Willing Heaven

Twentieth Sunday of the Year. Is 56:1.6-7; Ps 66; Rom 11:13-15.29-32; Mt 15:21-28

The Canaanite woman in today's Gospel lets nothing stand in her way, will stop at nothing, in order to get Jesus, first, to pay attention to her and, second, to heal her daughter, who is tormented by a devil. For her determination, Jesus commends her with these words,  “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.” This woman's determination to get what she wants is reminiscent of a central theme of Dante's Divine Comedy, probably the greatest poem that has ever been written. In the course of the poem, Dante the traveler descends to the lowest depths of hell, climbs Mount Purgatory and ascends to the highest reaches of heaven. Dante encounters souls at every stage of his journey, from the deepest damnation to the greatest joy. The question puzzling Dante at the beginning of his journey is how a God of love could ever condemn anyone to hell for all eternity. The answer gradually revealed in the poem is this: like the Canaanite woman, every soul receives precisely what he or she really wants. So, for example, Paolo and Francesca, the adulterous lovers in the circle of the lustful, receive exactly what they want: they are together for all eternity. The problem for Paolo and Francesca is that they are together in misery, in the misery of hell, because what they want is incompatible with their true happiness - that is, incompatible with the love of God and vows they have made to God.

So it seems we should be very careful what we wish for because God will give us precisely what we really want. Indeed, you could say that the whole of our present lives consist of God presenting us with just one question,  “What do you really want?” Now, when presented with a stark choice between eternal misery and eternal happiness, it seems clear that people will choose happiness, but it also seems clear that many people make the wrong choice, even according to the wisdom of this world. What, then, are the causes of so many wrong choices? To take one example, why do so many people become enslaved to drugs? The question is not easy to answer, but there appear to be two main errors that people fall into. The first error is to be confused about the nature of happiness. Here the error is to mistake secondary goods for primary goods. Pleasure, for example, is good, but it is a secondary good. When pleasure is pursued to the exclusion of all other goods, which is what drug addicts do, then it leads to slavery. The far more difficult truth to learn, however, is that every good of this life, including the highest goods of life, health, honor, wealth, worldly friends and so on, all these goods are secondary goods. Indeed, you can lose all of them and still gain eternal happiness. In fact, Christians are often put into a kind of crucible in which they are presented with the choice between these goods and the love of God. God then presents us with the question,  “What do you really want?” If we are faithful followers of Christ, of course, the answer is,  “Let not my will, but thy will be done.”

So the first error is to be confused about the nature of happiness, about the nature of the goal that we seek. The second major error is to be confused about the means of attaining happiness. Scripture and Tradition are very clear that it is possible to want to love and serve God, and yet be mistaken about the means that God himself has provided. God's revealed way to happiness, the bridge between earth and heaven, is to be a true follower of Jesus Christ in the Church, his beloved bride. At the time of the New Testament, some of the Jewish people accepted Christ as the Way and these became his disciples and apostles. Others of the Jews rejected Christ, and still await a different Messiah, an alternative way to attaining happiness. The twelfth article of faith of Orthodox Judaism, drawn up by Maimonides, states,  “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.”  Many of Jewish people were fairly clear about the nature of happiness (at least as articulated in this world) but were mistaken about the means; many of the Gentiles, by contrast, were confused about happiness, like the Canaanite woman, but at least knew that Christ was the Way. Incidentally, in today's second reading, however, St. Paul hints that this situation is only temporary. In the days leading up to the end of the world, there will be a dramatic conversion of the Jewish people. Certainly, the many Jews who are accepting Jesus Christ today, over a quarter of a million now in the United States, are very powerful witnesses to the Gospel.

To apply these lessons to our own lives, then, we should be careful what we wish for because God will honor our choices for all eternity. To attain true happiness we must want to love and serve God more than anything else, more than all the good things that God has created, and we must want to love God by following Christ in the Church. Every day, God asks us,  “What do we really want?” In answering this question, I suggest that we have in our minds the image of the Canaanite woman whose determination stops at nothing. We cannot earn our own salvation, but if want heaven more than anything else, and if we are prepared to follow God's will rather than our will in leading us there, then we shall, one day, be numbered among the saints in glory. Indeed, the same conclusion can be presented in an even simpler way in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas. When asked the question,  “How do we get to heaven?”, he answered in the simplest possible way,  “Will it!”

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 17th August 2008

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