November 1 was the Solemnity of All Saints. And it also launched the month of November, which, in Catholic tradition, is devoted to prayers for the departed and thoughts about our own mortality. As the Church’s liturgical year draws to a close, readings at Mass assume a decidedly eschatological tone: death, judgment, Hell, Heaven.
We start on a positive note. All Saints Day celebrates those who got it right! It fetes those whose lives attained what they were supposed to: beatitude. Obstacles and sufferings notwithstanding, with the help of God’s grace, their lives were successes in the only true meaning of that word.
The Gospel for All Saints Day is Mt 5:1-12, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. This year, the Gospel for Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year (November 26) is Mt 25:31-46. It features Christ’s Second Coming as judge of the living and the dead, the sheep and goats divided according to the Beatitudes.
November is, therefore, marked by an elevated moral vision. That shouldn’t be surprising, because Judaism and Christianity were distinct vis-à-vis other religions in the ancient world precisely because of their moral focus: our relationship with the Deity is moral, based on true love (which keeps the Commandments). Compared to man, the gods of pagan religions were stronger but not better. For example, many ancient texts speak of a primordial flood, but only the Biblical account attributes its cause to God’s judgment upon “how great the wickedness of man was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil.” (Gen 6:5; cf. 6:7-9, 11-13; 7:1).
Throughout November, Catholics are also exhorted to be sober and vigilant, ready for the end because, “it is appointed for man once to die, and after death, the judgment” (Heb 9:27-28) in which God will “repay each one, according to his deeds.” (Rm 2:6)
Catholic theology has always emphasized that the motivations behind how we mind our eternal welfare must be supernatural: they must be somehow connected to God. Because our fundamental problem is sin, Catholic theology traditionally divided those motivations into two types: attrition and contrition. In attrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of fear for our fate: eternal loss of God is, obviously, existential failure, while eternal Beatitude is existential fulfillment. In contrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of love for God: sin is ingratitude to God, whom one “should (and wants to) love above all things.”
Attrition is an inchoate form of contrition: while focused on the self, it nevertheless recognizes that the self needs and wants God. Joined to the sacrament of Penance, attrition is sufficient supernatural motivation to forgive sins. Perfect contrition, a gift of God’s grace, itself forgives sin, but since such a person wants to do God’s will (and God’s will as to the “normal” way for forgiving sins is the sacrament of Penance that He instituted), it also is properly joined to Confession.
The most realistic spiritual writers over the ages have recognized that most of us are at the attrition level. And because that is typically the case, many non-Catholic thinkers have criticized Christian ethics for what they call “self-interest.” Karl Marx uses that argument to ground his theory of “alienation”: what’s wrong with the proletariat is their “false consciousness,” their deferral of justice now in the name of pie-in-the-sky-after-you-die. But the most powerful critic of spiritual “self-interest,” with arguably the most last impact, was Immanuel Kant. His entire ethic is based on the exclusion of self-interest from moral consideration.
In a too-neglected early work, “The Ethics Primer,” Karol Wojtyła (later, Pope St. John Paul II) refuted that Kantian claim. Self-interest need not be “heteronomous,” because self-interest and one’s objective good can be one and the same. The desire for being saved and my salvation are not opposed to each other.
So, given this moral perspective and the nudge towards aspiring towards higher levels of love, towards purer love of God rather than fear of His judgments, what motivations might influence our considerations about how we are readying ourselves to stand before God’s judgment seat. Many – perhaps most of us – might be driven by fear with a dash of hope (and let’s hope not presumption) to “get off” by the skin of our spiritual teeth.
I’ve found a nobler inspiration in the thought of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. In The Way, a collection of pithy observations designed to foster meditation, Escrivá writes this way about judgment: “Does your soul not burn with the desire to make your Father God happy when he has to judge you?”
Jesus taught us to call God “our Father.” A healthy human experience of fatherhood is grounded in filial respect: “I want to make my father proud of me.” A child who comes from a loving home thinks about how he can enhance that happiness, his parents’ happiness.
As a Polish priest once put it, “a saint is someone unafraid of his biography.” In thinking about our judgment, rather than asking “what am I going to do with this overweight spiritual baggage?” can we aspire to say, “when God looks at my life, will He be able to say, ‘that’s my son!’ ‘that’s my daughter!’”