Are We There Yet?

30 May

summer vacationI doubt that there are any of us with children old enough to speak who haven’t heard (probably more than once) from the deep recesses of the car or minivan, “Are we there yet?”

Rather than get annoyed by this persistent question, I usually seize the opportunity to tease my little passengers. I explain to them in convoluted ways that we’re never going to be “there.” We’re always going to be “here.” Once we arrive at our destination, it will cease to be “there,” but will suddenly turn into “here.”

Of course, I’m trying to teach my little ones about the proper use of adverbs. But I’m not just playing fun word games with them. I’m getting them to consider a basic fact of human existence: In this life there’s always going to be a crucial distinction between “here” and “there,” between where we are and where we’re going.

As Christians, even though we appreciate the significance of our earthy lives, we realize that we’re still “here,” but we want to get “there”–to the glories of heaven with our Triune God and the throngs of angels and saints. We all resonate with these words from the sacred liturgy: “When will I come to the end of my pilgrimage and enter the presence of God?” (Antiphon 1, Monday Morning Prayer, Week II).

In other words, when are we going to get there?

When my kids ask “Are we there yet?” they know perfectly well that we aren’t. Similarly, when we ask in the liturgy when will we enter the presence of God, we know our earthly pilgrimage will continue until we die. These rhetorical questions merely express our longing to get “there,” and perhaps also our dismay that the journey can be long and difficult.

Hope Springs Eternal

Not only are we, as individuals, pilgrims in this world, but so too is the Church. Quoting Vatican II, the Catechism reminds us that until the time of Christ’s glorious return, “the Church progresses on her pilgrimage amidst this world’s persecutions and God’s consolations” (no. 769).

But what is a pilgrim? At root, a pilgrim is one who journeys in foreign lands. A pilgrim is one who is on the way, rather than already at home. The pilgrim is not “there” yet.

We are traveling through time, but we’re made for eternity. This world has a lot going for it, but it’s not home. Our journey is not a trek to a distant location, but rather it involves fully becoming who we were created to be: adopted children of God enveloped in the life of the Trinity. St. Paul acknowledges this truth when he says that while he’s not there yet, he nonetheless relentlessly presses on toward the goal, the “prize of God’s heavenly goal in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

A clear understanding of our pilgrim status is impossible without a basic sense of God’s plan for our lives. We were made for fulfillment–to be happy with God for all eternity. However, this orientation was damaged by the sin of Adam, such that as a people we were lost and could not find our way, even though we retained an innate desire for happiness. Our rebirth in Christ at Baptism restores this orientation: We again know who we are and where we are going, and now we have the grace to get “there.” The virtue that teaches us to live this reality is hope, the virtue of the pilgrim.

Pilgrim’s Projects

On both the natural and supernatural level, hope is ordered to a future, difficult good. Two of these components should be readily apparent. First, we only hope for those things that are perceived as good. That’s simply the way we’re wired. We don’t hope that evil befalls us. Now, this “good” may not in reality be a good (e.g., a murderer who “hopes” that his efforts are successful). One person’s “good” can even be in conflict with another’s “good.” For example, a farmer may hope it rains while a picnicker hopes it doesn’t.

In the case of the theological virtue of hope, the object is God Himself and the fullness of eternal life with Him. Our earthly life is a pilgrimage home to our Father, where at last we will attain our true and eternal good.

Similarly, the futurity of hope should be self-evident. It makes no sense to hope for something that has already happened. Who says, “I hope it rained yesterday”? Once my family is at the beach, I no longer hear the question, “Are we there yet?”

While we truly become children of God at Baptism (see 1 John 3:1), we don’t presently possess the fullness of the good we hope for. We’re not assumed into heaven when we’re baptized, but rather we’re equipped to embark upon a great adventure home.

And we’re definitely not there yet.

Crux of the Matter

The element of hope that may seem less obvious–and perhaps even controversial–is the requirement of difficulty. This means that the attainment of the good is uncertain (e.g., “I hope it rains tomorrow” implies that it might not rain tomorrow), not entirely within our control, or perhaps subject to conflicting forces (e.g., “I hope the Chiefs win the next Super Bowl” implies the recognition that other teams are also trying to win).

The Catholic belief that the object of hope is a future, difficult good is misunderstood by some Christians to mean that Catholics think we can’t be assured of our salvation. Once we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, they counter, our salvation can’t be lost.

The object of hope is not only difficult but, humanly speaking, impossible. Yet those who are reborn through the waters of Baptism can be confident that God will bring this seed of our salvation to fruition. God is entirely true to His promises. Fortunately for us, hope is not based on human strength or ability, but on the mercy and goodness of God that is poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit at Baptism (see Romans 5:5).

The “difficulty” or “uncertainty” involves our cooperation with the grace that makes our salvation possible. We are always capable of rejecting God’s gift through mortal sin. Scripture provides several cases of Christians who have fallen away through sin. This possibility explains why St. Paul, who had one of the most dramatic and profound conversions in 2,000 years of Christianity, would write, “I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). He further advises those who are already Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

God entirely respects human freedom, which is still reeling from the effects of the fall, in bestowing His grace. We have the ability to turn away at any point of the journey, just as an amply supplied traveler with impeccable directions remains free, before getting “there,” to decide to change course and go somewhere else.

In other words, the road to the future good of resurrection necessarily entails voluntarily taking up one’s cross. For many people, this is sheer nonsense (see 1 Corinthians 1:18). Even for us Christians, we might be tempted to look at our own personal crosses and shrink away, daunted at the prospect of carrying them all the way. It is difficult–indeed, impossible–without divine assistance.

Dying to Get There

A teacher of mine once said that if there is nothing worth dying for, then there is nothing worth living for. Are we willing to lay down our lives for Our Lord?

A central message of recent popes has been “be not afraid.” So we must not shrink from the Cross, but find in the Cross redemption, meaning, and peace. Embracing the Cross requires a martyr’s courage, a courage that is the fruit of a lively faith, hope, and charity.

During these summer months, as many of us might be planning vacations, weekend excursions, or even day trips, the Church encourages us to make pilgrimages to holy sites. Such pilgrimages “evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer” (Catechism, no. 2691).

But even if we can’t go on pilgrimage to some distant site, we can view our going to Mass as a “mini-pilgrimage,” calling us out of our comfort zone (i.e., bed, or maybe the sofa or easy chair) as we journey to a holy place to encounter–and receive–the Lord of the universe.

We’re not “there” yet, and we won’t be in this life. But in the sacrifice of the Mass, with the eyes of faith, we can catch a glimpse of eternal glory–even from “here.”

This article originally appeared, in modified form, in Lay Witness magazine.

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