse love and goodness, the creator has done no more than extend himself. You can only share with another, someone not yourself. So it must be possible for us to say “no” to absolute goodness and love, just as it is possible to turn away from them in our daily lives.

The consequence of our great refusal of goodness and love we call “hell.” Hell is real because the possibility to turn away from God is real. And while it is true that God’s mercy is virtually unbounded, there is indeed a limit. Mercy will not overwhelm us because that would be to meld the creature back into the creator. Something akin to forcing a newly arrived, overwhelmed college student to stick it out. In violating the person, you only increase the problem.

God does not ban souls from heaven, but it is possible to live in such a way in this world as to render you unready, even unable, to dwell in the one to come.

Primal love created us to be distinct from itself so that we could choose to love. It will not annihilate us, overwhelm who we are. We were created either to receive or to reject God. The creature is forever distinct from the creator, even though the creator is the goodness and love without which the creature cannot thrive.

In sharp contrast to so many of our contemporaries, Jesus clearly presumes that some will say no to him, and in him, to God, and in God, to goodness and love itself. We may no longer be inclined to listen, but Christ often repeats this warning, speaks of this possibility in the Gospels.

Rather than presume upon the mercy of God, which will do everything it can for you, worry about whether you are growing ever more ready for the advent of a world, a way of life you simply cannot imagine. The question is not, “Won’t God forgive my sins?” It is, “Can my way of life close me off from God, from goodness and love itself?”

God does not ban souls from heaven, but it is possible to live in such a way in this world as to render you unready, even unable, to dwell in the one to come. That you can be readied is the meaning of purgatory. That you cannot, of hell.

You cannot stay because you will be overwhelmed, and here we can and should speak of blame because, while you live, goodness and love will never stop trying to ready you for what is to come. Once your choice is made, even God must abide because that is who God created you to be: the one who chooses.

Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21 Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13 Luke 13:22-30

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Dave B
4 years 9 months ago

Can people sin heaven?No.This is because when the will is free in Christ it doesn’t sin.On earth when we are in sin we lack freedom,and Gods grace allows us to respond to our true selves,setting us free.A person who denies God does so because he is in sin and needs saving.If God saves one he saves all as a matter of justice.God also has are best interests at heart,when we are unable to.Hell does exist on earth and beyond and some people experience it as a healing force to show what is the final consequence of apart from Christ.Has the church proclaimed anyone to be in Hell?Not that I’m aware of.If you’re in hell its eternal?,yes of course And GOD Speaks matter of fact of it like a loving father,but doesn’t cast people into it.I believe he will destroy Hell also one day so his victory is completed.God wills to save the world,and his will comes true,he is the good news he defeats death and sin.That truly is good news.

Luke 3:6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Not a few or some,but all will eventually be in heaven according to many bible verses.My heart and conscience believes these verses because I believe in a Gods mercy,justice and goodness.
God bless.

Jeri Graham
4 years 9 months ago

What a beautiful column.

arthur mccaffrey
4 years 9 months ago

seems a bit tautological--if you are overwhelmed you are not ready--why are you not ready? because you are overwhelmed.......no mention of growth and maturation that grows in inverse proportion to the degree of being overwhelmed. If love is so freely available then why can't the student say "yes" later on, why does it have to be all or nothing right now? Klein makes it sound really punitive if you don't shape up now--not every youngster is ready to live away from home at age 18, so give them time, the love will still be available in another 5,10, 20 years---what's the rush? Bad analogy Mr Klein-- you make it sound too all or nothing, but redemption does not have a timetable.

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