When we stand before the Lord for our particular judgement, how will He decide whether to admit us into the company of the saved (if only after a time of purification) or banish us from His presence forever? The question will be decided, first of all, on the basis of which side we stood on the most important division that exists between men living in this world, the one between the baptized and unbaptized. After that it will be decided on the basis of all our acts performed while we were among the living, which is to say, how we spent our time on Earth.
How much of it did we spend in prayer, not petitionary prayer but time in which we turned our mind and lifted our heart to the Lord in order to spend it with Him? Was it little? Was it practically never or none at all? The Lord will know the answer and it will be important in His decision. After all, if we weren’t interested enough in spending time with Him to do so while in this world – to the extent anyone can while still among the living – why would we want it now? Because now we can see clearly that we should always have wanted it? That’s like a man seeing he proposed to the wrong woman, or the woman realizing she should not have said yes, after their wedding. It’s too late.
I said the answer to the question will be important to the Lord, but it will not be absolutely decisive. That is because no one – not even a consecrated religious contemplative – will or can spend all his time in contemplation. Even at the Grande Chartreuse roofs have to be repaired, cows milked, gardens tended, snow shoveled and on and on. There is always work to be done. The world, as well as Heaven, makes demands on us. Inevitably, tension arises between the two, the demands of Heaven and the need to keep our feet on the ground. When Western man was more fully himself than he is today, it was precisely in that tension that his greatness was located. It is also where we find the final question the Lord will be asking at our particular judgement: How did we spend our time on Earth, the most precious gift the Lord gives us, when we weren’t praying and weren’t working? Was it lying in a hammock on a beach with a cool drink in our hand and otherwise daydreaming of doing so?
The Lord understands that such total relaxation, moments of mindlessness and drift, may be desirable and even necessary now and then, but He expects more. He is bound to do so. After all, the half-hour or hour we spend in prayer and spiritual reading won’t do much good – won’t keep us inclined toward the Lord – if we spend all the rest of our waking hours thinking and acting in ways that point away from Him or exclude Him altogether. If we think only of material things – more money, a bigger house, a new car – and the only acts we perform further their acquisition, we will be materialists, not Christians hoping to spend eternity with the Lord. Similarly, if all we seek is the esteem and admiration of others, where is the Lord in that? Has our self left room for Him?
I am going to offer here three recommendations of things to do and think about – a website to visit, a book to read and a movie to watch – which I believe will help persons keep turned toward the Lord even when they are not praying. I can offer additional recommendations on other occasions, but see what you think of these:
First, the website. “The object of education is to teach us what is beautiful.” Plato said that and it is what was taught for as long as Western men spent their lives acquiring wisdom and cultivating virtue, which themselves are beautiful. We have lost sight of this under the sway of modernity where wisdom becomes a matter of opinion and virtue relative. Now it is thought the object of education is to obtain the credentials that will make it possible to land a high-paying job. So much the worse for the system’s victims. However, education is not our subject here. Beauty us.
Writing for this website a few weeks ago, I called it “a portal to the divine.” Contemplating it is not the same as spending time in prayer, but it gets us closer to God, who is Beauty as well as Justice, Mercy, Truth and all other good things in their perfection, than will posting selfies on Facebook or watching another vacuous Netflix movie.
Of course we cannot contemplate beauty without beholding it. One way we can do that is by looking at beautiful paintings, but that may not be easy to do for anyone who doesn’t live as do I, a short taxi ride from one of the world’s great art museums. Most persons don’t. However, if you’re reading these lines, you have access to the internet and therefore can visit the website of the Art Renewal Center. There you will learn: “Leading the revival of realism is the visual arts, the Art Renewal Center hosts the largest online museum dedicated to representational art and includes works by the old masters, 19th and 21st century artists as well as articles, letters and other online resources.” To be specific, the museum section of the website offers a look at 67,483 works by 6,086 artists from 2,079 museums around the world. Visitors to the website can order prints of the works.
If you visit the website, don’t neglect looking at the Living Artists Gallery. There you will find works by contemporary realist painters. (Yes, they exist and numerous of them are brilliant.)
I may live a short taxi ride from the National Gallery of Art but still have spent entire evenings visiting this website. So may you. The URL: www.artrenewal.org
While you are online, you might go to YouTube and download “Why Beauty Matters,” an hour-long BBC production with the recently deceased Sir Roger Scruton, philosopher, prolific author, fox hunter and much more. Listening to him excoriate the abomination of modern architecture is a special joy.
Next, the book. If I haven’t recommended it before now in my writing, I’m sure I’ve done so in talks or during question-and-answer sessions at conferences. The book is Leisure, the Basis of Culture, by the very eminent 20th-century German philosopher Josef Pieper.
If I have recommended the book before and now do so again, it is because I recently reread it for the first time in some years and appreciate it still more deeply than before. It is a veritable handbook for building a Christian civilization because it is a veritable handbook for Christian living. In a foreword to the latest (2009) edition of the book published by Ignatius Press, Rev. James V. Schall, long the outstanding figure of Georgetown University’s Department of Government, makes this point in light of today’s absolutization of democracy and Islamist menace: “At first sight, it seems that something, almost anything, must be done about our situation. But it is the genius of Pieper to see that this activist, busy notion is the wrong starting point. Before we can pretend to do anything about the present, we must know what we are, what the world is, and yes, what God is. Construction of a civilization that knows little or nothing of these deeper realities can only make things worse.”
Finally, the movie. It is The Fugitive. It can be rented on Amazon Prime for $2.99. Be careful. Other movies have the same title. You want the one directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio and Pedro Armendariz, and released in 1947.
It is based on a novel by Graham Greene. I am aware there are traditional Catholics who despise Greene because his characters are often less than exemplary Catholics, flawed, imperfect, sometimes beset by doubt. To me they resemble a considerable number of saints before they became saints.
Ford filmed his movie in Mexico where the practice of the Faith was illegal only twenty years before, but the Latin American country in the film is nameless. “The fugitive” is a priest, played by Henry Fonda, with a target on his back. Pedro Armendariz is a policeman, the embodiment of the Revolution, who is gunning for him. The black-and-white cinematography is often breathtaking. The acting is broad, even cartoonish by today’s standards. Everything is transparently manipulative. When we see Dolores Del Rio with her baby in her arms she looks like a Mexican Madonna and Child and we are aware that is how she is supposed to look. It doesn’t keep us from seeing her like that.
The movie does not have a happy ending. It ends the way the real-life story of Blessed Fr. Miguel Pro and thousands of other Mexican brothers and sisters in the Faith ended in the 1920s (and Spanish ones in the 1930s and thousands more in Africa and the Middle East today). In that sense it is not an “enjoyable” movie, but one I believe most regular visitors to this website would find uplifting and can themselves recommend the next time somebody asks, “Do you know of any good Catholic movies?”