Oftentimes in the heat of religious controversy we lose the sense of our own mortality. We dwell in the heavens, as it were, in doctrines and distinctions as fine as angel hair, and live in ivory towers so high they nearly scrape the stars. Consequently, our own feeble flesh falls from our consciousness and we forget ourselves. We think we are only intellectual souls. We do not care for the body so much as the soul, and we hunger and thirst after righteousness. And this is all good! But I would like to remind you all reading this as I remind myself first and foremost—because I am most guilty—that we ought to think about our body, too, even if it is only to remember that it must die.
For the Catholic, memento mori is more than a mere meditation on the transience of life or the fleetingness of pleasures. “Gather rosebuds while ye may,” or “Carpe diem” sounds more like “Live, laugh, love,” or other Hallmark store slogans, compared with the crushing reality of the words. “Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return” is more like it.
But there is another important difference between the “vanitas” art genre and the Christian reality not often depicted, and that is, we are all on death row awaiting pardon or condemnation on our eternal sentence. The Baltimore Catechism is strikingly specific on this point:
1371. Christ will judge us immediately after our death, and on the last day.
1372. The judgment we have to undergo immediately after death is called the Particular Judgment.
1373. The particular judgment will be held in the place where each person dies, and the soul will go immediately to its reward or punishment.
We will face Christ as a fierce or friendly judge according to how we ourselves have treated others. Oftentimes in controversy, we think truth is higher than love. We act as though the most important thing to do in this moment is to prove how wrong our neighbor really is, and let him know about it, too. But is that really the Christian way? Truth is King, and the King of Kings, of course. But He is also love. If we forget our charity in controversy, our Lord and judge will remind us of it, and bring us back to these heated controversies like an angry prosecutor replaying our angry deeds on a surveillance camera. We should be mindful, not just that we shall die but that we shall relive our life.
There will be a particular judgment of our lives but also a general:
1374. The judgment which all men have to undergo on the last day is called the General Judgment.
And, lest you think particular here means private, the BC teaches us a very hard truth:
1375. The sentence given at the particular judgment will not be changed at the general judgment, but it will be repeated and made public to all.
The particular judgment that we received at our death, perhaps in our bedroom or on our lawn where we dropped dead of a heart attack, will be revealed for all to know. Now, perhaps I am just vain, but to me that is perhaps as terrifying as the particular judgment when only God and our angel knows how wretched we are. Imagine, the whole world, those who have lived, those who have died, your relatives, your friends, those who inspire you to holiness like your favorite saint, those who you want to be like, they will all know your dirty laundry. How horrifying. You know, it is said by Cicero, I think, that if you really want to be good, imagine a good man before you always, judging your actions. We not only have a good God-Man judging everything we say or do, we also have the entire history of humanity judging everything we say or do. How horrifying.
Like I said before, we are on death row as convicted criminals waiting to die our first death, which our first parents brought upon us, but we also await an eternal judgment, which we bring upon ourselves. There is room for some existential angst here, insofar as eternal death may be our punishment, but we mustn’t lose hope of Heaven which may be our reward. We may avoid the unbearable and unthinkable judgment if we take care here and now. The BC teaches us how to do this:
1376. Christ judges men immediately after death to reward or punish them according to their deeds.
1377. We may daily prepare for our judgment by a good examination of conscience, in which we will discover our sins and learn to fear the punishment they deserve.
Punishment and reward are not arbitrary with Christ. Nothing is for Him. We must examine our lives everyday, and especially our every word we exchange with people on the internet with whom we lack a physical bond, because we’ve never met and really have no affection for them, and because that is where we really let charity slip. God will just as harshly judge us who have been mean-spirited or spiteful, or in anyway uncharitable online just as if we had been so at the grocery with the cashier. “Words are deeds” as the great G.K.C. has said, and we will be judged on them, and we will end up in Heaven or Purgatory if we are all good or almost all good, or Hell if we are mostly or all bad. Sounds childish, doesn’t it? Well, that is the way God will judge us, with the simplicity of a child who sees only good or bad. So let us look at our words and judge them accordingly, preferably before they make it through our fingers and onto the internet.
Let me just wrap up this short meditation on our mortality in light of the online controversies which have been featured here on this website and elsewhere by saying this: it is my most earnest desire that we strive to be as intellectually astute as seraphim but as innocent as cooing doves. Our charity ought to be the halo around our truth, the gleam in the gold, the warmth in the illuminating fire, for without love, our words are worse than nothing, they are an offense, which will be used against us in the court of eternal law.