Discernment and the end of days

As the Church moves closer to Advent and a new year and new beginning, the readings increasingly focus on the end of times. I don’t know about you, but I find writing or speaking about the “end of times” to be an impossible task. Even Jesus when he ascends into heaven and is being asked about the restoration of Israel shrugs off the question and says, “Only my Father knows that. Let’s talk about something else. By the way, I have to go.” (Acts 1:6-9).

However, one thing of which we are all certain is that the end will come for each one of us individually. For me, that means trying to stay aware, to be aware both that those whom we love (parents, siblings, friends) and those with whom we have had difficulty—and often these are the same people—are not here with us forever. I also won’t live forever. So it’s important to try to reconcile sooner rather than later, to try not to to go bed angry with a spouse, to try to work things out with a friend.

We also know that while God will come to redeem the world, that history has an end, and that ending is promised to be good, right now, the world suffers, and the suffering is real. For many, the suffering can overwhelm. A couple of days ago, I gave a talk on the importance of recognizing our vulnerability, and one of the responses I received afterwards included a thoughtful response from a philosopher who said, but our stores of care cannot be endless. He observed that in living our lives, we cannot care for everyone out there, or actively respond to the suffering of so many in every news story, so it is necessary to ration our care. My response was to say that we can try to love in every action and part of our lives, but yes, we do have to discern how and where to spend our energy and time. Discernment is essential in figuring out how to love concretely. Part of the discernment in the Christian tradition, though, means actively seeking out those who are marginalized and spending some of our time on matters of justice and mercy.

One of Ignatius’ (several) methods of discernment included reflection on one’s own death, one’s own end. He suggests that we imagine ourselves on our deathbed, or after death standing before Jesus as our judge. In light of that reality, what do we want to choose now? Here, the idea is not so much to choose on the basis of fear, or external judgment, but rather awareness: mindfulness that life will end, and that we are responsible for how we have acted or failed to act. What actions will bring us joy? What would we be happy to share with Christ at the end of days? Where would we wish we had acted differently?

Another way I have sometimes thought about this is to consider: is there anyone out there in the world with whom I am not yet prepared to share a life in heaven? If in heaven I were to run into a homeless person with whom I had an interaction on the street, would I be happy to see him again, or feel ashamed  (for example, if I had thoughtlessly passed him by)? With a difficult family member, have I put a good balance between setting the limits that I need for myself and my well being, while also showing care, such that when time is up, I can be at peace with those decisions? Returning home to God is not only about returning home to him individually, but as part of a community that extends to everyone. What have we done for Christ, and what are we prepared to do with the time that still remains?