Once upon a time, during the Middle Ages, a brave but somewhat impetuous knight travelled many miles to seek out a wise teacher whose reputation for knowledge and learning had spread throughout the world. Upon arriving at the teacher’s home, the knight knelt down and asked his question: “Wise Master, tell me, please, what are Heaven and Hell really like?” The wise man answered, “Tell me about yourself first,” and the knight proudly responded, “I am an officer of the Emperor’s elite personal guard.” “Nonsense!” shouted the wise man. “What kind of emperor would have someone like you around him? To me you appear to be nothing more than a hopeless fool.” The knight was infuriated by this insult, and he started to reach for his sword–but the teacher continued, “Oh, so you have a nice toy sword; I’ll bet it’s too dull to cut off my head.” At this further insult, the knight couldn’t hold himself back; he drew his sword and threatened the impertinent teacher–but the teacher said calmly, “Now you know half the answer to your question; you are opening the gates of Hell.” The knight was shocked by this; he hesitated, lowered his sword, and bowed in respect to the wise man. The teacher then said, “Now you know the other half–you have opened the gates of Heaven” (Cavanagh, Fresh Packet of Sower’s Seeds, #61).
The realities of Heaven and Hell, and of salvation and damnation, are present all around us, and usually much closer than we realize. We are working out our eternal destiny this very day; in our responses to every temptation we face, and in every moral decision we make, we are either opening the gates of God’s Kingdom or of Satan’s. All the world’s lies and distractions do not change our Christian responsibility: we must first of all recognize this momentous truth, and then choose wisely.
In the Holy Scriptures, one theme stands out: our decisions have lasting consequences. The author of the Book of Sirach (15:15-20) tells us that life and death are set before us, and whichever one we choose will be given us. God respects our free will, but this doesn’t mean He approves of or is indifferent to our misuse of it; as the reading says, “No man does He command to sin, [and] to none does He give strength for lies.” Sin is our doing, not God’s; moreover, we are capable of keeping the Lord’s commandments, if that’s what we choose. And in the First Letter to the Corinthians (2:6-10), St. Paul tells us that through the Holy Spirit God gives us the wisdom we need to see spiritual truths clearly. On Judgment Day no one will be able to say, “It’s not my fault I rejected You, Lord; I didn’t know any better.” The Lord’s response to such a statement would be, “You could have known if you had wanted to; you should have known.” People think of Jesus as being very loving and merciful, and that’s true–but as Matthew’s Gospel (5:17-37) shows, He’s also challenging and uncompromising. He came for the fulfillment of the Law, and if we treat His moral teachings casually, we cannot expect to be great in His Kingdom. Jesus warns us that going through the motions isn’t sufficient; for instance, the fact that we haven’t actually committed murder or adultery won’t be of much help to us if we’ve given ourselves over to hateful or lustful thoughts, and merely following the relatively easy Law of Moses in regard to divorce and the taking of oaths won’t be sufficient. Christ’s standards are so high for the simple reason that the consequences are so high. Jesus refers to the fires of Gehenna, which is another name for Hell; there’s also an indirect, symbolic reference to Purgatory, when Our Lord says that if we don’t settle our moral accounts in time, we won’t be released from prison until we’ve paid back all we owe. The message is simple: mercy and justice are two sides of the same coin. If we’re smart, we’ll live now in a way that makes it possible for us to experience God’s mercy on the day of judgment.
Would you knowingly go to a dentist who saw a small cavity in your mouth, but decided not to say anything until you needed a root canal and a crown? Would you be happy with a doctor who spotted the early stages of cancer after running a test on you, but chose not to tell you or do anything about it so as not to upset you? Certainly not–and if that happened, you’d be very angry, and rightly so; you’d have a solid case for a medical malpractice suit. In the same way, we must not commit spiritual malpractice on ourselves–whether by ignoring our religious duties, letting angry or lustful thoughts take control of us by default, holding other people in contempt, making important decisions without any effort to discern God’s will, or refusing to admit our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. These and many other temptations to serious sin can be our own personal means of opening the gates of Hell–and once they’re open, it’s so easy to take that fateful step, sometimes without fully realizing it. Jesus invites us, urges us, and begs us instead to open in our lives the gates of Heaven; we do this by making daily prayer a part of our lives, by attending Mass and receiving communion regularly, by treating others as we wish to be treated, by forgiving others so that we may be forgiven by God, and by seeking to do the Lord’s will in all things each day.
The wise teacher demonstrated to the impetuous knight that his feelings and moral choices could very easily lead him in one direction or the other, toward damnation or salvation, toward the eternal reality of Heaven or Hell. It’s probable that our moment of choosing won’t be quite as immediate, dramatic, or clear-cut–but we are right now in the process of deciding, and it’s our responsibility to be aware of what we’re choosing. Jesus invites us with His truth; Satan seeks to deceive and ensnare us with his lies. Through God’s grace, may we be alert, humble, and spiritually true to God and ourselves.