Four Healthy Herbs for the Soul
Treat your spiritual ills with a good dose of reflection on death, judgment, hell and heaven.
© 2002 by Paul Thigpen
Saint Thomas More, a brilliant Christian statesman and scholar of the English Renaissance, loved life with unflagging zest. He took great pleasure in spreading fine feasts for family, friends and especially strangers who had fallen on hard times. He enjoyed fine art, music and literature. He played practical jokes and relished light-hearted tales and witty conversation. In his household he even kept as members of the "family" a professional jester and a pet monkey!
No one could possibly have accused this merry Christian of a morbid disposition. Nevertheless, one of his most profound works was entitled The Last Things — the designation traditionally given in Christian theology to the four sobering realities of death, judgment, hell and heaven. In this extended meditation, More pondered the dangers of allowing the vanities of this world to distract us from the all-important realities of the next.
He took as his cue an ancient Jewish proverb: "In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin." That wise counsel had in fact remained a part of many Christians' devotional life from early times. Fathers of the ancient Church preached sermons on the four last things. Medieval monks sometimes publicly displayed the bones of deceased members of their communities to remind the living of their own mortality. In a number of classic paintings on Christian themes, we find believers depicted kneeling in prayer with a skull nearby.
This sobering spiritual discipline was known as contemplatio mortis, "the contemplation of death." No doubt our contemporary culture — which works so hard to idolize youth, sensuality and material possessions — would find such a practice terribly unsettling. After all, to think about mortality is to admit that bodies age, pleasures fade, health fails, "moth and rust destroy" (Mt. 6:19).
But that, of course, is precisely the point. When our attachment to the fleeting things of this world becomes too passionate, threatening to poison our souls, meditation on the four last things provides a spiritual antidote — as More called it, "a simple medicine containing only four herbs."
The "four herbs" of this meditation are planted in us by the Scripture, which speaks clearly about the realities of death, judgment, hell and heaven. A look at a few of these passages will reveal the spiritual benefits we nurture in our souls when we take time to "remember the end."
Two of Jesus' parables in particular serve as admonitions about our mortality. They remind us that the outcome of death is irrevocable and the hour of death is unpredictable.
The seal of our destiny. For those who find their relationship to God broken or uncertain, Jesus tells a sobering story that emphasizes how death brings to an end our opportunities to repent. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31) vividly portrays the finality of a wicked man's choices once death has ratified them. Lazarus begs for mercy, but the time for mercy has run out; "a great chasm has been fixed" (v. 26) between the friends of God and the enemies of God who have died.
Who can reflect upon such a story and not tremble at the prospect of a soul dying at enmity with the Lord? For those who neglect or spurn the divine invitation to repentance and reconciliation, this parable is a dire warning. And it calls those who love the Lord to share the Gospel and to pray for those who have yet to turn to Him.
The urgency of our situation. A second parable, the story of the rich fool (see Lk. 12:16-21), reminds us that death may come swiftly and unexpectedly. When a wealthy farmer decides to build bigger barns so he can hoard the plenty for himself, God rebukes him: "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you" (v. 20). Meditation on this particular parable should bear the fruit of urgency in preparing for such a possibility.
Do we maintain the awareness that death can come at any time? When we meditate upon death, said Thomas More, we learn to look upon it not as a stranger, but as a neighbor. It is never far away.
Relief from greed. Jesus' parable of the rich fool makes a second crucial point: When we die, the things of this world to which we've become unduly attached will be forcibly detached from us. As Saint Paul put it so bluntly, "We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it" (1 Tim. 6:7).
Pondering death helps us detach ourselves even now from the possessions that control us or distract us from God's priorities for our lives. Instead of hoarding "treasures on earth" (Mt. 6:19), we learn to let go of them — "to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share" so we can "lay up treasure for [ourselves] as a firm foundation for the coming age" (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
To think about death, then, is to remember that greed is actually a form of stupidity. What we selfishly pile up in the fleeting moments of this life will be lost for eternity.
Antidote to lust. The contemplation of our mortality bears other fruit as well. Ancient Christian writers often pointed out that one good way to cool our passions — not just for possessions, but for everything we wrongly crave — was to remind ourselves that these things will pass away.
Do you struggle with sexual lust? Imagine, they said, what that beautiful body (and your own) will look like in seventy years: shrunken and shriveled at best; more likely, rotted and eaten with worms. "All flesh is grass. … The grass withereth" (Is. 40:6, 7 KJV). Is it worth corrupting your soul for a few moments of pleasure with something that will soon wither away?
Cure for ambition. What can reflections on death do to unhealthy ambitions? Just consider the piles of rubble that once were capitals of powerful, illustrious empires. What is left of ancient Babylon, Nineveh and other mighty cities but "a haunt for jackals" (see Is. 34:13)? Which dusty breeze now scatters the remains of those ambitious men who thought themselves lords of the earth? Think long and hard about their end — and be cured of ambition.
Remedy for envy. Do you envy that brilliant colleague … that glamorous model … that famous author … that rich C.E.O.? Think of them a century from now. What will have happened to all that brilliance, that glamour, that celebrity, that fortune? It will all be dust and ashes.
What the psalmist said about his envy of the wicked could be said about our envy of anyone, wicked or otherwise. "For I envied the arrogant," he confessed, "when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. … When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till … I understood their final destiny" (Ps. 73:3-5, 16-17, emphasis added).
Corrective for pride. Just as considering the death of those we envy undermines all reason to covet what they have, recalling that we too will die can sabotage our pride. Whatever it is we're so proud of will one day be lost: Strength, health, beauty will fade or be buried; wealth, fame, status and power will pass to someone else.
We're like actors on stage for an evening. Though we may play starring roles, the moment is coming soon when we'll walk off stage forever. Who in their right minds could be proud of the gaudy costumes and glittering props we use for a few hours and then cast away?
In all these ways, meditation on death is not simply sobering; it's liberating. It cuts us loose from the snares of worldly goods that tempt us to love them too much.
Even if death were the end of the story, we'd have ample reason to live more carefully. But consider that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Heb. 9:27). Death is in many ways only a beginning, the doorway into either a misery or a happiness that never ends. How much more reason do we have, then, to keep in mind that even now we walk in the long shadow of eternity!
Christians disagree over the details of when and how God's judgment will be rendered after death. But the reality on which we all agree must always be kept in mind: "He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts" (1 Cor. 4:5).
People often report dreams in which they find themselves naked in a public place. Imagine yourself having such a dream for a moment, then imagine that it's not a dream, but a reality. Consider what it will be to stand exposed before the piercing eyes, not simply of every person who ever lived, but of the one Person from whom nothing is hidden: thoughts and actions, desires and feelings, motives and attitudes, the deepest of secrets — all of them, past, present and future.
Next consider that this Person is perfectly holy. All that is dark, or bent, or stained by sin is abhorrent to Him. And all that is good and righteous pleases Him.
Finally, recall that in the end, the only thing that matters in this world or the next is to please this Person. He has created you for Himself. The very reason for your existence is to be united with Him in love for eternity.
Meditate on all this, and ask yourself: In light of such a judgment, how should I be living now? The Apostle Paul answers clearly: "We make it our goal to please Him. … For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 9-10).
Beyond the divine judgment lie hell and heaven, the last of the last things. Though they represent the utter opposites of human destiny, when they become the subject of prayerful meditation these final realities can bear similar spiritual fruits in our lives.
Writing my first novel, which was set in hell, required several months of serious reflection on scriptural passages about damnation. This enlightening spiritual exercise spurred me to repentance in many areas of my life. Gazing down into the infernal regions of the damned was really a way of peering deep into the sinful heart — most especially, my own.
In one sense, hell is the unredeemed soul writ large. All that makes the place of the damned "hellish" — the torments of those in rebellion against God — have their roots in our choices here and now. Hell is simply their culmination, the horribly ripened fruit of bitter seeds planted on earth.
Thus to meditate on hell, even for those of us with a fervent hope of escaping it, is to expose within ourselves all that must be put to death (see Rom. 8:13). To the extent that we learn to hate and fear the abyss of eternal damnation, we come to hate and fear whatever slithers through our own soul that belongs in that pit. As the Christian writer C. S. Lewis once noted: "If we accept Heaven, we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell." In keeping with Jesus' command, we'll seek to tear them out of ourselves and cast them away (see Mt. 5:29-30).
Even so, meditation on hell must be balanced with meditation on the final and most important of the four last things: heaven. Though the glories of a perfected life with God are "immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine" (see Eph. 3:20), yet even our poorest speculations about it, founded on the Scripture, will change us. For meditation on heaven can fill us with a cleansing awe at the wonder of divine grace.
Think of it: We who have brought death on ourselves, whose sins lie open before the holy Judge, who deserve hell, are nevertheless beloved by that Judge; and He offers us a free gift: transformation into His likeness, so we can live forever in His presence, beholding Him face to face. If ever we come close to despair — to believing the lie that our case is hopeless, that God somehow lacks the will or the wisdom or the power to save us — then meditation on the glorious joy of heaven can provide a spiritual tonic to restore our hope.
"When He appears," wrote the Apostle John, "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 Jn. 3:2-3). We become like the One we long for. Thus reflection upon heaven ultimately bears the same fruit as meditation on death, judgment and hell: The hope born by the one, like the sorrow produced by the other, purifies us and prepares us for our destiny.
No wonder, then, that Sir Thomas More, who pondered so deeply the four last things, had his own tomb built and engraved while he was still in the prime of his life. Those stones reflected no morbid preoccupation. Rather, they echoed silently the sober yet joyful prayer of the psalmist (Ps. 90:12 RSV): "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."
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