Some time ago a friend of mine—I’ll call him Ron—had a very moving spiritual experience; he wrote a description of it, which I’d like to read right now. He says: “A few years ago, before my parents passed away, I’d visit with them at a Catholic retirement village down in Texas. One of the things I remember most about the village was the peace and tranquility. I loved going into the church to say my rosary after everyone else was in bed; it was a special time for me, as I could meditate without interruption. During one of these rosaries it seemed I had dozed off for a second. It was after 11pm. I had a little over a decade left to pray and I was trying to fight off the drowsiness. Slowly everything started to get dark and eventually turned black. It was like being in outer space, except there was plenty of oxygen and the temperature was fine. Within a few moments I felt an evil presence, something totally evil. This feeling grew stronger and stronger until I realized I was completely surrounded by it; it seemed to be one with the darkness. I desperately struggled to move or swim away, but after exerting everything I had, I realized I hadn’t gone anywhere — and I came to the conclusion I had died. There was only one thing left to do at this point, and I did it: yes, I started praying like crazy. For the first time, I understood what eternity meant, and this was the not the place where I wished to spend it.
My fear reached a new height; there seemed to be no relief in sight, until finally off in the distance a glimmer of light seemed to peek through what looked like a black fog. The light came closer and closer, and I was able to make out a life boat, a large boat with an oil lantern attached to the bow. Inside the boat were three men, each grabbing ropes and throwing them in all directions; attached to some of the ropes were ring-style life preservers. This is when I finally noticed I wasn’t alone; there were lots of people out there in the same predicament as me. I also noticed the ropes were of different sizes and strengths. When I received my rope and life preserver, I inspected them closely. I discovered that the life preserver was made up of all the Eucharists I received in my life, and the rope, which contained many knots, consisted of all the prayers I offered and all the good deeds I did while I was alive. I also figured out that the knots in the rope represented each time I had received the sacrament of Reconciliation. To be honest, if I had understood the importance of going to confession, I would have gone more often, because there were still some weak spots in my rope. The men in the boat finally finished tossing out the ropes, and began pulling people it; then I noticed a lot of people had no ropes and no life preservers, and would not be saved. When these people realized their fate, they gave out the most horrible cry. The sound started to fade, and I heard someone mumbling what sounded like a rosary. This distraction was enough to awaken me, and I realized that the person praying the rosary was me, in a church, in Texas” (homily notebook, “Good Works”). My friend’s experience was a very powerful one; the dream or vision he received can be interpreted as saying that it’s not enough merely to believe in Jesus — we must actively follow Him in order to be saved. Our good deeds, and our efforts to put our faith into practice, determine whether, in a spiritual sense, we sink or swim. A day of judgment will come for each one of us. If we want it also to be a day of salvation, now is the time to begin preparing.
Scripture scholars, including many of the saints, have traditionally interpreted the parable in the Gospel of Matthew (25:1-13) as Our Lord’s way of warning that our faith in Him must be living and active. The lamp oil represents good works. All the virgins or bridesmaids believed in Christ, as symbolized by their lanterns of faith, but only half of them had the oil of good works that allowed their faith to shine forth. The foolish virgins wanted to borrow oil from the wise ones, but it’s impossible to rely upon someone else’s good deeds in order to be saved, and so those who were unprepared were locked out of the wedding feast, and heard the master’s terrible words, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” The Book of Wisdom (6:12-16) tells us that true wisdom “is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her” — in other words, by those who don’t sit back passively, but who actively practice their faith. St. Paul (1 Thes 4:13-18) tells us that we don’t need to fear death; as long as we have a living faith in Christ, we will be raised up to eternal life.
Contrary to what some Protestants claim, the Catholic Church does not teach salvation by good works. It is through faith in Jesus Christ that we are saved — but it must be a living and active faith, one which makes a visible difference in our behavior and lifestyle. True faith an d good works go hand-in-hand; we might say they’re two sides of the same coin. This is something that Martin Luther, the first of the Protestant reformers, didn’t understand; he claimed, as do many Protestants today, that we are saved by faith alone — but in order to make this claim, he had to twist the clear meaning of Scripture. The only place in the Bible where the words “by faith alone” appear is in the Letter of James, chapter 2, verse 24, which specifically states that “we are not justified by faith alone” — thereby destroying Luther’s argument. Also, besides the parable in the Gospel, there are many other places in the New Testament which speak of the need to put our faith into practice, including Jesus’ words that “not everyone who cries out ‘Lord , Lord’ will be saved, but only the one who does the will of My Father,” and the parable of the sheep and the goats which we’ll hear two weeks from now, in which Jesus, at the end of the world, will say to the just, “Whatever you did for the least of My brothers and sisters, you did for Me.” We’re called to share the light of our faith, instead of hiding it, and every act of love or good deed we perform, every honest confession of our sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and every worthy reception of Holy Communion, allows that light to shine forth even more brightly.
Our lives on earth are meant to be a time of preparation; we don’t know how long they’ll last, and that makes every single day and every single hour precious. Because we are in a sense preparing our spiritual life-preservers and lifelines, we must not waste the opportunities God gives us to bear witness to His Son. Jesus tells us to stay awake, for we know neither the day nor the hour — and as we’ve discovered through experience, if we’ re trying to stay awake when we’re very sleepy, it’s important to stay busy. In a spiritual sense, this means practicing our faith, helping others when we have the chance, and using the talents and abilities we’ve been given for God’s glory. In this way, our faith will be living and real, and in this way, we can be assured of one day reaching our heavenly home.
REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.