Several centuries ago there was a famous painting showing a young man playing chess with the devil—a game in which the young man’s soul was at stake. Every chess piece on the board was clearly visible in the painting, and it portrayed the instant after an apparently decisive move by the devil, one which would quickly lead to checkmate. The expression on the young man’s face showed his despair over his hopeless situation, and serious chess players who examined the painting all agreed the young man might as well resign, for the devil was just one move away from victory. However, the 19th century American grandmaster Paul Morphy—who, in the 1850s, was considered the greatest chess player in the world—one day studied the position of the pieces at great length, and finally saw something that had escaped everyone else. In his excitement, he cried out to the young man in the painting, “Don’t resign—don’t give up! You still have an excellent move left that can save the game!” (James Colaianni, Sunday Sermons Treasury of Illustrations, #451, as quoted by Mark Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year C, p. 23 ).
It is a great blessing, and a huge relief, to be given a second chance when it seems all is lost—and that is what Jesus has done for us: both in dying on the Cross to save us from our sins, and in giving us the grace and strength we need to overcome life’s challenges through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments of the Church. However, second chances are so important and precious that they must not be thrown away or wasted. Jesus expects us to make good use of His gifts, and one day we will be judged on how hard we have tried to do this.
In his pastoral letter Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Allen Vigneron observes that many Americans today, especially among the young, seem to believe in something experts call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—a belief system that says that as long as we’re more or less nice people, God will bless us and help us whenever we ask, but without making any serious demands on us. In other words, religiously speaking, we can have our cake and eat it, too. This, of course, is not the God presented to us by the Bible or by the teachings of the Church. Our God is extremely loving and forgiving, but He also insists we must strive for moral perfection and be wholehearted in our response to Him. God revealed Himself to Moses (Ex 3:1-8, 13-15) as the savior and champion of His people, but as St. Paul notes (1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12), when the Israelites grumbled and rebelled in the desert, they were severely punished—and Paul says this must be a reminder to us; as the apostle warns, “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” This is also the point of Our Lord’s parable in the Gospel of Luke (13:1-9). The unproductive fig tree deserved to be cut down, but was given one final chance to produce fruit—though with a strict deadline. This parable, and Jesus’ reference to some people who died suddenly and unexpectedly, reminds us that judgment will come, most likely without any advance warning or knowledge on our part.
A young woman named Teresa decided to leave the Catholic Church, but after four years she was unhappy and unfulfilled in life; she didn’t want to admit it to herself, but something was missing. Then a friend of hers was killed in a car accident, and she decided to attend his funeral, which was held at what had been her former parish. She later wrote, “I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the white-draped casket as it was brought into the church. The explanation by the priest, that this white covering symbolized this man’s Baptism into Jesus Christ, seemed to awaken me from a long, dreamless sleep. I questioned, for the first time in a long time, my decision to leave all this behind. I was beginning to realize how much God loves us and how important it might be for me to live for [God] within this faith community. That was over a year ago. In that time God has renewed me and healed my life in so many ways. The Spirit of Truth has shown me the wholeness of the Catholic Church and the path to my spiritual wholeness through it. I found all this the second time around” (Teresa Wright Hayden, “The Open Door,” The Catholic Digest, July 1988, as listed in Link, op. cit.).
Like the fig tree in Our Lord’s parable, Teresa was given a second chance—and through the grace of God, she did not waste it. One of the greatest sufferings or torments of the souls in Hell is the painful memory of all the chances they were given to repent of their sins during their earthly lives—wasted opportunities that had an eternally tragic result. Even some of the souls in Purgatory, who are assured of one day entering into the perfect joy of Heaven, are sometimes filled with regret over the opportunities they wasted or took for granted. They would give anything to be able to come back to earth and attend one more Mass, to spend time in Eucharistic Adoration, and to receive each Holy Communion of their lives with more gratitude and devotion. They would rejoice to have another chance to perform the good deeds they neglected to do for others, to offer up their earthly problems and irritations without complaining, and to suffer gladly in the Name of Jesus. Our earthly perspective is very limited, too self-centered, and quite often misleading; reality looks radically different from the vantage point of eternity. That’s why Jesus wants us to take very seriously the teachings of Scripture and the Church.
These weeks of Lent are a wonderful opportunity to reexamine our lives and review our priorities, to use the spiritual resources the Church provides, and to renew and deepen our efforts to grow in grace and come closer to God. We don’t want to lament while we’re on our deathbeds, “I wish I had taken my faith more seriously.” At the same time, our efforts to live as faithful disciples of Jesus may very well be a source of inspiration and encouragement to someone else—perhaps even someone in despair, like the young chess player in the painting. By our words, example, and prayers, we can proclaim to persons being attacked and deceived by the devil, “Don’t give up—you can still be saved!” If we choose, everything we do, and each day of our lives, can have eternal significance for ourselves and for those around us. Jesus endured His fearful passion and death on the Cross so that we might be saved and one day live in His presence, and we must not break His Heart by wasting this gift. Let us instead embrace our daily crosses with fervor and gratitude, freely choosing to travel the path that leads to eternal life.