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A Design of Eternal Salvation

In the first Advent Preface, we read: “You fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to salvation.” We often read that the words of Scripture are or will be “fulfilled.” This notion of a “design” (or plan) comes up in Collects and Prayers, in readings from Paul and the Fathers of the Church. The “plan” is the Father’s “work.” It is carried out through and in the Son. Its completion is entrusted to the Holy Spirit. We are each, as individual human beings, involved in it. Our intelligence and freedom are both included in it; so are our sins.

The “plan” has for its purpose “our salvation.” What is this “salvation” about? In his Proslogion, St. Anselm asked: “Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you, show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me.” Our personal existence is suffused with this “teaching” to seek what it is that we are about, what it is for which we exist. If we are to be “taught,” it must mean that it makes a difference to us and to our Teacher that we understand what our particular existence is about. What, in other words, is the “teaching”?

But if a “plan” for my existence can be conceived, does it not mean that I am “determined”? If so, what difference does it make what I do or think? The “plan,” however, means that I am not “determined.” It makes all the difference in the world that I understand what I am. The scope of my freedom includes my own choice to accept or reject what I am, which I initially received as a gift.

Yet the fact is that the accurate self-knowledge of what we are seems a rare accomplishment. We are tempted to think that some active force or influence is found in the world. Its peculiar mission is to prevent us from knowing what we really are. At first sight, it seems odd that God would place us in a world in which the knowledge of what we are is difficult to come by.

But is this difficulty true? Is it a difficulty or a choice? The contemporary stress on mercy, the notion that God forgives everything that can be forgiven, approaches this issue gingerly. Mercy admits a widespread and culpable failure to accept our being and what belongs to it. “If sin abounds, grace abounds more,” as St. Paul put it. (Romans, 5:20)

This mercy approach means that our existence is pretty much a remedial operation, Pope Francis’ “field hospital” analogy. Field hospitals, however, usually manage to save only a few of those in need. Mercy is a response to the repentant. It does not change the unrepentant. It often hardens them.

The Venerable Bede (on his deathbed translating John) by James Doyle Penrose, 1902

The Breviary’s reading for today, the 22d of December, three days before Christmas, the birth of the Savior into this, not some other, world, is from Bede the Venerable (d. 735). He writes: “Those who refuse to be humble cannot be saved.” They cannot say with the prophet: “See God comes to my aid.”

We evidently can “refuse” to be saved. This awesome capacity, ironically, is necessary if our lives are to mean anything. We have the freedom and power to deny to ourselves what we are. Humility indicates our capacity to acknowledge what we are.

“The coming of the savior was promised to Abraham and his servants for ever,” Bede recalls. The “promise,” the “plan,” is there, in place. It is being carried out for the glory of God, within which we find our unique place in the order of things.

The great issue that surrounding mercy is its extent. Does it cover all sins whether repented or not? Technically, mercy extends to sin of whatever kind or species. But mercy does not forgive. God in His mercy forgives. Mercy is contingent on the sinner’s acknowledgement that he is responsible for something objectively wrong in his acts or thoughts.

If mercy forgives everything, with no input from the person that put disorder into his own or another’s life, then it would make no difference what we might do. We can do as we please, assured that our actions made no real difference in the world or in eternity.

Drama and risk mainly come into every human life through forgiveness and mercy. Yet the sins of the great and those of the insignificant balance out. Proportionally, each person faces the same issue in his own soul. Does he or does he not know and choose what he is given to be? Here is what judgment is about. Here is why the life of each person constitutes a final drama in which everything is at stake.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.