“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.