22 May 2006

My Neighbor And The Life Everlasting.

At each recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, we Christians affirm our belief in “the life everlasting,” and Sunday by Sunday as we recite the Nicene Creed, we affirm our belief in “the life of the world to come.” I’ve found a good way to test whether I really believe something, or if I’m just “heaping up empty phrases” (Mt. 6.7) is to ask, what difference would it make to my life were it not true? How would my life be different – would it be different – if this thing I confess were not part of the system of Christian belief?

What difference does our belief in “the life everlasting” make? How should it inform my life today and the decisions I make? For most of us, with regard to this affirmation, the rubber meets the road at the grave. When we bury a loved one, we do so “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.” I suspect this most often is the application for which we reserve “the life everlasting.” And properly so. In the Gospel we proclaim Jesus’ victory over the grave, a victory that destroys the paralyzing fear of death, and with hope tempers our grief at loss – because the loss is temporary and, as St. Paul says, “not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed” (Rom. 8.18). At the grave, the truth of “the life everlasting” makes all the difference.

But this ought not to be the only place it makes a difference. “The life everlasting” is not a belief to be held tightly only with regard to the faithful departed, but with regard to every living person as well. I was reminded of this recently as I re-read Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, an account of the brutal and pointless murder of a rural Kansas family of four by two small-time criminals, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. The murder itself and the subsequent arrest and trial were major news stories of the day and came to the attention of a Massachusetts man named Don Cullivan. Reading the stories, Cullivan realized that he had been briefly acquainted with Perry Smith while serving in the army some eight years previously. Following his army days, Cullivan had become a devout Catholic Christian, and felt moved to write to Smith. Smith wrote back and a correspondence began. Eventually Cullivan traveled to Kansas to visit Smith in jail and offer support during the trial. Capote reports that
Many observers of the trial scene were baffled by this visitor from Boston… They could not quite understand why this staid young Catholic, a successful engineer who had taken his degree at Harvard, a husband and father of three children, should choose to befriend an uneducated homicidal half-breed whomhe knew but slightly and had not seen for nine years.

Why, indeed. When asked, Cullivan provided the only possible answer: “Because I’d offered this man my friendship. And because – well, I believe in the life everlasting. All souls can be saved for God.” Cullivan understood that if this bedrock item of Christian faith were true, then every person with whom he came in contact was important, each one significant, each destined for eternity. People matter – every one of them. C.S. Lewis reflected on this reality in his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
It may be possible to think too much about one’s own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror andacorruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations…

Do we really believe in “the life everlasting?” Don Cullivan did, and it made all the difference.
From the June issue of the parish newsletter.


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